Note: The recording of today’s sermon includes two meditations. The first meditation, for managing anxiety, begins at 16:59. The second meditation, for Praying with the News, begins at 23:55.
I heard a beautiful story this week from the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hanh. He tells a story about hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who were forced to flee their home country at the end of the Vietnam War. These refugees were fleeing for their lives, often in tiny, overcrowded boats, and while they were out on the sea, they faced extreme danger from pirates, disease, starvation and also, of course, storms. Tich Nhat Hanh says that while these desperate souls were trying to survive out there on the sea, their state of mind often meant the difference between life and death. If everyone on the boat panicked, the boat would be lost. But if just one person remained calm, that calm would spread to the others on the boat, and together, they would find a way to survive.
This modern spiritual teaching would surely not be lost on Jesus’ friends who, when we meet them this morning, are learning something about what it takes to survive a big storm. I wonder if you can picture the scene in your mind: the wind whipping across the water…the waves crashing over the gunwales…the tiny fishing vessel taking on water as the disciples race around the boat, frantic with fear. And all the while, our story tells us, Jesus is sound asleep.
It’s quite a dramatic picture that our gospel story paints this morning; the kind of picture that can capture our attention any week of the year. But this week, when news of the world has many of us tossing and turning all night long, it is startling to hear this story of Jesus sleeping peacefully as the waves crash and the boat flounders and the disciples cry out in their panic and their fear.
What Jesus seems to know is that in a crisis, our state of mind matters a lot. Not just to our own emotional well being, but to the fate of the entire voyage. How many times in the past three weeks have you heard someone remark that we’re all in the same boat? If there were ever any doubt that we are connected — that we are in fact one body as the Apostle Paul likes to say — that doubt has been erased by a virus that observes no borders and respects no national boundaries; a virus that is showing the world community that we will sink, or swim, together.
Of course, this crash course in public health and safety is certainly teaching us that our actions matter — a lot; that a shared discipline of self-quarantine and physical distancing is crucial to our collective well being, and particularly crucial to the health of the most vulnerable among us.
But what Jesus shows us this morning is that it is not only our actions but also our state of mind that is crucial to the well being of our individual and collective bodies. What all our spiritual masters teach is that our ability to regulate our emotional and spiritual state will contribute either to our collective healing or to the sinking of our shared boat.
This is because, as the Vietnamese refugees learned in those tiny boats, anxiety is contagious and potentially deadly. In fact, today, anxiety is at least as contagious as the COVID-19 virus. What Jesus knows is that managing our collective anxiety in the face of a crisis is a spiritual matter of the highest order. Don’t you care that we’re about to drown? the disciples shout at him. Of course I care, Jesus says. That’s why I am trying to show you how to remain calm. Jesus, in that storm-tossed boat, is trying to show us all the nature of our own holy work in this difficult time.
So I thought we’d take a closer look this morning at what Jesus is modeling for us on that stormy sea. On the surface, of course, it looks like Jesus is simply working a really great magic trick: he waves a hand and the storm subsides. But we know that this story is not meant to be read merely on its literal level. Like all our sacred stories, this one paints a dramatic picture in order to convey a deep spiritual truth about how we are to live. If we look below the surface of this story, we see that Jesus models for us two crucial tasks in the midst of a crisis: managing our own anxiety and sharing the powerful energy of healing calm with all the world.
Let’s look first at the way Jesus manages his own anxiety by refusing to let the anxiety of those around him infect his own psyche. Instead, Jesus chooses to become, in his very body, the place where anxiety and panic are transmuted into calm. Sleeping through the storm, refusing to catch the contagion of panic, Jesus reminds us that in a fearful and anxious time, we too are called to manage our own anxiety and remain calm — not only for the sake of our own mental and spiritual health, but for the well being of the world.
Friends, in the coming weeks and months, this global crisis is going to show us what we’re made of. It’s going to require all our God-given gifts of creativity, resilience and compassion. But these desperately needed spiritual resources are simply not available to us when our bodies and minds are swamped with the neurochemicals of fear. Neuroscientists tell us that when we panic, our bodies and minds default to our most primitive, fight-or-flight state of consciousness. And this is not where creativity and ingenuity reside. The spiritual masters of every age tell us that the quality of energy running through our bodies affects not only ourselves and our own households, but the consciousness of the entire global community. Yes, it is true that the energy of anxiety is highly contagious. But so is the energy of calm, abundance, and joy. If everyone on the boat panics, say the great teachers among us, the boat will be lost. If we practice remaining calm, that calm will steer the boat to shore.
