How many of you remember the 1984 movie hit The Karate Kid? It’s a story about a high-schooler named Daniel who’s moved from New Jersey to California and finds himself the target of a group of bullies—karate students from the Cobra Kai Dojo, taught by a teacher who is himself a bully, John Kreese, who says over and over, “Mercy is for the weak. An enemy deserves no mercy.” They’ve decided that Daniel is their enemy, and he’s in trouble.
Enter Mr. Miyagi. Daniel initially knows him as the eccentric maintenance man at the apartment complex he and his mom are living in, but as the bullying at school gets worse, Daniel learns that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s a karate expert in his own right. Learned it from his Dad, but not as a way of spreading hurt in the world. Karate is a discipline of the spirit—a way of beauty and strength. “Fighting always last answer to problem,” he tells Daniel. The crucial issue is attitude—that’s what’s wrong with the bullies from school. He says, “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher.”
Soon after that, Mr. Miyagi goes with Daniel to the Cobra Kai Dojo—goes right into the lion’s den, this fragile looking elderly man who is, like, two feet shorter than John Kreese. John Kreese just towers over him, exudes brutality. But Mr. Miyagi calmly stands his ground. Let’s solve things at the karate tournament coming up. Allow Daniel to train for it. No more bullying. Resolve things then.
It’s the kind of movie that makes you get up and cheer (even if the soundtrack is soooo 1980s). Daniel trains night and day with Mr. Miyagi, to hone his karate skills. He also learns more about his mysterious mentor—the fact that he was a World War II hero, the fact that his wife died in childbirth while she was at a Japanese internment camp. This is a man with courage and integrity. And in the end, at the karate tournament, when Daniel wins, he wins with courage and integrity. That’s what karate is really all about.
Now, to move us closer to our focus for today, consider how Mr. Miyagi trained Daniel in karate. If you know the movie, a phrase should spring instantly to mind: “wax on, wax off.” He says to Daniel, “I promise teach karate. That’s my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That’s your part. Deal?” And of course, Daniel is all ready to go. “It’s a deal,” he says enthusiastically, with visions of advanced karate moves dancing in his head. So you can understand how confused he is when Mr. Miyagi then says, “First wash all the cars, then wax. Wax on right hand. Wax off left hand. Breathe in through nose, out through mouth. Don’t forget to breathe. Very important. Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off.” And then he leaves Daniel to the task. Daniel has just promised Mr. Miyagi to do what he says, no questions, so he jumps on it. Wax on, wax off. But after several more days of oddball tasks like this—sand the floor, paint the house, paint the fence—Daniel has had enough. How is any of this relevant to learning karate? How is any of this going to keep him alive when he fights those Cobra Kai bullies at the upcoming karate tournament? He thinks Mr. Miyagi is just using him. Says, “Four days I’ve been busting my butt, I haven’t learned a thing.”
But Daniel has. He just doesn’t know it yet. Mr. Miyagi has been planting seeds all along, seeds of karate skills, and now he’s going to open Daniel’s eyes. “Not everything is as it seems,” he says, and then he asks him to make the motions of “wax on, wax off.” Daniel proceeds to do exactly that—makes perfect half circles in the air. Then Mr. Miyagi does something completely unexpected: he throws a chest punch at him, and before Daniel even realizes what is happening, one of his circling hands has intercepted the punch and deflected it effortlessly. All along, without his conscious knowledge, his body has been absorbing the karate lessons perfectly. Sand the floor, paint the house, paint the fence have trained him in moves that effortlessly deflect all kinds of punches and kicks. Finally Daniel understands. He’s well on his way.
Not everything is as it seems. And this opens the way to our topic today: planting seeds of soul. How the seeds may not seem like much, at first glance, but if they are allowed to grow, the results are amazing.
