Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

January 8, 2017: “Going Around in Circles”

I hate chewing gum. I find chewing something, just for the sake of chewing, to be….

Well, never mind. Let’s just say I don’t get it. Let’s just say that the whole concept of chewing gum is so foreign to me that during periods of my life when I’ve been … less evolved, I’ve said some unkind things about the people who chew gum. Which doesn’t make any sense, I know, because lots of good people do it. It’s not illegal. Some people find it relaxing, or energizing, or to be a great methodology for avoiding other things like smoking or biting their nails or falling asleep.


[Pause. Get centered.]

I hate it. You could say it makes me crazy. Drives me nuts. Sends me around the bend.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us, at some point in our lives, have used one of those phrases, regularly, like a catchphrase. My parents did. Their parents did. At home, I’ve been known to look down at Toulouse, sniffing around the kitchen floor and say “Little dog, you’re driving me crazy. Go to your bed.”

Now, I know that he isn’t doing anything. He’s just being the food-motivated dog that he is, and that has nothing to do with me. But still, I say it sometimes. I’m glad he doesn’t understand.

Because one of the problems with labeling the other as the crazy one is that it makes light of differences. We’re all made a little differently, we’re all wired a little differently, and in difficult situations, situations where we’re afraid of possible outcomes, or feel like we have no control, we respond differently.

Yesterday, here in this sanctuary, there was a meeting of about 6o people who in two weeks will be boarding three buses for a whirlwind 22 hour trip to Washington DC. We’ll be sleeping on those buses, with not a very good idea right now of where we’ll be dropped off, where we’ll be picked up, or even how long we’ll have to fend ourselves in weather that could be very cold, or very wet, or very mild.

In other words, nobody has much control of anything.

Some people were like me. I figure, if I have no idea what’s going on, but I need to be there, I’m just going to show up and make it work. I’ll deal with it when I get there. I’m not going to ask questions. I’m not going to plan.

Others were exactly the opposite. They asked a lot of questions – like, how far will we have to walk? Where exactly is the event taking place? What can I take with me?

And if a question was already asked and answered unsatisfactorily, it would be asked again, using different words. Like the fly in the story, some people kept approaching the requests for information from different angles, hoping for – but not really expecting – a different response.

I’ll be honest. My first response in that situation was … annoyance. My instinctual reaction was to make wrong all the people who approach the situation differently from me, which isn’t right or helpful, I know, so rather than lashing out, I checked out. Actually, I started checking email on my smart phone.

Now, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know myself pretty well, I think. I know that the result of my lack of attention and planning is that, like the moth, in two weeks I will probably just go off toward the light, oblivious. And while I don’t expect to get zapped to death by an electrical current, I do expect that I will be found without something I need and having to count on my credit card to fix the problem. 
I’ll also be relying on the good planning of other people – the people who asked all the questions.

I also know that when we arrive amidst a thousand other buses, the planners will be relying on my ability to move in the direction the universe is moving me to help them stay calm.

We’ll mutually benefit from the different ways we’re wired. That’s not something to make light of.

Another problem with labeling the other as the crazy one is that we’re fooling ourselves. Most of us, when we’re feeling stretched thin or forced into a situation where we have no control, can go from cheerful acceptance of a situation through mild discomfort and into exasperation… in no time at all. So it feels not like we’re agitated by some other situation, but instead agitated by the person – or little dog – that’s right in front of us.

In psychiatric terms, it’s called deflection.

Instead of taking a moment to take stock, figure out why we’re so uncomfortable, we blame the nearest sentient being who is just doing whatever it is they do.

We blame them for being who they are, when we’re uncomfortable with how we’re feeling.

I know you probably already know this. But it’s easy to forget, especially under stress.

Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and writer on Buddhist thought
refers to the Buddhist Sutra called Anguttara Nikaya:

I know nothing which is as intractable as an untamed heart…
I know nothing which brings suffering as does an untamed, uncontrolled, unattended, and unrestrained heart…
I know nothing which brings joy as does a tamed, controlled, attended, restrained heart.