And so we find Jesus this morning sleeping through the storm, refusing to let himself be infected by the panic swirling around him. Refusing to amplify that anxiety by adding his own.
But that’s not all. Jesus doesn’t go back to sleep, after all. He doesn’t cover his head with a pillow and deny the existence of the storm. No. What we see is that Jesus practices discernment as he takes in information, assesses the situation, and then from his own, calm center, spreads that calm not only to the loved ones in his boat, but out to the entire sea. What an extraordinary metaphor this is! Jesus calming the sea is a beautiful metaphor for the way in which a calm and centered soul (yes, your calm and centered soul!) has the power to send that calm, healing energy rippling out to heal the world. If just one person remains calm, say the spiritual masters, the boat will survive. Imagine what will happen when a whole, critical mass of humanity learns how to remain calm; how to remain open to the creative, healing power of God within and among us; and how to share that healing power with all of creation.
Now, I realize that following Jesus by becoming immune to anxiety and spreading calm might sound like a very tall order, especially right now. But this is precisely where our faith traditions can serve us so well, by offering us tools for managing our anxiety in times of crisis. So let’s take a look at a few of those tools.
The first tool that Jesus offers us this morning is the practice of limiting the amount of anxiety we take in. As the disciples in the boat spin themselves into a tizzy of fear, Jesus goes to sleep, very effectively limiting the amount of that swirling fear he receives. Now, to the disciples, this seems heartless. What do you mean you won’t freak out with us? they ask. You must not care at all!
What Jesus seems to know is that despite their outraged protest, his friends don’t actually need him to join the collective freak out. What they need most is for Jesus to remain calm so that his powerful calm can save them all.
I think this story has something to tell us about how much anxiety we ourselves are willing to take in right now. I wonder if we might think of Jesus sleeping in the boat as the biblical equivalent of just switching off the television for a while. Remember that anxiety is contagious, and that it infects us every time we watch or listen to the news. I’m not suggesting that anyone bury their head in the sand; Jesus, after all, takes in precisely the amount of news he needs when the time is right. What I am suggesting is that no one needs a 24-hour news feed. It may also be true that in addition to monitoring our news intake, many of us may need to do as Jesus does by establishing firm and compassionate boundaries with friends and relatives regarding how much time we will spend discussing, or freaking out about, the day’s news. This is the first practice Jesus seems to suggest this morning: limiting our intake of anxiety-producing news.
The second practice Jesus offers today is the practice of remaining calm by managing whatever anxiety does arise in us, so that even when we do feel anxious — as all of us naturally will — we use our spiritual tools to make sure that anxiety does not take over our minds. In this way, we remain calm enough to receive the inspiration and the guidance that just might save us all.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy. Jesus certainly makes it look that way, but it is not always easy to manage our own anxiety and to be a source of healing calm in the midst of a storm. I do mean to say that this is our necessary and crucial spiritual work, and that we have the tools to do it. So this morning, I want to offer you two tools. The first is a meditation practice you can use when you feel anxiety beginning to arise in your own body. I want to emphasize that this first hint of anxiety in our bodies is precisely the moment to catch it — to quarantine it, if you will, so that it doesn’t have a chance to take over our body and mind, and so that it doesn’t infect anyone else. The second meditation is one we have done before here at First Congregational Church and that I believe is particularly appropriate now because it helps us to emulate Jesus by spreading the energy of healing and calm to those around us and to a world in need.
Meditation for Managing Anxiety and Fear
Let’s begin with the first meditation, for when you feel anxiety beginning to arise in your body and mind.
I invite you to begin by closing your eyes and gently drawing your attention inward. Become aware of your breathing, feeling the breath as your lungs fill with air and gently empty again. As your attention turns inward, begin to scan your body from head to toe, noticing what you feel in each area of your body. Become aware of your own awareness: the part of you that is simply noticing sensation as it arises and falls away. Know that this is your true self: the witnessing presence that is noticing sensations in your body.
