A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 19, 2015
LEARNING TO FALL
A Meditation on the Stoic Way
You are composed of three things: body, breath and mind.
The first two are yours to the degree that you are responsible for their care;
only the third is truly yours.
If you do not attach your sense of who you are
to your thoughts,
to what others say or do,
to what you have said or done,
to what you will say or do,
to the vicissitudes of your health and other physical conditions,
to any of the raging currents of your life beyond your control;
so that your mind is not entangled by those things that pass away:
you will dwell in freedom
and become the master of your house;
making all your actions just,
doing everything mindfully,
and living truthfully.
If you live mindfully without clinging to any thought
of bodily condition, or the future or the past,
and become like Empedocles' globe,
perfectly contained and joyful,
and strive to live only the life you have,
in this moment;
then you will own your life
up until the time of your death,
marked by wisdom and joy,
at one with the god within.
— Marcus Aurelius
Meditations, Book XII, Chapter Three
Way back before the turn of this century, I'd experienced a major herniation in my lower spine. In fact it nearly prevented me from flying from Arizona out to Boston to pre-candidate for a church I thought could be a good fit. Under the circumstances, sitting upright for almost six hours was a daunting prospect. As it turned out the solution wasn't really that difficult, although it did involve timing. Just before Jan bundled me aboard the flight from Phoenix I ate some heavy painkillers, and then she fed me some more about two hours or so later. We calculated I'd only be slightly goofy, or as you all know, only slightly more goofy than normal by the time we landed.
Fortunately the search committee was well apprised of the situation and assumed behind the drug induced goofy I was brighter and more put together than is in fact the case. Sometimes things, which seem bad at the time, just break the right way. You never know. One never knows. And, actually, that's how Jan, auntie & I ended up coming to New England.
One other thing. Apparently my surgeon at the time was a Taoist. That is he was so good he didn't actually have to cut me to prove his skills. Instead he had advised despite its severity how the herniation should heal itself in about a year, about the same amount of time my recovery would have been if he had operated. Just be careful, he said, and don't fall. Which in retrospect I realize isn't a particularly Taoist bit of advice.
Time passed. It was now deep into a New England winter when I was walking from the underground parking beneath the Boston Public Garden up to our old UU offices at 25 Beacon Street. As most of you know, the sidewalk there is mostly brick. Very pretty, no doubt. And in winter, pretty nasty. And I have to admit at the time I was overly cautious. Don't fall had been my mantra for a while. Don't fall.
Obsessed as I was I'm sure I was actually more inclined to fall than would otherwise have been the case. Life does so often seem to be one irony after another. And then, perhaps, of course, while walking on that wintry, frozen Back Bay Boston brick sidewalk, I slipped on a spot of black ice. My legs shot out straight in front of me, I recall vividly seeing my feet rise up in front of my face, like in a scene from a silent movie comedy, as I fell flat on my back.
The air was knocked out of me. And I lay there for a good minute or two thinking I'm paralyzed for life. Then, well, then I got up. Over the previous year, as my surgeon had predicted, my back had healed.
These days I connect this event with a sermon I read a while back delivered by my colleague Scott Alexander. It was titled Learning to Fall: Stoicism. As it happened Scott lifted the title himself. His sermon drew heavily upon Philip Simmons powerful book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Perhaps you know it. Learning to Fall was Philip's reflections on his life with Lou Gehrig's disease, which would eventually kill him. A lifelong Unitarian Universalist, Philip wrote of this condition of mortality as a universal truth, of how we are all falling. It's a beautiful book. In it Philip tells us,
"We are all - all of us - falling. We are all, now, this moment, in the midst of that descent, fallen from heights that may now seem only a dimly remembered dream, falling toward a depth we can only imagine, glimpsed beneath the water's surface shimmer. And so let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God, let us also fall with grace, to grace. If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life."
I think of these past weeks, of my auntie's dying and death, followed close on with the death of her beloved cat Cleo, of the various physical indignities visited upon us as we age like my untimely broken tooth following right on Cleo's death, and of all the other things going on in our lives right now, of our having to move out of our apartment at the end of the week, and into a friend's house, and then in a turn of the moment, move again to another friend's, before finally in June we make that big move to California and into retirement. One fall after another. I think of all that falling and I find Philip Simmons' words comforting.
And I find myself thinking of that word which followed in Scott's title: Stoicism. So, allow me to cite a second sermon. Doug Muder is a member of the First Parish Church, in Bedford, is in a rotation with a couple of other UUs including me as a regular contributor to the UU World Online. He wrote a sermon called "Is There a Western Path to Enlightenment?" In that sermon he opines there is and it is Stoicism.
Doug started his sermon with the observation how "There's a classic story that gets acted out in reality every few years. It goes like this: A young adult (typically male) grows up in the center of civilization (typically England). He has a certain measure of success and comes to be quite proud of himself. And then he goes off to an apparently backward part of the world (typically India), where he finds ancient teachings that wake him up spiritually." Doug cites some of the more famous examples from Kipling's classic novel Kim to the Beatles studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Of course I've taken that journey myself. And, I've found Taoist and Zen Buddhist advice on learning to fall. Good advice. Words I've learned from. But I'm haunted by something else that Doug said, how, "As much as I admire and even envy some of the Eastern or indigenous religions, I am a Westerner. The West is not just where my body happened to be born. It is the home of my soul."
