First Unitarian Church of Providence
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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, October 18, 2009

LET THE SOFT ANIMAL OF YOUR BODY LOVE WHAT IT LOVES: Reflecting on Spirituality Within the Liberal Tradition

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

In the last congregation I served I was really happy that we not only had Small Group ministry such as we discussed last week and our Zen group, if I’m the minister there is going to be a Zen group, but also a group that practiced Vipassana, Insight meditation, and briefly at least, a group that practiced in a Tibetan tradition. As far as offering a range of disciplines within our community went, I was in hog heaven. Especially as none of these groups came as renters, but as our own, generated by Unitarian Universalists and fellow travelers for Unitarian Universalists, and, of course, fellow travelers.

My head swimming with that greatest of intoxicants, success, I wanted more, especially I wanted to push out from offering just a variety of Buddhist disciplines. And soon an opportunity presented. At an interfaith event I had met a couple who led Sufi dancing in the area. Now, a little about Sufi dancing. It’s not the Mevlevi turn you may have seen pictures or videos of, with folk in tall hats and billowing white skirts, one hand in the air, turning and turning. That’s an ancient Turkish Sufi practice, which in fact traces its origins to Jelalludin Rumi, who, of course, in addition to being the best selling love poet around today, was also a thirteenth century Sufi master. No, Sufi dancing is an American thing, or was originally. You can find Sufi dance groups now all over the globe. The practice was started up by a crazed Jewish Sufi mystic who taught in San Francisco and had his greatest success in the nineteen sixties and early seventies. In those days he was generally known as Sufi Sam and he was quite the fixture on the Bay Area spiritual scene.

Somewhere along the line Murshid, his more proper Sufi title, Samuel Lewis, had an inspiration to take American folk dance steps and attach them to simple melodic adaptations of mantras and other sacred phrases from the world’s spiritual traditions; creating what he called the Dances of Universal Peace, but which quickly became popularly known as Sufi dancing. Good stuff, I think; controlled ecstasy as a spiritual practice. A good leader can take a group through a range of feelings and body experiences over the course of an hour, hour and a half, and when well done, take people to a pretty deep place. Good stuff.

Anyway I met this couple who had been formally authorized to lead the dances. I really liked them. They were smart and articulate, both worked as psychologists. Stylistically they were perhaps just a bit more alternative than the majority of my crowd, but I didn’t really think excessively so. Visiting with them and attending one of their dances I saw they were very much at the high end of this practice. They led well and insightfully, using humor as well as psychological insight. And I thought this really could be one more practice in the bag for the gang back home. I asked them if they would be willing to start up a group out in Boston’s affluent near Western suburbs? They said, sure.

So, I did the arranging and pitched it hard and indeed when the time rolled around, it was great. Those who know me say I tend to remember things a bit bigger than they actually are. I’m inclined to think this a good thing, generally something attractive about me. Okay, except when people need hard facts. Whatever, I know there weren’t a hundred people there even though in my gut it feels like there were. But, probably, almost certainly, somewhere a bit more than thirty. I felt it a pretty good crowd, particularly for a gathering where people are expected to take their shoes off.

They brought musicians and the participants were all good-natured and gave it a real try. I thought it a rocking success. People certainly commented on how good they felt doing it. So we scheduled the next event for a month later. That Sunday the only people there were the leaders, their musicians and me. We gave it one more try. And again, no one, I mean no one from the church came.

So, what’s my take away? After sulking for a while I thought about it, and it is pretty simple, actually. I would say different strokes for different folks. As to our subject today, I think there are so many different spiritual ways just because there are so many different people. We have sets of dispositions and inclinations that shape what will work for each of us. Today I want to explore both spiritual disposition, style, and how that affects what particular disciplines are going to be helpful to any particular group or individuals. And that’s important, too. There is both a group style and within the group, particularly ours, who that individual is, deeply matters, as well.

As a small example of style if you look at the cover of today’s Order of Service you’ll see one version of a perennially popular Chinese picture. You see versions throughout East Asia. It’s called the vinegar tasters. And it always has three figures circled around a barrel of vinegar. They are representatives of the three great religions of old China, a Taoist, a Confucianist and a Buddhist. I suppose today there should be two more for the new Chinese religions of Communism and Capitalism. But, let’s not go there, today. Some of these pictures actually portray Laotzu, Confucius and the Buddha. But I’ve also seen versions that have three women around that barrel. As I said, there’ve been lots of versions over the years.

The Confucianist usually has a sour expression, representing the general Confucian sense that human beings are for the most part out of harmony with the flow of things in the universe. The Buddhist has a bitter expression, symbolic of the Buddhist view of pervasive suffering. And the Taoist, well, the Taoist is usually smiling broadly, perhaps even laughing. Like he just heard the best joke ever. And maybe he had.

I like to think Unitarian Universalists are closest to what is called “philosophical Taoism” than to any other of the world’s religions. I suspect that attitude is what also attracts many here inclined to earth centered traditions. But, don’t worry, here there’s plenty of room for the sour and the bitter inclined, as well. And more, those aren’t the only ways to stand in the world. Of course a question that naturally arises is if we have all these different ways of standing in the world, how do we identify the appropriate practices that allow us to grow deeper? How do we, each of us, find our best spiritual disciplines? And what might they look like?

Well, I’m quite taken with the Hindus who put a lot of effort into exploring and developing a range of practices, which they called the yogas. In addition to Hatha yoga, with its emphasis on the body, the Bhagavad Gita gives considerable attention to Karma yoga, the yoga of action, Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion and Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge. In addition to these four yogas, a fifth is Raja, explored at great length in the classic text, Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras and in our times explored deeply by Swami Vivekananda. It is essentially the yoga of nonduality. Something I personally find compelling. For me the critical point of this being that we do indeed have different ways into our hearts, into being bigger, larger, more heartful in this world. And, a big take away: we each need to find our own way.

But there are also family styles. And we who gather here are, by my best read, a bit more like the Taoists, at least in general. And a lot of us are all about Karma yoga, the practices of action. I think our attention to things like 350 dot org reveals that inclination. And again writ large, I suspect we are most of us, more inclined to the Jnana yoga disciplines of learning, of knowledge. Which can in a beat of the heart transform into wisdom. Good stuff.

Later during coffee hour our Spiritual Development ministry will have a number of tables where you can learn a bit more about various aspects of what we’re doing here, spiritually. I suggest there’s a reason you might notice the largest of these is our Life Span Religious education program. If we, again, writ large are about the natural and about knowledge and wisdom and action, well, of course, religious education would be near the heart of our activities.

That’s the family style, as I see it, more or less. But, here’s my invitation for you, for today. Who are you? And what does your spiritual path look like? You’ve come here, and so there are some broad affinities with the natural, with action and learning. But it is also important to investigate the matter right down to the bone. And that means looking, each of us, into our own hearts and minds, and bodies.

So, are you a little on the bitter side? Perhaps a tad sour? Or, do you look at the great mess and find a giggle? Or, that’s certainly not the end of the list; are you set another way? It’s important to know. So, I hope you’ll look into your own heart and think about it.

And, then, how best do you dig deep? Through the body? Through action? Through devotion? Through the quest of knowledge? Through the minute investigation of the nondual? Or? Again, so many paths? What is yours? That’s our deepest hope for each other, for each of us to find our own true way into the great matter of heart, of life and death. Our desire is that each of us investigate who we are, and how we stand in the world.

And then, and then, to go forward into this world, with, as one sage called it, bliss bestowing hands. Good stuff.