Returning to Ourselves

Returning to Ourselves

November 15, 2020 | Sarah Stewart

For the past several weeks we've been talking about the hero's journey; this is our last Sunday in this theme of the hero's journey. Next Sunday, our Coming-of-Age Youth are concluding their program and sharing their credos, I hope you'll tune in with us for that. I've talked about the hero's journey a lot and if you believe the movies, where it often shows up, you will think that every journey had a really clear beginning, and a middle, and an end. If you remember the hero's journey, the hero receives the call to adventure, they may be reluctant to accept it at first, but eventually they do. They cross the threshold, they encounter tests, allies, and enemies, they reach the innermost cave, endure the supreme, or face the abyss, they seize the prize that they find there, and are resurrected and transformed by the experience, and then returned to the ordinary world with a treasure boon or elixir to benefit their community, beginning, middle, end. So, in Star Wars, Luke leaves Tatooine to accept his role as a Jedi, goes to the Death Star to rescue the princess, nearly dies in the abyss of the trash compactor, but eventually gets the plans, flies his x-wing into the Death Star, and returns to the rebellion a hero. And the story is over; nothing more happens until a new story begins on the hop. But heroism in our real lives is not so tidy. In the journeys of our lives, new beginnings arrive in the middle of some other story, lessons are learned and brought home while we're still in some other abyss, rests are short, we must always begin again. But we've been talking about the hero's journey, we've talked about addiction. Recovery from addiction is an ongoing lifelong process for many people, it's not a beginning, a middle, and an end, it's a persistence, in the middle of the story. We talked about the struggle for racial justice, and we have wished that that story was at an end in our country, that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s would have been that journey and we would have arrived at the new hope of racial justice. But we find that we must always begin again in our personal lives, and as a nation, real people and their real lives were always in between. Always on the journey, always setting out again after arriving home; our call as heroes, is to live by our deepest values, wherever we are on the path. We do this through spiritual practice, and especially the practice of compassion.

Now, you might be surprised to hear me say that I think compassion is the key heroic virtue, because when we think of heroes, we think of Superman’s rite of strength, perseverance, bravery, fearlessness. But compassion is truly a virtue we need in the heroic journeys of our lives, compassion helps us see things as they are. It frees us from desire, it helps us remember that other people are just as human as we are, and sometimes this is our primary spiritual struggle, to remember that other people are just as human as we are. Compassion allows us to forgive ourselves and return to the hero's path in love. In this life, we seek compassion for ourselves, for our past, and for other beings. Compassion begins with compassion for ourselves. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is a practice that helps us accept ourselves as we are. Buddhism teaches that it's the nature of being alive as human beings, to desire things, to want something for ourselves, to want to be different than how we are, to want something in the future to come to us. Desire brings sorrow when we don't get what we want. It takes us out of ourselves and puts us in the future, where we might have a good thing, or puts us in the past, where we regret what we didn't do. Compassion is a spiritual practice that helps us resist that call to desire; by accepting what is, by loving the present moment, the way we are, the way other people are.

We heard Juliet and Abby tell the Christopher Reeve story this morning. When Christopher Reeve fell off his horse, and learned he had a spinal cord injury, he was certainly in a position where he could have succumbed to the dangers of desire. Why did I have to ride my horse that day? why did I fall? why did the horse refuse the jump? I wish, I wish, it could go back to the way it was, I wish I didn't have this injury, I wish I could act in the movies again. All those reactions of self-pity and sorrow, anger, and despair, they're perfectly normal. I'm sure Christopher Reeve felt those things when I read that story, I imagined that he did. He's a human, like any of us, but I see that he came to have compassion for himself, compassion for his changed body, compassion for the new life that he would now have, compassion for his fame and wealth, which were not changed by the accident, compassion for the work that he could now do, that he was in a unique position to accomplish. And that compassion for himself, and for his body, and what he was going through, it allowed him to turn that compassion outward to others, to raise money and awareness for spinal cord injuries research, and to help people get the support they needed to live their lives; that compassion for others must have begun with compassion for himself.

