Saturday, October 31, 2020

Listening Post Election by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 10/25/2020

    

    There is a story told of a rabbi in ancient times who gathered his students together very early one morning, while it was still dark. He put this question to them: "How can you tell when night has ended and the day has begun?"

     One student made a suggestion: "Could it be when you can see an animal and you can tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?"

     "No, that's not it," answered the rabbi.

     Another student said: "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and you can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?"

     Again the rabbi answered: "No."

     After a few more guesses the students said: "Well, how do you tell when night has ended?"

     The rabbi answered: "It is when you look on the face of any person and you see them as your brother or sister. If you cannot do this, then, no matter what time it is, it is still night."

          This is a difficult teaching for me right now.  I have heard so many lies, conspiracy theories, and hate speech over the past four years in our country and most especially during this election cycle.  Maybe the same thing has happened in past election cycles, but it just seems to be impacting me so much more right now. And I find it increasing difficult to look upon the faces of some people and see them as my relative, sibling, even possible friend.  I am not even sure I want to be their acquaintance.  I know I am supposed love thy enemy as thy self and if anyone slaps me on the cheek, I'm supposed to offer them my other cheek so they can smack me again.  I know I am supposed to listen to all sides in a disagreement to effectively resolve a conflict.  I aspire to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  But I am really struggling with some people right now.  And I am wondering how I will listen to some people after this election cycle is done, when I am already sick to death of their voices.  How am I going to do that?  How are you?  Or, are you?

          On the night after the 2016 election, I remember opening my church to anyone who wanted to come.  I began our shared time with a chalice lighting and an explanation of how I would hold the space for everyone to share their thoughts and feelings.  I could not believe what I heard from some people.  They spoke of never being able to talk again to lifelong friends.  They spoke of fractured families.  They spoke of bankrupted respect for certain politicians.  Well perhaps that last one about politicians not being respected was not really a surprise.  

          In 2016 this became more personal for me as a couple members in my extended family were espousing certain ideas and political affiliations that I couldn't understand.  Even my best friend's mother, whom I have known since I was in Junior High, was in tears over her eldest son who had become aggressive toward the rest of her family because they wouldn't believe in his new-found conspiracy theories.  Now, here we are 4 years later.  I wonder if some of you can relate.

          I know this country needs to find a way to heal and come back together, not that we have to agree with one another politically, but we need to find a way to listen to one another again.  But how do we listen to people who are accusing democrats and movie stars of being pedofiles, holding rallies saying "save the children" when they are doing nothing to actually save children, and proclaiming that pizza joints are places where pedofiles gather.  One Qanon follower declared that pizza is a code word for pornography, cheese pizza means child pornography. 

          Perhaps things will settle down once the election is over, but I still wonder how all this rancor, conspiracy theories, and bald-faced lying has affected how I listen to others.  I ask myself will I be able to listen to those who have ideas seem so destructive and damaging to certain people and to our country?  I don't know if I can.  And yet I know healing for our country will come from listening to those who I disagree with. 

          A teacher in the Insight Meditation community, Christina Feldman, in her article "Doing, Being, and the Great In-Between” wrote: "The Buddha pointed out that the seeds of liberative understanding and clarity, of kindness and compassion, lie within each of us. And the path to their fruition lies in our commitment…. I would suggest that it is the beautiful and the good that we aspire to and value above all else. In the midst of the beautiful and the good, we feel most alive, most awake, and most present. The Buddha’s teachings are about cultivating the beautiful and the good, the seeds of possibility that live in every human heart: generosity, kindness, and compassion. These qualities ennoble our hearts and leave no residue of regret in our minds." 

          So many of the world's religions hold the concept that the seeds of generosity, kindness, and compassion lie in every human heart waiting to be nurtured and cultivated.  It is essentially what I heard growing up Catholic.  And I think the same concept is at the foundation of our seven Principles, the idea that people can change, that the world can change, and there can be a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, that there can be justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

          I have always believed that listening to one another, deeply listening to one other, and for that matter listening to what is within ourselves, is the main way that we can achieve the over-arching goals of peace, justice, equity, compassion, interdependence that we Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote. 

          Maybe I am a little idealistic about listening to one another.  Time, as it so often does, taught me that listening can makes a difference.  I have had some successes with Republican legislatures, with evangelicals, with conservative union workers.  We found common ground on things so we could work together on issues.  Issues like getting mentoring for disadvantaged children of color, helping a city rise up from a devastating 500-year flood, and working on marital equality.  I've had enough positive outcomes that I'm not quite yet ready to put my idealism aside. 

