16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Meditation on Everyday Life
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/07/2007
Knock upon yourself as upon a door, and walk upon yourself as on a straight road. For if you walk on that path, you cannot go astray; and when you knock on that door, what you open for yourself shall open.
If we think about a typical day in our lives, it tells us a lot about how we experience our own quality of life. We may get up and go down to fix ourselves some coffee, and when we put the coffee filter in, we don’t do it right and the coffee comes out all watery and full of grounds. We immediately feel our irritation meter rising but we try to deal with it and start all over again making coffee. Then the dog comes in from outside and his paws are all muddy and we can see a trail of muddy prints across the kitchen floor. Once again we feel really irritated and growl at the dog. He might growl back. Or we growl at our spouse and they might growl back.
Then our daughter comes downstairs, all dressed nicely and gives us a nice big kiss. And we feel great then. We head out the door for work feeling okay.
Then once we get on the highway, there’s a traffic jam slowing us down and we know we’re going to be late. Our growly inner voice is heard again. When we get to the office, there’s a note on our desk from a friend asking us to have lunch with them and once again we feel those happy carefree thoughts buoying our spirits.
Back and forth, our human nature bounces up and down like a ride on a bumpy camel with the influences around us that can set off our anger, our irritation, our joy, or our sadness.
In Buddhism, there is a metaphor for all these different emotions that we feel as we react to the outer world. The “Ten Worlds” are said to describe these elevator-like feelings we are constantly moving between. On the bottom floor of the elevator, we have what is described as the worst kind of human emotions, hell, hunger, animality, and anger. These are the kinds of emotions we’d like to avoid, if at all possible. They have to do with our baser, most selfish emotions. When we are in the throes in these emotions, we feel like we are not in control of ourselves. We can only respond to the things that happen to us.
Then as we rise up in the elevator, in response to good things that might happen to us, we might experience tranquillity or rapture. In these states we might feel peaceful and calm, or feel joyful. But once again, we feel these things in response to outside events.
Once we move out of the these six lower worlds, Buddhism says we can begin to control our lives ourselves as we move into the worlds of learning and realization. In these states of consciousness, we can learn from others and we can begin to have our own true understanding of ourselves. This allows us to have a truer concept of the possibility of our own enlightenment.
The two highest states in the Ten Worlds are bodhisattva and enlightenment. As bodhisattvas, we realize that in order to find our own enlightenment, we need to help others to find their enlightenment, and we become dedicated to the service of others. And true enlightenment is described as the state of perfect freedom where we become our own perfect selves. Now that doesn’t mean we become perfect humans forever. We all might have enlightened moments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we stay in that state. We might be there for a few blissful seconds and then, whoops, down again goes the elevator.
Meditation is often seen as a practice that allows us to calm our disordered mind and allow ourselves to begin seeing how we are affected so constantly by events around us. Meditation can allow us to access the deeper spirit that knows the larger truths about us.
Prayer is also seen by many as another practice that allows us to access the spiritual well within us, as well as to connect with the larger Spirit around us.
Buddhism and many Eastern religions use meditation and many theistic religions see prayer as the practices that connect us to our deepest spiritual nature.
Daniel Helminiak, a psychologist who as a former priest has a great interest in meditation and prayer, describes what he sees as three ways to access the spirit: through the body, through the psyche or mind, and through direct access to the spirit. He says that people are very different in their spiritual needs and can find different ways that allow themselves to access spirituality. As a priest, he thought that God would grant him special spiritual gifts such as visions and insights. But over the years, he realized that his own spiritual growth was his own responsibility. The human spirit is the key to spiritual growth, he says, and our human spirits respond to different stimuli.
Sometimes our bodies are the key to our spiritual growth. Many find that yoga, walking, dancing, and even sitting for long periods of time are the spiritual practice that allow the spirit to enter us. When we look at different religions, we find interesting spiritual practices involving kneeling, sitting, standing, bowing, prostrating oneself, spinning like the Whirling Dervishes, or dancing like some Native Americans ritual dances. Misty Bloom is going to be leading a Sunday service dealing with using some of these physical techniques for spirituality at the end of the month.
When I take my walks in the mornings, there’s something about moving my body outside in nature that begins a process within me of opening up, of letting go of the stress. As I take each step, my spirit seems to move along joyfully. I start to notice the trees around me, each leaf and each branch. My mind and my spirit seem activated by the movement that my body initiates. My spirit is awakened to the possibilities my body suggest by its movements.
Helminiak says that the psyche or the mind, also allows us access to our spirits. When we are involved in religious rituals that touch us deeply, the deep familiar ring of the words, the tone of the voice, and the music that accompanies these rituals move us to another level of awareness. For some, these familiar rituals, move them to a world that is not accessible otherwise, where the spirit lies waiting.
Inspirational poems, readings, music, and guided meditations all are tools to touch the mind in a way that accesses the spirit. We can become more open to finding ourselves at a deeper level than we normally could.
But direct spiritual access, Helminiak, says is done by meditation without content. It is a place without language, without emotions, really without selfhood. Spiritual awareness is that place where we become one with the universe, with God, with all others. Where mind, body, and spirit are all one. Where we know we are purely safe, completely loved.
Two religious monks, Thomas Merton, a Christian, and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist, describe their religious practices for obtaining this spiritual peak in very similar ways.
Merton uses contemplative prayer as a way to find himself totally surrendered to God and to find God’s love as one’s ground of being, not just in our mind or our emotions. He describes this with St. Augustine’s words that God is “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves” and this is what we discover in a state of spiritual awareness.
