Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

November 10, 2013: “The Five Secrets You Must Learn Before You Die Part 2”

First Reading: Portions of the poem “Instructions to Painters & Poets” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti from his anthology How to Paint Sunlight

I asked a hundred painters and a hundred poets
how to paint sunlight
on the face of life.
Their answers were ambiguous and ingenuous,
as if they were all guarding trade secrets.

Whereas it seems to me
all you have to do
is conceive of the whole world
and all humanity
as a kind of art work,
a site-specific art work,
an art project of the source of light-
the whole earth and all that’s in it
to be painted with light.

And the first thing you have to do
is …to paint yourself
in your true colors
in primary colors
as you seem them
(without whitewash)
paint yourself as you see yourself
without make-up
without masks.

Then paint your favorite people and animals
with your brush loaded with light
And be sure you get the perspective right
and don’t fake it
because one false line leads to another.

And don’t paint out the shadows made by light.
Paint the dark corners, too:
everywhere in the world, all the hidden places
in the world.

And don’t forget to paint
all those who lived their lives
as bearers of light
Paint their eyes
and the eyes of every animal
and the eyes of men and women
known only for the light of their minds.

Paint the light of their eyes
the light of sunlit laughter
the song of eyes
the song of birds in flight

And remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside.

And when you’ve finished your painting,
stand back astonished.
Stand back and observe 
the life on earth that you’ve created.
The lighted life on earth.

Second Reading, from Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The beach is not the place to work; to read, write, or think. I should have remembered that from other years. Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit. One never learns. Hopefully, one carries down that faded straw bag, lumpy with books, clean paper, long over-due unanswered letters, freshly sharpened pencils, lists, and good intentions. The books remain unread, the pencils break their points, and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky. No reading, no writing, no thoughts even – at least, not at first. At first, the tired body takes over completely. As on shipboard, one descends into a deck-chair apathy. One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the sea-shore. Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings. And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense – no-but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channeled whelk, a moon shell, or even an argonaut. But it must not be sought for or – heaven forbid! – dug for. No, no dredging of the sea-bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.

It was my late brother-in-law, John Henry, pipe fitter and wise poet, who first alerted me to the fact that I was wishing my life away. He observed, one day, that I seemed always to be chasing the panacea just over the next hill, and he cautioned me against it. I was only in high school at the time, but was already tending to defer living in the moment, skipping ahead of myself and believing that once I got my driver’s license or graduated from high school, or whatever that day’s obsession was, THEN I would be happy and real life could commence. John’s wise observation planted a seed of dawning awareness in me. Little did I know at the time that he had just honed in on what I would come to understand as my life’s work.

And I rather strongly suspect that I am not the only one. In the past few years, there has been a huge increase in books and classes on mindfulness, which can loosely be defined as living in full engagement with each present moment. Indeed, Dr. John Izzo, in his book The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, on which this sermon series is based, identifies one of the secrets as being able to “live in the present moment.” You will remember from last week that Izzo conducted extensive interviews with a couple hundred people who were identified by those in their lives as especially wise, and from those interviews Izzo discovered five particular commonalities, one of which is this notion of living in the moment.

I suspect there are good reasons for the increased awareness of this issue. Our culture and individual lives have seen an exponential increase in information, complexity and change since the 1970’s. We are now expected to process more information than any generation in history, to multitask and our real live even as we are also living virtual ones by means of any number of gadgets in our pockets. We are indeed disarticulated from our souls, let alone absent, missing in action, from any given “present moment.” Doctors report a huge upswing in the number of people in their forties and fifties who report being seriously worried about their memories. The best explanation I have heard of this is that we don’t remember what we never actually heard in the first place, and we don’t hear things when we are disengaged from the moment because we are mentally preoccupied with anything BUT the moment. Our disks are “full” so data does not get saved.

I would like to offer a few suggestions this morning. These are simple and practical ways that have helped me in my life’s work of learning to come to the moment. I am by no means “accomplished.” But here are some things that help.