In the heroism of our lives, we go on our journeys, again and again. We learn this truth of compassion, over and over. This is why we call it practice, because we don't just learn the lesson of compassion once and know it forever. We practice it in Buddhism, it's practiced through meditation in Christian and other traditions, it's practiced through prayer, through charitable acts in the world, and the Buddhist teach that it's only the spiritual masters who truly learn this lesson of compassion. For most of us mere mortals, we must practice it to learn it; and we even walk paths our ancestors walked and learn to have compassion for them as well.

It's not just our own stories, we have to walk again and again. Unitarian Universalist minister and Buddhist priest, James Ford tells a story from his own life. He tells about his father's alcoholism and how when he was young and his father was drunk, his father would tell him the story of the trauma he had endured in World War II. That he had never overcome that in the battlefields of Italy, he witnessed his Lieutenant die before his eyes, and he never processed that trauma or learned to live with it, he sunk it into the despair of his own addiction. James’ father dreamed that memory, even after the war, throughout the rest of his life, and James came to dream that memory as well. To dream the battlefield, dream the death, dream the trauma; sometimes the journeys of our past, even our parent’s journeys, become our journeys. The heroism of our lives is learning to find our way through them without repeating them. For some of us, this is the heroic journey in our lives, you're always on the way in-between retracing our parent’s footsteps. We are conquering our own trauma, learning, and growing, and learning to extend compassion to ourselves, and to the journeys of those who went before. So that where they knew despair, we might know wisdom. We learn compassion for the children we were, and the elders we will be. In Tibetan Buddhism, there's the concept of the Bardo, and in everyday conversation among Tibetans, Bardo means death. It means the period of time, the transition from death and into rebirth, from this life, into death, into rebirth. But the word Bardo just means pause transition. a throwing in the middle, and really, that word Bardo can be used to describe the entire cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Life is a Bardo. The Bardo of living a transition, where we practice as spiritual beings. Death is a Bardo, a painful one, of transition. Tibetan Buddhism talks about the timeless Bardo of pure light after death, and then, the karmic Bardo of the coming, which leads to rebirth. People are naturally fascinated by those Bardos which follow death, afraid of death’s transition, hopeful for the pure light which comes after. But that's never where we are when we're thinking about how great that would be. We're in this Bardo, living on this journey, in the middle. One Tibetan teacher says that students are always worried about death and rebirth, about karma, or what you might think of as salvation. How will I be reborn? what will happen to me after my death? But the teacher points out that the best predictor of how we will be at death is how we are right now. And now is when we can practice heroism and compassion and try to live a right life. We are being given opportunities to practice compassion and mindfulness. Right now, we accept ourselves as we are, accept our struggles. We accept the struggles of the past. We practice extending compassion to others. We breathe, and in our breath, we extend loving kindness to ourselves, to those we love, to people we don't know, loving kindness to those on the other side of the political aisle, to estranged family, loving kindness to people who are responding to COVID differently than we are, to friends we don't understand, to people we only encounter online. Compassion and loving kindness are our spiritual tools for rebirth, while we're still on the journey of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh is another Buddhist voice preaching compassion, we've heard a reading from him this morning. He talks about being on the journey, and he preaches about being in the present moment. Wherever we are not dwelling on the past, and not hoping too much for the future, because hope is just another kind of desire. He knows that hope is important, he says, if we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear hardship today, but hope can be tragic. Because if we hope too much for the future, then we're not in the present moment, and we're not practicing compassion. We're certainly feeling the sting of hope right now. We had hoped that COVID was just going to get better, that the changes we made as a society, to close things down, to wear masks all the time, to keep our distance, not to see friends and family, whom we love, we had hoped that those changes would just lead to slow and steady improvement in the virus, but that's turning out not to be true.

We seem to be facing an abyss again, as cases rise across the country. So, compassion in this moment is accepting what is. It's changing our holiday plans to be as safe as we can be. It's having honest conversations with family about safety, and expectations for gatherings. It's asking for support from your employer to stay safe. It's wearing a mask and avoiding crowds. We are heroes, every one of us, in our own lives. Heroes with superpowers, to love each other, and take care of each other, to come back again to our spiritual truths, to practice compassion, and as heroes, compassion means caring for others. Our compassion for ourselves and others, right now, will help keep us all safe. It will support those in our community who are on the frontlines: doctors, nurses, medical support staff, first responders, and essential workers. Our heroism is our compassion in this present moment, practicing loving kindness for ourselves and for all.  I love you all. Amen.