It’s been quite a weekend! I got to officiate weddings Friday and Saturday, and then this morning I had the opportunity to offer the sermon at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca. I share my words here with you. May they give you food for thought, and action! It was wonderful to hear the reactions and thinking of the congregation after the sermon, and I invite you to share your comments below.
The other night we had a down pour. Maybe you remember it, it was about ten days ago. The clouds were thick and low, and rain was dumping down in sheets. I was in a meeting and we could barely hear each other speak. The storminess and grayness were in full effect. But then, as quickly as it had come, the clouds moved on and what remained was the ever-present beautiful sky. It was pink and a little bit yellow, warm and brilliant. While the storm was raging that was all any of us were focused on. But once it passed we were illuminated by the glorious sky. And the thing I want to draw our attention to is that even when all we could see were clouds, above them, steady and true, were the clear sky and brilliant sun. As Sakyong Mipham wrote, “Hesitating about who we really are or hanging out with the wrong friends – whether they are people or negativity in our mind – is like the clouds. We see clouds and we take them to be real, but behind the clouds the sun is shining, illuminating our world.”
We all have our clouds, and they seem so real, don’t they? We get caught up in clouds of discontentment, unsure if we belong, feeling unloving and unlovable. But these stories we tell ourselves about the inevitability of dissatisfaction, loneliness, and lovelessness, are really just – clouds. They’re not actually reality. We spend a lot of mental energy trying to feel content, wondering if we belong, and judging on a case by case basis who to extend our love to. But what if we could make the decision to stop questioning our birthright to feel content, to belong, and to love? What if we made the choice to let go of the clouds of discontentment, fear, judgement and selfishness? How would that decision free us up to work on creating the world we want to live in?
Religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions all around the world have taught the possibility and power of embracing contentment, belonging, and love. It’s our misunderstanding about these things, thinking that we are to be the recipients of contentment, belonging, and love, rather than the agents of them, that holds us back from the clarity and fearlessness that we need to stand up for liberation. To do our part to create the joyous, loving, and just world we want to live in, we must choose to be content, to belong, and to love; we must exert ourselves in the discipline of making that choice again and again; we must embrace the fearlessness that we develop as a result of these choices; and then we must use that clarity and fearlessness to each play our part in the liberation of all people.
So, let’s take a look at contentment. Does it ever happen to you that you’re going along, minding your own business, and then whoa – you’re blindsided by a feeling that all is right in your world? Like you actually feel satisfied with your situation. And you’re like – what the hell? Where did that come from? There I was, going along in my usual way (we all have our usual ways, and usually they don’t involve contentment) and then wham – a fleeting, quivering moment of satisfaction.
It happened to me the other day, doing dishes of all things. They had really piled up so it was quite a project. I was up to my elbows in soapy water, washing yet another plate, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, I felt content. I noticed a certain a sweetness in my heart, a twinkle in my eye, a groundedness in my feet. And no sooner did I notice it, than I began to wonder, what did I do to “deserve it”? How did this good luck happen? Were the planets aligned? Was it that green smoothie I had for breakfast?
Usually we go around wanting things to be better – if only my house were cleaner, if I didn’t have to go to work, if the sun were shining, then I’d be happy. It feels beyond our control, that only by the grace of God or sheer luck would we be content. The cloud of dissatisfaction hangs over our heads.
But what if we could see that there’s nothing we have to do to deserve contentment, and in fact we can access it any time we want to, and oh, by the way it’s free? Contentment is like that beautiful sky. It’s always there behind the clouds. All we need to do is remember. To quiet that running cloudy narrative in our minds and cultivate a spirit of contentment in our hearts. Just like a plant can make food from the sun’s energy, we can make contentment. We can open our hearts to its grace. We can cultivate it and practice it.
What would happen to capitalism if we realized we have access to contentment 24/7, as a natural resource, a birth right, a human right? So much of our consumerist society is built on making us feel bad so that we buy something to feel better. A coffee. A new outfit. A vacation. I’ve tried it. You’ve tried it. Does it ever really work? Maybe for a moment, but it never lasts. Wise teachers from across the ages tell us that the only way to access contentment is to open our hearts to its grace, to choose contentment and to practice it. Decide to be satisfied with what’s actually happening, even and especially if all that’s happening is you standing at the sink, elbow-deep in dirty water. Accept your experience. Cultivate contentment. And then with this frame of mind, use your best thinking to plan your next step, to change the world.
There’s another thing that clouds reality for a lot of us, and this is the concept of belonging. We wonder, whether it be in the back of our minds or in the fore of our minds, if we really belong – with our group of friends, with our families, in our communities.
Humans are social creatures, our survival is based on our connections. When we were children our survival absolutely depended on the grown ups accepting us and caring for us. And we’ve carried that sort of desperate-y feeling with us even now. So when we’re with a group, we often wonder – do I belong with these people? Do I belong in this place? Belonging seems like something we have to wonder about and question – it feels like we need to depend on other people to include us in order to belong.
Humans have spent a lot of energy saying who belongs and who doesn’t belong. Belonging has a long and frankly ugly history in this country. My white ancestors came to these shores because they could no longer stay in their homes in Europe, due to religious persecution and economic hardship. They came here because they could no longer belong there, and when they got here they found they didn’t really belong to this land either. So what did they do? Scarred and scared, they did their best to make sure no one else belonged here either. They tore the Native people from their lands and families, through a policy of attempted genocide that continues to this day. They ripped apart the families and lives of African heritage people through slavery, enacting a system of white supremacy that to this present day tries to brutally dictate exactly who can and who can’t belong. So white people not being able to tell they belong has caused a lot of pain and grief and it’s no wonder that belonging is a tough thing for most of us to wrap our hearts around.