When Merton describes the “heart” as the place from which we prayer or meditate, he uses the heart as what he says is the “deepest psychological ground of one’s personality, the inner sanctuary where self-awareness goes beyond analytical reflection and opens out into metaphysical and theological confrontation with the Abyss of the unknown yet present…”
In this state of being, Merton says we find “one’s deepest center”. To do this we must cultivate an attitude of openness, reverence, expectation, trust and joy. Again and again, Merton describes this place as the place where we find ourselves filled with love from the presence of God. Merton says the meditation is the way that spiritual people keep themselves awake. He says that while meditation requires thought that it is much more than thought or emotion- it is a practice that involves one’s whole being.
But when you read Thich Nhat Hanh’s language, it is slightly different, but very similar. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. He says that mindfulness is knowing what is going on within and around us in the present moment. When we are using mindfulness, Hanh says, we are “touching deeply the present moment” and our benefits are total understanding, acceptance and love.
Hanh equates mindfulness with the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. He says that both are agents of healing. When you have mindfulness, you can heal what is within and you can see how to love those around you. Touching that place within us that has deep understanding and compassion, we become healed. We become aware that we are fully accepted and loved in the universe.
Now in my mind, the difference between using prayer and using meditation for getting to this place seemed to be a difference in theology. Merton talks a lot about God’s love for us; Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about our own ability to find healing within us. While Merton talks about the “divine within”, one still gets the sense that there is the “Other” within us in Christian theology. That there is duality- God and us.
In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Hanh says this, “Buddhists and Christians know that nirvana or the Kingdom of God, is within their hearts.” He wants to believe that Christians believe God is within them, and not separate from them. I don’t think most Christians would agree with him.
In Buddhism, there is no such duality. People are one with God in Buddhism.
Merton feels that when we involve our whole mind, body, and spirit we then merge with God. He says that “All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.” So, there we see the non-duality possible in Christian prayer. One becomes God-like, one becomes divine, in fact, one becomes God. This however, is not an idea readily accepted by Christianity. For most Christians, God remains “Other”.
However, when I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of what he calls “inter-being” the distinction between these two theologies begins to lessen.
Hanh talks about looking at an object such as a flower and trying to understand it’s true nature.
“When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It “inter-is” with everything else in the universe.”
The interdependent web of existence which is the UU seventh principle is very well described by Hanh’s theory of “interbeing”.
However, from a strictly theist interpretation, the flower and the clouds and the sun were all made by God. From God’s love, these component parts came together to create a miracle called a flower.
Two different views on reality. Does the flower care how it came to be? Can we as flowers in the universe appreciate our flowerness and the sun and the clouds and the rain that helped us into being without naming it “God”? Or as an awareness of gratitude, do we need a name for how this all came together? Do we need to contain that miracle of creation and love in something we see as “other” or “God”?
In accessing our spiritual center, is it necessary to recognize this center as something “other” than us- such as God, or is it not possible to differentiate between God and ourselves? I can see that these are questions that myself as a Buddhist, certainly cannot answer for others. We all have our own innate understanding about how we perceive this spiritual center.
I spent about twenty years of my life as a Christian, about twenty years of my life as a Buddhist, and now about 14 years of my life as a Unitarian Universalist. In all these religious homes, I have found ways to access my spiritual center. As a Christian, my spiritual practice was a very personal relationship with a God that I saw as a friend and protector. My prayers were full of confession, petition, thanksgiving, and joy. But that is where I was with my life. I was very immature and felt the need for a God who would listen to me, help me, and guide me.
When I become a Buddhist in a Buddhist community, I was taught a kind of meditation that was also very goal oriented. Our verbal chant was a way to focus our energy toward the kind of life we wanted as well as toward helping others. But our meditation was still full of content. While the meditation was very calming and peaceful, we also spent a lot of time while chanting thinking about what we needed in our lives. This wasn’t a bad thing- it just is very different than the kind of non-content oriented meditation that Meliniak and Hanh are talking about.
When I became a UU, I found that I could use prayer again. Not the same kind of God in my mind- more like a universal force of energy. But prayer was added to my Buddhist chanting as a part of my spiritual practice. And then I began breathing meditation. Breathing in, breathing out. Paying attention to my breath, just my breath. Focusing on just being there. Nothing else. I found this kind of meditation allowed me to release all the worries I had been carrying. I breathed out my stress, I breathed in the nourishment I felt I needed from the universe. This felt very powerful to me.
Once when I needed a very powerful meditation or prayer to help me through a very hard day, I found myself using a kind of combination prayer-meditation. I found myself sitting on a park bench, feeling the sun. Soaking up the sun was my mediation. I needed energy in my life very badly; my body and my spirit felt depleted. I sat breathing in nourishing air, and I sat and felt the sun in all my pores. I brought the warmth and the air into my body as I brought love and energy into my soul. It felt the same at that moment to me- my body and my spirit were one and needed this healing. After about ten minutes of this meditation, I felt like I’d just been to an amazing spa or attended a spiritual ritual. I felt completely nourished and loved. For me, this was a merging of both prayer and meditation- asking for help and then simply accepting what came to me.
The meditations and the prayers used by Buddhism and Christianity may sound very different. Sometimes they sound very much alike.
Hanh tells us to meditate with some very simple steps. This is his very simple meditation for finding ourselves in the present moment. For finding the divine in the present moment.
Breathing in, I calm my body,
Merton, Thomas, Contemplative Prayer, Image Books, New York, 1969.