Redemption: The Great Gamble of Our Soul

I grew up in the First Presbyterian Church of Macon, Georgia. We held church camp each year at Rock Eagle, the 4-H campground. I spent one week of my summer vacation there each year being indoctrinated in good Calvinist theology. Of course, the memories I retain of those summers has a lot more to do with swimming, fishing, and flag football than the particulars of predestination or the doctrine of the elect. One powerful lesson I did learn during one of those summer camps was the nature of redemption. I do not think that redemption was a part of the explicit curriculum; nevertheless, because of an incident that occurred there, my buddies and I learned a painful lesson that has stayed with me to this day.

On our last night at camp my friends and I had a little free time in our cabin before lights out. So we decided to get a little poker game going. We had each brought some spending money, but this particular year we had not gotten to go into Eatonton, the nearby town, to spend any of it. And as you can imagine, that money was burning a hole in the pockets of a bunch of 11 year old boys. Since we could not spend it, gambling it away seemed like the natural thing to do to while away a Saturday night. Ricky, the default leader of our little gang, just happened to have a deck of cards in his backpack. Interestingly, besides the wear and tear that you might expect on playing cards that had been tucked away in a backpack, these cards also showed evidence of some more deliberate damage. We would later discover that the aces were a little more dog eared on the corners than the rest of the cards.

Well, we had been playing for a couple of hours before someone noticed the selective abuse that this particular deck of cards had suffered. It did seem to us that Ricky was enjoying a particularly good run of luck on this night, as he had amassed about $15, which was most all of the money the rest of us had squirreled away to buy cokes, candy bars, baseball cards, and comic books. Well, when this discovery was made by the boy who was dealing the cards at the time, who also just happened to be the one of us who had lost the most money to Ricky, he accused Ricky of cheating, and a heated argument broke out. Ricky started claiming innocence, but was turning redder and redder by the moment. We were all getting lathered up to jump on Ricky and teach him a lesson he would never forget, when we heard the voices of the counselors approaching our cabin. Everyone scrambled to hide the cards, the bottlecaps we were using for poker chips, and all the other evidence of our improvised casino. I thought we had pulled it off, because the counselor came in, told us to go to bed, and turned out the lights.

I do not know if Ricky got any sleep that night. Once we were all in our bunks, and the counselor had retired to his bed on the other side of the cabin, the other boys started making whispered threats to Ricky. And they began to giggle wickedly about all the plans they were making to get their money back and extract a pound of flesh from Ricky to boot. This went on until the wee hours of the morning.

The next morning after breakfast we were to gather in the main auditorium for a worship service that concluded the week at summer camp. Apparently, our counselor had been tipped off about the events of the preceding night, because he walked into the auditorium with his arm across Ricky’s shoulder. Ricky’s face looked like someone who was just emerging from a confessional after lying awake all night in a fit of guilt. Ricky and the counselor came and sat on the row just in front of the rest of us who had been complicit in the illicit festivities of the previous evening.  Ricky just sat there and kept his eyes front and center during the service.

Then came the time in the service when the collection plate was to be passed. When it got to the counselor who sat beside Ricky, we saw him hold the plate out in front of our contrite ringleader and encourage him to empty his pockets. Out came all our quarters and wadded up dollar bills from the poker game. Ricky became a modern day Zacchaeus, turning his ill gotten gains over to the Lord’s service, to the chagrin of all of his fellow campers. Though we dared not let out a sound, I could almost hear the groans all along that row. But what were the rest of us going to do? Any protest on our part would have been an admission of guilt, and the counselor would have reason to come down on us also, and possibly inform to our parents. And, now that Ricky no longer had the money, there was less of a reason for us to attack him to get our money back, since he no longer had any of it. That counselor had figured out a perfect solution to Ricky’s problem. Just like good counselors are supposed to do. He pointed the way to a more redemptive purpose for the fruits of Ricky’s work of the previous evening.

Who doesn’t love a good story of redemption? Les Miserables. It’s a Wonderful Life. The Shawshank Redemption. Field of Dreams. Think of your favorite movie, and at the heart of the story it’s likely to be a story of redemption. The main character is misunderstood, wrongly blamed, burdened by guilt, or is simply living an unfulfilled life. Then, something happens. Circumstances change, a confrontation occurs, a decision is made, valiant effort is extended, and the character undergoes an ordeal so that he or she can emerge a better person or in a better place. It’s an old, old story, one that’s been repeated in thousands of ways for thousands of years. But yet it’s one that we never tire of, especially as Hollywood continually manages to find ways to put new twists and new spins on it.

In religion, redemption comprises its very essence. It’s the very life or the eternal soul or spirit of the practitioner that’s at stake. In Christian theology, redemption is forgiveness from sin so that the individual is made whole and acceptable to God, something known as atonement or at-one-ment. In Judaism the Jewish people are understood to be in exile. So the basic story that shapes Judaism, the stories of the Torah, God works to restore the people to the promised land. As Judaism is expounded and preached, parallels are made between this metastory, the Israelites redemption from exile, and the redemption of the character of the individual through following God and God’s laws. In Buddhism, redemption involves giving up our attachment to the things of this world and, ultimately, by finding peace in giving up our attachment to life itself.

Today is Easter. A time, according to the Christian tradition, of celebrating the redemption of humankind from sin through the vicarious suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Various systems of understanding the great mystery of the human situation and human sin have been worked out by Christian theologians through the centuries to explain how this all works. I won’t get into the tedious specifics of these various theories of atonement but just say, for most Unitarian Universalists, these theories are not a big part of our faith because, according to them, human beings are rendered helpless and passive in relation to our existential situation and our existential guilt. The idea that everyone’s sinfulness is so terrible that there is nothing we can do to redeem ourselves, or that there is no price we can pay to restore our right relationship with God – these ideas are generally non-starters for us. Yes, we are grounded enough in reality to recognize that humanity often misses the mark and is capable of doing some pretty terrible things. No one need look any further than the headlines of the newspapers to realize this. Human beings are often sinful and are sometimes capable of evil. But at the same time, we are also a faith that prefers to look at the other side of the paradox. That human beings are also capable of goodness, and of creating great beauty, and of doing great things. Our forebears rejected the idea of the inherent depravity of humanity, and preferred to focus on the possibility of our inherent goodness. It’s sometimes called redemption or salvation by character, this idea that we can discover and foster the growth of our better nature. That’s why I became a Unitarian Universalist. I needed a faith that made me an active player on the stage of life. Our tradition  affirms  and  promotes  each  person’s  ability  to come  to  an  understanding  of  what  redemption  might  mean  to  them,  of  each person’s  worthiness  of  it  and  ability  to  strive  for  it,  as  well  as  each  person’s responsibility to better our world and contribute  to  the  redemption  of  others.

