Sit without Striving
Rev. Penny Hackett-Evans
Birmingham Unitarian Church
There is a Zen story about an aspiring monk who went to an Abbott for an interview. He was very eager to study and become an accomplished monk. How long will it take me if I apply myself diligently and become your student? “10 years at least” replied the Abbott. “Ten years is a very long time – what if I study twice as hard as all the other monks?” “20 years” replied the Abbott. “What if I study night and day and apply great rigor to my studies?” “30 years” replies the Abbott. “How can it be that the harder I promise to work, the longer it will take me?” After a silence the Abbott replied, “It is not about striving, it is about surrender.”
Like other religious folks, we UUs are very good at striving. We are always trying to build a better world, a greener planet, a more peaceful nation. We are trying to ban fracking , to make a place for the outsider in our midst, to be a more welcoming church. Personally we want to be smarter, thinner, kinder, holier. We want to write a novel or get a promotion. We want our kids to be athletes, good sports, and to get all As. We want our spouse to pay attention to us, to spend more time with us, to take up our interests. We are good at striving. And, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Except that we tend to be pretty relentless about it. We can begin to believe that it is our responsibility to make everything go right, to make other people “better”, to meet some mythic goal of OKness for ourselves. It is a paradox. Of course, it is good to have goals and to strive for betterment. At the same time, there is an intensity that comes with striving that wears us out – that wears out the people we are around. For forty years I have tried to teach my husband that the toilet paper goes on the holder with the loose sheet coming over the top…
My guess is that most of us here don’t need to worry about becoming idle do-nothings – as much as we need to worry about becoming or already being tightly wound-up folks who hardly know how to relax. And take a breath. How to let a few things roll off our backs. Things like how the toilet paper is put on the holder!
If you want to see a beautiful or rare wild animal, you can’t go crashing through the forest, whooping and hollering. The way to see it, is to know its habitat and to go there as quietly as possible, sit down and wait. Don’t hope to see it. Your hoping won’t change things. Just sit without striving for anything.
Much of my life I’ve been a crasher and a whooper and hollerer about life “C’mon let’s go! Hurry up! Woohoo!” Four years ago I wandered into a group here at church called “Wellsprings”. There are several Wellsprings groups here at church and many of you have been or are in them now. One of the requirements of being in the group is that you must have a daily spiritual practice that you commit to and take seriously. That is not the way of whoopers and hollerers – but I decided I would commit to it. For many years I had dabbled in meditation. I owned and had read a long shelf full of books about how to meditate. I used to joke that if I had meditated as much as I read about it, I would be enlightened. But, being in the Wellsprings group forced me to actually DO it… to commit to it and to take it seriously every day.
The thing was that I had this idea that meditating would make me calm, accepting, peaceful, happy, holy and kind. I thought if I could just manage to sit still and watch my breath and still my thoughts, somehow this magic thing would occur – and I would be … different. Alas. … There has been no dramatic lightning bolt of insight or calmness or peaceful countenance that has descended on me. I am still who I am. I still get angry, I make rude comments, I am still in a hurry much of the time. What I may be is a tiny bit more aware of and accepting of those things about myself.
The true activity in any spiritual practice is the training of the self to recognize when we are being distracted by that which is not life-giving and the strengthening of our resolve to live in a way that is life-giving. That’s all.
There are many spiritual disciplines which all aim at this same goal. To recognize when we are being distracted by that which is not life-giving and then to strengthen our resolve to live in a way that is life-giving. You practice that by deciding to sit and give your full attention to most anything – to listening to a piece of music each morning. Or, you could decide that you are going to slowly and carefully read some spiritual text each morning. Or, you are going to spend x number of minutes each morning praying from your deepest self. Or, you might decide that you are going to write in a journal and your are going to write about what is in your heart each morning. Or, you are going to take up meditation and do it each morning for x number of minutes. There are dozens of ways to practice noticing your life. The common thread is that little phrase “each morning”. A spiritual discipline is just that – a discipline, a practice. You can’t only do it when you feel like it. You can’t do it as you’re trying to fall asleep at night. You can’t do it only when you have a crisis. Just as baseball players can’t just step up to the plate and hit home run after home run. They have to spend a lot of time in the batting cage first. A spiritual practice is a batting cage. A way of determining that you are serious about taking your life seriously.
The practice that I chose and that commonly is chosen by a lot of UUs is meditation. Meditation is not really about establishing inner stillness. It is about making THE DECISION to establish inner stillness and taking that decision seriously. The moments of stillness are a by-product. They are not the practice itself. You do not sit down with gritted teeth determined to be still. You sit down determined that you truly want to be still and you are willing to practice until you very gradually learn something about stillness. Once you find some stillness, the practice is merely to observe what is true. And in that observing, somehow things change.