As in Daniel’s situation, there’s urgency around this. We face bullies, too, which cause harm and hurt. Educator and spiritual activist Parker Palmer says it well, in his classic book, Let Your Life Speak. He says, “We arrive in this world with birthright gifts—then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but fit us into slots.” Parker Palmer goes on to say, “In families, in schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self towards images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism or sexism [or homophobia] our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self in order to gain the approval of others.” That’s Parker Palmer. Cobra Kai bullies of one form or another surround us. Our true selves, like Daniel in the movie, are fighting for their lives. And if we lose touch with them—if we give them up in exchange for living other people’s values—then life turns desperate. We turn brittle and bitter. We burn out. “Only when I give something that does not grow within me” says Parker Palmer, “do I deplete myself and harm the other as well, for only harm can come from a gift that is forced, inorganic, unreal.”
The situation is urgent. “The reason the earth lies shattered and in pieces is because man is disunited from himself.” Emerson said that. We must remember our true selves, re-establish the relationship, root ourselves down in the soil of our souls. Continually work at this, in the face of bullying forces that continually conspire to make us forget, to break the relationship, to pull up roots.
Enter Mr. Miyagi—or, actually, a book that came into my life this past summer, by meditation teacher Warren Lee Cohen called Raising the Soul: Practical Exercises for Personal Development. I was and am favorably struck by his approach, for four reasons. First, his use of the word “soul” fits in with our Unitarian Universalist way, in that what he has to say about it—what the exercises try to accomplish—puts the question of whether souls in a metaphysical sense exist to the side. Some of us believe, others do not, but what all of us can believe is that soulfuless as a quality of living is a far better thing than soullessness. That’s the central focus here: self-awareness, balance, perspective, non-anxiousness, also compassion—being able to deal with the inner critic and the inner chatterer with greater effectiveness. Doing justice to the inner self so we can do justice to the outer world. Soulfulness.
I like Warren Lee Cohen’s emphasis here, as well as the emphasis on safety, complementarity, and comprehensiveness. The series of seven exercises he teaches have been practiced by many people from all walks of life for many years, and they are completely safe, he says, “if performed as described. Their apparent simplicity does not detract from the power of their enduring effect when practiced steadily. They work gently over a long period of time, and will promote lasting change.” But what if you are already engaged in another contemplative or meditative practice—as quite a few of us here are? I’m thinking in particular of our wonderful Buddhist meditation group. The answer? Great—“the seven exercises are an excellent complement to any path of inner learning, and will help keep you grounded and in balance.”
As for the issue of comprehensiveness. This is the part I like best of all. As a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t want to check any aspect of myself at the door, as the price of coming in. I want to bring in my feelings, I want to bring in my will, and I want to bring in my thinking. Feeling, willing, and thinking all have to be a part of my spiritual way, for it to be right for me. Happily, the seven soul exercises that Warren Lee Cohen teaches reflect this. Just listen to their names:
Review of the Day
Intention in Action
Balance in Feeling
Positive World View
Especially fascinating to me is the order in which they are given. The first, Review of the Day, which is the one we will learn today, lays the foundation, and the rest follow in an intentional sequence. “Try not to skip an exercise or stay focused on any one for too long,” says Warren Lee Cohen, “as this will detract from their harmonizing, mutually enhancing effect.” It is a question of balance. Genuine soulfulness requires emotional intelligence as much as intellectual intelligence. And even if you have both, if willpower is weak, then the result is frustration. We need all three to be strong.
And now, like Mr. Miyagi said to Daniel, I say to those of you who are interested, and want to practice these soul-raising exercises over the course of this year, “I promise teach karate. That’s my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That’s your part. Deal?”
Actually, you can ask questions. That’s OK. Another difference between what we’re doing now and the movie is that I’m going to be a fellow learner. We’re going to be planting seeds of soul together, one seed each month, for the next seven months.
And so: the first exercise: Review of the Day. Here it is, in all its “wax on, wax off” glory:
1. Create a space of 5 to 20 minutes for this exercise at the end of your day. Make it a part of your daily practice. Get into a new rhythm—try your best.
