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“Simplicity and Silence”

Rev. Paul Sprecher

Barbara Merritt retells a remarkable parable about adversity as a spiritual practice from Rumi, the thirteenth-century Islamic poet and mystic – and author of our familiar hymn “Come, Come, Whoever You Are.” [adapted]

As she tells it:

[In the story] "Sheikh Kharraqani and His Wretched Wife" … a young religious seeker heard of a Sheikh who could bestow peace to a conflicted mind with a single glance. He set off on the long journey to the mountains where the Sheikh was believed to live. When he arrived at the Sheikh's house and knocked on the door, the teacher's wife stuck her head out of the window and screamed “What do you want?” “To see the great, holy teacher,” the seeker replied. The Sheikh’s wife let loose with a barrage of insults, recriminations, accusations, calling the Sheikh a parasite, a fraud and the young man a fool. The young man was undeterred. Her angry words could not stop his quest for wisdom.

He learned from others in the village that the teacher was in the forest collecting firewood. When he arrived there, the teacher suddenly appeared riding on a lion. The teacher had not only the power to quiet and tame the wildest of beasts, he could also read that unspoken question in the mind of the young man about why such a wise teacher would stay with such an abusive wife. The Sheikh immediately answered that unspoken question. He said that he had not chosen his wife and that he did not desire her company. He was committed to her, but for reasons of his own. "It is not her perfume or bright colored clothes. Enduring her public disdain has made me strong and patient. She is my practice."

Barbara goes on to say that:

In this story, Rumi suggests a whole new way of looking at what is trouble some, difficult, or demanding. "This is my practice." It could be a specific person or your own grumpy, stubborn, self-centered personality. It could be your health, your financial circumstances, your family of origin, or any number of troubles. Adversity [she says,] may create an enormous amount of grief and sadness. Yet through it, we may have the opportunity to become stronger and more patient. In the presence of adversity, we are constantly forced to remember our center, our source of ultimate strength, what is most real…. 1

Adversity comes to us all. We all suffer loss: a parent dies, or a partner, a child or a friend. We lose a job, an opportunity, we have to make do on less than we really need for our families. We suffer from an accident, ill fortune, unjust anger turned against us. If we regard ourselves as singled out, punished by the powers that be, or especially unfortunate, we can become resentful, angry, depressed.

We don’t like it when things go wrong; we don’t like it when things don’t go our way, when we don’t get what we wish for or when we encounter what we dearly wished to avoid. It’s here that spiritual practice saves us from perceiving ourselves as victims, powerless in the face of fate, defined by our failure or loss or the blows we must endure.

Thich Nhat Hanh commends a simple practice of breathing in, breathing out, pushing aside the stray thoughts that come to us and patiently starting over and over again, taking the time to stand back from the circumstances that we encounter whether for good or for ill, withdrawing for a little from the world, from adversity, from the whirl of activity that is our everydayness.

“Breathe in, Breathe out.”

“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in Peace, when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” 2

Frank helped us to sing the words of that song by Sarah Dan Jones from the Teal hymnal as our music for meditation this morning. Sarah Dan Jones wrote those words in the wake of the horror of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. And now, for the last 12 months [Feb 24, 2022] we have been witnessing the horror of war taking us back almost seems to the beginnings of the Second World War, as it might seem; and we are not yet clear of this never-ending year pandemic that so far has killed some 1,128,500 of our fellow citizens and almost 7 million citizens of the world. When the horror comes, “Breathe in, Breathe out.”

Of course, our lives don’t consist only of catastrophes, of adversity, of loss. There are times of wonder, times of joy, times of happiness. When the tide turns in our favor, we want to hang on to it. We come to believe in those moments that all of life should be like this, that happiness is our due. And then when those good feelings begin to ebb a little, we are disappointed all out of proportion to the change; we long for that peak of joy but it slips from our fingers. Even if our lives just go back to “normal,” we feel disappointed, cheated of the wonderful moments that ought to grace our lives at every moment.

Those of us who have had experience with bipolar disorder – whether personally or with those we love – know that the manic phase is exciting, creative, wonderful. But inevitably there will be a crash, a depression as pronounced as its opposite and often deeper and longer lasting. It’s almost as though the high creates the low that follows. Anyone who has experience with stimulating drugs whether legal or illegal knows this experience. If you’ve ever used prednisone, you probably remember an initial experience of great energy. My wife found herself cleaning the house thoroughly and joyfully – but a little obsessively. But then there is the letdown, the exhaustion that follows great exertion. If you’ve been in love, you know that there is an ebb and flow in our relationships. The honeymoon always ends, the perfect partner becomes all too human again after the bloom

of romance begins to fade. Of course, that’s when the hard work begins in relationships; after the glow of first love comes the harder work of being loving even when you don’t feel like it.

Change is constant. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, you can’t even step into the same river twice. Such is the nature of our lives and the world around us. The Buddha taught that when we cling to what is right now, when we want happiness to go on forever and misery to end at once, we suffer. “Suffering” is an imperfect translation of the Buddha’s term dukkha, which also has elements of disappointment, of loss. When we try to hang on to what is in any given moment, we find that it eludes our grasp, and then disappointment, even

depression set in.