          And maybe some of you here at UU Miami are also not yet quite ready to cast off your idealism.  Think of the work you've done personally and as a faith community.  Members of UU Miami with various religious and secular groups closed down the Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children.  And think of the work UU Miami forebears have done.  On January 2nd 1950 UU Miami members set up Miami's first integrated nursery school.  To quote Rey Baumel, "In our pulpits we have had Rabbis, priests, ministers, swamis, Hebrews, Blacks, African Americans, Native Americans, Black Panthers, Grey Panthers, gay men.  Their voices could be heard here…and former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy spoke here [in the late 1960's]."  Historically, even when there was pushback, like a cross being burned on the lawn of the church, members of UU Miami listened voices of many people and worked with them to achieve significant social justice reform.  It makes sense that you would have some of the same idealism that I have about what can be achieved when we listen to ourselves, each other, and the voices of those who thoughts and ideas are different than our own.   

          And so today, I wonder, as James Thornton does in his article “Radical Confidence”: "How does one come to a confident and positive view that is not naive, given the state of the world? By walking through one’s own anger and despair and emerging into serenity."  I don't want to be a na├»ve idealist. I want to be an informed idealist.  I want to face my own feelings of anger and despair, and not get stuck in them, but use them as a springboard toward hope.  Toward making a positive difference, even with the divisiveness in this country.  There are voices I don't think I can listen to right now—voices that try to convince me of conspiracy theories and whose voices that are flat-out lying.  But there are so many other voices I can listen to with empathy and compassion.

          Recently I took a class called the Compassionate Warrior Bootcamp for White Allies, the Unitarian Universalist version with Dr. David Campt and Unitarian Universalist religious educator Allison Mahaley.  They have an idealistic vision of teaching white allies to speak to other white people about racism.  In so doing they hope to change the minds and hearts of 10% of white people about the issue of racism in this country.  Not 100. 10.  They taught me a way of talking to others who have different ideas than mine.  They called it the RACE Method.  RACE is an acronym for Reflect, Ask, Connect, Expand.  This method encourages the use of curiosity, compassion, and empathy in discussions about difficult issues.  Reflect has to do with considering your own feelings and issues before having a conversation, in other words preparing yourself for a difficult conversation.  Ask has to do with actually reaching out and being willing to ask the thoughts and feelings of another person, someone who you have some differences with.  Connect is sharing some of your own feelings and thoughts that are similar to the person you are talking to, not to affirm that you agree with all of their thinking, but to express empathy for what they are thinking and feeling.  And then you can Expand the conversation to go deeper into issues and feelings with that person.  This Expand step might occur over many conversations.  The ground work of showing that you will listen to their thoughts and feelings and not reject them, out of hand, builds the trust for future conversations.  If you are interested in more in-depth learning about this method, let's talk.

          I shared a brief overview of this method with you because I believe, as UU idealists, we are being called to reach out to people in our country to begin a dialogue to heal the rift that exists in the fabric of our nation.  I know this is might be a lofty goal, but haven't we, at one time or another, tried to achieve something that felt enormous or even impossible? I think there are people out there who are ready to listen and hear; people perhaps we would not ordinarily talk to.  After this election has passed, I am committed to initiating these conversations with people on the other side of the political and religious spectrum from me.  I haven't lost my belief that we all human beings have some common feelings, values, and desires for positive change.  I believe in the power of conversations to make real change happen.  That's why I, along with Terry Lowman and other Unitarian Universalists, talked to Marco Rubio's staff on Wednesday about environmental justice.  In that conversation we all came to some common ground, and identified some things Rubio's staff member felt that Rubio is willing to work on. 

          I have, as many of you have probably have, concerns about the healing of our country.  But I still hold hope, idealistic, irrational, or otherwise.  And I invite you to search within yourselves for hope as well, because deep down in you, it's still there, and because there is work to be done.  We do not have to listen to everyone, but we do have to listen to more than one or two who have different ideas than we do if healing is going to happen.  Hellen Keller may or may not have said the following, but they're still powerful words that are strengthening me as I face this post election time, and perhaps you might find them empowering, too.

"I am only one,

But still I am one.

I cannot do everything,

But still I can do something;

And because I cannot do everything,

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."

Friday, October 23, 2020

Contemplative Listening by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 10/18/2020

Meditation #1

            The following meditation for grounding was created for the practice of Generative Somatics (https://generativesomatics.org/).  The words were written by Susan Raffo who works with the Peoples Movement Center.

