Do Not Be Anxious

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a meditation on Matthew 6:25-29

Do not be anxious! Jesus tells his followers this morning. Surely, if Jesus was making time in his busy schedule to preach about anxiety, his followers must have had their share of anxious worries even in the first century. Still, I wonder what Jesus would think if he arrived here in 21st Century America. I wonder what he would make of what researchers today are calling an epidemic of anxiety among us modern folk, and particularly among our children and youth. Epidemic levels of anxiety seem to be particularly pronounced today among adolescents and young adults: nationwide, 20 percent of college students report being diagnosed with or treated for an anxiety disorder, with many more surely suffering without diagnosis or support.

Perhaps we modern Americans would find Jesus’ advice more helpful if the gospel writer had expanded just a bit on how, exactly, one goes about not being anxious. After all, we don’t intentionally choose anxiety. It seems to come upon us unbidden and unwelcomed. Often, anxiety feels like to be a force beyond our control. Maybe everyone in Jesus’ original audience already knew techniques for managing anxiety. If so, the gospels leave those instructions out of the text.

The good news is that today, we have access to a growing body of research about the relationship between our neurophysiology and our emotional state. And out of this research have come some very practical techniques for breaking the cycle of anxiety. So, while it may be true that we modern humans have more anxiety than our first-century ancestors, it is also true that we may have some tools our ancestors didn’t have. Tools that give us a fighting chance at following Jesus into a much less anxious and more joyful state of mind.

So this morning, I want to share with you what researchers have found to be one of the most helpful techniques for managing anxiety. It may not surprise you to hear that this technique is none other than the practice of gratefulness. Neuroscientists have discovered that it is not actually possible to simultaneously be in a state of gratefulness and a state of anxiety.  This is because what we call ‘emotions’ or ‘feelings’ are neural activations in the neocortical regions of the brain. And it turns out that when we are experiencing gratefulness, there are so many positive emotional messages flooding the brain’s neocortex that the fearful, anxious messages from the amygdala (which is the fear center of the brain) get cut off — they can’t reach the brain’s neocortex. In other words, when we are experiencing gratefulness, we block the mechanism by which anxious messages reach our conscious awareness. It appears that we humans are not capable of feeling grateful and anxious simultaneously. 

And here’s even better news: we don’t have to wait around for an experience to make us feel grateful. We can intentionally bring ourselves into a state of gratefulness any time at all. And the more we do this, the easier it gets. This is because our brains can change with practice: the neural pathways we use most often grow stronger. As we practice more and more gratefulness, it becomes easier and easier to feel grateful. Which means that as we rewire our brains for gratefulness and joy, we have a way — a practice — to lift ourselves out of anxious thoughts, and anxious feelings, and the often destructive behaviors that arise from anxiety itself. It turns out that Jesus was onto something. We can make a choice to be less anxious. And now we have a way to get there.

The important thing to note about the practice of gratefulness is that we have to stick with the experience long enough for it to take effect in our brains. Many of us tend to skate along the surface of gratitude, thinking about things we’re grateful for, but not taking enough time to let the experience sink in and change us. This is why Dr. Rick Hanson, who is a neuropsychologist, offers a three-step practice that can help rewire our brains through gratefulness (1).

Want to try it? 

I invite you to close your eyes if you like, and call to mind something you feel grateful for. It might be an experience you’ve had, a person you love, an animal you love, a beautiful sight you’ve seen. 

Now, stay with that mental image long enough to really notice its details. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? 

Now notice any positive feelings that come with this image, and let yourself feel grateful for these feelings. See if you can feel this gratefulness not just in your mind but in your body. Maybe you can feel it as warmth or light. See if you imagine this feeling spreading throughout your body, saturating every cell

When you’re ready, you can open your eyes. Dr. Hanson suggests that to see a change in our level of anxiety, we should do this short exercise 3-5 times every day. Maybe you’ll want to schedule it into your calendar and give it a try.

What Jesus seems to understand, and what neuroscientists are now confirming, is that anxiety is not just an individual affliction. Nations can feel anxious. Cities can feel anxious. When we are together, we form a body, says the Apostle Paul. This isi why, in Christian tradition, we take up shared spiritual practices–so that together, we can become more of who Jesus calls us to be: less anxious, and more able to access hope and joy…for ourselves and for the world. This is our call.

