Come to honor the ending of this year and to welcome the New Year. This is an all ages worship service of reflection and ritual that honors all that is present for you in this in-between moment.
Reading, poem by Pema Chodron
It takes some training to equate complete letting go with comfort. But in fact, “nothing to hold on to” is the root of happiness. There’s a sense of freedom when we accept that we’re not in control. Pointing ourselves toward what we would most like to avoid makes our barriers and shields permeable.
This may lead to a don’t-know-what-to-do kind of feeling, a sense of being caught in-between. On the one hand, we’re completely fed up with seeking comfort from what we can eat, drink, smoke, or couple with. We’re also fed up with beliefs, ideas, and “isms” of all kinds. But on the other hand, we wish it were true that outer comfort could bring lasting happiness.
This in-between state is where the spiritual warrior spends a lot of time growing up. We’d give anything to have the comfort we used to get from eating a pizza or watching a video. However, even though those things can be pleasurable, we’ve seen that eating a pizza or watching a video is a feeble match for our needs.
We are told about the pain of chasing after pleasure and the futility of running from pain. We hear also about the joy of awakening, of realizing our interconnectedness, of trusting the openness of our hearts and minds. But we aren’t told all that much about this state of being in between, no longer able to get our old comfort from the outside but not yet dwelling in a continual sense of equanimity and warmth.
Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.
Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place heals, as we let go of our self-importance. It’s how the spiritual warrior learns to love.
One of my practices, as a spiritual warrior is to run, or more accurately to engage in a slow jog, that approaches a run on the down hills. The deep breathing clears my mind and helps to bring my mind, body, and spirit together for a little while. On one of my running routes, the one closest to my house, there is a place where a big granite rock sits to mark the intersection of three trails, much like a traffic island. The top of this rock is completely flat, and for some reason one day I built a cairn on it in the form of person (much like this–). At first, I was connecting with my inner child from the days I built snowpeople, and I chose rocks with appropriate dimensions. The top rock would give shape to the quality of the rock person, perhaps by the way it looked forward or downward and in what direction, perhaps by the shape of the hair, by a suggestion of gender, and a quality of body shape. Sometimes I added a golden beech leaf as a cape. The rock person was for me a welcoming gesture to all those to follow on the path. During the fall, I tend to run most days and would look forward to greeting my new rock person friend, only to find day after day, the rocks not only dismantled but flung in every direction. I persevered and continued to build my rock person, bringing in new rocks when the dispersed ones were hard to find under the foliage. Finding the old ones though felt like finding a beloved friend, for I knew them by the qualities they embodied in a person form. I had to search for new rocks sometimes, and I struggled with the notion of finding some rocks unworthy, as if they were too pointed or proved too difficult to find a place of connection upon which the smaller rock would rest. And I wondered if the ones that were part marbled by cement, or by tar warranted inclusion? All to say, building the rock people made visible the stuff inside me. As my emerging person took form, my appreciation for different body shapes, colors, and qualities grew, and for the qualities they seem to embody by their stance, such as humbleness, boldness, and vision.
With all this going on in just three little rocks, perhaps you can understand my devastation when my rock people were flung to the woods, day after day. At first anger satisfied me, but then left me feeling only depressed. Sometimes I surrounded my rock person in the enshrining glow of yellow birch leaves, hoping that the suggestion of holiness would dissuade the evil destroyer. Then I realized that the path led straight to a school, and that the school children probably found sport by knocking down my rock people on their way home. Always willing to find the silver lining, I imagined the one among many, privately finding exception to this destructive sport.
I started noticing growing feelings of anxiety as I ran. Will the rock top be empty? How will I respond? ? Will I find the stones to build again, quickly before someone comes along and wonders what I am doing. But with time, bit by bit, I began to feel gratitude for the empty faced rock when it greeted me. Grateful, for the chance to study and get to know the rocks I was building with. Grateful to invite the passersby to join me in the practice, which I did once, the guy kinda smiled. Building my rock people became a habit, charged less with anxiety and more with wonder at what qualities of presence the rock would bring to my life.
With cold weather, running is less of a habit, and about a month ago, I approached the rock after a week of not being there, and stopped short. There on the rock was not just one person, but three, one being small like a child. And what appeared to be a bird resting in it nest. I cried. Literally cried, tears down my cheeks. Since then, a community of rock people greet me regularly, and I am warmed by the recognition of some of the rock rocks, and warmed by a feeling of belonging, a feeling that extends to each human passerby as they are now, in my eyes possible co-creators of community.
I tell you this story, because it has helped me to practice living in the in-between state, one that Pema says is marked by “anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness.” She goes on to say that “we think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” The sport of knocking down my rock people, by whomever, created space for me to experience metaphorically all the emotions that come when relationships fall apart, and the emotions that come as we rebuild them, again and again. Somewhere in that process, I learned to leave old, worn out and too comfortable patterns of indignant anger, blame, and dissociation due to loss. I learned instead to enter the in-between state and became intimate with the queasy feeling of uncertainty that somehow makes our hearts more tender.
“This in-between state is where the spiritual warrior spends a lot of time growing up,” say Pema, a place I want to spend more time. Looking back, and with some reflection, this experience with my rock people, created for me self awareness that helped me name and embody what I value. They grounded me in space and time, taught me to pay attention to what is around me, and to focus on the present moment. They helped me to be aware of what I am feeling, and how I felt about my feelings. And they helped me appreciate difference, deepening my perception of beauty, and inspiring the qualities of strength, vision, and humility.
