Saturday, December 21, 2019

Wonder Trumps Anxiety preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 12/22/2019

Since the title of this sermon is “Wonder Trumps Anxiety”, let’s start with a couple definitions, just so we are all on the same page.  You are probably familiar with anxiety.  From the American Psychological Association, “anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried and intrusive thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
            And wonder. Well that’s a little more difficult.  People sometimes define wonder using poetry and metaphor.  Not too long ago I came across church consultant Susan Beaumont’s writings.  She wrote “Wonder is the ability to feel amazement, admiration and curiosity about something. Wonder invites our best, most creative thinking. Wonder connects us with [humanity, the universe, the divine].” 
To better understand the relationship of wonder and anxiety let’s start with Annaka Harris’s book I Wonder.  Annaka is passionate about wanting adults to let children experience mystery and wonder without pushing them to come to immediate definitive conclusions about what they are experiencing—that’s what’s demonstrated when the mom answers her young daughter’s question about gravity.  In her author’s note she writes: “I believe that one of the most important gifts we can give our children is the confidence to say, ‘I don’t know.’ We live in a society where people are uncomfortable with not knowing. Children aren’t taught to say “I don’t know,” and honestly … it is rarely modeled for them. They too often see adults avoiding questions and fabricating answers, out of either embarrassment or fear, and this comes at a price. When children are embarrassed by or afraid of the feeling of not knowing, they are preoccupied with escaping their discomfort, rather than being motivated to learn. This robs them of the joy of curiosity [and wonder].”  Authentically expressing “I don’t know” from time to time doesn’t have to result in anxiety.  Instead we could embrace “I don’t know” when we don’t know something and begin to wonder about whatever it is we don’t know, with open-hearted curiosity, interest, imagination and exploration.  When we do that something wonder-full can happen.
            When I was young, I would go out into the cow fields,
exploring whatever was out there.  I found blackberry bushes, black racer snakes, various types of turtles, horned toads, frogs in various stages of development, rattle snakes, rabbits, and of course cows, with their delightful, at least to an 7-year-old boy, by products. Ever used a cow patty as a frisbee? I looked at, followed, captured, let go, and embraced the strangeness of the world around me.  I don’t recall any anxiety while I wandered and wondered.  On the other hand, my mother would probably have had a heart-attack if she knew all the things I did and places I went as a child.  My curiosity about everything was off the charts.  That’s not to say I didn’t study, do my homework and participate in swim team, soccer, chess club and slide rule club.  Does anybody remember what a slide rule was?  Ok, you can explain it to everyone else during coffee hour.  After reading Harris’s book I asked myself when I stopped wondering like I did as a child.  And I puzzled over what had taken the place of wondering.     
            As a preteen, when I was still seeing things in absolutes, it was my perception that I needed to put aside my wondering in order to function effectively in the world.  I needed answers to a lot of questions that other people would have to teach me so I could function in the world.  A lot of answers.  And if I didn’t have the answers, well I was anxious to find them.  We seek out answers, because knowing answers helps us feel competent, capable, effective, and safe.  But when we don’t know the answers that we feel we need, well that can produce real anxiety.  Not knowing how to communicate a need.  Not knowing how to get to where we need to go.  Not being able to figure out how to fill out a form to get the aid we need. 
             My wondering also faded as I started to believe that I needed certain new, different, better things to feel okay, rather than valuing things I already had.  New and better things
like a companion—a girlfriend-- and more friends, a new car, a new job, more money.  This resulted in perceived need and anxiety when I didn’t get what I desired or couldn’t guarantee that I could keep what I had.  In this culture we live in, we are taught from birth to want more and better.  Right now!
            Over time, I also developed beliefs and accepted certain truths that I felt would help me function in the world, some consciously, some unconsciously.  I believed these beliefs and truths would help me feel less anxious, so I no longer needed to wonder; why wonder when you have answers. 
