Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

September 23, 2014: “Another Sermon About Peace?”

Welcome again to our International Day of Peace service. The actual day declared by the United Nations was Friday, but since this is the closest Sunday, we commemorate it today, along with many other churches. The United Nations General Assembly invites us on this day to ponder peace in a focused way, and to recommit ourselves to it.

I had just began to turn my mind toward today’s theme, wondering what I might be able to say to you, who have been passionate peace advocates all along, when that vulgar, hateful movie trailer swam to the surface and seemed to ignite a powder keg of rage, resulting in the tragic deaths in Libya, and the seemingly contagious spread of newly energized rage against the west. Since then, the news media has suggested numerous theories about all this:

that the event was actually a pre-planned terrorist strike which simply took advantage of the rage unleashed by the film;

that all this is not really about the film, but about fledglings democracies finding their feet;

that the west must understand that these countries have no conceptual understanding of free speech, and so it never occurs to them that a movie like this might not be government supported.

Some have said that our administration was too apologetic and that to express regret over the film is a weak and dangerous foreign policy message to put out.

Some feel the event was cynically used by candidates in attempt to gain political capitol.

Some believe that the extremists we saw in the media only represent a tiny percentage of Muslims.

Some say “they are all like that and we had better wake up and get prepared.”

I personally have listened to a lot of NPR this week, especially “World Have Your Say” because I think it offers a much clearer world analysis. Since much of my listening was done while I was driving, I fear I cannot offer attribution for what I heard. But the most striking comment which I finally heard late in the week was from a woman with a quiet, almost tentative voice. The discussion was about how one bad, amateur movie trailer could incite so much rage. Callers were offering input, comments along the lines of the ones I mentioned a few minutes ago. Finally, this quiet, unassuming woman said, very simply, “perhaps that part of the world, in general, hates us because we bomb them.” She was referring, I assume, to our war based on the hunt for alleged weapons of mass destruction which of course were never found, to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and to a long history of aggressive US interventionism in that region. In any case, her quiet comment brought me up short, and cut through the all the analysis, all the thick, flurry of words, with a beam of clarity.

My moment of insight was not only related to her point, which was, in my opinion, a really salient one. It was also over the fact that in this week plus of analysis, this was the very first time I had heard this position stated. And it reminded me anew of the real point I want to make in this sermon, which is the tendency of the human mind, indeed the cunning, baffling, insidious tendency NOT to look at its own part in things, but to remain steadfastly, insistently focused on “the enemy’s” part, and additionally, only to see that which reinforces their wrongness, and our rightness, in a stunning and completely unconscious process of selective reinforcement.

Now, of course, we have moved out of the content of this particular, recent conflict, to the deeper question of the mindset that creates conflict and keeps it going. Because whether it is conflict at the level of full blown war, complete with its unspeakable panoply of horror and human suffering, or whether it is at the level of violence in the home, with its own panoply of horrors for intimate partners and children of abusers. Or whether it is far down the spectrum from there, at the level of addictive fighting, or even compulsive bickering, the need to be right at all costs, that feeling that your life is somehow on the line even in what you deep down know is really just a stupid power struggle, but you cannot, for the life of you, drop your side of the tug of war rope and simply walk away.

I want to be clear. I am NOT saying it is all the same thing. There are complex issues and dynamics involved in war, in genocide, in domestic violence, in any form of violence that deserve their own thorough analysis and consideration, and that deserve their own informed, educated approach by way of working through, and to which we should call specific attention, as we are trying to do this weekend with our banners of support for this UN Peace day, and which this church does so powerfully with its silent witnesses, bringing attention and offering education, compassion and empowerment related to domestic violence, by placing in our yard, statues for each women killed by an intimate partner. With heavy hearts, we will unveil four new ones, next week after the service.

So different types of violence and conflict should be addressed in their particularity. None the less, I do believe there are some similarities in all human conflict, and that it has to do with what the spiritual teachers have tended to call “ego mind.”