First, on this day when we are surrounded by art, I would remind us that engaging in creative pursuits is one of the best ways to come to the moment. Mihaly Csik szent mihaly (I am sure I mangled that pronunciation) in his book, Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, deals with this idea extensively, as does William Glasser in Positive Addiction. Both assert that any creative, positive activity that causes us to “lose track of time” to get out of our compulsive, thinking mind and into that expansive creative flow, probably does us more good than almost anything. It might be painting, bringing light to the world, as Diana read about. It might be music, allowing its exquisite harmonies to carry you to a healing, transcendent place. For me it is writing sermons, even though every week I dread it. Once I get into it, it sometimes feels like the vitality of the universe is bypassing my mind altogether and pouring directly through my fingers on the keyboard, bringing a joyful aliveness. For some, it is getting lost in the flow of a good, long run or the methodical building of something or working through an elegant mathematical equation. It can be anything that causes us to slip out of chronological time into what the Greeks called “kairos time” or really, timelessness. Soul time. Often, when I realize I have been feeling dry, preoccupied, or vacant from my life, it is in part because I have dammed up the creative river, not provided opportunity for “flow.” The waters quickly become stagnant.

Related to this would be the suggestion that when we are disengaged from our souls, and merely going through the motions, it helps to go to expansive places. I love the essay by Anne Morrow Lindbergh that we heard this morning. There is something absolutely medicinal about looking across an expansive body of water, preferably one where you cannot see the other shore. To find a wide, white beach “erased by today’s tide of all yesterday’s scribbling.” To become lulled by “the slow flapping of herons’ wings.” A friend of mine who grew up in North Dakota says she has the same experience when looking across what appear to be infinite fields of grass or grain. Anything that is free of particulars. It seems to free us from the particulars of our minds and lives, for a moment, connects us to something infinite and restorative and vast, so that then we can go back to the particulars of our lives able to absorb and engage with refreshed spirits. And if you cannot go to beaches of Maine for a summer like Anne Morrow Lindburgh could, try an afternoon at Mentor Headlands. Even this time of year. It does the trick nicely. Trust me, I did it Wednesday, just for half an hour, but it worked.

In addition to going to expansive places, it helps to create oases of expansive time. Remember how the summers of childhood seemed to go on forever? Well, the physicist writer of the interesting little book, Unwinding the Clock, which looks at how we experience and relate to time, says that time is also expansively healing when we don’t chop it up so much. I think this is the good part of what’s behind the idea of Sabbath- not just a day of rest, but a day where time is unscheduled, where you don’t have to go somewhere else or think about something else, but can just, in the words of Walt Whitman, “loaf and invite your soul.” I wonder if summers still feel eternal to children, or if chopping them up into sports camp and theatre camp and a thousand other meaningful scheduled activities has changed that.

A fourth way to increase one’s ability to engage with the present moment, is to come to understand and work with one’s mind. Meditation is a marvelous way to practice noticing the mind, how it skips restlessly from this to that, from our lives’ dramas and the scenarios, to whatever mental squirrels we chase. In meditation, one begins to notice, just notice, when the compulsive, over functioning mind is doing its thing. Slowly, over time, the practice of meditation assists the mind to quiet, the thoughts to slow, and eventually, the energy frequency of one’s life to change. And then there is more ability to stay present, to engage with what is actually going on, as opposed to what might happen in the future, for example. I know I have wasted so much time in my life worrying about the future. I love the reminder, ‘don’t bleed before you’re shot because they might not shoot you at all, and then you will have bled for nothing. And even if they do shoot you, there will be time to bleed then, so why do it twice?’

A final and perhaps most potent tool for staying present to the moment is to cultivate the habit of gratitude, even, and maybe especially, for the little, common things. This does not especially come naturally. Children usually have to be taught to say thank you, and most of us are adults before we learn the importance of really lingering over the feeling of gratitude. But we enhance our lives and the lives of our children enormously when we cultivate a discipline of looking for things for which to be grateful, and then taking time to name our gratitude and to savor it. In one of my favorite plays, Our Town by Thorton Wilder, the character Emily, who has died, is permitted to return to earth and watch her thirteen year old self live through one, normal day. After a brief time of witnessing her own conversation with her mother from that day, she cannot stand it, and tries to call through the veil, saying “Mama! Right Now! We are together and we’re happy. Let’s LOOK AT ONE ANOTHER!” Later, she asks the character of the Stage Manager, who is the play’s wisdom figure, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute? “No, Emily,” He wistfully concludes. “Saints and poets, maybe they do, some.”

I am going to close now, speaking of technology, with a portion of a Ted Talk video. Many thanks to David Domanski who is always unfailingly cheerful when I call him at the last minute and ask him to provide these additions to the service. A short video on living in the present…