            How do intangible concepts, personal beliefs or truths effectively aid a person’s responses to anxiety-producing real-world events? Well, think about science, religion, and culture.  Science, through research, explains how many physical properties in the world work, like how electricity runs through wires to our homes and provides light, heat, you know.  Knowing how electricity works reduces my anxiety about electricity.  Religion and culture, through group-based insight and group-based acceptance of certain norms, offers answers about how we should be in relationship with one another and how we should live on this planet, with ideas like the Ten Commandments, the U. S. Constitution, the Golden Rule which is found in one form or another in all major religions, and specific laws that are enforced for the community’s safety.  Again knowing these things exist helps me feel safe and less anxious.  And then there are personal beliefs and truths based on our own individual experiences that help us function, like when I learned it is probably not a good idea to tell a person I was interested in dating that they are well preserved for their age when they were 21 years old, and I was 15.  Lesson learned, less anxious knowing how to talk to girls.  As we develop more and more scientific, religious, cultural, and personal beliefs and truths, a lot of things we used to wonder about get answered.  And interestingly, instead of all the answers opening up heart-space for new things to wonder about, we instead seem unable to break out of the centrifugal force of finding more answers.
While I was searching for truth and meaning before becoming a Unitarian Universalist, when I found Unitarian Universalism I found people who supported me as a dug more deeply into truth and meaning.  I became more willing to accept some level of anxiety so that I could re-embrace wonder, knowing that my flashlight of knowledge looking out into the universe is limited and will always be limited.  I’ve accepted that all of us are limited.  There are mysteries that we may never find out or that may not be explained in our lifetime.  And there are mysteries that we are confronted with every day to which the answers are not factual, cannot be understood through science, but are hinted at only through metaphor.  What is beauty? What elicits wonder?  What does this experience, whatever this experience is, mean?  But even with my willingness to accept some anxiety, there still seemed to be some impediments to my re-embracing wonder.
Let’s talk about the meditation we did today, you know:
“I wonder about life, the universe, and everything. 
I wonder why most people treat each other with kindness, with compassion, with love.  Etc.
What popped into your head as you heard these statements?  For some of us, it might have been a memory of wonder, beauty, or curiosity.  However, many of you might have had thoughts like, “There he goes again wondering about the universe.”  “I guess he read that book the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”  “Who’s he been talking to, most people are not kind, compassionate, or loving.” “Of course creatures evolved, everybody knows that.” “This meditation is all fluff, no real meat to it, nothing in it for me.” 
When I first experienced this meditation, I realized something else was blocking my ability to wonder, it was my own internal voices.  In particular voices of judgement, fear, and cynicism.  When I wrote down my thoughts and feelings, as you did during the meditation, I became aware of those voices and their interference with my wondering.  It occurred to me that due to those voices over the years I had, brick by brick, found more and more reasons to give up on wonder and instead embrace anxiety.
Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, describes these three voices this way: 
“The Voice of Judgment is intellectual.  This is the voice in your head that knows many things and has already reached conclusions about decisions at hand. It likes to label things ‘That approach is flawed and won’t work.’ [or] ‘He won’t support my idea because he is risk averse.’ The voice of judgment tries to seal off the mind and protect the status quo. It shuts down creativity.
The Voice of Cynicism is born of mistrust. This is the voice in your head that is skeptical and certain that everyone is out to protect their own self-interest and violate yours. ‘[Sh]e’s never supported any of my ideas and certainly won’t support this one.’ [or] ‘Just try to get the board to approve that idea!’ The voice of cynicism tries to protect the heart from becoming too vulnerable. If I close myself off to the possibility of cooperation and success, I won’t be disappointed.
The Voice of Fear seeks to prevent us from losing what we already have. This is the whiny voice in your head that is certain you are in danger of losing ground. ‘Let’s just quit while we are ahead’ [or] ‘If we don’t raise this money, our very future is in jeopardy.’ The voice of fear gravitates towards extremes. It shuts down the open will by keeping us in grasping mode, which works against the spiritual stance of surrender.  Grasping at what you are in danger of losing keeps you from experiencing … abundance.”
            And my friends these voices run amok in anxious times—not unlike the current times we live in.  These voices of judgement, fear, and cynicism cultivated in me a closed mind, heart and spirit. They fought against wonder. Acknowledging and releasing these voices on paper opened heart-space within me for wonder.  Perhaps acknowledging and releasing these voices will open you up for more wonder as well.  Knowing that on the other side of judgment, cynicism and fear lies mystery, curiosity, and possibility.