This is one of the reasons why, every month now, we set aside time here in worship to practice together by sharing our gratefulness. If you have had a celebration this past month: birthdays, anniversaries, other milestones, you’re invited to come up and tell us what you’re celebrating, so that we can all share in your gratefulness and joy.img_20191204_112659

 

(1) Rick Hanson, PhD.,  Hardwiring Happiness: The New Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Into the River

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a call to spiritual practice for the season of Epiphany

Last Sunday, as we continued our journey through this season of Epiphany, we looked together at the gospel story in which Herod, enraged at the news that the Christ child has been born, sets out to destroy that child. And I suggested that one of the most helpful ways to read this, or any, Bible story is to read it as a spiritual teaching tale: an allegory about the state of human consciousness and what it takes to upgrade that consciousness from the mind of Herod to the mind of Christ. Last week, we saw in Herod the embodiment of what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls the “pain body”; the embodiment of our default, unevolved state of consciousness. This morning, as Jesus makes his very first appearance in the gospel story, he shows us a path to an upgraded state of consciousness. If we read this morning’s gospel story as a teaching tale about the work of spiritual transformation, Jesus shows us how it’s done. 

As I mentioned earlier, churches all over the world today are reading this text from the gospel of Matthew, in which the very first thing Jesus does is head for the river. Imagine all the other things Jesus might have done for his big entrance: greeting, preaching, teaching, healing, story telling. But Jesus does none of these. Before Jesus does anything else, he walks straight into the river. 

I think this is a very important and revealing first act. As I mentioned earlier, in Christian tradition, the river is a symbol for the very presence of God flowing through the body of the world; a presence that is always offering to transform us. Seen through this lens, our scripture becomes a teaching tale about the importance of this deep spiritual transformation — even for Jesus. Before Jesus can do anything else, says our teaching tale, he must enter all the way into the river of the Divine Presence and let that Presence transform him. Now, this is confusing to John the Baptist. John seems to believe that transformation is only for people who have gone astray! Not so, Jesus says as he steps into the water. Every human being — even Jesus! — needs a practice of spiritual transformation in order to become who God is calling us to be. As Anne Lamott likes to say, God loves us exactly as we are, and…God loves us too much to let us stay that way. Follow me, says Jesus. Then he takes off his sandals and goes all in. 

Now, if wading into the Willamette or the frozen Volga this morning will help you mark your commitment to a daily spiritual practice this year, then by all means, go ahead and get your feet wet. But if we read this text on a merely literal level and simply follow Jesus into the river of baptism, then the  evolution of human consciousness goes nowhere. Baptism alone, whether we wade into a river or get sprinkled from a font, is not going to bring about the evolution of human consciousness. Centuries of bloody church history should be enough to tell us that something more than baptism is required of us.

But if baptism is a symbol — a beautiful outward sign — of our commitment to an inward,  transformative spiritual process, then this becomes another kind of story. If this baptism story symbolizes Jesus’ commitment to a lifelong transformative spiritual practice, then it’s very clear what Jesus is asking us to do, and why.

Or tradition imagines the divine presence as a river flowing through the body of the world. And that river of divine presence is always offering to transform us.  The catch is that the divine presence cannot transform us without our consent. As far as we know, God is so gentle, so respectful of our own God-given free will, that God will not force us to evolve. Even when our current state of consciousness is destroying ourselves, our communities, and the planet, God will not force us to change. I will confess that most days, I’m not at all sure that giving us humans free will was such a great idea. But this seems to be exactly what we have: free will to either take up the spiritual practices that can bring about our evolution, or not.

What Jesus seems to be showing us this morning is that the river of the divine presence is right here, offering to transform us. But we must consent to that transformation by taking up a spiritual practice by which we surrender to that divine presence again and again, day after day. The Christ of God asks nothing less of us than the evolution of human consciousness: out of the mind of Herod and into the mind of Christ. And this requires spiritual practice. It requires us to wade into the divine presence every day, surrendering our ego, and consenting to let that presence to change us. All the world’s spiritual traditions tell us that this surrender of the ego, this consensual surrender of the egoic mind, is the only practice that brings about the evolution of human consciousness. And the stakes could not possibly be higher. 

Maybe you have heard of Father Thomas Keating, who in modern times revived the ancient practice of Christian meditation. When Father Keating taught what he called Centering Prayer, he sometimes asked his students to imagine the divine presence as a river, and then to imagine that when we are sitting in meditation, we are sitting at the very bottom of that river.

