This is what the poet Rilke says:
May what I do flow from me like a river
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
The poet, Rilke. His prayer … his resolve. Ours as well. “May what I do flow from me like a river.” “Singing as no one ever has.” As Unitarian Universalists, we talk about inherent worth and dignity in each and every person; we affirm it; and surely what we affirm, above all, is an inner healing intelligence, an inner abundance of mind and heart and soul, an inner wisdom like a river, ready to spring forth when unblocked.
Abundance that is a “swelling and ebbing current,” a “deepening tide moving out and returning.” These are Rilke’s visionary words, and in them, I sense a rhythm of becoming more than we ever thought possible, a rhythm of new relationships and new possibilities. Creativity, and the joy that it releases into our sciences and arts and our daily lives.
Here’s one activity that (for me) has always helped to release joy. It’s called “poetry communion,” and it works like this: usually I assemble people into two groups. One group completes a short question that begins with the word WHY, and the other group completes a short answer that begins with the word BECAUSE. I ask people to do this on the spot, no lengthy preparation and no stress. No contriving. Just letting things flow and writing down whatever comes. Then, in the end, I randomly read one WHY card with one BECAUSE card, and that’s when the unpredictable happens, the silly, the bizarre, and sometimes even the amazing. Dots connected that perhaps have never been connected before. Moments when rigid categories of thought that have been hammered home all our lives, dividing and dissecting our experience, keeping things neat and tidy, suddenly fall away, are shoved aside, and we see the world anew.
I have here some Why and Because cards, filled out at the start of this service. Haven’t even looked at them yet. Here we go. Poetry communion….
Do you feel the energy that’s just been released? Can you feel the river rising within you, moving?
And surely it’s been this way in all moments of illumination, when women and men around the world and in all times have felt the river flowing in them, leading them to sing a new song. In our study text for the Planting Seeds of Soul series, called Raising the Soul: Practical Exercises for Personal Development, Warren Lee Cohen mentions Isaac Newton and his brilliant insights into the laws of motion. Countless people before him seeing apples falling from trees, but no one before him thinking at odd angles to usual categories of thought, no one before him seeing and mathematically defining the dynamic relationship between apples and the earth like he did, which, as he saw, apply as much to apples falling as to people walking, birds flying, the cosmic dance of planets and stars and galaxies. Dots connected that had never been connected before.
Did you know that Isaac Newton was a Unitarian? We want to follow in our spiritual grandfather’s footsteps. So many kinds of apples falling for us—in our personal lives and relationships, or at school, at work, in this congregation, wherever we happen to be—and we want more moments when we can discover newness in the midst of all that we have taken for granted, more moments when we see dynamic relationships we have never seen before, more moments when we come to know our world as if for the first time. Feeling the river within us, flowing. Singing a new song.
That’s our purpose today. Planting the seed of open-mindedness.
But what exactly are we opening?
See this cartoon in your mind’s eye. Comes from a book entitled Inward Bound: Exploring the Geography of Your Emotions, by Sam Keen. A man in a prison, his sad face looking out between two solid bars, perched just above his hands, each of which grips a bar. Stuck in this prison but good. Yet when you zoom out and take a look at the whole picture, you see no other bars. Just the two he grips hold of, as if for dear life. He could let go, he could look around, see avenues of escape to his left, to his right, behind him, but no. There he stays, absurd in his stuckness, his sad face perched above his fists. No escape, even as the opportunities for escape are boundless.
This cartoon came to mind when I encountered an article on being lucky. Comes from Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. How is it that lucky people consistently encounter positive opportunities, whereas unlucky people miss them, or even consistently experience the opposite? What’s going on? Richard Wiseman conducted an experiment on people who self-identified as either lucky or unlucky, and here’s what he says: “I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: ‘Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.’ This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than two inches high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it. For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper that said, ‘Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.’ Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.” Dr. Wiseman’s conclusion, from this and other experiments? “[U]nlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.”
And so, to answer the question from a moment ago: What we are wanting to open today is our mindset: the collection of prejudices and biases that we bring to the encounters in our lives, including our own self-encounter. Prejudices and biases that are just like the two sole bars in our absurd existential prison.
But where do they come from?
From Gordon Allport, author of the classic book The Nature of Prejudice, we learn that prejudice is partly an outgrowth of normal human functioning. “The human mind,” he says, “must think with the aid of categories…. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.” Yet what this inevitably sets up is a tendency to distort perception. Individual things become invisible, hidden behind the category of thing it is, meaning that differences within categories are minimized. All of a sudden, to be a Unitarian Universalist means, for example, that you voted for Barack Obama and you support the Democratic plan for health care. All of a sudden, to be a Unitarian Universalist means that you can’t possibly be Republican. All you Republican Unitarian Universalists out there, invisible behind a label. You affirm our Seven Principles as much as anyone. Yet you are not as liberal fiscally as you are in terms of social values. You reflect an important source diversity in our midst. Yet where are you? Can’t see you…. And so on, and so forth. The diversity we supposedly treasure, compromised.