2. Situate yourself in a way that minimizes distractions and discomfort. Some people choose to walk as they do this; others stand; still others sit in a chair, or on the floor, or in bed. Find a place and a posture that suits you.
3. Relax your body—calm your mind. Think of an athlete stretching before practice or a musician tuning an instrument before playing. Warm up.
4. Begin the rewind. Starting with where you are, picture yourself going through your day backwards, as if you were witnessing things from outside, as an onlooker. Capture as many sights, sounds, smells, tastes, conversations, as you can. See how far you can get. Can you get to your first waking thoughts? Can you even get beyond this, to your dreams before you woke up? Allow knowledge of yourself to unfold.
Three pointers here, before we go on to the next and last step.
First one: What if your mind veers off on a tangent, as is so easy to do? Try to follow your thoughts back to where you left off. Track them down, thought by thought, image by image. Then continue where you left off. Of course, since we such are complicated creatures, when you find yourself veering off, in the moment you realize it, the inner critic might decide to show up and start berating you. I’ll have a lot more to say about the inner critic this year—doing these seven exercises is going to give us lots of practice in dealing with our inner gremlin, trust me. For now, just don’t allow yourself to get sucked in by the drama. Try to be patient and forgiving of your limitations. Respond to the inner critic gently. “Thank you for sharing your perspective, but now I will carry on with what I was doing.” Something like that. A good way of dealing with outer critics as well.
Second pointer: “Some people complete this exercise easily in 5-10 minutes. Others struggle to do even part of their day’s review in half an hour, or fall asleep right in the middle of things. What is most important, however, is not that this exercise is done perfectly, but that you have put effort into it, and that over time you are improving. It is the effort, the active work of soul, that fosters development. The point is to learn how to live a more meaningful life, not to be perfect, so be kind to yourself. Forgive. This is essential in any undertaking and even more important when the challenge is to develop your soul.”
And now the third pointer: “If it is very difficult for you to review your whole day, then I suggest you try to review just a part of your day, say from lunch back to breakfast, or from what happened when you returned from work or school. Again, perfection is not the point. What is the point is establishing a regular rhythm to your inner work—trying to do it every day and better still every day at the same time. Getting into a regular rhythm is key. Rhythm will strengthen your practice and will, in time, bring the best results.”
As for the final step of the exercise:
5. Finish up in a way that feels good for you. I say this out of consideration for the kind of impact the Review of the Day exercise can have. It can help put the day to rest; give it a sense of completion; enable a sounder sleep—some people even testify that it helps ease insomnia. Above all, the Review can help us see our lives with greater perspective. While we’re living our day forward, what happens may at the time seem insignificant or completely ordinary; yet looked at again, it can shine in a whole new light, for now it is finding a place in the context of the whole day. Positive patterns emerging and becoming known. True self emerging. We may also get clearer about the things in our day that drain our energy and leave us depleted—enabling us to be in a better position the next day and the next for making better choices. In light of all this, you may choose to end the Review of the Day with an entry in your journal, to write about the insights that arise, goals for the future. Another way of ending might be to share your reflections with a friend or a spouse—if you both do this, it can lead to strengthening your relationship, and that’s great. Yet a third way of ending can simply be to say thank you—thanks to the universe, thanks to God, or just plain thanks—for the gifts of the day, or simply the opportunity to become more aware of them.
It’s all about planting seeds of soul. One seed each and every month. Earlier, Parker Palmer talked about how we can be trained away from our true selves by various bullying forces: in families, in schools, in workplaces … and then he adds to the list religious communities. (Did you notice that? I did.) It’s true. We can lose our souls even in the very places that are supposed to help us find them. But not here. Here we are growing Unitarian Universalist souls. We’re going to raise the soul here in our midst, work hard to do that. And if you take up my challenge to join me in practicing the seven exercises, remember, if and when you find yourself wondering what they have to do with justice in the larger world and justice in our souls, remember Mr. Miyagi, and Daniel, and wax on, wax off. Sand the floor, paint the house, paint the fence. Not everything is as it seems. True self will rise.