Now notice any emotion that is present in you right now. It might be fear, sadness, anxiety, or even joy. Where in your body do you feel this emotion? What does it feel like? Is it heavy? Hollow? Does it feel like tightness or pressure? Your work is simply to give this sensation your full attention, noticing it in as much detail as you can. And as you become acutely aware of the sensation itself, begin to let the label drop away. No need to name the sensation as one emotion or another; it might even be changing as you watch it. No need to attach any story to it; the story only intensifies the pain. Simply be aware of the sensation itself. Everything we label as an emotion is actually a physical sensation. When we learn to drop our labels and stories and simply witness the sensation itself, without trying to change it or push it away, then the emotion naturally falls away in its own time. When we are able to fully feel the physical sensation of an emotional state, it often lasts only a few seconds before it falls away. It turns out that when we resist the emotion, when we try to push away or label it, then the emotion takes root in us and grows. The practice here is to hold still when the emotional waters get choppy and simply welcome every emotion as it arises like a wave in the sea; then simply witness the emotion. Every time you can become the calm and compassionate witness of a stormy emotion, you claim your freedom. When you realize that the emotion is not who you are, then you are free, and the emotion simply fades back into the calm sea in its own time.
Be aware of your thoughts as you witness the sensations in your body. Maybe you’re thinking “I hate this feeling; I wish it would go away faster!” This desire to change what is–this is a form of resistance to what is, and it will cause the painful emotional state to persist. The emotion needs us to step back and simply watch from a distance as it moves and changes in its own time.
You can trust that you are not alone as you undertake practice. Maybe you can imagine Jesus sitting beside you. Maybe you can feel his presence now, calming you, showing you how it’s done…maybe the two of you are just watching together as the waves of sensation arise in your body and gently dissolve again. You can stay here as long as you like, trusting the healing work of your own witnessing presence. This takes practice. It can help enormously to practice this type of meditation at least once a day, and especially when you feel anxiety begin to arise. Whenever you’re ready, gently return your attention to your surroundings, knowing that this practice is available to you anytime.
Meditation for Praying with the News
This second meditation practice is one you can use to manage your own anxiety and also to share the energy of healing and calm with the world. Begin by considering an issue that has come to your attention through the news. It might be something nearby or something far away. Or maybe you’ll want to consider the condition of the whole world right now, the whole beautiful, vulnerable body that we are.
When you’ve chosen something to pray about, take a few deep breaths to calm and quiet your body and mind. As you begin to follow the breath, see if you can invite the presence of God to be with you as you enter this time of prayer—the God who is always as near to you as your next breath.
Now, visualize the situation that has come to your attention through the news. See if you can picture it in your mind’s eye. As you picture this situation, perhaps you have a sense of where God’s activity might already be present. A good way to look for God’s activity is to ask yourself where the work of justice, compassion, or hope exists in this situation.
As you hold this situation in your heart, gently ask whether there is anything you yourself might be called to do in support of God’s work in this situation. No need to force an answer; it is enough to simply hold the question with openness and curiosity. Take a moment to note anything you feel called to do in response to this situation.
And now, invite the presence of God to infuse this situation. This doesn’t mean that we ignore our own call to help. It simply means that we are willing to let God be God, rather than taking all of God’s responsibilities upon ourselves. Picture this situation in your mind, and invite God’s presence to surround and fill it. This is powerful prayer, friends. You might visualize the divine presence as a warm, healing light, or in any other way that feels authentic to you. Take your time as you entrust this situation, and your own response to it, to the healing presence of God.
Now see if you can envision all the others, all around the world, who are also praying and listening for God’s call, and who are working together to heal this situation and others. You might envision this community of compassion and prayer encircling the whole earth, holding all beings in the healing light of God.
You can let yourself rest here in this healing energy, allowing it to infuse your own body and mind even as you share it with the world. Rest here in the Divine Presence…feeling the healing presence of God. And know that you can return to this Presence anytime you need to infuse yourself with healing and calm…anytime you feel called to share this healing, calming energy with the world that God so loves.