The way to a controlled heart of course, is meditation. Epstein says that “for a child, the taming of the heart occurs when a parent survives the onslaught of the child’s emotions.” The parent trains the child to exchange emotions by doing it herself. Meditation allows for the “gradual cultivation of mindfulness in which nonjudgmental awareness is extended from the body to feelings, emotions, and states of mind. (1)

In other words, meditation – sitting still and taking stock of the body, while letting go of unhelpful thoughts – teaches us to be calm during times of stress, and to be mindful of where we end and the other begins. Meditation gives us the skill to not deflect, to be nonjudgmental about others.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, the guy who wrote the story of the fly and the moth, was a family therapist who made his career training religious leaders to use family systems theory in congregations. He called this “nonjudgmental state,” the state Epstein reaches through meditation, individuation.

Individuation is separating yourself from others, it’s the process of figuring out what is your work to do, and separating that from the work of others.

It’s sitting in a room full of people, all anxious because they’re about to give up control of their lives for 22 hours, and dealing with your own anxiety as you let everyone else deal with theirs, without trying to change them. Which is a lot harder than it sounds, especially if your heart is untamed because your parents weren’t particularly good at surviving the onslaught of your emotions as a child. Especially if you don’t have a meditation practice.

Individuation is staying calm, even when way of dealing with the situation seems ineffective to everyone around you, and their process feels like an onslaught of emotion. Individuation is being yourself, knowing yourself, and letting everyone else do the same, and trusting that in the end, we’ll probably all benefit from the diversity of experiences.

So what can we learn this morning from the story about the fly and the moth?

First of all, both were committed fully to what they were doing. The Fly may have seemed compulsive, and the moth a little too nonchalant, but each was doing what it needed to do, true to its own self. But there’s no way the moth was ever going to change the fly. The fly was distracting itself by even trying.

On the surface, it may have looked like the fly was the only one stuck in a pattern, but really, they both were. 
The moth was as tenacious about trying to change the fly as the fly was about trying to find an opening in the window. It’s hard to break our own habits when they aren’t serving us, but the hardest habit to break is breaking the habits of others.

We hold onto our habits because, even if they aren’t serving us, they bring us comfort in situations that feel chaotic.

We’re all born with certain tendencies that develop into habits, and those habits come to define us.

We become our habits, and out of those habits, the personalities that define us to others as tenacious or lackadaisical, obstinate or unperturbed, depending on their perspective.

Even if we don’t see ourselves that way, others do.

My individuated self knows that in a world of only flies and moths, I am a moth, more likely to go with the flow, waiting to see what the universe brings to me than to try ten thousand different ways of approaching a problem.

You’d think that I would want a world full of moths. We could just hang out, fluttering about, enjoying our time, regardless of how short it might be.

But the truth is, even though the flies sometimes distract or annoy me, I’m glad they are there, doing what they were made to do. I benefit from their work, and I know the flies benefit from mine, in the context of a congregation or a bus trip to DC.

Because sometimes, what we get out of being in relationship with other people, isn’t what they can give us. What we get out of being in relationship is what we can learn about ourselves. And that takes work balancing the tension between letting people be who they are and challenging them to grow.

Balancing the tension between changing yourself and staying the same.

Basically, the tension between two conflict desires that we think should co-exist beautifully: I want to stay exactly the same, and I want you to change.

Even if I know my way of being isn’t any better than your way of being. Even if I know that while you’re flying at that window over and over again from a million different angles isn’t any worse than my nonchalantly fluttering over to a light source to get zapped.

If what you’re doing is not harmful to others or the system in which we’re living, let’s say it’s as begign as chewing gum, then both of us are probably best served if I just let it go, and focus on my own work. Like figuring out why gum bothers me so much.

I guess what I’m saying in my flighty, mothy way is this: what we get out of anything – a bus trip with a bunch of strangers, church life, family life – is directly proportional to the amount of work we put into ourselves, and inversely proportional to the amount of judgment we deflect onto others.

Not labeling other people nuts isn’t merely identity politics or succumbing to what may be thought of as the tyranny of political correctness, infringing on your right to say whatever the heck you feel like saying.

Not labeling other people is about making an effort to individuate, to do your own work without blaming others, who already have enough disadvantages to overcome. We can learn from each other, even complement each other, so that the tenacity of the fly and the calmness of

Let’s complement one another now, by singing together a song of call and response.

(1) Mark Epstein, MD, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness. 1998. Broadway Books. P 102.