Wise King Solomon, finding himself depressed one day and elated another, consulted all of his advisors to find some wisdom that would serve him in good times and bad. None of those judged wisest in the kingdom could satisfy his demand. But then a humble goldsmith came forth with a ring on which was engraved, “This too

shall pass.” When we “Breathe in, Breathe out,” we find that our thoughts can pass in and out as well. We learn to stand back a little from the ceaseless ebb and flow, the tides of our lives, and to let our moods come and go, to let our attachments come and go, to let suffering come and go, to let happiness come and go. We learn to still the clamor of everyday life, to practice silence and peace in a way that overcomes our clinging, grasping, trying to possess; and then we experience a kind of peace, a kind of simplicity in our response to our living.

“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in Peace, when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.”

When I was serving my ministerial internship at Arlington Street Church, I joined the sangha, the community of Buddhists in the congregation including our minister, Kim Crawford Harvie. We ended our time together with walking meditation through the Public Gardens just across the street from the church. There was in this the particular pleasure of being silent in the middle of all the activity around us, often finding the moon shining down

and transforming the ordinary reality around us into something ineffable, something mysterious, something that drew us away from whatever was happening in our own lives elsewhere at that time and into a kind of eternity of simple presence. I found the same peace at a 10-day silent meditation retreat a few years ago. That experience of having no conversation except with the teacher, no electronics, no books, no distractions, created a kind of peace unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere.

The heart of Buddhism is practice, the experience of having a different relation with ourselves and with the things and people around us, of actually abstracting ourselves for a time from attachment, from grasping, and so – at least for a few moments – to free ourselves from what the Buddha calls dukkha, suffering, attachment, clinging. When we meditate, we are cultivating a different mode of experiencing our selves, we are developing the ability to witness our selves without being bound up with our egos.

The monkey mind – that endless chatter in our heads – is an obstacle when we meditate – but in fact he is always working, every second of our lives, distracting us from where we are right here, right now, pulling us away from what we have toward what we want, from where we are to where we’re going to be, from what we are enjoying now to what we fear will happen later. The practice of meditation allows us to tame that wildness within us, to calm ourselves so that we can be present right here, right now, enjoying, giving thanks for what is

now without trying to make it last forever or to rush on to the next thing.

“Breathe in, Breathe out.”

“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in Peace, when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.”

The Metta Sutta is a record of one of the teachings of the Buddha as handed down by his disciples. “Metta” means loving kindness, and the meditation invites us to experience loving kindness and then to spread it. It starts with me in my condition – tossed about, distracted, subjected to constant and distressing change; or happy, satisfied and afraid that it will pass all too quickly.

Here’s how it goes:

“May I be free of danger.

May I have mental happiness.

May I have physical happiness.

May I have ease of well-being.”

First I offer peace and happiness and ease of well-being to myself; after all, if I can’t love myself, what sense is there in loving my neighbor as myself? But then, as I become more comfortable in my own skin, my circle of concern expands beyond me to the one next to me, to “you.” “You” – a partner, a child, a neighbor, a friend, the person sitting next to you in the pew. “May You be free of danger, have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.” We then expand the circle even more to those who are not present, to “they.” “They,” who also need compassion and loving-kindness; “they,” our relatives, “they,” the clerks in stores, perhaps “they” the people we distrust or dislike, “they” the people of Ukraine who are suffering as we speak. “May They be free of danger, have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.” And finally, we expand our compassion and our loving-kindness to the breadths of our imagination, to all beings – “May all beings everywhere, known and unknown, near and far, be safe, happy, peaceful and at ease.” In this way we move beyond the preoccupation with ourselves, storm-tossed as we sometimes feel, and come to experience ourselves as being part of the whole, at one with all beings.

[Sung] “Breathe in, breathe out.”

“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in Peace, when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.”

You know, there are parts to Sarah Dan Jones’ song “Mediation on Breathing” that we introduced this morning. Take a part if you know it. For those of you who refuse to sing because you can’t hold a tune, just do the drone:

“Breathe in, Breathe out.”

[Sung] “When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in Peace, when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” (repeat)

May it be so, and Amen.

Rev. Paul Sprecher

Rev. Paul Sprecher is a familiar figure at the Meeting House, having served as sabbatical minister for the first six months of 2014 and speaking several times a year since. Since his retirement from his seven-year ministry at First Parish in Bridgewater in 2021, he has become a climate activist at his Senior Living Community in Hingham as well as in the town. Previously, he ministered to Second Parish in Hingham. He also served as the sabbatical minister at the Murray Church in Attleboro during the first three months of 2022. In other lifetimes, he was a middle school teacher at a boys' prep school in New York City and Vice President for Technology at the American Stock Exchange.

1 Barbara Merritt, “Adversity,” Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life, ed. Scott W. Alexander, Boston: Skinner House Press, 1999, pp. 54-57.

2 “Meditation on Breathing,” Sarah Dan Jones, Singing the Journey, Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005, #1009



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

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Chatham, MA 02633
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Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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