What If Life Is Not a Problem to Be Solved?

 What might happen if you approach the day-to-day with a sense of unfolding what is to be? What might open if less energy is spent determining the cause and effect of each unknown? At this service Rev. Sue Browning will explore lessons we may learn from the trusting nature of the mystics amongst us. The choir will sing.



Text of Sermon

Reading: Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman

What If Life Is Not a Problem to Be Solved?

In the coverage of President George W. Bush’s death, last weekend the NY Times included this observation. “He [Bush] underscored the theme of duty in accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency in 1988 in New Orleans. “I am a man who, sees life in terms of missions – missions defined, and missions completed.” He told Republican delegates in the Louisiana Superdome, acknowledging a swell of applause he would “keep America moving forward” and strive “for a better America.””

President Bush was an accomplished leader entering the presidential race. He had been taught such goal setting and achievement was both productive and was a path of virtue and this message resonated. He carried forward the sense of manifest destiny where settlers (that is white settlers), were to define a path to conquer North America. Plot a course and achieve.

It is a pervasive American and Western model. Business models of the 1950s, 60s and 70s lauded goals be set and met by collecting more and more data, charts and graphs to narrow options and hone in on a right or best answer. Possibly one would identify some unexpected possibilities in the determined drive toward the goal  – maybe technology uncovered in the quest to land on the moon, or even Tang – but make no doubt, the mission clear: Be the first to land a man on the moon.

At the personal level, I’ve helped my kids with charts comparing colleges, and my husband and I do pros and cons lists for everything from options to repair a roof to choices on cars and travel.

Yet think of the “Learn’d Astronomer” Gerry read about earlier. In Walt Whitman’s poem the teacher is lecturing and loses it. He has an urge to bolt from the room. To move from data about stars to be in the presence of stars. My take is he was not looking to take the students outside as a lab for his lecture, or to learn more, but he wanted just to be in the night with the stars. PERIOD.

To be one with the universe, in this case literally. To have a sense of self laid aside and just meld with the whole. To suspend achievement and problem solving. Maybe he wanted to take time to ‘just be’ for spiritual renewal – night air and a jump back into the mission of teaching.

What if being fully awake to the mystery and sense on ‘oneness’ with the greater whole is the point? What if to ‘just be’ is not only enough, but is ‘it’? What if the path to greater good is in learning just to be? PERIOD.

In Buddhism reaching Nirvana is highest state with the goal to be awake. To awaken, one let’s go of attachment to body, senses, and relationships. To be at one with one’s Buddha nature is to be open, and inquisitive, and of good humor. Meditation is the path to one’s ‘Buddha nature.’ It is not a process of escape, but of honoring where one is. Yes, an oversimplified view, and many here know more, but it captures an alternative to mission and forward progress measured by achievement.

We may think of this process of deep centering, and of putting ego aside as mysticism, or a mystical framing of the world. This may sound Buddhist, Taoist, or like the Sufis of Islam. It is Unitarian Universalist as well.

We have our seven UU principles – each congregation’s call to affirm and promote inherent worth and dignity, to act with compassion, etc. Underlying our faith are The Six Sources – we talked about last year –  and which are listed at the front of our hymnal. The first source of Unitarian Universalism is: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

The mystical traditions don’t dwell on the “is there a God or not?” debate, with the debate often followed by definitions of such a God – biblically based, metaphorically understood, incarnate in leadership of Jesus, or prophets. The mystical traditions go to a more basic level of yearning, which was present among humans before traditions, and the institutions of religion. Mystics search for connections which nurture the soul. They might ask, Can you sense your ties to something beyond or deep within? Can you feel the universe? Can you sense your breath? A mystical sensibility acts as a counterforce to measurements of personal accomplishment and achievement.

An example of Native based mysticism. The words of Chief Leon Sheandoah

Everything is laid out for you

Your path is straight ahead of you

Sometimes it is invisible but it’s there.

You may not know where it’s going,

But you have to follow that path.

It’s the path to the Creator.

It’s the only path there is.

Taoism from China looks to balance the masculine yang and the feminine yin. In resting in the balance there is depth that comes from being a free being who is free from accumulating possessions or power. (Harvey, Andres, The Essential Mystics, 1997, 17-18)

For the Hindu mystic, every human being is one with Brahman in his or her divine soul. The aim is to know one’s soul, or Atman, consciously and to live the calm, fearless, and selflessly loving live that arises from this knowledge. The how to practice this attainment- this full presence is in part answered through practice of varying forms of yoga. (Harvey 35)

Christian mystics reach for the direct transformative presence of God.