            Letting go of those voices and making time in my life for wonder has offered me the opportunity to open my mind, heart, and spirit to the known and unknown—without over intellectualizing, without being as concerned about desires, without being as anxious about having to know more to function better, and without being locked into certain beliefs or truths —allowing me to really explore and consider the tangible and intangible inside and outside me.  This doesn’t mean I have stopped functioning effectively or given up on all my desires, it just means I have more balance in my life now.  And I have time to wonder.
When we approach something in the spirit of wonder in nature or when approach something or someone we don’t know about, and there is always so much we don’t know about--we approach it or them with curiosity, open to what the experience might offer us.  There’s some pretty fertile soil in the land of wonder, yet too often in our rush to find answers we don’t spend enough time in that fertile soil, simply appreciating the possibilities it offers.  Wonder doesn’t need money or possessions or even knowledge.  And wonder is apparently good for you. 
         In recent years, researchers have linked feeling awe and wonder to lower levels of inflammation-inducing proteins called cytokines. High levels of these proteins have been linked to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s and clinical depression.  University of California Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner wrote “…awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines [which] suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions—a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art—has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.” 
In a study involving veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, researchers found that after an awe and wonder-inducing experience (white water rafting), participants reported that “they’re getting along better with their family and friends, they are feeling more connected to their community — all those things we would call social well-being.” (Jeremy Adam Smith, “The Benefits of Feeling Awe”).
Susan Beaumont wrote: “Wonder trumps anxiety. We cannot be filled with wonder and remain anxious at the same time.” Think about that.  When was the last time you came across something new or strange, or something you didn’t know about?  Were you anxious trying to understand it or did you open yourself to curiosity and wonder?  I prefer approaching the new, strange or different with wonder, and I invite you to do the same.  So during the next couple of weeks take some time to wonder.  Perhaps take few minutes to experience the wonder of what it is be alive. To feel a sense of wonder about the natural world with its seasons and cycles.  To rediscover the wonder of your connectedness to all that is.  Find out what happens when you take a walk without purpose, when you gaze at something that interests you without a time limit, when you open your heart-space to all that is within and around you, and wonder.

Monday, December 9, 2019

“Science and Mysticism: the Power of Awe” by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 12/8/2019

          From The Science of Awe written by Summer Allen, PhD: “[Awe results when] any stimulus exceeds a person’s normal range of experience in one attribute or another… [Awe] leads to a ‘perception of vastness’…that leads people to feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves...[or leads to a] ‘need for accommodation’ when it violates our normal understanding of the world…Experiencing awe often puts people in a self-transcendent state where they focus less on themselves…awe can be considered an altered state of consciousness…”      
           Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel observes: “Awe is something that is evoked.  We do not manufacture it; it is not a product of will power or of naked patriarchy… It is a gift, a grace. We undergo it and we receive it… Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.  Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.  It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine….to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing, the stillness of the eternal.” (“Rabbi Heschel on the Via Positiva part 2” by Episcopal priest Matthew Fox)
           Theoretical Physicist Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [Those] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, [are] as good as dead: Their eyes are closed.”  

            The Daodejing begins, “The Way that can be followed is not the eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Mysticism has often been defined as the essence of religion and spirituality, and mystical experiences are commonly characterized as ineffable, transcendent, beyond the rational, and expressible only in paradox and metaphor. Awe and wonder are a fundamental aspect of mystical experiences.
            Science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” (google dictionary) The scientific method involves research.  Scientific truths involve creating a hypothesis, testing, and analyzing the results.  At its essence, science is an expression of curiosity, looking deeper into experiences that prod you, attempting to resolve information that doesn’t make sense to you, and finding answers that ultimately create more questions.  For some scientists, experiences of awe and wonder are at the heart of what moves them to start their research, study, or exploration. 
            What is awe?  Well you heard some definitions earlier in the service.  So, why do scientists—people who find answers using research and study-- and mystics—people who ground themselves in the amorphous and intangible world of the spiritual and religious—find value in awe?  Do experiences of awe have any value for us?
