The is from American essayist, poet, philosopher, transcendentalist, and Unitarian Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
From the beginning of Walden:
"i went to the woods because i wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if i could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when i came to die, discover that i had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did i wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms ..."
From the conclusion of Walden:
"i learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."
Each of us has chosen various directions in our lives. Each direction chosen has a consequence, and if followed long enough a destination—or does it? I often reflect on what Unitarian minister, essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “It’s the not the Destination, It's the journey.”
Think for a moment about the journey that Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau took. He went off into the woods to live deliberately, to learn what he could from the experience. He ended up living a simplified life, developing a simple moral code, leaving behind what he determined to be less important things, ideas, philosophies; and he found himself grounded in his dreams, dreams that he felt could, if he was determined, build on. Did he realize this is where he would end up when he walked out into the woods? I am not sure, but he embraced the journey without expectation, open to what he would learn along the way, writing and reflecting on many of his experiences in his journal.
So often on our journey through life, most if not all of us, myself included, pick a destination with the same deliberateness Thoreau picked a journey. That is, he chose a journey; we chose a destination. I chose to become a psychotherapist and then a minister. Putting in time, energy, resources, to achieve those ends. I was focused on achieving an end, not on lingering in the journey. It wasn’t until I really embraced Unitarian Universalism that I understood what it meant to embrace a journey rather than an end.
One of our Principles is to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I always felt a call to a life-long spiritual journey and my call to ministry was part of it. I wanted to journey like Thoreau, “deliberately… to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” So how did my spiritual journey begin.
As a teen, I understood the world to be complex with so many competing ideas, directions, priorities pulling at me. How could I make decisions with so many choices? What university should I attend, what career should I choose, should I remain with the religion that I was born into or not. I was accepted into 7 different universities, changed my major 8 times, left and returned to Catholicism a few times, then was unchurched until I found Unitarian Universalism. After hearing the story of the fox and the crane, I have to say that in the past I often felt more like the fox caught in the trap—with racing thoughts, about too many possible outcomes that kept me from decision making. I would become mired in evaluating my plethora of ideas, priorities, and data as I tried to judge them all before deciding on a direction. And sometimes, I found myself paralyzed by the extent of information I was compiling, the array of choices I was considering, and the range of choices and information that I knew was out there if I just kept expanding my research. This pattern repeated many times in my early adulthood. Perhaps some of you can relate.
It was some time after our second child arrived that I started to drill down into my study of Buddhist thought. I found Buddha’s parables and Buddhist writings compelling. Ideas like the four Noble Truths—suffering exists in the world, the cause of suffering is attachment, there is a path out of suffering, that is the eightfold path, right speech, right action, etc. The idea of offering loving-kindness to myself and others and daily meditation also appealed to me. And I even found a parable that helped me with my emotional and behavioral paralyzation.
Buddha told the story of a man who was shot by an arrow, and when the physician came to treat his wounds, the man refused treatment until he knew the background of the person who shot him, where the arrow was made, who helped that person, etc. I realized that I would never have all the information or advice I wanted to make any decision. Yet decisions still needed to be made. So I began to use the information I had, information and advice that was available to me. I still did some research, but I released the need for infinite options. I needed to work with the options that were most pertinent to my situation. And I realized that more options and more information doesn’t always mean better choices.
For many years, I leaned into Buddha and Buddhism for support and direction. However, one day I came across this old Zen koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, “If you find Buddha on the road, kill him.” Meaning that “The most important things that each [person] must learn, no one can teach [them]. Once [they] accept this disappointment, [they] will be able to stop depending on the therapist, the guru [or whoever and realize this person is] just another struggling human being.” In other words “No meaning that comes from outside of ourselves is real. The Buddahood of each of us has already been obtained. We only need to recognize it.” (If you meet Buddha on the Road kill him, by Shelton Kopp)
Now I wasn’t totally willing to embrace the idea that no meaning that comes from outside myself is real and I am still not, but I did come to understand that any book that has been written, or teacher, mentor, nurturer, forebear or parent cannot teach me everything I need in order to find spiritual direction and to live authentically in this world. This includes the great spiritual teachers Buddha, Mahammad, Jesus, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, Confucius or any other. And that includes the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada or any other. Notice I said spiritual direction, not spiritual destination. It is a journey I am embracing, not a destination.