A well-known Christian mystic was St. Francis of Assissi. (Washington Post, March 20, 2013, Illa Dello, Francis of Assissi, nature’s mystic) wrote,

Francis has been described as a nature mystic, one who finds God in the vast and beautiful fields of nature. Everything spoke to Francis of the infinite love of God. Trees, worms, lonely flowers by the side of the road—all were saints gazing up into the face of God. In this way, creation became the place to find God and, in finding God, he realized his intimate relationship to all of creation.

He did not consider himself at the top of a hierarchy of being nor did he declare himself superior to the non-human creation. Rather, Francis saw himself as part of creation. His spirituality overturned the spirituality of hierarchical ascent and replaced it with a spirituality of descending solidarity between humanity and creation. …

As he continued to move more deeply into the mystery of God through his relationship with Christ, he came to realize his familial relationship to creation. He came to live in peaceful relationships with all creatures. To live in the justice of love is to live in peace. For Francis, justice and peace are related to poverty, compassion, contemplation and on-going conversion by which we realize our familial bonds with all living creatures, joining with them on the journey into God.”

Of the ‘how’ in Christian mysticism you hear of contemplative practices and may think of looking at life in the “presence of God” or the spirit or life force. Maybe in silence one prepares for the soul’s direct reception of the divine gift, or poet Kathleen Norris challenges us to be the one “who can find God in a world filled with noise, the demands of other people, and making a living.” (Ford, Leighton, The Alternative Life, 83)

Being open to direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder – named however works for you – may provide experiences which offer you a sense of inner wholeness – a sense of deep connection. It may feel like permission to just stop; to open fully.

It is stressful to define problems, and solve them, and define and solve them over and over again, especially when many problems in fact aren’t solvable by variables we control. Problem solving is not bad. We choose to wear seat belts and airbags are good. We are grateful for antibiotics and x-rays and the engineers, and scientists who creatively define and solve problems. In our analyzing we hopefully learn to avoid or otherwise address toxic relationships, to improve our parenting and make good consumer choices.

But figuring it all out is not possible and trying can be wasted energy, even unhealthy.

In the Bible we have the story of poor Job who plays by all the rules, and yet his life is plagued by misfortune. He’s a ‘cause and effect’ kind of guy and he attempts to figure it out with God. What would make Job feel safer, and find fairness? As Job is invited to learn, the lesson is there are many whys that we will never figure out. Acceptance that some ‘whys’ may prove elusive challenges us to broaden our spiritual tool kit.

Rather than continually define and solve, might we center, lay aside ego and be open to a connection to a greater whole? Might answers flow in these moments to challenges not even quite defined? Less solving, more receiving?

Understanding the power of transcending mystery and wonder also sharpens our sense of other’s approaches to life. What assumptions are baked into a ‘define it/fix it’ view? How do we view others who look at life and trust in more of an unfolding, and who make their decisions as paths open? This is not necessarily a ‘fate-controlled’ outlook where all is predetermined, but a trust that a mindful, open, inquisitive awareness will lead to the next right place, or decision.

I know I have judged others who aren’t enamored by logical, drill down approaches. There is comfort in structure that fixes and improves. And with age and experience I sense the complementary wisdom in intentional ways of centering around awareness, and continuity, and rhythms. Valuing intuition.

Author James Carse considers our propensity to reduce life to problems and solutions. In his book ‘Finite and Infinite Games’ (2011) he describes, “There are at least two kinds of games.  One could be called finite, the other infinite.  A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Carse finds finite games have beginnings and endings and rules are clear. He says, “Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play and a purpose of bringing more players into the game.  An infinite game continues play for sake of the play.  If the game is at risk of ending, then the rules must be changed to allow continued play…finite players strive to eliminate surprise, with master players anticipating the whole game. Infinite players on the other hand play in hope of being surprised.”

Mystical traditions are about such surprise, such hope. There is often fresh meaning in being fully present to an unfolding path.

Maybe that is why the first UU source notes remind us to look up, and around us, and to look inward. To reflect; to contemplate. To play in the hope of being surprised.

As we approach the shortest day, we wait. Cultures offer holidays around the solstice with this sense of being still; being ready. Often in the dark and cold, we ready to receive. We wait for turning. There is a promise to the waiting, and there is value in the preparing. In this waiting – the season of Advent of the Christian calendar, and the period of Hannukah may we be graced by our deep connections to stars, to the grandeur of night, to the kindness of the other, and our sense of connection to those who have come before, and those yet to be in the infinite game of life.

May we be open to the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

May It Be So

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