Monday, November 11, 2019

“This is My Soul’s Address” by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 11/10/2019

Christian Bible Gospel of Luke 10:29-37
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Sermon

           I worked for about 5 years as a counselor and then director of an inpatient and outpatient eating disorders clinic.  During that time I met countless women and men who were not just unhappy with what they saw in the mirror, they were so anxious about it they turned to destructive means to try to change their bodies.  Many, let’s say most, experienced body dysmorphia, seeing a distorted view of themselves when looking at their bodies or looking at their reflection in the mirror.  This image above represents what a woman with an eating disorder might see or experience when looking in the mirror (picture is from 'In the Mirror, What I Saw Was a Monster': Living with Body Dysmorphic Disorder” by Stephanie Dubick).  I remember one exercise we offered to help them address this dysmorphia.  The counselors would put butcher paper on the ground, the patient would draw their bodies on the paper as they perceived them. Then the patient would lie down on the butcher paper and have someone they trusted trace their bodies.  When they saw what had been traced, they would see their body distortion.  Many times they cried.  Sometimes they would deny the reality.  Often they were kickstarted into a process to try to resolve what these differing images of themselves meant.  Facing the accurate image of themselves offered them the opportunity to go from treating their bodies as something they hated, something that needed change, to something that needed acceptance, love, and compassion.
         Our second Unitarian Universalist Principle is: we affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  I wonder how many of us when thinking about this Principle have considered the relationship we have with ourselves.  A compassionate relationship with yourself.  We are often our harshest critic, about how we look, how we act, and how we think.  It is easier to chip away at ourselves, than to honestly love ourselves.  If I were to ask you, do you consider your body to be a treasure, how would you answer?  If not your whole body, what part of your body do you consider a treasure?  If I were to ask you about a beautiful, amazing, wonderful aspect of yourself, a quality, talent, ability, would you be able to tell me without any form of self-criticism, without apology, without minimization?  How often do you without any strings attached offer yourself kindness and compassion? How often do you unquestionably accept kindness and compassion?

          Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, (worldmind.org, April 2, 2015, “Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared”, whirlwind meditation”) wrote: “Self-compassion is simply treating yourself kindly, responding to your own pain with compassion in the same way you’d respond to the pain of someone you care about. ‘Self-compassion’ is a bit of a misnomer; we give compassion not to ourselves as a whole, but to any part of us that’s suffering.”
          Let's take a moment to reflect on the story of the Good Samaritan from the Christian Gospel of Luke.  Samaritans were despised by the Jews and yet Jesus, himself a Jew, used this story of someone from this despised race showing compassion to a Jew. He disrupted their thinking, forcing them to consider new ways of understanding compassion and new ways of seeing those, they considered “the other.”  I want to offer you the same kind of disruptive experience: self-compassion.
            Turn your attention to yourself.  You can close your eyes if that helps.  Move your attention around your body, mind, heart, and soul.  Locate that part of you that you like the least.  Focus your attention on that part.  Think of that part as a person in pain, lying on the side of the road, beaten, bleeding, and naked.  What would you do to ease the suffering of that part?  How might you let that part know that you care?  How might you show that part of you compassion? 
            Okay, now bring your attention back here and now.   Let’s consider what we just did.  You were given the opportunity to offer deep attention to yourself and then a part of yourself.  You were not simply responding to a perceived immediate need—hunger or an itch or whatever—offering attention for that pressing need, you moved beyond that. This was attention freely given. It is a novel experience for many of us to freely give open-minded attention and compassion to ourselves. 
I remember when I was working with those people with eating disorders; I lived with them, ate with them, looked in the mirror with them.  If I was to help them, I had stand with them in stark reflection to show them, that it was okay to take an honest look in that mirror, to show them that I wouldn’t fall apart when I looked.  And I was not perfect. This was a time when my hairline was receding, my gut was becoming more pronounced, and I was struggling to lead a diverse group of professionals in this inpatient and outpatient clinic.  If I was going to help my patients, I had to change the story I was telling myself, the story about becoming increasingly unattractive and utterly incapable of leading.
            The Jews in Jesus’s time saw the Samaritans as “the other”.  When we categorize someone as “the other” we can more easily ignore them; we can see them as an object, not as a human, and thus they no longer deserve the empathy and understanding we offer other humans; and if they are no longer human we can hurt, disrespect, or abuse them without feeling any guilt or regret. 
What happens when we see an undesirable part of our bodies or ourselves, as “the other”, separate from ourselves, no longer deserving empathy or understanding?  It gives us the freedom to criticize, abuse, reject that part of ourselves without regret, without realizing the impact that negativity has on our esteem, our health, and even how we treat the many people and other living things in our lives. 
I have often heard it said if you do not love yourself, it is hard to authentically love anyone else.  Why?  Well, if you don’t love yourself, you likely will rely on something outside of you for the love and attention you need to feel normal, grounded, stable.  Often this outside thing is another person’s love, care and attention.  When your grounding is outside of you, out of your control, then you may feel dependent in your relationships, rather than interdependent. And you may find yourself more reactive, feeling out of control when that outside thing is not giving you the attention, love, compassion you need.  It is far better to give yourself attention, love, and compassion, rather than rely on someone else to do for you.
When I was working with patients, it was not uncommon for me to ask them to visualize the part of themselves that they hated, loathed, ignored, rejected as a person.  What was surprising to me was that they pictured this part as a child.  And this child was sitting in a corner or in dark room, crying and/or angry.  When the patient approached this part to try to show it compassion or give it a hug, that part tensed up or ran away.  Think about that for a moment, why do you think that happened?  Think of someone who has been treated as “the other” over and over again.  How difficult do you think it would be when someone who in the past had ignored them, or abused them, now tried to offer them compassion?  It would likely take time for trust to build in that relationship, for that part to experience caring, concern, empathy, or compassion. 
For some of you this practice of experiencing part of yourself as a discreet person might be difficult, might seem like so much psycho-babble or pop psychology.  And I assure you some of my patients did initially feel that way.  However, for my patients to experience a breakthrough in how they treated themselves, experienced themselves, and healed themselves, a metaphor or a story that helped them see themselves and the world differently was required.  This allowed them to heal their relationships with themselves.
The Buddhist I mentioned earlier, Bodhipaksa, says: “The mind generates stories around our suffering. These may be stories in which we blame others, or tell ourselves that the discomfort we’re experiencing is unbearable or shouldn’t be happening. They may be stories of revenge, or stories that we are bad, or worthless, or are doomed to suffer. They may be stories about ways we can numb or escape the pain.  These stories themselves cause us further pain, and so as we notice them arising it’s wise to disentangle ourselves from them, just letting the words echo away into the mind.
Our stories are what the Buddha called, in a famous analogy, “the second arrow.” He pointed out that we’re all subject to discomfort and pain, whether it’s having our feelings hurt or having a toothache or experiencing loss. This is the “first arrow,” which arrives unexpectedly. This kind of suffering is inevitable. But our response to being hit by this arrow is often, the Buddha said, to indulge in the kinds of thoughts I described above, which he summarized as “sorrow, grief, and lamentation.” It’s these responses—our second arrows—that cause most of our suffering. Each thought like, “This is terrible!” or, “Why is this happening to me!” is a self-inflicted stab with the second arrow…So the first thing we do is to recognize that through our stories we’re creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves, so that we [need to] drop the story line and become mindfully aware of the first arrow.”
            Changing the story, separating the second arrow from the first, offers us the opportunity to heal from the first arrow, and offers us the opportunity to change our relationship with the part of ourselves we have deemed “the other”. 
            So how do you start the process of building a relationship with someone you have deemed “the other”.  Start with lovingkindness.  Remember our meditation song: May I be filled with lovingkindness.  May I be well.  May I be peaceful and at ease.  May I be whole.  Treat “the other” with the same kindness that you show to someone you love.  Hold in your heart loving intention and wishing them well.  Let this attitude guide your actions.
            While holding this intention, approach the other with curiosity, as if you don’t know anything about them.  Set aside your assumptions, prejudices, and misinformation.  Allow them to tell you who they are.
And learn how to forgive yourself when you make mistakes or hurt their feelings, because that will happen. 
And finally seek and find the beauty, the wonderful, that which is amazing in “the other”.  Every person has these qualities if we are patient enough and open enough to find them.
Now consider using these practices with all the parts of yourself.  Take time to offer yourself and all the parts of yourself some verbal lovingkindness: Perhaps saying to yourself or a part of yourself, “I know you’re in pain, and I’m here for you,” or “I love you, and I want you to be happy,” “You may feel abandoned, but know I am always with you.”
Be curious about yourself.  Don’t assume that you know everything there is to know about all the parts of you.  Make time to attend to your body, mind, heart, and soul.  Notice things going on within you with a curious spirit, and take joy in learning new things about yourself. 
            Offer forgiveness for not treating yourself with kindness.  Offer yourself forgiveness for not taking care of your body’s needs or health.  Offer yourself forgiveness for not taking time to notice what is going on within you, letting things fester and letting the suffering within you get worse.
            Seek and find the beauty, the wonderful, the amazing about you—body, mind, heart, and soul.  And particularly do this with the parts of yourself that you have ignored, disrespected, or hurt.  These neglected parts need to be valued, affirmed, need to know they are of worth and of importance to you. 
            When you’re acutely mindful of yourself and have responded with empathy and compassion toward yourself, you’ll quite likely to spontaneously respond with that same empathy and compassion toward others.
            Offering myself compassion is particularly useful when I’m stressed. When I’m writing a sermon and the dog starts barking, for 15 or 20 minutes.  I’ll notice a knot of tension building up in my gut. It is likely frustration or anger.  I know left unchecked this will be harmful to me and those around me.  Rather than ignore it or power through it, I give my gut a moment’s compassionate attention, breathing in love and health through that part of my body. When I do this, my gut relaxes and the anger/frustration eases.  Compassion fills me, I feel more at peace.  The reactive thought that had started to fill my mind to yell at the dog, to just make him stop passes out of me.  I stop writing and offer the dog a belly rub but he wants me to play with him, so I do.  Offering myself compassion also works for physical pain, destructive thoughts, and difficult emotions like sadness, depression, and anxiety. Self-compassion is the "Swiss Army Knife" of spiritual techniques.
            I leave you with this quote by psychologist and proponent of Buddhist meditation Tara Brach:  "Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance."