Hush: Spirituality Part I
Spirituality Part I
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There has been scientific research lately on what is happening in the brain during deep meditation. Scientists brought a bunch of very proficient monks into the MRI lab and took pictures of their brains while they were meditating. I’ve had an MRI and I could barely keep my body still, that was the extent of my meditative capacity. I would be lying there thinking about how the itch on my nose has shifted to my eyebrow, and then I would be thinking about how thinking about the earlier itch on my nose has caused it to return and now both my nose and my eyebrow itch. But you’re not allowed to move when you’re in that MRI tube. So, I consider keeping my body still to be a pretty good accomplishment! Meanwhile, these monks could lie on one of those thin MRI board with all the bright lights and the loud, artificial humming and the jerking motion and they could experience oneness with the universe!
What the scientists have learned from these brain scans is that during meditation the parietal lobe blocks incoming information. The parietal lobe is located at the top of the brain and deals with spatial and temporal orientation. The MRI pictures show drastically reduced level of activity in that part of the brain. So, during meditation the brain itself can let slip the perception of time and space. Many mystics report a feeling of oneness with the universe, a feeling of connectedness that transcends physical boundaries. It is a feeling I have experienced, though certainly not in an MRI lab.
When I was in high school, I remember sitting alone in the woods near a friend’s house one afternoon. I was not doing anything in particular or thinking about anything in particular. I was not waiting for something or someone. I just had a free afternoon and nothing better to do, so I sat on the ground in the woods. I was staring at a stone. It was not a distinguished stone in any way: just a regular gray flat-ish one about the size of a melon. I suppose I had recently had science lessons about atomic structures because I started thinking about the small parts of the stone that go into making it a stone. I stared at the stone and thought about how it was made up of smaller parts that are in turn made up of even smaller parts. How far down does it go? What is the smallest part made of? As I thought of little electrons swirling around a nucleus and tried to think about what might be inside subatomic particles, I remembered the silly philosophical question that asks, “What if our universe is just a swirling atom in the big toe of someone in another universe?” Suddenly my perspective shifted, it telescoped out from the very small to the very large. Atoms became planets. I reeled with the awareness that the subatomic particles and giant big toe of another universe were the same thing. For a brief moment a whole universe swirled inside that stone, my whole universe. Everything was connected. Inside that instant the stone and I and ten thousand universes were the same thing.
And then it was over, in less space than a breath it was finished because I noticed myself. I thought, “Hey, I’m having a really profound thought.” And suddenly it was over, my parietal lobe turned back on, the universe fell back into place, and I was simply sitting alone in the woods staring at a stone. Try as I might I could not get the stone to do that trick again.
Annie Dillard, after experiencing something like that with a tree of lights wrote, “I had been all my life a bell, and never knew it until that moment I was lifted and struck.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”) I think I have spent a good portion of my life since then looking under rocks for the universe and myself and listening to the ringing in my soul.
So silence and meditation interest me. Unfortunately my nose itches of my foot falls asleep. I lack the discipline to sit still for long periods of time or to stick with it long enough to learn how to sit still. Yet I keep trying. What I am after when I meditate is a reconnecting; not just a reconnecting to that moment with the stone, but a constant reconnecting with life, with God, with myself, with . . . words fail to explain or fully describe what is at the other end of that connection. My energy can get spent out in many directions, and if I am not connected into my source of energy, I have learned I can run out of that energy pretty quickly. I use silence and meditation to reconnect. I am no master, obviously, but I manage. Silence is the doorway into spirituality. And so I have become very interested in spirituality.
American culture has certainly grown quite enamored with Spirituality. Spirituality books are as popular now as the self-help books of the Eighties. Yoga and Tai Chi classes are filling up. Time and Newsweek do almost regular stories about spirituality and things of that nature. People are beginning to see how they get burned out on all the little surface stuff and they want to reconnect. There are undercurrents of spirituality even in our little denomination; I have uncovered a multitude of conversations about spirituality. There has been a shift away from the old half-truth that Unitarian Universalists don’t have and don’t want spirituality. “We are all in the head,” we have said of ourselves. “We are the rational religion, the skeptic’s choice,” we say. While these statements are as true as ever, we can be rational skeptics and yet have spirituality.
I think part of the problem is that there are too many definitions of spirituality. It can be confusing. It is hard to form an opinion about something if people don’t agree on the definition. Generally, spirituality has to do with religious matters as opposed to material or tangible matters. Although a popular distinction also exists between religion and spirituality where religion is seen as an organization of beliefs and rules. In such a case, spirituality is about either a personal relationship with God or personal serenity, … or both. There are numerous meanings for that word. It certainly is a problem. And it is a problem I am not going to solve for you.
Instead, I am going to deliver a series of sermons on four different aspects of the subject. Perhaps this will only serve to heighten your need to figure out exactly what spirituality really is. Good luck. For the purposes of my sermon series, I offer a working definition, just so we can get on to the next step. Spirituality is our way of relating with and responding to . . . Life, Love, God. This last term is malleable as far as I am concerned. It is the relating with and responding to that I want to work from. So my definition this morning of spirituality is our way of relating with and responding to that which is holy.
There are four basic paths on which we can approach spirituality. The path of Silence and meditation, the path of Activism and justice-making, the path of Emotion and feelings, and the path of Intellect and study. Certainly there are more than four. I have a book on my shelf edited by Scott Alexander called Everyday Spiritual Practice which outlines a couple of dozen ways to approach spirituality such as Sitting Zen, Memorizing Poetry, Fasting, Quilting, and Recycling (Yes, that’s right, recycling as a spiritual practice!) I offer four basic paths which are not mutually exclusive, nor are they all-inclusive. But they at least cover the waterfront. Silence, Activism, Emotions, and Intellect are our four paths. We begin with silence and meditation because silence is the doorway into spirituality.
Silence can be like a salve in today’s society. Only your silence will save you. I’m guessing most of you have heard the phrase, “Your silence will not save you.” Scientist Niels Bohr said, “There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth.” And so it is true that your silence will not save you. In this sense, silence is implied acceptance of injustice. This is silence as compliance. I’ll talk more against that in the next sermon in this series.
It is also true, however, that only your silence will save you. Our lives are so filled with noise and traffic and schedules as to leave no room for silence. This makes for much stress and anxiety. Silence is a doorway into spirituality. e. e. cummings has an essay about how a room is defined by its walls and corners, but it is the empty space within which makes it useful. The sides and bottom of a bucket provide definition, but it is the space within that makes it useful. Thus it is with bowls and flutes and doorways. So many of the common things in our lives are only possible through their essential empty spaces. As another author put it, “Just as a loaf of bread needs air in order to rise, everything we do needs an empty place in its interior.” (T. Moore, see below.) We need empty spaces in our lives. Silence is like an empty space.
Silence is not easy to create but harder still to find. It takes a conscious effort to set time and space and energy aside to make silence. The typical day in my life has very little quiet in it. I suspect this is how it is for most people, all manner of activity and bustle is going on throughout the day. I thought maybe nighttime would be quiet. Have you ever noticed how many noises there are in your house at night? I usually leave my computer on. But this past week, thinking about silence, I found it really hard to fall asleep with that thing humming so loudly. So I tuned off the computer and I could hear the refrigerator and the furnace humming a little duet. Well, what finally distracted me from the sound of those machines was the sound of kittens racing through the dark house when everyone else was asleep!
Now here’s the really trouble, even when the outside world is quiet and I make room amidst my own noise and busyness to be quiet, my mind leaps through distracting thought after distracting thought! “Did I pay the heating bill? Why did we watch that really bad movie last night? Someone once devised a more efficient arrangement of the letters on the typewriter, but nobody cared, they all liked the traditional arrangement. Our new newspaper delivery person is not as good as the old one.” It goes on and on! It seems far harder to tame the inner noises than the outer noises for meditation. Focusing on a word of phrase helps some. Concentrating on your breathing also helps some.
But perhaps we do not need perfect silence. I have been reading from monastic books lately. Monks and nuns have to deal with this sort of thing regularly. I was looking for clues about how to create time for silence and meditation in the regular course of a day. Garrison Keillor once said: “The rule at the Unitarian monastery is complete silence, but if you think of something really good, you can go ahead and say it.”
Thomas Moore wrote a book called Meditations on the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life. He talks about how he goes about the business of silence. “I especially enjoy such ordinary retreats from the active life as shaving, showering, reading, doing nothing, walking, listening to the radio, driving the car. All of these activities can turn one’s attention inward toward contemplation. … Anything is material for retreat — cleaning out a closet, giving away some books, taking a walk around the block, clearing your desk, turning off the television set, saying no to an invitation to ANYTHING. At the sight of nothing, the soul rejoices.” (pg 4)
It is not enough to just have empty spaces in your life, it is not enough to have silence. Silence is a doorway, and it is not enough to simply stand in the doorway. Step through the silence and enter meditation. Quiet the outside world as best you can, and quiet your body as best you can, and then turn your attention to quieting your mind. And what do you do with your quiet mind, should you ever be able to actually quiet the thing? (sigh) The answer to that one is for you to figure out another time. For now, just hush and enjoy the silence.
In a world without end, may it be so.