Many years ago, when I was psychotherapist, I was treating a young woman who had attempted suicide and was hospitalized in a locked psychiatric unit.  As we talked, I noticed that sometimes her mannerisms changed, her facial expressions seemed to shift, even her vocal quality was not always the same. 
This puzzled me.  After treating her for some time, I wondered out loud to her about these changes.  She immediately regressed into a ball on the floor, and started crying.  I was shocked by this, and tried to provide her some comfort.  She started sharing with me that she had blackouts, times when she didn’t know what she had done, and didn’t know how she had gotten where she found herself to be.  I was a little anxious about her disclosure, primarily because I didn’t know how to respond. 
In the back of my mind, I wondered if she could have some sort of dissociative disorder or even a multiple personality disorder.   But my rational mind said, “there is really no such thing as multiple personality disorder.”  Lots of my peers felt that multiple personality disorder was just a sham disorder— a disorder in which a patient deliberately produces or falsifies symptoms of illness, for the sole purpose of assuming the sick role and getting attention.  
I wondered if she was just using all these odd symptoms to see how I would respond.   But as I continued to work with her, I pondered at my own response to her problem.  She began disclosing a fascinating internal world of people of all ages and sexes that lived in and through her.  Some were weak, some strong, some controlling, some destructive, some trying to save this young woman from self-destruction.  Parts of her would respond to psychotropic medication while others would not.  Parts of her had access to certain memories that others did not.  Parts of her had infirmities that others did not.  I once saw a bruise appear and disappear as she shifted from one personality to the next.  I listened and observed in awe of what she was describing. I felt such powerful emotions as she spoke.  As I observed her tears flowed from my eyes.  Not because I was sad, but because I was so overfilled with emotions—fear, amazement, awe, wonder.  I remember experiencing a ‘perception of vastness’, as if I were in the presence of something larger than I could possibly understand.  And I felt a ‘need for accommodation’; my normal understanding of the world was going to have to expand if I was going to be able to understand or help this person. 
My vision of what was possible expanded exponentially.  My beliefs about human minds, bodies, even what was possible biochemically were shaken and I began to realize that my own intuitions, my own prima facie experiences, had just as much validity as the purely fact-based knowledge of my professional peers—even though my own conclusions were diametrically opposed to theirs.  The power of awe led me on a journey of study and work to understand this condition and to figure out how to treat this woman.
            Before this experience, I thought of awe as solely a spiritual experience, something that I was graced with, a gift when I saw something vast or incomprehensibly beautiful or deeply moving.  I remember the first time I hiked Big Bend National Park and stood on the Mount Emory beneath a night sky pin-pricked with stars.  For the first time I could clearly see the vastness of our little patch of the universe sparkling with mysteries.  I felt humble as I contemplated my place, my tiny little speck of a place, within all of existence.  I wondered how I fit into this vastness.  Trying to take in the mystery of all that could possibly exist, of all there was to understand in our universe, it was overwhelming.  I felt a connection with something larger than myself in the experience of the stillness of the eternal in the sky above.  In that moment, I didn’t think about what meaning I should make of this experience.  I didn’t feel any motivation to study the stars or try to figure out how to reach them.  I simply took the experience in and let it sink into me with joy.  In the years since, I’ve been able to draw on that experience to re-connect with my understanding of the divine and the universe, as well as my place in the universe, recalling a mood, a feeling, an experience, I could not and didn’t need to quantify with words.               
          I am willing to guess that many if not all of you have had an experience of ‘awe’. Perhaps it was before 2500 foot waterfall, listening to a hundred musicians perform a piece by Bach, looking at a painting by Monet or Picasso, experiencing the immense power of a blizzard, or being present when a child is born into this world.  What was it like for you?  How would you describe it, if you could describe it?  How did it affect you?  How did it impact the way you treat yourself, others, the planet?  Did it motivate you to look further, to study, to research?  Did it inspire you to some action?  Did it result in a deeper connection to or with the ineffable, god, goddess, the universe, mother earth, other people?