Want to try it? I invite you to close your eyes if you like, and picture yourself sitting calmly at the bottom of a river. Don’t worry. You have a really long straw or a long snorkel that lets you breathe. Or, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you may prefer to chew on some gillyweed!  Either way, imagine that you are breathing easily as you sit on the sandy bottom of that river. Your only job here is to invite that river –the river of God’s presence–to enter soul. It turns out that this is the crucial the inner gesture of Christian meditation: to turn our attention to the divine presence and invite it in to transform us. That’s it. Every time we turn our attention away from our habitual parade of thoughts and toward the divine presence, we loosen the grip of the egoic mind–the Herod mind– and its endless string of thoughts and stories. When thoughts arise, as they will, don’t worry. Simply picture those thoughts as boats floating by on the river above you. The way this practice works is that we make a deal with ourselves. The deal is that as soon as we notice that we are having a thought,  we simply let it go and return our attention to the divine presence. I invite you to give this a try here in the silence…

As many times as your attention wanders to a thought, simply let the thought drift by on the river and turn your attention back to the divine river itself. You may be able to feel this action, this gesture of attention, as a subtle opening around your heart. Whatever happens, do not swim up to the surface and climb onto the boat! Simply let the boat pass and return your attention to the river. That’s the practice. If you’d like to learn more about this practice, you’ll find resources on the back of the green calendar in your bulletin.   

We have all seen the transformative power of a river. Drop by drop, it carves away stone. Year by year, it carves the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Day by day, moment of consent by moment of conscious consent, the river of divine presence transforms human consciousness, person by person. 

Follow me, says the Christ of God as he heads for the river this morning. Follow me all the way in, says the Christ as the water laps at his knees. Come and be changed by the river! he calls. And we’ll see if God may yet be able to transform us. Follow me all the way in, says the Christ of God. And we’ll  see what God may yet be able to do with this beautiful, broken, always-holy world.

May we find the courage to answer the call. Amen.

 

The Mind of Herod

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a reflection on Matthew 2:1-18 for the second Sunday after the Epiphany

As I mentioned earlier this morning, we tend to leave out the last part of this story when we stage a Christmas pageant. It’s not quite as comforting as all those gentle beasts gathered around the manger. 

One way to read this story, of course, is as a commentary on the politics of empire. We can shake our heads and say that not much has changed since the first century. But there is another way to read the Bible. I wonder what would happen if we understood this book as a collection of spiritual teaching tales about the evolution of human consciousness. About the nature of the human mind, and what it takes to transform that mind from the mind of Herod into the mind of Christ. Friends, the story we read this morning is a teaching tale about just how crucial this spiritual transformation is, now and always.

Here’s what this story looks like through the lens of human consciousness. In this view, Herod becomes the embodiment of the egoic mind: that ancient, primal part of the human mind that is always with us, and that is always on the lookout for anything that might threaten its sense of self. The egoic mind’s job is to look out for number one. So it is constantly dividing the world into “us” and “them,” always defending what it believes it owns. And so it is that when the egoic mind, the Herod mind, gets frustrated–by anything, whether large or very small–it triggers what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls the “pain body.” The pain body is a product of the egoic mind. It is the remnant of an old emotional wound that was never fully processed or integrated at the time of its occurrence. So this wound gets reactivated by events in the present; sometimes events that are very small can trigger a huge emotional and physical response that awakens the pain body. And when the pain body awakens, it is always hungry… for more pain. This is a law of human consciousness. In order to survive, the pain body must feed on more pain. The moment it awakens, the pain body demands to be fed.

And so a chain reaction begins, in mere seconds! Herod, of course, has heard the prophecies proclaiming that when the Christ of God arrives, everything will change: the lion will lie down with the lamb; the poor and hungry will be filled with good things! But Herod doesn’t want everything to change: he’s already got it pretty good! And so the news of Christ child’s arrival triggers Herod’s fear and awakens his pain body. And because Herod didn’t have a spiritual practice…all hell breaks loose!

Because the pain body always needs more pain, it takes over our mind and spins a painful story. A grievance story that goes something like this: If I’m in pain (says the pain body), then it must be someone’s fault. So I will attack whoever I think caused my pain. I will hunt down and kill the newborn Christ child, who is out to get me! The next thing we know, Herod has issued an edict to kill every child in the land, and the holy family is fleeing into Egypt.