Redemption can come to us in many different ways. It that little escapade at camp that I began with today, it came to Ricky, as he “gave up” something that was separating him from the rest of us boys and prevented him from being in the good graces of our counselor. So it follows that the dynamics of redemption may involve giving up something that separates us from the fullness of life or separates us from our community. Sometimes redemption is an experience of finding greater value in something, as when you “redeem” a coupon you have clipped from a magazine to obtain a product at the grocery store – the product is worth so much more than that little piece of paper you exchanged for it. We find the spiritual counterpart to this form of redemption when we commit our lives to something greater than ourselves or when we take a leap of faith and discover a path with greater meaning and value.

Like most Unitarians, I don’t see redemption as coming from any particular doctrine, or from an outside savior, but by having the courage to recognize what captivates me in life, what draws me towards others in service, and what brings me more fully into the presence of the divine – then, fully to fully commit myself to THAT. Often it is, as I throw myself into such endeavors, that I find redemption. Just as Ricky found redemption in throwing those coins into the collection plate, redemption may come to us as we let go of something secure, so that we may be open to receive whatever new and unknown challenges life may have in store for us. Being in a spiritual community such as this affords many opportunities for us to throw ourselves into cause and endeavors that can become redemption for us. There is an ocean of need within this community and in the community at large. Challenges await – challenges from which each of us can emerge as a better person an in a better place. Redemption is available.

Many of these opportunities require us to give up something. Some of our precious spare time or some of our limited energy. That giving up may be an experience of pain as well as grace. The painful part is easy to understand. My buddies and I experienced a moment of intense pain as we watched our money disappear into that collection bucket. Boys WILL be boys, you know. It was quite difficult seeing our stash of dollar bills lost to us forever. Eventually we did acquire the eyes to see Ricky’s vicarious act as grace and even a story we enjoyed telling and laughing about, but, I must confess, it took us some time to reach that state of grace. But by the next week, when we got home and got back in school and into our routine, it was not long before we were all playing together again as if nothing had happened. Grace did come to us in our relationship with each other, since in some ways kids are more open to it as they do not carry grudges nearly as long as adults seem to.

May we always be given the courage, strength, and wisdom to redeem our times of difficulty and may we be given the grace to give up and let go of that which we cherish so that we may be open to some new possibility. MAY-IT-BE SO. Amen.

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Death with Dignity

Death with dignity has been prominent in the news recently, primarily because of the high profile case of Brittany Maynard. Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor called a glioblastoma earlier this year. After much thought and research, and having educating herself extensively about her illness and its prospects, she decided to end her life on her own terms. Quietly and at home surrounded by family and friends, she did just that on November 1. Maynard spent much of the last weeks of her life advocating for death with dignity laws.   Much notice was taken of her advocacy both because of the immediacy and intimacy of the issue to her own life, as well as her engagement with a wide audience through her use of social media.

Maynard became a high profile case for the death with dignity in the first place largely though her own efforts through Facebook and other social media. She became the face for death with dignity legislation, which is already law in three states. Two other states have similar laws to protect physicians who participate in death with dignity acts, and death with dignity bills have currently been introduced in seven other states. It’s clearly an issue that is gaining traction.

As you might imagine, death with dignity laws also have many critics that base their objection on religious concerns. Predictably, right to life groups have been out in the media recently also, voicing opposition to death with dignity legislation. However, some of the opposition has come from less polarized groups that have a more rational basis to their arguments. Ira Byock, of the Institute for Human Caring of Providence Health and Services, spoke out against it, saying, “When doctor-induced death becomes an accepted response to the suffering of dying people, logical extensions grease the slippery slope.” His “slippery slope” apparently referring to the ethical slippery slope involved in such questions as, “What constitutes a terminal illness?” “And just who can we say is mentally competent to make such decisions?” You can read more about his opinion and about other oppositions to death with dignity legislation at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/10/06/expanding-the-right-to-die/doctor-assisted-suicide-is-unethical-and-dangerous

Public opinion is also divided, but the results of questionnaires and polls depend largely on how the question is framed. Seventy percent of Americans were in favor of allowing physicians to “end a patient’s life by some painless means,” but only 51 percent were in support of allowing doctors to help a patient “commit suicide.” These are two very different ways of understanding the issue.

It seems that much more education on the subject will be needed before the general public will be ready for a rational, civil, and compassionate conversation on this very important and timely issue – one that absolutely affects everyone at some point. I encourage our community to become more informed and knowledgeable about death with dignity so that we might make a meaningful contribution to the dialogue.

Grace and Peace,

Fred

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The Heart of the Easter Story