            About 4 years ago, I had some pushback when I described ‘awe’ as a spiritual experience, particularly from a group of folks who didn’t believe in anything supernatural, anything spiritual, or in any aspect of divinity or the divine.  I remember when one man, who described himself as a secular humanist, told me that he had had many experiences of ‘awe’ in nature and said none of them were spiritual—they were, to him, emotional and profound, even transformative, but not spiritual.  Some of these experiences he held within himself to remember and reflect on.  Generally these experiences were positive and affirming.  Some motivated him to treat others more kindly and to respect the earth.  And some of these experiences prodded his curiosity and his skepticism, and decreased his materialism. 
            After our conversation I wondered, “Is awe a spiritual experience, or is it an altered state of consciousness?  Is there only a specific segment of the population, a particular type of person, who is able to have experiences of awe? Does the experience of awe have an evolutionary purpose for humankind?”  I knew it’s effects on me were varied.  And I knew many people had described awe as spiritual.  At least a few, like Albert Einstein, spoke about his experiences of ‘awe’ as being necessary to his scientific curiosity, writing: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [Those] to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, [are] as good as dead: Their eyes are closed.”  So many questions, so few clear answers.  And maybe there aren’t any clear answers.
             Part of me was curious about awe as a phenomenon to be studied and part of me preferred the experience of awe without explanation, simply allowing it to grace my life, leaving me feeling connected, humble, and wonder-full.  However, my curiosity got the better of me and I searched for and found a summation of the research that has been done on awe.  Sounds very Unitarian Universalist doesn’t it.  It started: “While philosophers and religious scholars have explored awe for centuries, it was largely ignored by psychologists until the early 2000s…This has led to a number of fascinating discoveries about the nature of awe, while also raising many questions still to be explored.” (A white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, September 2018, “The Science of Awe”).  In for a penny, in for a pound, I continued reading.
            The image to your right is of  milk, dye, and water.  It is from a video that was used by researchers trying to elicit the experience of awe in a study participants.  And in fact, these kinds of videos often did elicit an experience of awe in college students.   But here’s the question that was not answered by this study: why does this video elicit awe?  Perhaps some of you might share your thoughts with us after the service today.
            As we grapple with what awe is, what elicits awe, and whether awe serves some sort of evolutionary purpose, we could look at the meaning awe held for our ancestors.  There are theories that the experience of awe helped early humans find vast spaces to settle together—like valleys or canyons-- or that the experience of awe undergirded early community building, since the awe experience often results in people feeling more connected to one another and sometimes results in people being kinder to others.  We could look at early meanings of the word awe; in Old English and Old Norse, awe meant “fear and dread particularly toward divine beings.”  The English meaning evolved into “dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; and the attitude of a mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.”  Today, we often hear the word awe used in reference to “a positive experience in nature.”
            Pretty much all this research has limitations, and those limitations may impact the ultimate meaning of awe for each and all of us.  You see awe experiences are elusive and hard to define.  Perhaps that’s their nature.  But does that make them any less useful to us?  To mystics? To scientists?
            Even though I was aware of these limitations, I did find myself drawn to the tool researchers used to measure awe.  Researchers often use the awe subscale in the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale.  In this diagnostic tool a person is asked to indicate their level of agreement on a scale from 1-7 for each of the following statements:
I often feel awe.
I see beauty all around me.
I feel wonder almost every day.
I often look for patterns in the objects around me.
I have many opportunities to see the beauty of nature.
I seek out experiences that challenge my understanding of the world.
            I am partial to the final statement from the awe subscale.  I seek out experiences that challenge my understanding of the world.  Those experiences may result in my doing more research, or may result in my holding onto to those experiences to reflect on later for spiritual grounding or joy.  In my current stage of development, I understand that I need mental and spiritual challenges in my life to continue to grow in spirit and wisdom, to learn more about myself and others, to deepen my relationships, and to find additional ways to be kinder and more respectful to people and planet. 
            What would change if you put these statements from the awe subscale on your desk or on your refrigerator, and looked at them from time to time.  Considering how awe fits into or could fit into your life.  Perhaps these statements might lead you to consider the value of awe.  And perhaps these statements might help you define awe for yourself, as a mystic, a scientist, as both, or as none of the above, or maybe as a Unitarian Universalist.