One of my favorite writers, Anne LaMott, tells of a time when she and a friend were together, with both of their two year old sons playing. As happens with two year olds, there began to be a lot of talk about “me” and “mine”. And pretty soon her friend’s child raised his tightly closed fist, looked at the other boy, and said, “I have the Itty Tro!” Now keep in mind that nobody in that room knew what the “Itty Tro” was, but sure enough, the other child immediately said, “I WANT the Itty Tro!”. And even the mothers, LaMott admitted, although remaining ever so much more sophisticated about it all, had to admit to the tiniest sense of aligning with their own sons in this struggle over… precisely nothing. In the end, when they pried open the clenched fist of the one “who started it” they found nothing at all. It was all about symbolic power, symbolic victory.

Its easy to laugh about the willfulness of two year olds, but I wonder how many of our adult altercations, be they at work over the water cooler, or in meetings, or in church committees, or in traffic, or especially in our families at around five o’clock in the evening, during what I’ve heard called Arsenic Hour” are really just battles over the Itty Tro.

Some of you may have heard of the book “The New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle. I have read it many times, and while I don’t necessarily buy Tolle’s philosophy as a seamless garment, I do think he does an exemplary job of describing how the human mind works, specifically, what he calls the “Ego Mind”. He does not use the word “ego” in the usual sense that we hear it, meaning arrogance, nor in the Freudian sense, meaning as opposed to superego or id. He uses it to describe the part of the personality that “Wants the Itty Tro!” The part that makes us feel like our very life is on the line when someone else is trying to prove us wrong; the part that sees only information which reinforces OUR way of seeing; the part that has such a difficult time saying “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” Or as we say in our marriage, “I’m Srrrrr…” This is the part that gives in, on occasion, to the delicious temptation to gossip, or even just subtly to put someone else down, because in doing so, we feel somehow moved up a notch in the pecking order. It’s the part that likes to complain about the bad service because we find energy in that hit of righteous indignation. Now don’t get me wrong, it can be entirely appropriate to raise the issue when the service is bad, or to assert ourselves when healthy boundaries have been violated. And it is important to disagree in committee meetings, church or otherwise, if we just have a different point of view. Decisions are best when they are the result of differing perspectives, and we need checks and balances, and the wisdom that can emerge from a wider pool of input. But there is a way to disagree that is truly about the situation or issue itself, and there is a way that is not about those things at all, but really about mere self-assertion and getting the itty tro. If you want to know which mode you’re in at any given moment, stop and assess your blood pressure, or at least your psychological blood pressure. Are you feeling defensive and angry, the need to prove yourself right and to prove the other person to be the idiot that he most certainly is? OK that might be a sign that you’ve slipped into what Tolle calls the ego mind. ****Buddhism calls it attachment. Everybody has a term for it, and in every system, it creates suffering. And the really cunning thing about the ego mind is that it is totally unaware and unconscious of its own true nature, ESPECIALLY when it is in control. Then, you are convinced that it really is the issue at hand and not your need to be right, not your unconscious thoughts about it. And the mind is off and running with that compulsive thinking thing, rehearsing what you will say, perhaps firing off the smoking letter. (I believe Harry Potter called them “howlers.”) Maybe talking to others whom you know will agree with you, and will tell you what you want to hear.

Well here’s the thing about conflict. Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it in the first place.” In other words, Itty Tro battles (even though we rarely recognize them as such) cannot be solved by Itty Tro thinking. And yet we try to do it at every level. They think the people who made the movie filled with hate speech, and the people who announce dates for a public burning of the Koran, represent all of us. We think the extremists who call for and perpetrate violence and murder, (against the actual teaching of the prophet, by the way,) represent all of them. Then we both see only that which reinforces these beliefs, and we project our own shadow onto this giant nemesis, and feel self righteous for doing so. And I think we play out this huge parallel psychodrama at about every level. If it weren’t so tragic and violent and degrading and unspeakably horrible, it would almost be comical because it’s the two year olds with the itty tro over and over and over.

The problem of course, is rigid, ego based, fundamentalism of any kind…religious, psychological, ideological, political, whatever. It’s a problem because by definition it lacks any hint of humility and is constitutionally incapable of seeing that what it most despises in the other is the exact thing that exists in itself. Instead, it reacts to a monstrous and elaborate caricature, constructed largely by the ego mind, shorn up by selective reinforcement.