Poor Herod. What Herod didn’t know is that he could have stopped his pain body in its tracks.  If Herod had a spiritual practice, he would have known that he is not his pain body. We are not the pain body. The pain body tries to convince us that we are one and the same. But have a choice. We can choose to continue identifying with the pain body, which is a very difficult way to go through life. Or, we can take up a meditation practice that teaches us to simply  witness the awakening pain body, and recognize it for what it is. And this changes everything. The moment we can pause between the triggering of the pain body and our automatic grievance story; the moment we can simply feel the pain body awaken and not automatically react to it — in that moment, we become the wise witness. The moment we can simply hold still and witness the pain body, we are refusing to feed the pain body with a painful story. And in that moment, the pain body begins to subside. Practiced consistently, this witnessing transforms us. It upgrades our level of consciousness out of Herod-mind and into the mind of wisdom, and light.

The good news is that Herod is not the only character in this teaching tale, and Herod-mind is not the only mind in us. In the story, as in our psyche, there is a wise, witnessing presence that is the true self. In fact, in our story, three wise figures arrive to show us, step by step, how to be that witnessing presence in ourselves. Let’s watch what happens in this teaching tale as Herod, the pain body, begins to plot and scheme and lie, trying to set a trap for the wise ones and for the Christ Child. Here’s what the wise ones do step by step… 

First of all, they do not attempt to engage in rational conversation or argument with pain-body Herod. After all, they are wise and spiritually astute: they know how to recognize a scheming pain body when they see one! What the wise ones seem to know is that it never works to engage in rational conversation with someone who has been taken over by their pain body. Ever tried to reason with a toddler in the midst of a tantrum? We know right away that this child has been overtaken by the pain body. Any wise parent knows that this is not the time to try and reason with your child. This is because engaging with anyone’s pain body always feeds it. In order to defuse the pain body, we must refuse to get caught up in its story. I hate you! screams the frustrated child. You’re the worst mom ever! If we believe the pain body’s story, or take it personally, we get drawn into the drama. Maybe we even start defending our mothering skills or screaming back. But this never works! Faced with a child who has been overtaken by her pain body, a wise parent becomes a compassionate witness. “I see you are having some big feelings right now, and that’s okay,”  she says. Because it is not being fed, the pain body now begins subside.

So the first thing the Wise Ones do in our teaching tale is to simply witness the pain body for what it is. They refuse to feed it by engaging with it.

The second thing they do is to refuse to believe the story the pain body is telling. In this case, they are warned in a dream that Herod has set a trap for them. (The pain body always sets a trap for us.) But if we have a spiritual practice of healthy suspicion about the pain body’s stories, then our own wisdom can tell us when something doesn’t ring true. The wise ones simply recognize the pain body’s lies for what they are, and then go home by another way.

Friends, this is deep spiritual practice. For many thousands of years, every spiritual tradition in the world has urged us, pleaded with us, to take up the practices that will lift us out of the egoic mind and defuse the pain body– the Herod-mind in us that lives to create more pain in our lives and in the world.

Want to try it? Here’s how. See if you can remember a time that was emotionally upsetting to you. Maybe an argument you had with your spouse. Maybe some news you received. See if you can go back into that moment and relive it now. And as you do, can you feel your emotional reaction in your body? Maybe your stomach clenches, or your heart starts to race, or your jaw gets tight. This is your signal that the pain body has awakened.

And now comes the crucial moment. Can you simply turn your attention to this feeling in your body without telling yourself any story about it? Can you let it be a physical sensation without a story? The moment you can simply witness the arising of the pain body, you become the wise witness of your own life’s story. When we can catch the pain body as it awakens and simply watch, we break our identification with the pain body and refuse to feed it with a grievance story. Can you feel this shift as you separate your own identity from that of the pain body? This, friends, is your ticket to freedom. 

There’s just one catch. This takes practice.. On the back of the calendar in your bulletin, you’ll find some resources if you’d like to learn more. There are many ways to practice stepping out of the egoic mind and healing out of the pain body, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll offer you different practices you can try. You may find that one practice, or one particular teacher, helps you more than others, so it’s always good to have choices.

This Epiphany season and always, we are offered a beautiful choice. God is always offering us a way out of Herod-mind and into the mind of Christ. But God will not force us to make that choice. We are always  free to accept or refuse the call of transformation. May we choose as the wise ones do, and go home: home to peace…home to joy…by another way.