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8 NRSV

He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee.
Human life is sometimes taken in senseless and unspeakable ways. When this happens, those left behind can say and do some extraordinary and surprising things. Take the story we just read for you from the end of the Gospel of Mark. This brief account, a mere 8 verses, of three grieving women coming to anoint the dead body of Jesus but instead finding an empty tomb is what started the tradition of Easter as it is known in the Christian church today. I say started because biblical scholars are in general agreement that Mark was the first gospel ever written, and that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were derivatives of Mark. There is good evidence that Matthew and Luke probably had a copy of Mark’s manuscript in front of them when they wrote their own versions of the story.
Even though Mark’s version is the first, we are talking about a text that was written at least 30 years after the actual events that inspired the writer of Mark to commit it to writing. In all probability the author of Mark was simply producing a written version of the oral tradition that had grown and developed among the disciples and followers of Jesus after his crucifixion. Therefore we’re not talking about history here. Probably not even talking about an attempt to get the story right in the details. This is a story written for dramatic effect, to evoke emotion, to induce and inspire faith. To find a way forward. He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. The details may or may not be historically accurate, but the details were important to the writer of the story and what the writer was attempting to evoke in his or her audience.
So, let’s take the story on its own terms this morning and see what the story might have to say to us. Three grieving women coming to anoint the dead body of Jesus. One being Mary, the mother of James. Was this the James that was the brother of Jesus? If so, then this was also the Mary that was Jesus’ mother. But we don’t know that for sure. If it was Jesus’ mother one would think that the writer would have said that. Two, Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a disciple and friend of Jesus. She is recorded as staying with Jesus throughout his final moments on the cross, staying with him even after the male disciples had fled. She was at his burial. She arrived at Jesus’ tomb first in the stories of all four gospels. Clearly she is someone who loved Jesus very much. Three, Salome. Little is known for certain about her. She was probably the mother of James and John, two of the disciples of Jesus. Some texts indicate that she may have also been the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother. That would have made Salome Jesus’ aunt. At any rate, these were obviously three women who cared deeply about Jesus. Most likely, they were his closest family and support system.
They were there to anoint the body. In Biblical times, Jews did not embalm the bodies of the dead; rather, they allowed them to return to the earth. The dead were to be buried on the day they died. This makes sense. Given the climate of the Holy Land, bodily decay would begin quite rapidly and the stench of a rotting corpse is difficult to deal with. But by using the aromatic materials, the stench associated with a rotting corpse could be covered for a short time. The family would return to care for the body periodically after death. Often they would add more herbs and spices to the body when they visited to mask the increasingly apparent odor. Once the body had fully decomposed and there was only bones left, these would be collected and re-interred in an ossuary.
In our gospel story, we have three unescorted women, deep in the throes of grief, anticipating both the emotional and the olfactory challenge of anointing a rotting corpse that two days ago was their son, their nephew, their beloved friend, and who are totally uncertain of what they would find what they got to the tomb.
They were also the ones who would have the most difficulty finding a way to deal with his death and to find a way to get on with their lives. To find a way forward.
I would now like to transport you from the first century to the 20th and from the Middle East to Europe and talk about another woman who responded to horrific death in an extraordinary and surprising way.
Dorothee Soelle was born in Germany in 1929. She grew up during the years when Hitler came to power. She was witness to the street sounds going from the playful laughter of her and her friends to the totalitarian crunch of goose stepping Nazi jackboots. Her parents were part of a well educated liberal bourgeois culture in pre WW II Germany who opposed Hitler and the Nazis on idealistic grounds but did little to stop the fascists from gaining control of the country. Dorothee was approaching adolescence during World War II, her memories of those years clouded and disturbed by the hours spent in air raid shelters. She remembers with loathing her parents preoccupation with securing enough food for the family. She only wanted it all to end. Then came her adolescence and, finally, the end of the horrific war. She internalized the shame of her people, in the shadow of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, and felt it deep within her being. Reflecting on her formative years she would write, “I need this shame about my people; I do not want to forget anything, because forgetting nurtures the illusion that it is possible to be a truly human being without the lessons of the dead.”
Dorothee’s parents were indifferent to religion, therefore it came as somewhat of a surprise that during her high school years she would take an active interest in the church and in the study of theology. She realized that enlightened liberals, such as her parents, had been helpless in the face of the atrocities, not even willing to take any kind of meaningful stand against what was unfolding in Germany during these years. At the same time, she found something irresistible in the powerless love of Jesus, and knew that Jesus’ vision, rightly interpreted, could form the matrix for her to live and believe and find a way forward in the aftermath of the holocaust.
Soelle’s theology, in a nutshell, was this: God is not so much an idea, or a being separate from and controlling the world; rather, God is a way of experiencing and participating in the world. God is a way of experiencing and interpreting the world. She knew that German soldiers wore belt buckles that proclaimed “God with us” and yet were so comfortable with putting people to death in gas chambers that they could then go home and settle back and comfortably listen to Bach. For Soelle, the Holocaust completely invalidated the whole concept of an all powerful God over and above the world who could idly stand by while such horrors occurred. Such an idea made God out to be no better than those German soldiers and, for her, such thinking could no longer be taken seriously. In place of this vertical understanding of the universe, with God controlling everything from above, Soelle offered a compelling vision of Jesus as God’s representative, as the Christ who suffers and dies with us. As Christ represents God, so are we to represent God to each other. Listen to these words of Dorothee Soelle as she expressed it:
I don’t as they put it “believe in god”
but to him (Jesus) I cannot say no hard as I try
take a look at him in the garden
when his friends ran out on him
his face wet with fear
and with the spit of his enemies.
him I have to believe
I find one can’t let him pay alone
for his hypothesis
so I believe him about god
the way one believes another’s laughter
his tears
or marriage
or no for an answer
that’s how you’ll learn
to believe him about life
promised to all
(Quotation marks and parenthetical words mine.)
This understanding of God as the divine presence in each one of us representative in Jesus as “the Christ” – this became the basis for Soelle’s theology of engagement in the social and political realms. She called for a “democratization of the mystical experience,” that a profound experience of God was available to all as we move out of our churches and cathedrals and encounter God by siding with those who have experienced the suffering of tragedy or injustice. God is not separate from creation, God is (quote) “bound into the web of life.” Jesus as the representative of God is the God who suffers with us, and thus God can only be understood, comprehended, and experienced as we participate in life, in the world of those who live in the shadows of tragedy, tyranny, and poverty.
Dorothee Soelle, the teen who wanted nothing more than to see an end to the deprivation, fear, and suffering of war, who bore the Holocaust shame of the German people, became a champion of liberation theology. She found a way forward. Liberation theology does not dwell on questions like “Does God exist?” or “Was Jesus God?” like most well educated, well fed Westerners, but the question for them is a much older one. Their question is – the question that informs their theology and their way of being in the world – is, “How do we justify a God of love and justice with all the suffering, cruelty, and injustice we experience and see all around us?” And their question is answered in the person of Jesus as they come to understand him from reading the gospels and what their faith in him involves as they come to understand his directives to his followers. They find in Jesus, “not a rationalization of why things are as they are, but rather act with a conviction that things need not be this way and that they can and will change.”
Perhaps too much time has passed since the Holocaust. History does that. It transmutes an awfulness that we feel internally and personally into mere words in a textbook. Six million Jews killed in Nazi extermination camps. The “tomb” that Dorothee Soelle visited in her imagination was called Auschwitz. Was called Dachau. What is the tomb called for us today? (pause)
On December 14, 2012 Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults. The headlines were there for two, maybe three weeks. It’s happening so often in our country that the media coverage is now predictable. First, the details of the tragedy. Then pictures of the survivors tearfully embracing each other. Next the little memorials with teddy bears and flowers. Then the funerals. Then money for the victim’s families. Then the finger pointing. Then, our national attention drifts to something else. The next sensational headline.
What do we hear 3, 4 months later from Newtown Connecticut, if we hear anything at all? If you’re really paying attention, you’ll hear how the families of victims are dealing with this horror and senseless loss of our most precious blood. Some families had to move away. The empty bedroom, the path they drove to school every day were just too much. Many family members are still under intensive psychiatric care. Some are seeking legal recompense in the form of dollars.
But the few stories that grab my interest are the ones of families who found a way forward. One family was grateful for the care given at the school to their autistic child, his special education teacher cradling him in her arms as he died. This family has started a foundation to provide more services to autistic children. Another family of one of the victims has started a foundation to build a community center. Another has started a scholarship to honor an act of heroism by one of the school staff who tried to protect the children. Many families have become spokespersons for gun control legislation. Outside help in the form of money and well wishes – and there was ample supplies of these – must have been nice for all the families, but it would seem that these are the families who are beginning the process of healing. This healing is not coming from any outside source. Its coming from inside themselves. They are moving away from the emotional place where they put their loved one. Back into the world. The death of their child was meaningless, senseless. But they are recreating meaning out of the death, by the way they are moving forward.
He is not here. He is going ahead of you into Galilee.
I would close with some more of the poetic words of Dorothee Soelle, speaking of Jesus. As she found her way forward.
He Needs You
He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