“Living from your values makes you feel alive and gives you energy,” says psychologist Mary Sellon.1 This energy can move you from your habitual zones of comfort and safety into the in- between state with the added capacity to handle the ambiguity and uncertainty you will find there. I think of Cathy and Rob who were co-chairs on the welcoming committee for newcomers at a church I once served. Cathy really valued homemade hospitality, for her a handmade card says love and care. Rob really valued professional excellence. The first year they served together they nearly came to blows. Cathy wanted to organize a group of people who would bake cookies for newcomers, Rob felt home cookies sent the wrong image and pushed instead for water bottles with the congregations name printed on them with a brochure tucked inside. Cathy was aghast at such a cold and impersonal approach. Every-time a project came up they butted heads until both of them told me that they were considering stepping down from the committee. I listened, and supported their work. A few months later, they figured out what was going on. Rob told me about the moment he discovered it. Conversation was getting heated as they the discussed the new brochure. Cathy wanted members to produce it, Rob wanted it professionally printed. “I just realized something” Rob blurted. “My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up and store-bought things were rare. Somewhere along the line I came to believe store-bought things were better and as gifts meant you valued the other person.” Cathy looked at him as if seeing him for the first time, and said, “I am just the opposite, my parents both worked, dinner was either takeout or from a prepared box. Birthday cakes were from the store. I grew up wishing someone would care enough to take the time to make something from scratch. That little moment of shared self-awareness shifted everything. “Staying with volatile energy,” says Pema gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the spiritual warrior learns to love.”
e table. Cathy talked about creating in her mind a dream of working well with Rob and imagined the benefits, for them, for the committee, and for the church. Creating from that dream became her deepest aspiration. Rob talked about realizing his deepest fear of what walking away would mean, that this promise to be together in faith especially when challenged, would lose all its value. Naming that fear, helped him to realize that he did not want to contribute to that outcome. “We create from our dreams,” says Mary Sellon, “so we must know what we are dreaming.”
Which brings me to a practice I’d like to share with you that helps me know what I am dreaming. You see creativity is a value that for me is so central, that if my creativity gets ignored or nullified, I go running to my habitual response of indignant anger, and complaint. This is especially true when it comes to leading worship. I love weaving strands of meaning together that shapes the experience and the message. In my first ministry I was often asked to create worship with someone who didn’t understand that for me pulling one strand from the weave would cause the whole tapestry to unravel. Despite hours of planning, he would always change something in the moment. I had to find a practice to help me create from a higher dream. Here is the practice, one that I still find so helpful, when I find myself running back to my old patterns with anyone in my life.2
- Recall a person with whom you would like a strengthened, more loving relationship.
- List 10 possible attitudes you could have as you regard that individual. Such as playful, collaborative, self-centered, honest, caring, judging, skeptical, authentic, audacious, impulsive, fearful.
- Ask yourself, which ones of the 10 might create distance or distrust ?
- Then ask yourself which one of the 10 feels more loving?
- Of those that feel more loving, pick one that you will try, throughout the next week to simply regard all people from that perspective, including the person you initially named.
- As the week continues, note the impact on you, on others and on the person.
For me, I honored the collaborative effort of my co-creator of worship and opened up to the possibility that this collaboration came to him at the cost of his authenticity. I learned to dream a different dream to prioritize both these values. But sometimes, clarity doesn’t come because of a deep seeded fear that blocks a shift in perspective. When that happens this is a practice I use.3 Standing might help you embody this, but sitting is ok too.
- Recall a person with whom you feel some distance or distrust.
- What contributes to that attitude or feeling in you? (for my example, a fear of power imbalance, because of gender.)
- Imagine holding that attitude or feeling in your right hand.
- Recall the loving perspective chosen in the previous exercise, Imagine holding that
perspective in your left hand.
- With one perspective in each hand, consider them both. Bring to mind your deepest
hope for your relationship with this person.
- Set the hurtful attitude or feeling that is in your right hand down on the floor.
- Now hold the loving perspective in both hands and bring it to your heart, imagine that perspective filling your heart and flooding your whole body.
Simply looking for the goodness at the heart of another person, opens our hearts and mind so that we feel as if we are seeing this person for the very first time, feeling the joy of our interconnectedness, and being blessed to be a spiritual warrior who has once again learned to love. Please won’t you join in the spirit of prayer and mediation.
Out of the stars have we come, mystery hidden in mystery, the wonder of time, the marvel of space; the miracle of life from the sea, warmed by the sun, washed by the rain, eyes to behold, throats to sing, mates to love, life from within giving birth, rising to see and to know, life upon earth rising to love. Gentle One, source of all mystery, and blessing, open our hearts, our minds, the fullness of our beings to know and live a love as strong as a dark blue mountain, a love as wide as a silver river, as splendid as clear night sky.
Gentle Spirit, may we know you as love, wise as an enduring friendship; love as a true power,
as truth, not deceit,
as purpose, not impulse,
as poetry, not prose
May we know you, now more than tomorrow, and tomorrow more than yesterday.4 Love, condense yourself into this moment, sing and permeate the silence that joins us in community, so that in the power of our words to come, the promises of this hour might be sealed in peace. Amen.
1. [Mary Sellon, Practicing Right Relationship]↩
2. [Sellon, Chapter 4]↩
4. [paraphrase of Mark Bellitini’s Love Prayer meditation from Ode to Silence]↩