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A sermon by Neil Bartholomew for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on August 3, 2008

Searching for Truth, Starting from Stillness

One of the things that can make many Unitarian Universalists feel really good inside is knowing that they're right about something.

Am I right? Mmmmm, that feels good.

Actually, my topic today has more to do with how good it can feel to discover that you are completely wrong about something, or at least that you haven't got a clue. The fourth Unitarian Universalist principle is “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” When we hear the word "free", we most readily think of freedom from the restrictions placed on us by others, whether because of their theology, economic interests, or other reasons. However, our freedom to search for truth is also hindered by our own fears, preconceptions, and opinions. All of our perceptions of the world are filtered through our opinions. In order to see the world as it is, we must see our opinions for what they are.

We love our opinions very dearly, and it is hard to let them go even for a moment. If we like our own opinions and insights too much, then the search for truth is not free. To be responsible in our search for truth and meaning, we must free ourselves from ourselves.

The search for truth is the pursuit of the ability to see the world as it is. This includes intellectual inquiry, but intellectual inquiry alone will not take us there. It also requires the spiritual inquiry into who and what we ourselves are, the neverending refinement of our ability to see how our own minds filter and distort our perception of the people and things around us. It requires us to give at least some weight to the Buddha's statement that “all things are created by the mind alone.”

In the many years that I spent immersed in Buddhist practice and teaching, one very basic part of Buddhist doctrine which I always found a bit difficult to get my head around was the idea that there is actually no self. I could accept it intellectually, which isn't really worth much, and I could even have brief moments of awareness in which the walls of separation broke down or at least allowed a bit of light through. But to truly accept in my heart the idea that there was no reality to this thing that I called “I”, was a bit more than I could really attain. Recently, however, I've begun moving closer to it, partly because of some support for it from science.

The works of neurochemist Candace Pert, and of others following her, have shown that there are receptors on cells throughout our bodies for peptides which are produced by various emotional states. These receptors are essentially the same in function as the receptors for opiates and other psychoactive drugs. In fact, the reason that those drugs work as they do is that they bind to receptors which were designed for peptides which we create ourselves, generally as a result of some emotional state. The more we return to a given feeling, the more receptors we develop for that feeling’s associated peptides. The more of those receptors we develop, the stronger the pull to situations which arouse that feeling. Essentially, we become addicted to particular feelings or situations through a feedback loop. Eventually, the pull that those feelings or situations exert on us comes to define who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

These affinities are developed long before we reach adulthood, so the particular feelings to which you or I are addicted have defined our behaviors and world views for a long time. They define what we call “I”, and because we feel a need to reinforce our sense of who we are, we return again and again to thesituations which stimulate the feelings or thoughts which produce the peptides to bind to our habitual receptors. The “I” which seems so real to me is the addictive pull to situations which will produce peptides to bind to my favorite receptors. All things are created by the mind.

So, the woman who continues to return to abusive relationships, or the man who compulsively bullies others even when he knows it’s wrong, or the family members whose love for each other is expressed through incessant bickering and criticism, the compulsive liar, the compulsive worker, and the compulsive pleaser, are all drawn to these behaviors because they define themselves by them, whether consciously or unconsciously. They are addicted to the peptides which their bodies produce when they experience the feelings which are aroused by those behaviors.

All of us are addicted to something. We react to situations in ways which will produce the peptides to which we are addicted. We interpret the world around us, at every moment, in ways which will reinforce our definition of who we are. Consciously or unconsciously, we seek out situations which will give us that old familiar feeling.

(pause)

What is that feeling for you? How does it control your life? How does it prevent you from a free and responsible search for truth and meaning? More importantly, what can you do about it?

Over the centuries, different answers to that question have developed. In contemporary Western culture, we have access to many possible answers to that question, some from religious sources, some from psychotherapeutic sources, some from popular books, and some from eclectic people who found something that worked for them and that they want to offer to others (possible for a fee).

I know what has often worked for me: many hours spent doing the simple practice I described at the beginning of this service. It’s not for everybody, and it may or may not be for you. But if you truly wish to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, some sort of introspective tool is necessary. Let’s try this one again for just a little while. Don’t think about what I’ve been saying; don’t think about whether it may or may not be the thing for you. Just try doing it for a few minutes. Breathe in and breathe out. Observe the thoughts and feelings which appear, but do not pursue them. Notice the habits, the addictive thoughts or feelings which pull at you, but know that their existence is neither good nor bad. They are a sign that you are human. Again and again, just return to your breathing, letting go of what comes up.

(pause for meditation)

This is the fourth summer service that I've done in the past several years, and you may notice a theme that runs through them. (You may also notice that the readings earlier in the service were the same ones I used four years ago.) The services have all been in one way or another about incorporating moderate amounts of contemplative practice into a busy and engaged life. That is one of my biggest challenges, as I have moved over the past fifteen years from a life built around contemplative practice to a life built around meetings and email.

When we are faced with events such as occurred last week, it becomes all the more essential that we learn how to resist the pull of our habitual mental and emotional states, that we challenge our definition of who and what we are. It is precisely a rigid definition of self and inability to adapt to the unfamiliar that leads people to such extreme acts. Even if we do not feel compelled to kill people whom we do not know because of what we think they represent, our habits of mind cause us to do destructive things on a regular basis. Our spiritual obligation as religious people is to find ways to lessen our own destructiveness.

Unitarian Universalism is many things to many people. That is one of its greatest strengths. By this I do not mean that its purpose and direction are unclear or exceptionally mutable; I mean that there are many facets to it, and the melding of all of those facets are its strength. The aspect of Unitarian Universalism which seems to have the strongest manifestation in this congregation is its intellectual depth. Not surprising when you step out the door and look up the street. It has been noted in writings in the denomination, and in our own pulpit, that Unitarian Universalism is in danger of becoming not so much a religion as a "liberal social club" if the love of ideas isn't joined by a commitment to putting ideas into action. To take it a step further, if all we have is great ideas and good action, what makes us a religion rather than an affinity group? To be worthy of being called a religion, our thoughts and actions must be grounded in some form of reflection and contemplation.

In a religious community, there should be a place for people whose focus is one or another of these three elements, but there should also be an encouragement that all taste of each from time to time. Most religions fall short of this ideal in one way or another. In the better manifestations of Catholicism, there is an element of social engagement inspired by the teachings of Jesus, a tradition of contemplative communities devoted to meditative practices, and some degree of encouragement that people find some place for both of these in their lives. However, independent intellectual engagement receives a bit less encouragement. In many contemporary Jewish communities there is of course a rich intellectual exchange, and some degree of social engagement, but a deficiency in the area of true contemplative practice. In many Buddhist traditions there is a very strong contemplative tradition, a rich cosmology whose grasp requires study and intellectual engagement, but less of a tradition of or emphasis on social engagement (although we have seen some notable exceptions to this in recent events).

We cannot expect Unitarian Universalism to be perfect in this matter, any more so than these much older traditions. However, we can balance these aspects of religious life better than we have at many times in our history. In fact, as a denomination we are doing a very good job of moving in that direction. Let's continue. Let's respond to last week's events by proving that our liberal faith can guide us to interrupt our own destructive impulses before we put them into action, whether towards a faceless “other” of our imagination or towards our own loved ones.