            First, come into standing position as you are able. If not sit up in your chair.  Notice where you are in a room and feel how your weight and stance are naturally on the ground.

            Now, notice your vertical. Feel the space between your feet and your knees and invite it to lengthen both towards the sky and towards the ground. Feel the space between your knees and your pelvis, invite it to lengthen, for there to be more space that comes here, both up and down. Do the same with the space between your pelvis and your diaphragm, invite it to length. Between your diaphragm and shoulders, along your neck, between your chin and the top of your head, down the length of your arms. Invite a lengthening in both directions. And then feel the entirety of your body and invite a lengthening between your feet and your head, towards the earth and towards the sky.

            This is your dignity, the place where you say “I am.” This is your vertical.

            Now, bring in your width. Start at your feet and feel each foot widening in [all] directions. Move into your leg and feel each leg widening, the inner leg moving further in, the outer leg moving out. Invite it to widen further. Come to your pelvis and feel the space between the two sides of your pelvis. Invite that space to expand, to widen out, left and right. Come into your belly, the sides of your torso, your ribcage, feel your sides and invite them to widen, the space inside to expand. Come to your shoulder blades and invite each shoulder to expand left to right. Continue up your body not forgetting your neck or your head, your arms and your hands. Now feel the entirety of your body and invite a widening between your left and right, an expansion from the center line that runs through your body out to the sides. A widening.

            This is your horizontal, the place of connection, where the “I” connects to other people, plants, all of our relatives. This is the “we”. This is your horizontal.

            Now bring in your depth. Feel your back, pay attention to your clothes against your skin, the feeling of space against your back, remember the back of your head, the back of your neck, the back of your legs your feet your arms, this whole back space and feel the space behind you. Now feel the front of your body and remember your face and forehead, the front of your shins, your feet, you belly and hands and feel the space in front of you. Feel yourself in the middle of this back and this front and connect the two and now expand, letting your front body expand forward and your back body expand back while you feel yourself in the middle. A widening.

            This is your depth, the place where you live in relationship to what has already happened and what is yet to emerge. This is where I and we live within space and time. This is your depth.

            Now bring all of these planes together, feeling them one after the other, vertical, horizontal, depth, feel yourself as 3D.

            Bring your gaze to an object in the room that is attractive or interesting to you. If not an object, an idea, a person, a dream, a thought, something you can sense as separate and outside of yourself. Feel your 3D self and then feel inside for your desire to move towards that item or thought or dream. Sense in for your connection to that thing and then, when you feel the connect of yourself to that idea or thing, let the desire move you towards it. Move until you feel you have arrived and then notice you have arrived. Practice this a few more times with different objects or dreams or other elements of desire. Wait until you feel the want or the longing or the connection to them and then move and then reach them.

            After you have practiced this for a few times and if you haven’t done this already, ground yourself again into the planes but connect them to your purpose. Why are you here? What is it that moves you? Feel your sense of purpose and connect it to those planes and then, when you are ready, let the purpose take your body and move you towards it. 

 

Meditation #2

Written by Martha K. Capo

            For a moment, see yourself at the foaming edge of land and liquid, watching the rhythms of the waves, watching the water transmit the energy of the winds traveling over it, watching that energy crest across the barrier of the sand and pebbles. Some pebbles, larger than others, only shift gently in place as the water sluices around them. Others, smaller, more agile, seem to chase the backwash as the water ebbs away, only to be returned--more or less--to where they began.

            Sometimes, we are boulders at the water's edge, absorbing the water's energy in stoic strength, standing solid and unmovable, defiant and unyielding as the water churns around us. (PAUSE) Sometimes, we are rocks: stubborn, slow to be moved, sluggish in our response to the tides pushing and pulling us. (PAUSE) Sometimes, we are pebbles tumbling helter-skelter, higglety-pigglety-pop, overwhelmed and unable to resist the breaking waves and sucking backwashes that we just can't seem to get away from. (PAUSE) And sometimes, we are sand, with an infinite capacity to accept and absorb and transmit the energies breaking against us, able to allow those energies to pass through us, through the pockets of silence, of space, of peace within us.

            Marine Biologist Rachel Carson wrote "[i]n every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth." In every breath, in every curving muscle and ligament, in every pulse and rhythm you experience, there is a story of you. Of who you were, of who you are now, of who you will choose to be. Of how you choose to be connected to All That Is. A story that is still being written--by you.

            What are you today? The boulder? The rock? The pebble? The sand? All of these? What is the energy that is swirling around you? How is that changing you? How is that energy changed by your interaction with it? How will you choose to write your own story?

