“Sounds of Silence”
A fierce wind roaring through the tops of the tall pines, capturing leathery dried oak leaves, swirling them about in the swales, they rustle to the ground outside my window. The rind of a quartered orange peeling away from the spongy pith. The steady hum of a plump, fuzzy bee buzzing its way along the lawn’s edge. The insistent song of springtime birds calling out for a mate – “here I am” – “pick me” – “choose me.” Coughing, sneezing, breathing, snoring, tummies gurgling, fear arising – scenarios of being unwell. The slow crunch of last year’s grass beneath my Teva’s. The bell making its rounds, reminder of time without traditional time pieces. Laughter. Voices joined in unison, chanting. Teachers sharing from their heart’s truths. We can hear most of these things any time, but there is an exquisite quality to their sound when surrounded by an otherwise silent environment. Each one, giving pause to reflect, contemplate, but mostly to notice – to bear witness to its gift to this life. The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA was founded about 50 years ago when its originators returned from studying Buddhism in Burma. The teachings of mindfulness and lovingkindness so resonated with them that they wanted to find a way to bring this tradition of Vipassana to the West, to plant it here as a seed that might grow and flourish for the benefit of all beings everywhere. And so, it has grown, with Centers around the US, this property home to the retreat center where I stayed and over through the woods a Forest Refuge for longer more personal retreats.
Vipassana is a Pali word that translates as “seeing things as they really are.” It is a form of meditation that involves concentration on the body and its sensations – the stuff that enters through our “sense doors” as the teachers would say – hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking, six in all. And beyond those initial contacts, upon noticing one or the other as the mind does what minds do – we can’t control them! – to let the experience be, to look at it with curiosity, to become intimate with it even, without having it become for us an
identity or a problem.
So maybe a thought arises that creates anger upon investigation. This doesn’t make one an angry person. Instead, we might notice that we are experiencing anger and further what that feels like in the body. Oh, this is what anger feels like. And then it passes, and the next sensation arises. Perhaps none is predominant. We are encouraged to find a place of grounding – the breath being the most common, but maybe our hands touching – it is different for everyone, and I found for me, different depending on the day – but a place to return to when the noticing is done. In so doing we cultivate the capacity to return to our center in other times and places – to notice our world without getting so caught up in it.
The schedule posted on the whiteboard in the main hallway provides a guide for our days and is relatively unchanged from one to the next – sitting, walking, Dharma talks, embodied movement, Metta – lovingkindness meditation, chanting, meals, work periods. Almost every morning at 9:15 it reads, “Meditation with Instruction.” What this means is that our time of sitting together in the big hall for meditation will come with some guidance from one or more of the teachers. Around about the second day when I glanced up at the list and read it – “Meditation with Instruction” – the thought arose, “Doesn’t all meditation come with instruction?” It can be external – something received from another’s wisdom and experience, but it can be internal, too. Grounded in a set of values, we open up to the mind and body, allowing their teaching to permeate the protective bubble we cling to for safety’s sake, exploring and learning, deepening our understanding of self and life.
I have a planning and organizing mind. It moves so fast sometimes I can almost hear the whirring sound of the gears! This implies some level of anxiousness beneath the surface, a whole other avenue to explore, but on my own time – not with all of you this morning! One of the options in meditation is to not have a focal point like the breath, but to use “choiceless attention.” Basically, this means to make whatever comes up become the object of the practice. I actually liked this because I am a slow breather and in the space between the inhalation and exhalation, I can have a whole series of thoughts and sensations to notice. The instruction was to focus on the thought that was predominant, to which my brain replied, “Which one?!” Very busy in there!
What this intentional time away afforded me was an opportunity for an extended period of practice, looking within at what is in the moment, without the mindset that I can control it or fix it, to shift that perspective a bit, because the reality is that we can’t control much of what is going on around us. We certainly can’t control other people – only our own experience of them and their actions. There is a fruitfulness in this – to notice what we feel in response to others, name that sensation – first simply as ‘feeling’ itself, but another layer might be happiness or imposition. It can go in either direction along a spectrum from very pleasant on one end toward neutral at center to quite unpleasant at the other. And our tendency, left unchecked, is to develop a craving after the pleasant – we want more of it, of course. And conversely, to push away the unpleasant – not to let it inform us in any way, but to dispense with it as quickly as possible. We can get caught up in a cycle of grasping and ‘giving the hand’, round and round we go without ever taking a look at the why of what we want or dislike so intensely. Does it originate in a worldliness or unworldliness, the latter more aligned with Buddhist teachings. The why takes us further into the mind where we seem most comfortable. To get to the body, we need to take the time to unearth the associated sensation through whichever door it arrives, to look at it with curiosity, get close to it and let it be for what it is – not a problem for us to solve.