He then goes on to offer some words from the Stoics that might be more accessible to many of us here. I know even as a life long practitioner of Zen, I find turning to Western wisdom fills a need, some deep visceral need. And with Doug and Scott, I think we can profit greatly from attending to the Stoics and their wisdom. It is a wisdom just as profound as we can find in the East.
Although, just like with Zen, we need to start by saying much of what we probably think Stoicism is, is probably wrong. For most of us being "stoic" is sucking it up, finding that stiff upper lip, and gutting it through, whatever the situation might be. This isn't a new way of thinking about Stoicism. Someone who did the research found that usage dating from the middle of the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, I suggest such a view of stoicism is missing the great gift to Western spirituality that this ancient Greek and Roman spiritual insight in fact offers. Stoicism is about learning to fall in a world where we're all falling.
Turns out the Stoics emphasized three things. The first was virtue, a way of discerning what to avoid and what to embrace in our lives. The second was wisdom, often called reason in Greek and Latin, which while including rational thought, is mainly about a larger perspective that is found not through the accumulation of knowledge but rather through careful attention to what one thinks and holds in the mind. And the third is a view of the rhythms of nature, discerning its patterns and laws. Each is worthy of detailed study.
Now, what surprised me was how these concerns each involved spiritual practices. For me this was a surprise because I've long felt the major lack in the West has been such actual hands on, try this and you'll find your way, pointers to our own individual depth. But here they were. For instance, Doug describes attention to character as a Stoic spiritual discipline. He cites the Stoic philosopher Seneca who wrote, "The mind must be called to account every day. This is what Sextius used to do: at the close of the day, when he retired to his nightly rest, he used to pose questions to his mind: 'What fault of yours have you cured today? What defects have you resisted? In what way are you better?" Doug goes on to describe how he has adapted this as a personal spiritual discipline.
Inspired I found several essays and references to books that described Stoic spiritual disciplines, most all of which seemed likely useful to anyone in this room. Just google "stoic" and "spiritual." I suggest it'll really be worth the trouble. Sadly, most of the details of Stoic spiritual practices have been lost. At the same time there is much still accessible, hints and pointers. And as I see it, with a little fill in from the wisdoms of the East, particularly the disciplines of stopping and watching we can find in Buddhism, I think we may be well on our way to a Western spiritual path.
As a Zen meditator I was most taken with what I found about Stoic concern with attention to the mind's workings and how it appears so like my own practices. All of the essays concerned with Stoic attention seem to point to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius's small book Meditations, and particularly to the twelfth book and its third chapter. You may recall it as today's reading. I'll conclude my reflection by addressing that wonderful text.
In order to own it a little more, and to be owned by it a little more, I sat quite a while with several translations, particularly John Jackson's classic text and Pierre Hadot's modern version. Then, after a while attempted my own creative adaptation. Yes, I do understand the limitations of such a project, particularly the limitations from not reading Greek, and how of necessity I project my own life into the text.
On the other hand this discipline of making my own "translation" invites intimacy, and I felt myself shifting and being transformed by the text even if at the same time I was shifting and transforming it. Whatever the details, this discipline of making a text one's own itself is arguably a Stoic spiritual practice. At least according to one source I found. Perhaps you'll try your own version sometime. We're near the end of our time together. Here's my attempt, which you've already heard once. I feel it is the most important thing to share today, and worth some attention. Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher guides us toward our own kingdom.
"You are composed of three things: body, breath and mind. The first two are yours to the degree that you are responsible for their care; only the third is truly yours. If you do not attach your sense of who you are to your thoughts, to what others say or do, to what you have said or done, to what you will say or do, to the vicissitudes of your health and other physical conditions, to any of the raging currents of your life beyond your control; so that your mind is not entangled by those things that pass away: you will dwell in freedom and become the master of your house; making all your actions just, doing everything mindfully, and living truthfully. If you live mindfully without clinging to any thought of bodily condition, or the future or the past, and become like Empedocles' globe, perfectly contained and joyful, and strive to live only the life you have, in this moment; then you will own your life up until the time of your death, marked by wisdom and joy, at one with the god within."
So, here's the deal, here's the invitation. With attention, with recollection of our lives, and with finding our genuine relationships within the world that is; we find a way of wisdom. That is what I suggest we're about as Unitarian Universalists, and what I see that Stoicism is about. And something more, how Stoicism can help us find our own authentic Western way. Here we are, from the moment of our birth, falling. The only question is how do we fall artfully, healthfully? Well, our Western spiritual ancestors, the Stoics, tell us by seeing through the great mess, by not grasping at things that pass, but rather by holding with open hands, by noticing, noticing, noticing; we discover our hearts open, we discover joy, and we find a way of life that can be called wise.
A worthy project.