Help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
Dorothee Soelle

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The Beauty of Impermanence

When I was growing up, I used to love reading the National Geographic. The descriptions and the pictures of far off, exotic places fascinated me. Long before Indiana Jones captured my imagination, reading the National Geographic led me to dream of becoming this great adventurer who would one day explore the dark corners of the world illustrated on its pages and then return home with great stories to regale my friends and family.
One of the places that especially intrigued me was Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Located deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia was this vast, crumbling temple complex dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses that was virtually unknown to the Western world. The article gave the reader some sense of urgency to go and experience the great splendors of Angkor Wat ASAP, because the place was quickly deteriorating due to nature’s forces – a rising water table and the encroaching jungle.
National Geographic planted this idea in my head of some day visiting Angkor Wat, but then came the Vietnam War. Cambodia became heavily involved in that conflict. Because of its geographic proximity to South Vietnam, the Communist North Vietnamese hid out in Cambodia and launched raids on our American troops in South Vietnam. During the 60’s and 70’s, the last place a young American male would dream of going was Southeast Asia.
Then in the 70’s and 80’s the brutal dictator Pol Pot and the genocidal Khmer Rouge came to power. Cambodia became synonymous with “The Killing Fields” and any thoughts of ever getting to see Angkor Wat, if it even existed anymore, were pretty mush extinguished – given the destruction we heard that the Khmer Rouge was inflicting on the country.
Fortunately and surprisingly, in these last few years Cambodia has managed to establish a relatively stable form of government, a constitutional monarchy, and today it is considered relatively safe to travel there. So I began to dream once again of going to Angkor Wat – not as the swashbuckling Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, but more like the balding Jack Nicholson in “The Bucket List.” When a dear friend of mine decided to move to Cambodia’s neighboring Thailand for a 2 year stint teaching English, I saw the chance to finally make my dream a reality. Better late than never, you might say. So much for the background on all that conspired to bring about this trip.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Its outer wall encloses an area of 203 acres. And it is only one of many temple complexes in the area. Today I want to focus on another of Angkor’s temple complexes – the one called Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm was built by a Khmer King in the 12th Century as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. In its day it was home to as many as 12,500 people, with an additional 80,000 people in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies to Ta Prohm.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned and was neglected for nearly 500 years.
When restoration efforts began in the early 20th century, it was decided that Ta Prohm would be left largely as it had been found, as an example of how most of Angkor looked upon its discovery by Europeans in the 19th century. The strangler figs and silk cotton trees that are gradually overtaking the ruins have prompted more writers wax poetic than any other feature at Angkor.
The temple is crumbling and being absorbed back into the jungle in a manner that is both beautiful and frightening. The giant banyan trees are spilling, at glacial speed, over the tops of temple walls, wrapping around pillars, and pouring into the nooks and crannies between the stones. In the words of the author H.W. Ponder,
“Everywhere around you, you can see nature in its dual role of destroyer and consoler. Strangling on the one hand, and healing with the other; no sooner splitting the carved stones asunder than she dresses their wounds with cool velvety mosses, and binds them with her most delicate tendrils; a conflict of moods so contradictory and feminine as the prove once more how well nature merits her feminine title. ”
Here at Ta Prohm, perhaps more than anywhere in the world, one can visualize and experience the Buddhist idea of impermanence (“anicca” in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.) The principle of impermanence is the supreme and most fundamental of Buddha’s teachings. In essence, this principle instructs us that the things of this world are always changing, never stopping for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, yeah, “things change,” well, DUH! How obvious is that? It may be obvious to our rational mind, but it’s human nature to resist this idea – emotionally – with ever fibre of our being. We cling to our possessions, our youth, our health, and even our very lives with all our will. Think of virtually any advertisement on TV, billboards or the internet. Most all of them capitalize on our fear of change, of impermanence, and seduce us to spend billions on everything from beauty products to insurance to vitamin supplements to medical devices. We see that our bodies or the things we cherish are impermanent, we perceive that they are threatened or are deteriorating, and we immediately want to preserve them and resist the impermanence, to postpone any change.
When I first read about Angkor Wat, remember I said that I felt this sense of urgency to go see it before it crumbled and got absorbed into the jungle. This is another way our clinging shows up. My sense of urgency was just another way that us humans manifest our fear of and resistance to impermanence. I could acknowledge rationally that this grand religious monument created by enormous human effort is, of course, impermanent, as are all compounded things in the universe. But what I thought to myself was this: If Angkor Wat can’t be restored or preserved, at least I want to see and experience it before it is gone.
Then I get to Ta Prohm and see firsthand what nature is doing to the place. And again, my first instinct was to say to myself, “Someone needs to do something about these trees destroying this magnificent temple.” Well, someone has.

One wing of the temple, destroyed by the jungle and other forces of nature, has been completely restored to its original state as seen in this before and after picture. It was so interesting to do some self observation as I walked through this restored wing of the temple. For the first few moments my attention fixated on the way the restoration team had recreated the architectural techniques of the original stonemasons in reassembling this part of the building. But I was barely halfway down the first corridor before I realized how quickly I got bored with this restored, “perfect” building. I was soon ready to go back and see the rest of the neglected temple where nature has been allowed full rein to put the idea of impermanence on display.
Leaving Ta Prohm pretty much in its natural state was an inspired decision. Tourists to Angkor Wat seem to agree, as it is one of the most visited sites in the Angkor temple complex. Wandering around Ta Prohm, you realize that no empire will last, no structure will persist. Not only will kingdoms perish, but even the stones they are built from are destined to crumble. Once you accept this and let go of the desire to struggle against it, it becomes a peaceful realization, not at all accompanied by the angst we so often experience when confronted with change, decline, deterioration, and death. Then, and only then can the true beauty of Ta Prohm come through to you.
The Buddha realized that it was not the impermanence of things, of our bodies, that caused suffering. It’s our stubborn pursuit and our clinging to things as they are or the way we want them to be that causes us to suffer. In Buddhist practice, the path to freedom from suffering lies in the acceptance, even coming to see the beauty of impermanence. Accepting that, understanding that, coming to know that deep down in our very bones – this is the source of all freedom and the end of all suffering.
To follow the path of the Buddha is to begin regarding impermanence not as a curse, but as a gift of existence. This creates a fundamental mind-shift within us. Suddenly, we struggle against impermanence a little bit less. We come to accept it a little bit more. Slowly, inch by desperate inch, we begin to let go of our cravings and desires, to let go of our suffering. We cherish life as it is, fleeting and ever changing, as good – just as it is. In doing so, we come to terms with it and experience a peace that can transcend our clinging and our reactive emotions. We cultivate equanimity, a stability of character that can transcend our fickle emotions and our reactive clinging to things as we want them to be. The goal is not to make the world changeless, which obviously we can’t do, but work at what we can do – which is to change our acceptance of life as it is. Finally then, it is not the world that becomes changeless, but rather our acceptance of it. If nothing else, becoming more mindful of impermanence makes us more aware of the importance of the here and now, and the value of today. Perhaps, if we keep working at it, we can even come to see the beauty of this impermanence. When this happens perhaps, just perhaps, we have will have achieved the nirvana of the Buddha.
It was so special for me to be granted this chance to visit Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm and to share a little of my experience of it with you. Never before have I seen such a display of the disintegration of all our grand human endeavors and the poignant beauty of simply accepting it and simply being present in the moment. If ever there was a geographical manifestation of impermanence, Ta Prohm was it for me. Walking through Ta Prohm was like a stroll through a garden of enlightenment, a chance to see the impermanence of the world and be captivated by the beauty of it.