If Metta, the Pali word for lovingkindness or benevolence, had a sound it would be what I experienced last week. A gentle bow as you make space for someone in line or upon completion of work done together in silence, a door held open for another whose arms are full or who just arrived at the same time you did, acceptance, the removal of tiny insects from indoors back outside, even the ticks! A wish that one’s life and practice be in service to all beings everywhere without expectation or demand for anything in return. It is the first of four virtues along with compassion, joy and equanimity taught in the Buddhist tradition. Each evening we would gather to practice Metta mediation together. We began by offering it to ourselves – that can be the biggest hurdle for some, then to a close, easy person. Beyond that to someone who we may have difficulty with – not a difficult person – someone we have difficulty with, and ultimately to all beings everywhere – people, but all living creatures and our earth home. It is a powerful sensation to extend lovingkindness as it radiates out from our center, touching who and whatever it encounters in any given direction for as far as one can imagine it reaching. It gives new meaning to the respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all that we espouse as Unitarian Universalists, our unconditional acceptance of one another. As we prepared to leave on that final morning, we were advised to take it easy on ourselves, reminded that just as we have spent the week cultivating non-greed and non-hatred and non-delusion, the world beyond our walls was frantically and with increasing aggression cultivating the opposite – greed, hatred, and delusion. It can be a shock to one’s system to intentionally immerse themselves in such a peaceful container for an extended period of time, but so much more so to re-enter a world full of brokenness and a constant influx of information about just that. Unplugging for a bit helps us regulate our nervous systems. Simplification is key. So, what does all of this hold for us here at UUMH? In the midst of our current process of change I want to encourage you into practices of deep listening to your own internal voices and sensations and to one another. Having decided to make a go of things here, we will need one another on the journey. And to maintain the relationships required we need to be present to one another, to not be about the business of fixing each other, but to notice our own experience on the path. Opening to change as individuals committed to inclusivity takes this kind of intentional practicing.
We have the benefit of instruction from outside of our tight knit community in the form of a solid consultant, our larger Association, the teachings of our beloved tradition, our Principles, and the wide array of Sources at our disposal. And as we take the time to incorporate what we glean from all of these, we have that internal instruction available to us as well – recognizing what we think and feel and hear and see, allowing it a space before our mind’s eye, taking an interested look without the need to identify so fully with it that it consumes us.
We here at the Meeting House seem to have a real deep desire to engage with the climate crisis expanding across the globe. We live in a fragile environment here on this spit of land, its boundaries ever shifting, and perhaps that up close connection to it feeds our wish. Yesterday was Earth Day and maybe you participated this past week in some of the local events focused on education and positive change. When we extend lovingkindness beyond the human realm, we are including all the critters – the insects, deer and rabbits, turkeys and songbirds, coyotes and fox, fishes, and shellfish. When we make an effort to do no harm to each of these, we set in motion a healing for the whole of an ecosystem of which we and they are a part. It is an intricate and interconnected web with which we can be in relationship, and a practice of mindfulness heightens our awareness. We can make personal and collective choices around resources and consumption for the benefit of all beings. There is a passion here for this place and its people, for growth and connection, for
sustainability and a bright future, pleasant. And that passion drives us forward sometimes as much as it might frustrate us when we don’t see the results we hope for as quickly as we’d like. When we cross over into grasping, we end up experiencing doubt and disappointment and delusion. We become caught up in a cycle of wanting and reaching and discouragement and wanting again. We experience a sense of desperation sometimes. “Why can’t it be this?” or “Why isn’t it that?” It is exhausting and unhealthy for our bodies and the organization as a whole. What if we could settle into acceptance of what is – by that I mean what we are in the moment. It is actually quite a lovely thing! Newer members have expressed as much to me when sharing why they want to be a part of things here. When our delusion about what we should be falls away and we practice being what we are we do more good for ourselves and the world around us. That doesn’t mean we abandon all effort toward a future we envision, but instead incorporate the present on a regular basis, with intention, infusing our dreams with the now and the joy it holds for us.
My sister-in-law asked upon my return for a word of description – was it interesting, difficult, challenging, fascinating, illuminating, boring, exquisite, awakening – she provided a list! My response was that it was all of the above! In any given moment it certainly was one of these or another descriptor. It was, at a minimum, a window into a more easeful way of being in the world and at its most, a doorway through which to pass as often as I sense the invitation. May you, too, find invitations to easeful ways of being in our world.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, April 23, 2023