This is what unchecked, unreflective categorical thinking leads to. Also this: an exaggeration of differences between categories. There’s an old Yiddish story of a peasant whose farm was located near the border of Poland and Russia, where boundary markers shifted with every international dispute. The peasant did not know from one year to the next whether his farm was in Russia or in Poland, and eventually he hired a surveyor to resolve the uncertainty. After weeks of painstaking assessment, the surveyor finally announced that the farm was just inside the Polish border. “Thank God,” the peasant cried with relief, “now I won’t have to endure any more of those horrible Russian winters!” A funny story—yet how often do we hear in polite Unitarian Universalist conversation something similar? People smugly distancing themselves from others perceived to be truly Other: as in, for example, evangelical Christians. “They aren’t searchers like us.” “They aren’t thinkers like us.” But Gina Welch, a self-professed liberal and atheist, in her recent book In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church, reveals something very different. She says, “In spite of my smug self-conception as a tolerant person, I had this calcified, unrecognized prejudice against evangelical Christians. Their politics angered me, their culture seemed silly. Most of all, their vocal efforts to see the world converted to their views made me, frankly, afraid of them.” But then she decided to walk a mile in their shoes—live among them for several years. Who were these people, really? And she says, “The biggest surprise for me was the individual reflectiveness of church members.” She says, “I think I’d had this stereotype of evangelicals as blisteringly arrogant dogmatists. But I observed instead humility and a kind of obsessive self-reflection, enacted through prayer. They call it listening to God’s voice, but it seemed to be like a constant internal pat-down of conscience, which really resulted in care with choices, and a movingly ample capacity for selflessness and generosity. I learned a lot,” Gina Welch says, “by their example.” Even with people with whom we may disagree on fundamental things—even with people whose values we fight in the political arena—if we can hold back from exaggerating differences and seeing the people as alien, our disagreements will feel less absolute and less daunting. Can’t take the worst of them—like Glenn Beck—and see them as representative of the best, or the rest. Stand back from the exaggerations, and we’ll be more likely to luck into positive opportunities for bridge-building and cooperation. Luck will happen.
You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. The very nature of our thinking in categories predisposes us to clenching up our minds, keeping us in the two-bar prison, and this is only reinforced by social conditioning in our earliest years and beyond. As poet Jane Kenyon writes about learning in the first grade:
“The cup is read. The drop of rain
is blue. The clam is brown.”
So said the sheet of exercises—
purple mimeos, still heady
from the fluid in the rolling
silver drum. But the cup was
not red. It was white,
or had no color of its own.
Oh, but my mind was finical.
It put the teacher perpetually
in the wrong. Called on, however,
I said aloud, “The cup is red.”
“But it’s not,” I thought,
like Galileo Galilei
muttering under his beard….
Can’t you just see the small girl in the poem, saying out loud “the cup is red” even as she knows it is not red? “The cup is red.” “It is normal to be with a person of the opposite sex.” “The world is a dangerous place.” “I am not good enough.” You are taught it and you say it and say it, even as you mutter in your beard, but you say it and say it so often that it becomes a part of you and you forget ever muttering in your beard. The hurtful voice of mother and father, or teacher, or society, becomes your very own voice in your very own head, and now we’re talking internalized oppression, now we’re talking about that river within us, that river every person alive is born with, dammed up, stopped up, blocked. That’s what we’re talking about.
Got to open up. Plant a seed of open-mindedness. Here’s how. And before I go over the steps, remember, for those of you who are choosing to practice these spiritual exercises with me, which we are learning one per month, don’t forget to keep practicing the others we’ve covered so far:
Review of the day
And now, open-mindedness. Step one is to establish a base line. As you go through your day, be mindful of your automatic responses to yourself, to other people, and to the world around you. Notice moments when your energy contracts, and you can just feel your hands tightening around the bars of some prejudice.
Someone tells you that you did a good job, and instead of just saying “Thanks” and allowing yourself to feel good, you put yourself down somehow, you instantly clamp down on the good feeling. Put that on the list.
Or: you are in a gathering of Unitarian Universalists, and the subject of prayer to God comes up, and you say, “Well, we don’t have any of that around here. Unitarian Universalists don’t do that.” Put that on the list.
One thing that’s on my very long list relates to diet. Not too long ago, my daughter Sophia asked me if I wanted to try one of her milkshakes. Now Sophia is a vegan and eschews all animal products. No eggs, no dairy, no meat. So the milkshake: made of hemp protein, green powder, vanilla, cinnamon, cacao powder, almond milk, banana, wheatgrass, and carob chips. She hands it to me, and I hold it carefully like a grenade. I already know she’s into weird food. “Dad, try it!” “Heck no,” I say. It’s green, and it has brown chunks gurgling around in it. But after 20 minutes of cajoling and some ridicule, I did try it, and hey, it was pretty good. Then she told me the ingredients. My response: “Uuuuurrrgggh.” Put it on the list.
Step one is about listening to your life, and establishing your base line of prejudices.
Step two is to stretch. To explain, let’s take a look at some additional insights about luck that come from psychologist Richard Wiseman’s research. “Unlucky people,” he says, “often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. […] Unlucky people [are also] creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.” Isn’t this interesting? Accordingly, in step two of the exercise, when you find yourself in situations in which a prejudice kicks in, look for opportunities to stretch yourself. Allow intuition to guide you, or introduce some kind of variety—all to the end of enabling a different perspective than the one you are used to to live within you for a time. That’s exactly what Gina Welch did, in her effort to walk a mile in the shoes of Christian evangelists. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden experiment is all about this. Large scale, small scale. All about transforming NO! into OH?
Finally, step three: each day you do the exercise, conclude by reflecting upon how things went in the evening (similar to or along with the Review of the Day). Track what happens in your journal. Practice compassion towards yourself, as you get clearer about the prejudices you bring to your life. Practice right effort, as you open your mindset more and more, and you look around and realize that your prison has only two bars in it, and things suffocated and diminished by prejudices of your mind start surprising you, dots are starting to connect that had never before connected, fantastic Isaac Newton-like insights popping up like lighbulbs over your head, and you are feeling freer than ever before, free religion is becoming more and more a reality for you, and you are feeling joy rising up in you, the river rising and rising within you, flowing, flowing freely, and what you find yourself doing, effortlessly, effortlessly, is singing, singing as no one ever has, and you are
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.