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The Passionate Life

A young American disciple of Buddhism went to his master one day with a question. “Master, you are always telling us that we suffer because of our attachments. So I have been striving in my daily life to not become so attached to things, or to my feelings, or even to people. But now my girlfriend says that she is not happy because I am aloof, that I do not seem to care about her. But I do love her. What must I do?” The question of this young Buddhist novice is a more common one than you might think.
The beginning premise of Buddhism is that life is suffering. And the reason given for our suffering is our attachments to the things of this life. The more we are attached, the more we suffer. And the solution Buddhism offers, or at least a big part of the solution, is the quieting of our monkey mind, this constant preoccupation with obtaining things, always being held in high regard by others, and forever seeking to secure and advance our station in life – all the things that the ego attaches itself to. This quieting of the monkey mind can’t be done by force of will. It requires training and discipline through the act of meditation.
As soon as Buddhism mentions nonattachment, or letting go, a great many people start heading for the exits. Who would want to go through life without being able to have and to hold, to love, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to live a life of passion for the good things of this worldly existence? I must say that I too have found the idea of renunciation one encounters in Buddhism a bit of a put off. My experience has been “Its better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” as Tennyson said. So was the Buddha wrong in teaching that the suffering we will inevitably experience in this life is so great that we should discipline ourselves to forego all of its joys and pleasures?
Before one of the Buddhist practitioners out here in the congregation decides to stand up and straighten me out, let me emphasize that the Buddha was not wrong. He was a very astute psychologist and understood the machinations of the human psyche perhaps better than anyone in the last 3000 years. He compared the human mind to an elephant – a creature which crashes about and acts on instinct to preserve itself and the things it values, and is constantly on the alert for threats to these things that are out there in the jungle of life. In this comparison, Buddha presaged the teachings of modern psychology – that we are endowed with an intricate system of automatic reactions and unconscious processes which were critical at one stage of our biological and evolutionary development. However, like modern psychology, he also realized that these tendencies do not always serve us well in our more developed state as human beings who must learn to cooperate rather than compete, and who seek after values such as happiness and joy which are beyond the plane of mere survival.
The teachings of Buddhism are clearly not anti-relationships, anti-love, or anti-passion. Nor does nonattachment mean indifference to these things. The Buddha clearly had sources of enjoyment, including relationships. Buddhism even has a word for lovingkindness, metta, and compassion, karuna, and these things were considered an essential part of the goal of the enlightened state of being. Nonattachment in the Buddhist sense is not the purposeful suppression of compassion or love or sex or dance or music or anything else that brings joy to life. Rather the teaching is meant to guide us away from the great drama of the ego around these things.
It is not the desire itself that causes us discontent and discomfort. It is the clinging to the object or person so strongly that thoughts of it dominate our sense of well being so much that we think we can’t live without it and we fail to recognize that it, like all things, is impermanent.
This is what the Buddha meant by attachment, and it is in this sense that he urged his followers to cultivate nonattachment. It is not the things of this world that cause problems, it is the way our ego relates to these things. To keep a proper perspective is the key to enlightenment. The Judaeo-Christian teaching is not so different in this regard as regarding money. That teaching being: “Money is not the root of all evil. It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil.”
This story serves to illustrate the idea well, I think:
In Southeast Asia, hunters have an ingenious way of trapping monkeys. They take a coconut, and carve a hole in the top a certain size, and take out the insides of the coconut. Then, they place a tasty, sweet morsel, such as a piece of fruit, inside the coconut. Then they fasten this coconut securely to a tree. A monkey comes along, sees the tasty morsel, and reaches its hand in through the small hole. The hole is big enough to admit the monkey’s hand, but not large enough for him to remove it once he has grabbed the food and made a fist. So he can’t get his hand out of the coconut. The monkey is not willing to let go of the sweet thing, and the hunter catches him.

With monkey mind, and our habitual ways of attaching ourselves to objects and people, we are the monkeys, and so we can’t let go of them and we are trapped. Even when we are stuck, we continue to cling to them. Even though we may see how it causes us to suffer and lose our freedom, we refuse to let go.
Much of the misunderstanding of the Buddhist concept of nonattachment is due to language. In Buddhism, the idea of attachment would probably be better translated “clinging.” Conversely, in English the word attachment can simply mean connection. In fact, modern psychology uses the word attachment in a positive sense as in “attachment theory,” which has to do with the formation of healthy relationships such as the bonding between parent and child. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the word has caused confusion.
Even research psychologists such as Johnathan Haidt, who wrote “The Happiness Hypothesis” and seems to have a genuine admiration for the precepts of Buddhism, has difficulty with the concept because of the way he understands the word nonattachment. He wonders if the Buddha was in error, and writes that cutting off all attachments is a mistake. Then he says, based on the thesis of his work, that “attachments bring pain, but they also bring our greatest joys.” He goes on to say that the “calm nonstriving advocated by Buddha” leads to “lives designed to avoid passion, and a life without passion is not a human life.”
Haidt’s criticism of Buddhist philosophy is shared by many who have this misunderstanding of the concept of nonattachment. If Haidt had rather substituted the word “clinging” for attachment then we could rephrase his statement to say “Clinging brings pain, but attachments, when we keep proper perspective on them, bring our greatest joys.”
A life designed to avoid passion would be an empty life, devoid of all the things that give it zest and verve. Buddha taught a Middle Way, somewhere between indifference to the things of this world and wild, irrational clinging to them. How can we find this middle way?
Another story from the Buddhist tradition serves to illustrate:
There is a fire burning in front of us. It’s beautiful. With red, yellow, white. And it’s warm. We like it, so we reach out to hold it. And what happens? It burns us. We pull our hands away, because when we reached out to hold it, it burned us. Does this mean we hate the fire and want to put it out? No. Instead, we desire to behold its beauty and feel its warmth, and so we must learn to sit back and enjoy its colors and its radiance from a distance. We can appreciate and love the fire without holding on to it.
Yes, “passion,” in the best sense of that word, can give “fire” to life—a sense of exuberance and joy. Yes, to live is to risk being burned by the passions. Probably all of us have been burned at one time or another by our own or other people’s appetites and needs and wants. Basically the teaching of the Buddha in regard to attachment is to teach us how to live with passion in the best sense of the word, and not in a way that might lead to us being burned or consumed by the fire. Love and appreciation for the good things of this life requires that they be held – but not too close. The fire of passion is good, when we discipline ourselves to get close enough to feel its heat, but maintain the proper psychological and spiritual distance so that we are not consumed.
This distance may vary between persons and even in the same person at different times. There is a season for the red-hot heat of passionate love, just as there is also a season for the glowing, comfortable warmth of long time companionship. Besides these fires, there are also the beauty and warmth given off by the glowing embers of friends and family. Though my grandkids are not perfect, (they are hopelessly spoiled,) I would not want to dis-attach myself from them. And though they get into trouble and get hurt and experience disappointments that I feel even more than they do, in no way would I want to give up the sweet aches of being a grandparent and watching them grow up. Jut to have one of them take pleasure in sitting in my lap and engage me in conversation can sustain me for days.
Neither would I want to disengage from the sensual pleasures of the body? Yes, they are fleeting, and may give no lasting benefit, but what would life be without the taste of strawberries, the tender touch of my spouse, the smell of the earth after a rain, the sight of a new baby, or the sound of a violin concerto? Who can possibly believe it would be worth giving up all the preciousness of what life has to offer just to avoid suffering? That is not Buddhism as I understand it. The insight of Buddhism is that we are not separate from this world. That our perception of being so is an illusion, and that we can enjoy every good and natural thing if we can only come to grasp that what we love is not truly ours, but belongs to life itself; that what we achieve is not of our ego but is a part of the whole, and is but is a part of the process of the betterment of life unfolding. If, rather than striving to gain things we can learn to find satisfaction in losing ourselves in them, then we might could say that we have understood the idea of nonattachment.

How should the Master have answered the young novice who asked about his girlfriend who was not happy because of his misguided efforts at nonattachment? Perhaps the Master would have told the young grasshopper that he was too attached to his ideas of nonattachment. But in the end, I think he would have chastened the young disciple, and told him to go and do what he must do to get the girl back.

I will give the last word to the poet, who always find ways to say things in ways that speak beyond the words. Mary Oliver says what I have been trying to say in a remarkabley succinct way. She ends her poem “In Blackwater Woods” with these lines that to me speak the essence of nonattachment:

To live in this world you must do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
So may we find the courage and grace to make it so. Amen.

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Happily Ever After?

Once upon a time there lived a girl named Cinderella. You may remember bits of Cindy’s story; how her birth mother was a kind and gracious woman who died when Cindy was young and how her father remarried a haughty and overbearing woman with two older daughters. How life became difficult for Cindy in this new household with her stepmother and stepsisters. She works incessantly to please her stepmother and stepsisters and caters to their every need. She does all the cooking and cleaning, and is treated like a servant. The step sisters become more and more demanding of Cindy as the years pass. Her father, meanwhile, was sort of “not there” for Cindy either emotionally or physically as she grew up. Cindy somehow lived through this difficult childhood, went to the ball, met Prince Charming who immediately fell in love with her, she ran from the ball at the stroke of midnight, she lost her glass slipper which somehow remained a glass slipper while the rest of her clothes returned to rags, the prince searches the kingdom for her, he finally finds her and the shoe fit so to speak, they get married and, as movie producers lead us to believe, they live happily ever after.
However, the sequel to Cinderella’s story may have turned out to be something less than a fairy tale ending. Happily ever after it wasn’t. There were many ups and downs to Cindy’s life after the regal wedding, mostly downs. At first, she seemed to fit into the royal family perfectly. Her Barbie doll beauty and docile personality made her popular with most everyone in the court. She was used to doing everything for herself and serving those around her, and this did not change after she became a princess. If something needed doing, she didn’t sit back and wait to be waited on, she jumped in to help. This earned her the admiration of the common folk who were used to the royal family acting like, well, royalty by being spoiled and expecting everyone to cater to their every want and desire. Yes, she was popular. Too popular, in fact. Soon the prince and the royal family started to show signs of jealousy. The queen mother began to snap at her and criticize her every move. Cindy began to constantly overhear the queen tell everyone how she was just a commoner and would never be good enough for her son. The prince, always a little more preoccupied with his image than with his studies or with making a career for himself, fell into a depression. He began to refuse to go out in public with Cindy, his princess, because she seemed to outshine him so much whenever they were together in the public spotlight. The more active Cindy became in civic affairs and charitable works, the more he retreated into the seclusion of the castle walls. Cindy bore him 2 boys, but they did not seem to be any source of joy to him. He began to drink and became rather bitter about his life. The more Cindy tried to motivate him to pursue outside interests, the more despondent he became. She fussed over him, making sure all his favorite meals were prepared just the way he liked them. She tried to engage him in cheerful conversation about her daily activities, but he only became more and more sullen. The more she tried to do for him, the more he withdrew from life. Rather than the life she had fantasized about where her prince came and rescued her from her previous life of misery she was now living a nightmare. It seems that the conditions of her previous life had been recreated all over again.
Given the patterned ways that people tend to function, this rendition of Cinderella’s untold story is quite likely how her life would have gone, considering the hints we have about her family and her character from the traditional fairy tale. The patterns that led to her unhappiness in marriage and childrearing were already clearly established before she even met Prince Charming. Cinderella was a classic overfunctioner, and was caught up in what is called an overfunctioning-underfunctioning reciprocity. When someone is overfunctioning in a family, there is someone else who is underfunctioning. When one person begins to do for others things that they are capable of doing themselves, it often begins a cycle of learned helplessness ala Cinderella’s stepsisters. The overfunctioner in the family system overfunctions and the other family members compensate by downshifting to a learned helplessness form of existence. The overfunctioner responds to this underfunctioning by ratcheting up the overfunctioning, and the followers sink even lower into greater and greater degrees of underfunctioning. It becomes a vicious cycle that, without the intervention of either a fairy godmother or a marriage and family therapist, often spirals into the demise of the family or worse. Actually, I wrote this fanciful continuation of the story not with Cinderella in mind, but with knowledge of a real life princess, Princess Diana. She fit the pattern I described as well, and we remember how her life ended.
Cinderella is such a classic case of overfunctioning that family therapists often refer to overfunctioning as the Cinderella Syndrome. Overfunctioning in the way that Cinderella did, as by fixing your kids lunches everyday when they are old enough to do it for themselves, or picking up after your spouse when he is perfectly capable of tidying the house, will not result in a prince coming along to carry you off to some romanticized disneyesque world. More than likely the overfunctioner will somehow manage to recreate the same hellish circumstances no matter where he or she lives and works. Considering how conditioned we are to avoiding dealing with the real issues in our lives, the sequel I imagined to Cinderella’s life is the all too probable outcome. All too often the dysfunctions we develop in our families of origin, whether it’s overfunctioning or whatever, get transmitted into our relationships with our spouses and partners and our relationships with our children. Wherever you go, there you are.
When we overfunction in our families or organizations it means that we are taking on more than our share of the responsibility for the welfare and ownership of the system. It is such an easy pattern to fall into. Our overcaffeniated society actually encourages us to fall into this trap, by giving us messages like: always being fearful of losing our jobs, encouraging us to go into debt to have it all now, to always be multitasking one more thing than the human brain was designed to do. Whether we call it overfunctioning or just chronic “busy”ness, it has deleterious consequences. If we are overfunctioning toward others, it encourages them to underfunction. If we are overfunctioning toward others, we are underfunctioning toward our self. If we are overfunctioning at work, we are underfunctioning in some other aspect of our relationship in our life.
Several things attracted me to family systems as the best way to think and process one’s way through life. First, in the family systems way of thinking, the focus is not on the cause of the problem – in this case overfunctioning – the focus is on recognizing it and changing the dynamic. Traditional psychoanalysis usually only encourages us to focus on the psychological cause of the problem. So, before we might have discovered that the person who overfunctions is the oldest of siblings, and thus compelled to take care of the younger siblings, or perhaps that they are the adult child of an alcoholic and they grew up overfunctioning to keep some semblance of normalcy and homeostasis in the family, or that they developed a pattern of overfunctioning because they grew up feeling unloved and this led to compulsive efforts to earn love and acceptance by constantly doing things for the family. These psychodynamics are all very interesting, but family systems cares little about what led to the problem.
Second, family systems thinking focuses on the whole group, or system, rather than just the one on one relationships within that system. This gets us away from thinking “cause and effect,” which automatically leads us to assigning blame for the problem. In systems thinking, we retrain and rewire our brains to think of the interrelations of the entire group or system. Rather than focusing on finding fault in others, systems thinking encourages us to consider the part we play in creating the problem, and how we might better manage ourselves in the situation. This keeps us in the emotional system, but it also allows us to step back, gain perspective, and maintain our objectivity while also lowering our reactivity. Systems thinking doesn’t mean we ignore emotions. On the contrary, it gives us the edge to critically assess and process the emotional field of the entire system. It allows us to be mindful that the entire system is affected by what each person does. But conversely, it also raises our awareness that each person can effect a change within that system.
In a relationship where one person is overfunctioning and the other is underfunctioning, our tendency is to think of the overfunctioner as the healthier, more independent, and more complete of the two. But both are equally dependent on the other for what is missing in themselves. Overfunctioners are invasive of the space of others. They are convinced that they know what is best for someone else and rob them of the ability and initiative to do things for themselves and limits the other persons functioning and makes them dependent. Ever heard of killing others with kindness? That saying likely came from a good systems thinker.
Third and most important, family systems is concerned primarily with effecting change in the system. So, I would ask you today, are you experiencing the Cinderella Syndrome in a relationship at home, work, or perhaps even here in this congregation? If any of this rings true for you, you may be wondering how does one bring about meaningful change, how does one recover from this dysfunction? It requires us to gain an understanding of systems theory and the part we are playing in this dysfunctional dance. Then the overfunctioner has to take control and make themselves less responsible for the other. It requires Cinderella to take stands with the stepmother and stepsisters and perhaps even suffer some of their nastiness. The overfunctioner has to step back and take responsibility for themselves and only themselves, speak for themselves and only themselves. Often, if the overfunctioner can function in this way consistently over an extended period of time, the underfunctioner will step forward and begin to take initiatives to a reciprocal degree. Similarly, if an underfunctioner wants to recover his or her equal place in the relationship, he or she can take initiatives to advance his or her own contributions and take his or her own responsibility for decisions. In systems parlance, this is called defining yourself to the other. Sometimes the best approach is to sit down with the other person or persons and directly renegotiate the terms of your relationship. However, you choose to go about it, expect resistance. You are interfering with the homeostasis of an entire system, and there will be a flurry of protest. If you have been doing things for others that they should be doing for themselves, they will resist, perhaps even call you selfish or insensitive. But if you stay the course, the relationship can be expected to establish a new pattern at a higher level of functioning for all members.
Keep in mind what we discussed last month about putting on our own oxygen mask first. We are not responsible for how others may respond to our initiatives. We are not responsible for their anger and we can’t bring about their happiness. We can only be responsible for our own. If we offer a relationship of mutuality and they accept, wonderful. If they refuse, that is their choice. Our responsibility is to act in a way that honors ourselves as much as the other. To act in any other way disrespects the inherent worth and dignity of every individual and, even though it may give the appearance of being helpful and earn us lots of kudos, its ultimately self defeating and eventually causes more harm than good.
Living with others in an environment of mutuality while at the same time finding and maintaining our own self respect is really the only way to grow peace in our heart and fulfill our human need to both give and receive. Striving to be better differentiated in ways that avoid beckoning traps like overfunctioning is really the only way that life in the real world will ever approximate the wistful ending of happily ever after promised to our imaginations by the magical fairy tale of Cinderella.

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The Elephant in the Room is You

“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” — Mary Engelbreit

Every now and then, I make a resolution that I will start getting up an hour early to go jogging before I start my day.  As a physician, I am very much aware of the benefits of exercise to the body.  Exercise keeps us fit, trim, lowers our cholesterol, increases our stamina and energy levels, and may even prolong our life.  All good things, right?  So I set out to do this on a regular basis.  I set the alarm by the bed to go off at 6 am instead of 7 and I fall off to sleep, snug and secure in the satisfaction that tomorrow is a new beginning toward translating my deeply held conviction that you only go around once in life and you should be all that you can be.

6 am arrives and the alarm goes off.  There I am, in my little cocoon of sheets and blankets and the room is cold.  Coming out of the fog of my dreams, its hard to awaken my firm resolve of the night before.  I look at the digital dial on the alarm and realize that its two hours before I have to be anywhere.  Just reaching up to shut off the alarm is rather annoying, never mind the thought of forcing myself to actually get up and venture outside where it’s really cold to do something that requires me to muster a great deal of energy.  So do I get up or not?  One part of me says yes, another says no.  No matter how much spiritual practice I do, I remain totally schizophrenic.  There are two voices in my head battling it out for my very soul.  Which one eventually wins?   I invite you to look to your own experience for the answer to that one.

The divided self is universal to the human experience.  Our rational side wants us to exercise, to lose weight, be more disciplined about something or other, but our instinctive side, our emotional side, wants to turn over and go back to sleep or to order that tempting dessert.  Our rational side is aware of this division in ourselves, this split in our personality, and may try to outwit our instinctive side by putting the alarm clock across the room to force us to get up.  Or put a lock on the refrigerator to keep us away from the ice cream.  But often this strategy backfires.  What you get instead is a crazed man cursing himself as he stumbles across the room to hit the snooze button or a frantic woman who raids the refrigerator in the middle of the night to get at the tempting dessert that she has held off all day until she can’t stand it any longer.  Let’s face it.  We are an insane species.

This division in the self is at the heart of the human situation.  Poets, philosophers, and psychologists throughout the ages have commented on it.  Plato compared us to a charioteer who uses whip and goad in our attempt to control the unruly horse.  St. Paul wrote, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.  I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[1]  Buddha said that the mind is like a wild elephant and needs a trainer to control it.  Freud wrote about the selfish id and the conscientious superego.  Perhaps the best analogy comes from Johnathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, who picked up on the elephant idea of the Buddha and says that the dynamic tension between these two aspects of our selves is best represented by a rider atop an elephant.  The tiny rider being the rational side of our self and the 6 ton elephant being our instinctive, emotional side.  The rider can direct the elephant as long as the elephant does not have desires of its own.  However, when the elephant really wants something, the rider is totally outmatched.

Why did human beings develop is this way, so that they are often divided in purpose?  It really makes perfect sense, if you think of it in evolutionary terms.  These two “minds” roughly correspond to the two information processing systems within our brains.  Humans have automatic processing, which handles dozens of functions all at once without us even having to think about it. The automatic response system developed because its quick and reliable action gave our species an advantage in securing food quickest and avoiding danger the fastest.  Things like breathing, blinking, and withdrawing our hand from a hot stove happen without any conscious effort on our part.  That’s the elephant.  We also have controlled processing, which requires conscious effort and deliberation, but is able to analyze and plan for the future.  That’s the rider.   Our elephant part works pretty well, as thousands of years of product cycles of natural selection has gotten all the bugs out.  But controlled processing, the ability to deliberate and plan for the future is, in evolutionary terms, a relatively new addition.  But the rider helped certain elephants do certain things in a better way.  Evolution selected the elephants that got the most use out of the rider.

How do these two information processing systems work together?  Suppose it is getting to be about dinnertime.  The elephant only knows its hungry.  To plan a meal, the rider is needed to choose the menu, look up recipes, choose the proper ingredients, and plan the process of putting the ingredients together.  Controlled processing, while it can be quite elaborate, is quite limited.  It can only think consciously about one thing at a time.  But while these elaborate controlled processes required for cooking take place, everything else is done automatically by our elephant – breathing, stirring, chopping, maintaining proper distance from the heat of the stove, even feeling the proper texture and consistency of our culinary creation are all functions that happen without any conscious effort on our part.  So both parts of our divided self are necessary to bring about purposeful, intelligent behavior.

All in all, this divided system of processing functions fairly well until we decide to make some significant change in our life.  If you’ve ever tried to get up early, started a diet, bought a piece of exercise equipment, started piano lessons or the study of a foreign language, you know what I’m talking about.  That’s when your rider, who thinks its in control, likely finds itself at odds with the elephant.  And the elephant, being much larger, usually wins.  The rider wants the trim body and the elephant wants the ice cream cone.  The rider is simply unable to keep the elephant on the path long enough to reach the destination.

The elephant and the rider is a brilliant metaphor for helping us think about our internal difficulties with discipline and change, but it can also lead us to oversimplify the problem.  The elephant isn’t always the bad guy.  The elephant also has good qualities and the rider has its faults.  Emotion is the elephant’s turf – love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty.  That fierce instinct you have to protect your children from danger – that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself – that’s the Elephant.  All the gut feelings, visceral reactions, intuitions, everything about us that comprises emotional intelligence, that’s the elephants domain.  Most importantly, it’s the elephant who furnishes the drive to get things done.

Conversely, the rider isn’t always the good guy.  The rider tends to spin his wheels. Have you ever heard of analysis into paralysis?  That’s the rider.  The Rider tends to get focused on problems and this can lead to hesitancy and inaction.  The rider is that part of ourselves that can see into the future, but if all he ever does is plan and plan and never takes action, nothing ever gets accomplished.  The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence that contributes to the unique brilliance of human beings.

The big question – one that has plagued humankind ever since we became reflective beings – is how do you get the elephant and the rider to cooperate with one another?

Willpower alone seldom brings about change.  In other words, while the rider can yank on the reins or goad the elephant and get his way for a time, it seldom lasts very long.  The elephant is simply too strong for the rider to win a tug of war, and the elephant, being emotional, will get angry and refuse, or simply be stubborn.  So the rider exhausts himself.

Motivational speakers, personal trainers, using the rider atop the elephant metaphor, have come up with all sorts of effective strategies to get the two working together.  Most of these techniques, well known to behavioral scientists, usually consist of 3 elements.  Directing the rider, motivating the elephant, and clearing the path.  First, direct the rider.  That is, set concrete, one step at a time goals.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  For me, in my quest to begin a jogging program, that meant telling myself, the goal is not something abstract like, get in shape.  It meant the goal this week is to run a mile every other day.  Next week run a mile and a half every other day.  That’s directing the rider by giving him small, concrete, achieveable goals.    Second, motivate the elephant.  Engage the emotions.  The elephant will be more motivated if it can imaginatively envision the destination or goal.  It also helps to create stronger emotions related to the attainment of the goal.  For me, the idea of having a smaller waistline was not motivating enough.  So I began to think of something that was more important to me.  I want to be around to play with my grandkids and watch them grow up and do things with them.  That turned out to elicit much stronger emotions within me toward the attainment of my goal.  And it has helped me to stay with my exercise regimen.  Third, clearing the path.  Make it easier for the elephant to go the way that you desire it to go.  For me, that meant changing the time I planned to go jogging.  Overcoming the inertia of my lazy body at 6 am was simply too difficult a path for my elephant.  So now I attempt to run first thing when I first get home in the afternoon.   This is much more agreeable to my elephant as my elephant already has its adrenalin flowing at 5 pm whereas at 6 am its hopeless to get him moving.

To me, the genius of Haidt’s book is that he took this idea of the divided self, the idea of the rider and the elephant, and applied it to several facets of human development, human flourishing and human well being, not just to the discipline and motivation to diet and exercise.  He reexamines such big ideas as – how we change our minds, how we deal with challenge and adversity, the role of relationships, the role of virtue, the role of religion and the divine – all from the perspective of this struggle between the rider and the elephant.  And it is amazing how illuminating it is to examine these crucial pieces of the human situation in light of the rider and elephant model.  That’s what I will be doing in a series of sermons I will be doing once a month – looking at some of these ideas in light of Haidt’s model of the rider and elephant.

I will finish by sharing something Haidt shared when he was interviewed right after his book was published.  He said his research on human fulfillment and well being really can be boiled down to two big ideas he picked up from Buddhism.  The first is the idea of the human mind being like that of the elephant and the trainer which he modified into the metaphor of the elephant and the rider.  The second is this thought from the Buddha, “All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.”  From these two simple ideas Haidt develops a remarkably coherent path for those of us who strive to better understand ourselves and others and who seek to bring about meaningful change.  It basically boils down to this.  The elephant often gets stuck thinking it can somehow make the world conform to its wishes.  The rider is the real change agent, but only when the rider learns to change its thinking.  As the quote on your OOS today says, “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”

If nothing else, an examination of these ideas will help us to be more gentle and patient with ourselves and with others.  Most all of us have learned from years of experience that you can’t just resolve to be happy. You can’t just resolve to exercise, that you can’t just resolve to quit overeating, you can’t just resolve to stop and smell the flowers – because the rider does the resolving but it’s the elephant that does the behaving. Once you understand the limitations of your psychology and how hard it is to change yourself, you become much more tolerant of others, because you realize how difficult it is to change anyone.  A valuable lesson for us all, one that it seems we keep having to learn again and again.

May it be so for all who have the grace to accept this difficult teaching.  Amen.


[1] Romans 7: 18,19

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