So, let’s stop talking about it, and have the direct experience. Remember that this is not magic, it is not especially holy, it is merely trying to see what’s true in this moment of your life without striving for things to be different than they are. I will guide you through a short process of meditation (3 minutes) and I will tell you when the time is up.
So, begin by finding a position that you feel you can be comfortable holding without moving for 3 minutes. Place your feet on the floor and if you feel comfortable doing so, close your eyes. It isn’t necessary, but it generally helps eliminate distractions. And begin by just breathing and noticing your breathing. This happens all the time without needing your attention at all. It’s pretty miraculous, just that. Most of the time for most of us breathing is automatic. Today, we are going to be aware of our breathing. Not changing it, just sit and notice yourself sitting and breathing. Sit without striving. (silence). That was one minute and by now your mind has likely jumped into action. That’s OK. That is precisely why we’re doing this. When you notice that your mind has wandered away, simply come back to focus on your breath again.. Without chastising yourself, simply return to breathing gently again. Just sit without striving for anything. Remember you’re your intention is just to notice what’s happening… for another 2 minutes (silence). And now I invite you to gently, very gently and slowly open your eyes.
People often say that they can’t meditate because their mind is too busy. Their mind jumps all over the place when they sit to meditate and they just can’t do that. Likely you found that to be true just now. Well, the truth is, of course, that people who meditate, don’t meditate because they already have a calm and peaceful mind! Everyone’s mind jumps all over the place. Meditation is designed to help us get an honest glimpse at that busy mind of ours.
In fact, the distractions that our mind lifts up for us are exactly the meat of meditation. The idea is not to clear your mind of distractions, but simply to note each distracting thought the mind throws at you when you want to be still. And, these are exactly what we use in order to meditate. Meditation basically has three parts. #1 – you get distracted. #2 you notice the distraction (that’s a bit harder) and #3 you simply determine not to follow the mind down every road that it wants to go. And, thus we gradually come to train ourselves not to follow every distraction that comes our way in life. Meditation is not about becoming a better meditator. It is about deciding which distractions in your life you are going to follow and which ones you are going to ignore. Meditation is a mini life. I am reminded over and over that I have a choice about which actions I take, which thoughts I follow.
So, meditation is done in part in order to find some spaciousness within – in order to have a more open heart towards ourselves. It is not so much about becoming calm as it is about becoming aware. In order to change anything, we must first become aware of the thing. Meditation asks us only to be aware.
I am hoping that you became aware of the distracting roads that your own mind prefers when you try to be still. It’s very hard for most of us to sit without striving or without feeling bored. One thing I quickly learned about myself through meditation is just exactly how much I demand or expect everything I do to be exciting and profitable. The idea of sitting without striving is very challenging. We get a lot of encouragement in our life to strive to be better. And, there is nothing wrong with that. Unless it becomes relentless and you are under the strain of always trying to be better and better and that striving ceases to feel life-giving – but, instead feels life-draining.
In any case, deciding to sit for a few minutes each day without striving probably is not going to deter any of us from our pursuit of perfection for long. But, maybe it would deter us long enough to question the things we strive for. Maybe it would give us a few moments of peace where we can finally just accept who we are in this given moment. To find peace with our life as it is – before we lose weight, get healthy., retire, find the perfect mate or friend, have the perfect child, learn to play the guitar or write that novel?
Global activist Lynne Twist says - “Our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep. The next one is, I don’t have enough time. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something.“ This is not life-giving.
We are taught early on that we need to strive, to have ambition, contribute to the world. The trouble is that along the way of doing that, we often develop some sense of self-centeredness, self-entitlement that stands in the way of our enjoyment of life. We begin to believe that we have a right to have things go our way, a right to what we want, a right to steer others towards our will. And, we can become resentful when life doesn’t go our way… When we don’t get the promotion, when we get sick, when we fail the exam… We begin to equate getting what we want with success in life. Of course, life intervenes. Sooner or later we all get defeated in our striving. We begin to be forced to accept things as they are, not as we wish they would be. Writer Mark Nepo says that this is the magic moment. Accepting ourselves and our life as it unfolds before us. Under all our attempts to script our life, life cannot be scripted. The only way to know life is to enter it. There is no lesson plan for living but to live. To find some balance between striving and being. It is not all about striving, it is also about surrender.
Let me end this with this poem by Pablo Neruda called “Keeping Quiet”. I will read the poem and then we will share two minutes of silence. Following that, Cathy Sherwin will play a piece of music for us. Your only instruction is to listen. Feel free to close your eyes if you like.
by Pablo Neruda
Now I will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves.