Becoming Better or Becoming Ourselves?

What does it mean to live with intention? Is living an intentional life the same as living a goal driven life? At this service led by Rev. Sue Browning we’ll begin the new year considering how we might make room for our lives to unfold with intent and grace in 2022. This will be a virtual service (Zoom only) that we’ll share with UUCR.

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“Becoming Better or Becoming Ourselves?” 

(Text of Sermon from January 2, 2022, Rev. Sue Browning)

Where has your energy been focused of late? Maybe energy has been on the pull of day-to-day necessities – doctor’s appointments, car and home repairs, groceries, cooking. Maybe planning ‘stuff,’ or planning to plan? Or to larger matters needing your attention? Or to projects and family?

Where has your heart been pulled of late? Maybe to places of pain or struggle.  Maybe to times of joy and delight. Or toward amazement. Or worry.

As we start the year, what feels important to you? What feels overarchingly important to you right now?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian, back in the 1800s wrote, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

Emerson reminds us that what is churning inside of us – what is swirling all around for us – all of that swirl guides us, whether we want it to or not.

And such a swirl it is. Many forces pulling in many directions, many lists circling…much on our hearts and minds.

I invite you to take this swirl – all of it, whatever it is – and gently lay it down, at least for a bit. Maybe placing your swirl in a few piles off in the corner, at least for a bit. We’re clearing a workspace, just as we might do before baking or wrapping gifts.

Imagine the open canvas of this new year. Let’s pause before we start filling in the canvas.

One option is to fill our days living into what we think we should do. We ponder how to use time more wisely; to set clear priorities.

We aim toward the benchmarks of being a good person, an accomplished person…a better person.

Likely some of these benchmarks are grounded in values set early in our life – to be kind, generous, and dutiful. To be resourceful. To be careful.

Mixed in our benchmarks are standards set by ‘the world.’ Definitions of what a full, satisfying life looks like come from images in catalogs, social media and TV. We’re pounded with ideas of how we should look, what our home should have, and what we should read and watch.

Maybe we set goals – # of times exercised this week, books read, debt paid off, files cleaned and organized.  Maybe the goals are more subtle – internal commitments on attitude – striving for patience, or generosity.

Implicit in all the goal setting: We want to ‘be better’ at this time next year than we are today. We want to contribute to a better world. And if you are a goal setter, you are likely doing ‘good’ and heading in productive directions. We try. We slip some.

Maybe goals and priorities set in this way are a fit for you as you fill your canvas.

We do so with awareness that living into aspirations of ‘What should be’ – especially if it’s what others have determined ‘what should be’ – is tiring. We may judge our progress by the gaps. Often our goals in the name of improvement are comparative. We wonder how others get it all done. We wonder why we made the commitments we did.

Recently I watched a TED Talk by Mallika Chopra, the author of ‘Living with Intent.’

She is the daughter of Deepak Chopra, spiritual writer and philosopher. In the TED talk she talks of being a wife, a mom of two young children, and having a busy entrepreneurial career as an author and speaker.

In this talk she tells of the time she was to interview the famous Eckhert Tolle, a contemporary of her fathers – a big name. She’s told clearly by the advance staff that the interview will be 15 minutes only. She flies to the location and is in the office on time.

The interview starts. She shares some background on her writing project. And then some bells start to ring in the distant background. Tolle’s response: “Let’s listen to the bells.” And there they sat. Tolle is the author of ‘The Power of Now’ and he truly goes with the moment. Mallika was initially devastated. Her 15 minutes was disappearing. And then she too just listened.

She shares that in that moment, “Something shifted.”

(Source: TED Talk: https://www.tedxsandiego.com/living-with-intent-mallika-chopra-at-tedxsandiego-2015/)

Before we fill our canvas, are we aware of our ‘something shifted’ moments?

We enter 2022 having had more than one ‘something shifted’ moment.  Pandemics do that.

Something shifted almost two years ago at lockdown.  Events we counted on – gatherings, rituals, travel – canceled or adapted. Friends and family died from Covid – we lit candles. We vowed to keep the good parts going forward – the quieter evenings, the cooking at home. We lived in fear.

Something shifted as vaccines rolled out. Remember starting 2021 desperately trying to get a vaccine appointment? My son found me one 60 miles away – I drove the that Giant in southern Maryland for both doses. An appointment in early February was gold. UUFE returned to the sanctuary in July. And for a bit of this summer, the familiar came back.

Something shifted, again with Delta in August, and with Omicron these last weeks. Our patience tested again. We’re tired of “making the best of it”… of plans cancelled, and of anticipating more challenges.

As we look at the canvas, how does our ongoing experience with Covid factor in this year?

The full title of Mallika Chopra’s book ended up being, “Living with Intent, My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy.” Written in 2015, it is not a pandemic influenced writing. Yet, it does capture her move from being out of balance, in a time of disruption, to her new perspectives on living intentionally.

What might we do with our blank-ish canvas in this time of disruption? As we pick up the piles from the swirl that we left at the door, and we realistically need to pick up at least parts of the piles, what might living with intent look like as we start our 22nd  month of a pandemic in the year 2022?

What if we’re not all about intentionally changing and fixing ourselves, or changing and fixing the world? What is we’re more about an intentional appreciation of who we are right now; our skills – our places of natural contribution?

What if we try and spend as little time as possible as a ’round peg in square hole’?

What if the coming year was about intentionally finding a gentler path?

When Mallika Chopra realized that while she was teaching meditation classes, her own head was swirling with lists and goals, she decided to return to some foundational questions recommended by her father: Who am I? What do I want?  How can I serve?

‘Who am I?’ Maybe it’s, “Who am I today?”

It’s not asked as a baseline to start fixing and improving, but as a point of noticing and of gratitude. A simple naming. For me, ‘I am Rev. Sue Browning, a UU minister serving two loving congregations on the Eastern shore of Maryland during a pandemic. I am married, a mom of kids aged 28-33. I’m a sibling who has a Medicare card I didn’t have last year. I love chocolate and playing cards.’

‘What do I want?’ is a raw question. What happens when answered honestly? And answered in this moment. Worthy of a pause to consider the answer deeply. Worthy of being specific. Where and with whom do you feel you can answer this question honestly? A good homework question for the week. ‘What do I want?’

And finally, ‘How can I serve?’ I hear less of a search for a functional role, but as an invitation to connection with others and the world.

Questions for all ages, in all stages. We are all always changing.

These are questions that reveal some basics, and they may not be easy to answer.

Writing almost 100 years ago, author Marion Milner in “A Life of One’s Own” noted,

“People said: ‘Oh, be yourself at all costs.’ But I had found that it was not so easy to know just what one’s self was. It was far easier to want what other people seemed to want and then imagine that the choice was one’s own… It was only when I was actively passive, and content to wait and watch, that I really knew what I wanted.”

There is a blank canvas of this moment, this start to 2022. Are we ready to start filling it in?

Or maybe we need to pause longer and just sit as the bells ring? To consider if a bit more needs to shift  and settle before we can wisely fill in the calendar; to pause before we move forward with urgency. Are we ok with letting the year unfold slowly?

Intentional living reminds us to be careful on where we focus. It’s an invitation to take heed to Emerson’s assessment “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” Worship here is understood as being what is most worthy. Of a place of centering in our lives that which is most worthy to us.

Setting a bar amazingly high may actually be just what your soul needs. Maybe it is a fit to pour your energy into what matters deeply to you, with a target or goal in mind. Maybe you are called to be courageous and to risk failure in these plans. To imagine the marathon, or mastery of a new language and go for it. Maybe that is what is coming from deep within you.

Or maybe it’s a year of no specific bar or bars at all. Maybe living with intent looks like leaning into routine and ritual each day. Of holding the blessings of a day well-lived. Of trusting the the next right step. Also a path of courage and intent. Maybe that is what is coming from deep within you.

The pause before we fill in the canvas is that ‘actively passive’ time that Milner describes. It is our chance to check: Is this our own bar we are setting; our own authentic direction? In the pause we are called to listen for where Love is calling us in this hour, in this day, in this week.

We are living in a challenging and confusing time. As we listen well to our hearts, may we creatively trust our paths as we live the coming year intentionally.

May It Be So

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