We have to find a way out of the ego mind, which is always ready to tell you, incidentally, that this time it is not about the ego mind. (That little weasel is clever, I’m telling you!) Tolle says, “the extent of the ego’s inability to recognize itself and see what it is doing is staggering and unbelievable. But there is hope, because to become free of the ego is not really a big job, but is, in one sense, a very small one. All you need to do is become aware that it is operating.” All the spiritual teachers agree. We cannot fight against the ego mind, because the more we struggle against it, the more we energize it. It just keeps doubling back on itself and creating more of the same. The way out is simply to witness or observe that it is operating. To observe without judgment or reaction, really just to notice. Ram Das says we should just notice it and say, “Oh! Hello Mr. Self Righteous Need to be Right! I see you’ve come to visit!”And simply this, simply pulling back and noticing the whole thing, is like opening the window so the fresh air can pour in. I have tried to offer you a visual of this on the front of today’s bulletin. In the top diagram, the person is seeing from within the ego mind, unaware that this is happening. You could replace the words “thought system” there with ego mind, and you could fill in the box with terms like, roles, possessions, sense of self identity, beliefs, opinions, judgements, preferences, pet peeves, reactions, and so forth. None of this is bad in and of itself, and we need a sense of “I” from which to operate, because each of us is, after all, the primary player in our own life. The problem is not in having an ego, it is when we forget that it is just one part of our larger identity, and become unconsciously locked within it, such that everything it takes issue with become an annoyance, a power battle. The alternative is portrayed in the lower picture. Nothing changes in terms of the content of the box. Rather the perspective pulls back and one’s larger self recognizes that the ego mind is operating. And simply becoming aware and noticing breaks the spell, turns on the light and allows for a little humility, flexibility and grace to return. Maybe even a little dose of humor about one’s own faux pas?

I think every one of the religious prophets worth his or her salt came to teach, demonstrate and embody what it looks like when a human being lives not out of the ego self, but out of that deeper place of observing it when the ego mind takes control, and steps back and makes room for love, for wisdom, for God or whatever you choose to call it. and to live from THAT deeper place of love and wider perspective. The actions that need to be taken in either case may be exactly the same. But the energy around the actions will be totally different, and will be far more effective and healing when it comes from the bottom picture. I think this is what is meant by that possibly cliché but still profound saying, “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.”

The hard thing is that we have to recommit to this path every day. I wish it could be a once for all thing. It would be so much easier. But it’s not that way. I have to redirect my intention and recommit myself to living by the Spirit, and not by ego, every single day. Indeed, multiple times a day when I find myself in those little, daily dramas where the struggle is playing out…And you know what? Its not easy to work this hard, to think that each little episode of any given day is the place where I’m being transformed from ego into love… But I believe that’s part of why every religion and spirituality emphasizes, to some extent, the now. Each and every present moment is the school in which we can move from ego, with its fear, anger, self assertion and varying degrees of war…into at least some degree of “being peace.”

This is also not to say that personal growth, becoming peaceful people less hamstrung by ego mind, will in and of itself do the job. In fact, we need to wage peace at every level: by teaching conflict resolution and mediation, by working for justice in both foreign and domestic policy, because at the table of peace will be bread and justice; by speaking truth to power despite the cost. But I don’t think it’s an either/or thing, and the more that people take responsibility for the energy that they put into the world, the more people may be creating a critical mass of a new and higher level of consciousness, one that just might help raise the baseline to something with more civility and tolerance if not love and goodwill.

If you will forgive the early nod to a sacred text from my own tradition, I think this is what the familiar words of first Corinthians 13 are really about. If I speak with great eloquence, if I offer my body to be burned, if I do all good works, but have not love…I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. The unstated other side is, if I operate from a place of love, a place of peace, the bottom square rather than the top, then whatever I do will be more likely togain traction, take wing, and have staying power.

There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.
And love will guide us.
Let us stand and sing together.

Seeing from within the unconscious confines of one’s own thought system or ego mind.

Becoming conscious of the fact that one has been operating from within a thought system or ego mind.