Our country is full of ugliness about who belongs and who doesn’t and who decides. We must move beyond this and take the perspective that belonging to a place does not mean owning that place, that belonging does not imply entitlement. We need to embrace belonging as an invitation to interdependence, we need to embrace with heartbreaking humility this gift of belonging to this earth and to each other.
How might things be if you could tell on a regular basis that you and everyone else belonged, belonged to this place and to each other? Try assuming that this is possible and true and see what flows. Notice, when you have an attitude of belonging, what do you see as your responsibilities towards this place, towards others? We think we need other people to grant us belonging. But it is actually we who need to decide that we belong. We must view ourselves as the agents, not the recipients, of belonging. To make and remake the choice to see that each and every one of us belongs is a step towards connectedness, and connectedness is an essential step towards collective liberation.
Building on this idea of looking beyond the clouds, and not waiting for the circumstances to be right to bring us contentment, and not waiting for other people to include us in order to feel like we belong, we come to the concept of love. Over the course of our lives, through a gamut of hurts and happenings, most of us sadly learn to close our hearts. We put ourselves under a heavy cloud and adopt the mistaken idea that closing our hearts will keep us safe.
I didn’t realize this had happened to me until recently when I was reflecting on a friendship I have. We’ve known each other a long time, and I call her my friend, but she’s not the kind of person to give you a lot of reassurance. I was feeling bad about this and pouting about it to my husband, and I started whining, “I just want a person who loves me back!”
And then I fell quiet. Wait a minute. Did I just say, “I want a person who loves me back”? So, I’m withholding my love unless I can tell someone loves me back? What a small, scared, lonely, and frankly exhausting way to live!
I realized in that moment that I can make the choice to open my heart and love the people in my life, and I don’t have to waste another minute wondering what they think of me or if they love me too or whatever. To love is our birthright! By choosing to love, there’s no figuring out to do, no decisions to make. The friend who can’t seem to return my calls? I choose to love her anyway. That distant relative who I’m still worried I offended ten years ago? I choose to love them anyway. And the neighbor I continue to dance with as we navigate the choppy waters of language, race, and class? I choose to love her anyway.
And there’s one other thing here that I’ll throw in for good measure. Choosing to love anyway includes choosing to love yourself. Yes you who I’m sure from time to time feels perhaps a bit unlovable. Why withhold your heart from yourself? Why wait for any particular circumstance to manifest in order to love you?
There’s a certain freedom to loving people no matter what, to belonging no matter what, to being content, no matter what, to making love one’s default position. It’s an ongoing practice, and one that takes discipline – to be generous with your heart and to open it to the grace of contentment, the warmth of belonging, the tenderness of love.
To be content, to belong, to love. We experience these by choice, not by chance. These are choices we can and must return to day in and day out, time and again. And I’m sure you realize, this is not easy. We will slip, we will fall, we will hold on tight to our clouds. To make a commitment to see the sun, to see the reality of contentment, belonging and love, takes exertion, it takes faith, and it takes relying on one another to remind each other when we forget and lose our way.
Over the course of our lives we’ve grown addicted to the stories of the clouds. So we need to make a decision, to break with those old habits of mind. To just to be done. Again and again to choose contentment, to choose to belong, to choose to love.
We can start by developing a daily practice. Start training yourself to commit to something and do it whether you “want to” or not. A lot of us do this already. Some of us have daily spiritual practices of meditation, prayer, or contemplation. Some of us have relationship practices of marriage or committed partnership. Some of us have practices of work – regular chores, like tending to animals, or my favorite – doing dishes, or physical practices like running or crossfit. These practices train our minds, hearts and bodies to follow through with our best intentions and vows even when we can’t remember that they make sense. They teach us that there is a certain freedom generated by discipline.
So let us make it a practice to not consume ourselves any longer with the questions of do we deserve to be content, do we really belong, can we just give love away freely. Let us decide to settle the matter once and for all, with the answer of YES. We need discipline and practice to make this decision over and over and to train our minds away from the well-worn paths of questioning our birthrights. We must chart a new course because letting ourselves stay wrapped up in these questions keeps us spinning our wheels with distracting ruminations rather than using our brilliant minds and fierce hearts to work towards the liberation of our human family.
You and I all know what’s going on in the world – even those of us who once had the privilege to be oblivious can’t help but see the searing effects of racism, sexism, and global capitalism on our human family and on our earth. Once you make the decision to choose contentment, belonging and love, you generate fearlessness and that fearlessness frees up your brain, allowing you to act. If we weren’t afraid, would we still uphold the system? If we knew that nothing was stopping us from feeling content with the moment, from belonging to this world, and from loving ourselves and each other, would we tolerate the state of the world for a second longer?
I’d like to close with a story from one of my best teachers – my five year old son. The other day he and I were talking. He was telling me about how a kid in his class, we’ll call him Ollie, had just moved to a new house and that my son wanted to visit him. I was a little surprised because this isn’t a kid he’s ever shown much interest in before. I asked him about it and he said, “Oh, Ollie used to be my enemy but now he’s my friend.” Well, that sounded like a good story so I asked him what happened. And my son said, “Well, we learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and he said that you can’t fight hate with hate, you can only fight hate with love. So I decided to start loving him, and he loved me back.”
And it’s as simple and momentous and liberating as that. Choose contentment. Decide to belong. Just start loving.
Go forth with an open heart, my friends, with discipline and joy, and with an eye towards the clear sky of truth and collective liberation.
May it be so.