As I continued on this journey, I came across Unitarian Universalist Reverend Forest Church’s writings. And his description of a search for meaning and truth both within and outside ourselves really grounded me and helped me understand a way to see what’s around me in my journey. Listen to his metaphor of the Cathedral of the World. “In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the Cathedral are where the light shines through.
As with all extended metaphors…, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (or Truth or Being Itself, call it what you will) shines not only upon us, but out from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the Cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being. The Cathedral is constructed out of star stuff, and so are we. We are that part (that known part) of the creation that contemplates itself, part of the poem that we ponder. Because the Cathedral is so vast, our life so short and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the Cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows… as we ponder and act on the insight from our ruminations, we may discover insights that will invest our days with meaning and our lives with purpose.” (UU World, Forrest Church | 11/2/2009 | Winter 2009)
What I have found true for myself is that there is a balance between this looking within and without for wisdom, truth, direction. It is certainly easier to look outside ourselves. The religious ideas and beliefs of all the world’s religions have already been vetted, considered and embraced or discarded by others. And some of these ideas and beliefs do have value; I have certainly found value in many of them in my life. By vetting what is of value from various religious and spiritual ideas and through introspection, I have found a direction that works for me. A journey that has meaning and purpose.
And then came the Coronavirus. And the world stopped. And I asked myself, “What now?” In the introduction to this month’s Soul Matters small group packet, and I read this: “When encountering thresholds, we often talk as if our work is that of successfully “passing through” them. We speak of ‘making healthy transitions.’ We seek out advice and support as we decide which thresholds to lean into and which to resist. The goal, it would seem, is figuring out how to travel forward in the right way.
But what if the true invitation of a threshold is not to successfully move from here to there, but instead to just sit and pause? What if we saw thresholds as resting places rather than as those moving walkways that transport us through airports? What if thresholds help us “become” by asking us to just “be” for a while? No moving. Just noticing and naming. Less traveling and more listening.… the Rev. Sara LaWall, gets at this when she writes, ‘a [threshold is] a space to imagine a new way, and new self. Not moving or pushing but sitting and cultivating… [the goal] is to allow you[self] space and time to reflect on your past, present, and future. To imagine a new beginning…”
Could this quarantine time be a time to imagine a new beginning? Could now be a resting space to help me “become”, to carefully evaluate what is within me so I can discover a new belief, or ideas, or a new direction that is most authentic to me now and as I begin to consider my post quarantine future? Or instead, is now presenting me with an opportunity to discover heretofore unknown parts of the essential me? Not ideas, beliefs, or direction, but instead, some elusive quality that is most basic to who I am? That inner light that illuminates decisions I make and actions I take? What new thing is being born in me? What foundation am I putting in to support myself? Who will I choose to be in a Coronavirus world? How will I choose to be?
You know, I was reading about Wongi people in Australia. They do walkabouts once a year to regain their balance, restore their sanity, to learn what they need to know. Often on these walkabouts they sit, perhaps under a tree, for long periods, not because they are lazy or tired, but because they are “taking time to listen to their body and to read what the plants, animals, wind, smells, and sound [are] telling them.” (Parabola, Winter 2011-2012, Diane Wolkstein) In other words they take time to measure their own internal and external temperature and that of the world. Perhaps now is the time during our own walkabout through life when we are called upon to sit, to listen, to regain balance, to learn or relearn what we need to know about ourselves. And from what we learn, to begin imagining what we want our lives to be and naming what that is. “And that imagining and naming may be more powerful than we usually assume. From the outside, it may seem that nothing has changed in our lives, and yet once that imaging takes shape in our minds and hearts, nothing is ever the same. The idea, the dream, the recognition suddenly takes on gravity. And that gravity creates an inevitability that transforms us…” (Soul Matters, May 2020) May the light from within transform your understanding of yourself and illuminate new and deeper truths as you pause on the threshold and imagine your new beginning.