 

Sermon

            One of my favorite Buddhist authors is Brad Warner.  I have a couple of his books:  Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye and Hardcore Zen : Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality.  I plan to get some of his more recent books, I have my eye on Don't Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master.  Just a little background on Brad, he started out life as a Punk Rock bass guitarist, then decided to go to Japan and needed work.  He was hired to get dressed up in those monster get-ups for Ultraman shows and movies.  While in Japan he studied Zen Buddhism and became an ordained Zen priest.  I actually met him in Cedar Rapids when he was there promoting Sit Down and Shut Up.  His philosophy is that we can all make time in our lives to sit down for a few minutes and be quiet, breathing and allowing our thoughts and feelings to flow through us in Zazen meditation and being open for emotional and spiritual grounding, insight, purpose, direction, and/or connection in the here and now.  The foundation of Buddhism according to Brad is: “Do as well as you possibly can. That's Buddhist morality.”  He does affirm the four Noble Truths of Buddhism, but has sort of a different way, perhaps a more modern way of presenting them: “The first noble truth, suffering, represents idealism. When you look at things from an idealistic viewpoint everything sucks, as the Descendents said in the song called “Everything Sucks” (from the album Everything Sucks). Nothing can possibly live up to the ideals and fantasies you’ve created. So we suffer because things are not the way we think they ought to be. Rather than face what really is, we prefer to retreat and compare what we’re living through with the way we think it oughta be. Suffering comes from the comparison between the two.” And he describes Zen monks as having achieved " a rare state of inner with-it-ness.”

            Now when it comes to meditation, prayer, ritual and all those kinds of things, he believes everyone is capable of getting some benefit from them, but “The very idea of higher states of consciousness is absurd. Comparing one state of consciousness to another and saying one is "higher" and the other is "mundane" is like eating a banana and complaining it's not a very good apple.” He goes on to say that “Practicing zazen [or really any form or meditation] is like gradually (or maybe not so gradually) getting your sight back.”  I hope that helps you with some of your expectations about meditation and prayer; we are not seeking an altered state of consciousness when we meditate or prayer.  We are opening ourselves to the contemplative practice of deep listening.

            To contemplate is to think about an action before doing it.  A contemplative practice is opening oneself to an inner vision or seeing transcendent of the intellect, facilitated by practices such as prayer or meditation.  There are so many contemplative practices and such disparate experiences from those practices, describing it can be like blind men trying to describe an elephant—one who feels the leg says the elephant is like a pillar; one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan.  With contemplative practices you might here one person describing the effects as relaxation; another might say a contemplative practice resulted in their transformation; one might say a contemplative practice helped them learn more about themself; and another might say a contemplative practice connects them with their Goddess.

            When someone ask me what a contemplative practice can offer, I often tell the story of the martial arts student who approached his teacher with a question. "I'd like to improve my knowledge of the martial arts. In addition to learning from you, I'd like to study with another teacher in order to learn another style. What

do you think of this idea?" "The hunter who chases two rabbits," answered the master, "catches neither one.”  When we are focused on the goal or the benefits of meditation or prayer, we stop looking as deeply or clearly within ourselves.  Part of our conscious attention is devoted to the moment where it will all come together for us. Our desire and attachment to a particular outcome clouds the way, and keeps us from actually receiving the gifts, blessings, grace that we might receive from our contemplative practice.  

            I both pray and meditate.  I pray because I believe there is something out there beyond just the physical things around me.  Not that I pray with the intent to connect with whatever is out there, but just because I believe there is something out there.  And I pray because I believe that prayer helps me to affirm within me the values that I try to live by in this life.  And I don't prayer to make me live my values, I just feel that giving voice to those values makes it more likely that I will remember them as I live my life.

            I use a formulaic prayer that I developed—first I call out to that Infinite Power, whom people call by varying names, but whose grandeur and whose love no name expresses and no words can tell.  I don’t have a name for it; so I use many different names, depending on how I am feeling at the time—mystery, God, Goddess, father, mother, that which is beyond understanding, love, that which causes the flowers to shine and the stars to blossom, the list goes on. 

            Then I voice what I am grateful for in my life.  I list such things as the cool breeze on my face, the warmth of the sun, the ability to exercise to be healthy, my family and friends…sometimes something like—“I am grateful for being able to write this sermon." I give voice to these.  And I have noticed that voicing my thanks has resulted in an increased awareness of the many blessings, gifts, and grace that I experience in my life. 

            The next section of my prayer is for understanding of all that I am experiencing in my life.  I do not believe that things are put in my life by some greater power to help me learn or grow or be humble or whatever.  I do believe that I am called by my very existence to make meaning in life’s experiences.  Like what meaning or learning or wisdom will I gain as I move through this Covid 19 time.  This section of the prayer is to remind me to open my heart, mind, and soul to life. 

              Finally, I send out my hope and blessings for others.  Sometimes it sounds like this: “May the winds, the oceans, the herbs, and night and days, the mother earth, the father heaven, all vegetation, the sun, be all sweet to humankind.” And sometimes I send blessings and grace to healing for those who are ill or in pain.  I do believe that intentionally sending out my blessings out to others makes a difference.  I have read about studies showing that sending out positive regard positively affects people around you, but even without those studies I believe I would still send out blessings and hope because our world is so much in need of them.

            I also meditate.  When I meditate, I find my mind becomes clear and sometimes I experience insight or a different perspective on what is going on around me.   Not because I am looking for either of these things, but because I am open.

            I use Zazen meditation.  Basically what this is focusing on one's breathing.  I sit up straight, let me eyes rest, put my feet on the ground, and attend to all the sensations of my breathing.  Often, my breathing is from my abdomen, slow and steady.  That is it.  I sit there and breath mindfully.  I don’t expect anything, but I am grateful for what I receive.  My meditation helps me be mindful and live in the moment, and not just while I am meditating.  Through regular meditation, I have come to learn what many teachers of meditation have always said—that meditation needs to be looked upon “as a teacher rather than a servant,” “a process rather than a goal.” So I just breathe without expectations, without goals; I just practice bringing my focus to my breathing.  

            There are some elements that are consistent from one technique to another in meditation:  be relaxed, be comfortable, have a passive attitude, and focus on a “concentration point.”  A focus point or concentration point might be a candle, a picture, music, a mandala, drumming, chanting, sitting or walking.  Like we did in the last part of the first scripted meditation today, bringing your attention to an object across the room.  Or "if not an object, an idea, a person, a dream, a thought, something you can sense as separate and outside of yourself."  Like the visualization in the meditation by Martha that you heard today.  During this focus you might ask contemplate questions:  "What are you today? The boulder? The rock? The pebble? The sand? All of these? What is the energy that is swirling around you? How is that changing you? How is that energy changed by your interaction with it? How will you choose to write your own story?"  

            I haven’t talked a lot about passive attitude, other than to say don’t have expectations or goals.  Jack Kornfield, teacher in the vipassana movement in American Theravada Buddhism, offers this bit of wisdom (1993, Tricyle) about having a passive attitude during a contemplative practice.  He says as we practice "we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things: sorrows, loneliness, shame, desire, regret, frustration, happiness."  I would frame this as creating a space for that which is stirring within us, a space that might offer us an opportunity for relaxation, awareness, insight, and/or wisdom to arise and for us to become aware of it.  Or as Kornfield's teacher, Achaan Chah describes this you are "taking the one seat." Achaan said, "Just go into the room [within oneself] and put one chair in the center, [then] open the doors and the windows [of the room], [and] take [that] seat in the center of the room… see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come.'”

            But here's the thing, taking that one seat and simply observing one time, doesn't usually result in much.  Perhaps you get some relaxation of your body or mind that first time, but maybe not.  Let's just say that you are more likely to experience something more if you practice, practice, practice one type of meditation without expectation of what you might receive.  Not a very Western way of doing things, is it?  As with any practice, this is a process, not seeking perfection or a result.  After picking one practice, be patient and open as you stick with it. 

             I hope you do make some time for prayer and or meditation in your life.  I believe that in one way or another we all have some sort of contemplative practice, but I believe be intentional, consistent, and open during your practice offers many benefits for the practitioner, especially during difficult times like we are experiencing in our lives and in the world right now.  Keep in mind what Tibetan yogi Milarepa writes: “The affairs of the world will go on forever.  Do not delay the practice of meditation [and, I would add, prayer].”  There are always distractions, many things going on in the world—prayer and meditation are practices that can help you discern your path as the world moves on around you. 

            This life we have each been given is a journey of the holy, if we just recognize the holy in our experiences.   This life offers experiences of transformation, experiences that no words can express, that are just as real as the ground beneath our feet.  At one time in our lives our spiritual path may be a journey of the heart, for what the heart expresses, we call prayer.  At another point in our lives our spiritual path may be a journey of being, for what our inner being knows, we call meditation. This is your journey, your life practice.  Own it, and know yourself to be fully alive.  Namaste, Shalom, Peace.