We often refer to Unity as a spiritual path. We think of ourselves as fellow travelers. But what is this journey we’re on together?
We often refer to Unity as a spiritual path. We think of ourselves as fellow travelers. But what is this journey we’re on together? What is the Holy Grail we are after? Today I’d ask you to consider, that fundamentally, we are on a quest to discover our true essence, our true identity. Our souls ask, am I spirit or flesh? Am I sacred or secular? Am I irrevocably shaped by the circumstances of my personal history, or am I free to change and grow? Am I fragile or strong? Broken or whole? I sense that I’m more than any of these things. So, who am I? Well, who do you SAY you are?
When Jesus asked Peter, Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, Thou art the Christ, Son of the Living God. If you were to ask me the same question, I would answer the same way. You are the Christ, the son or daughter of the Living God. At some level, we know this is true.
But how do we integrate this vast idea so that we can live out of this identity? So often, it seems that we are most aware of the imperfections in our character and personality … and retain lingering doubts about our worthiness.
Yet we remember that Jesus told us, You are the Light of the world. He did not say you are the light of the world if you had a healthy upbringing, or you’ve overcome all your shortcomings or healed your emotional wounds or become prosperous or resolved all your spiritual doubts. No fine print/no disclaimers – no promise for the future. Just, You are the Light of the World … right here, right now.
For many of us, the spiritual journey began with religions that described the path as a constant effort to overcome our sinful nature so that God would be pleased with us. I call this the “fixing what’s wrong with me” phase of spiritual development. For some of us, this stage is a long one. We try so hard to get life right – to get ourselves right. But of course, this kind of perfection is an impossible goal, and so we end up being discouraged with ourselves, God and life. We feel like St. Paul when he lamented (and I paraphrase), “why is it that the things I would not do, I do and the things I would do, I do not.” Yeh, I empathize, don’t you.
Yet, this discouragement is also an essential step along the way. At some point, we realize that we must give up … surrender all the effort of trying to fix ourselves … and fall to our knees before our God. At last, we come to realize that the spiritual journey is – in fact must be – a “come as you are party”. This is a far gentler path … one that leads us beyond the foibles of personality and into the innate perfection of our true nature.
There is a wonderful story in the gospels about Jesus’ confrontation with his personality. It seems that Jesus, having been baptized in the River Jordan, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and so he went into the wilderness to pray and fast. Isolated, lonely … in a state of physical deprivation … his mind began to torment him. The scripture uses the metaphor of the devil coming to tempt him. It says: “Jesus was famished … and the devil came to him and taunted, if you truly are the Son of God, command those stones to turn into bread.” Jesus resisted, saying “one does not live by bread alone.” So that didn’t work. Jesus’ spirit proved stronger than his physical or emotional needs.
Then the devil led him up to a mountain top and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said to him, “I will give you authority over the whole world … all you have to do is bow down and worship me”. And Jesus replied, “it is written … worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” So that didn’t work. Jesus’ spirit proved stronger than his ambition.
Then, in a final ditch effort, the devil took him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and said, “if you are truly the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. Surely God will send his angels to protect you and they will lift you up so that you are not dashed upon the stones”. At which point, Jesus faced his tormentor down … “do not put the Lord your God to the test … get thee behind me Satan”. Jesus’ spirit proved stronger than his doubt. And so the devil fled. And Jesus emerged from the wilderness more powerful than ever.
Again, Jesus had just come from his Baptism, when the heavens had opened up and God had said to him, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. This is the truth of Jesus’ nature – it always was – but, while he believed it, he had not fully integrated it … so his ego began to fight for control. Jesus had heard the truth … now he had to prove to himself that he had personal access to the power of God. He had to experience the power and voice of the Christ within him. Notice that the final test … the one that shut the devil down … was that of overcoming doubt.
Jesus’ desert experience is a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual journey through which we come to embrace with our whole being the truth of our divine nature. Over and over again in this life, we are confronted with challenges … over and over again, we get to choose either to rely on our personality … and fall victim to those challenges … or meet them with the faith and power of our God-Self and grow stronger.
Who are we? We are “sons and daughters of the Living God” … just like Jesus. This naming of ourselves is vitally important. Our experience of life reflects the name we give ourselves. We can call ourselves weak or strong, good or bad, beautiful or homely, smart or stupid … and amass evidence to prove it is true. The naming of who we are sets the course for our life -- determines how we live and what energy and power we will bring to the world.
I recently heard about an interesting study. It was a clinical trial of a drug designed to slow down the effects of aging. Two groups of 65 year olds were formed. One group was to be given the drug and the other a placebo. Over a period of several months, the group given the drug met each week to talk about their experience and support each other. The discussion often included words like “nursing home”, “retirement”, “aches and pains”, various surgeries, etc. The things that aging people often talk about.
The control group taking the placebo also met weekly. But they were instructed not to talk about aging at all, but to share whatever they were interested in or loved doing or were grateful for.
Now, what the groups did not know is that they were being carefully observed through one-way mirrors. At the end of two months, the control group appeared visibly younger while the group taking the drug showed no change at all. The members of the placebo group were observed standing straighter and taller, walking more quickly, moving about more easily, and laughing a lot more often. Obviously, it was not the drug that was making the difference. Far more powerful were the thoughts they were holding and the words they were saying.
What we name and say about ourselves affects how we see ourselves and how we see ourselves determines how we feel and how we live. We can let our mood … our conditions … our emotions rule. And life will be a long series of ups and downs, good days and bad. But when we know that our essence is divine … that we are far more powerful than our emotions or random thoughts or circumstances … we get to choose how we will live. The Buddha said, Be lamps unto yourselves; be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourselves as the only truth.
If you are still in that stage of spiritual development called “fixing what’s wrong with me” … or if you are ever frustrated with your inability to change the thoughts and habits that are limiting your enjoyment of life, perhaps this little story about my Mom will help. Did I tell you this before? Well anyway …
Mom was a very heavy smoker – for over 60 years. As kids we used to say that Mom couldn’t do anything without a cigarette. Well, in her early 80’s, Mom had emergency surgery for an aortic aneurism, and for days after the surgery, she lay unconscious. When she woke up from the coma, we expected her to ask for a cigarette. We had talked about how we were going to handle this since obviously, she could not smoke in the hospital. Well, we waited, but she never asked for that cigarette. Seems she no longer remembered that she smoked. Somehow the part of her brain that believed herself to be a smoker was simply erased. No withdrawal symptoms, no struggle, no after-effects of any kind. She no longer identified herself as a smoker and so she no longer craved a cigarette.
I’ve wondered about the implications of this? What if our minds are so thoroughly elastic that we can simply “forget” to be one kind of person and “remember” to be another kind of person.
We all have different identities and roles in life. We might say, I am a mother … or a husband ... or a minister. An artist … or psychologist ... or business owner. A senior citizen … or health-nut … or … a smoker.
What if we understood in the core of our being that as beloved offspring of God, we have all the power of God at our disposal … and from that identity base … can move in and out of all the roles in our lives with ease. What if we could see the personality things we do as garments we put on and take off – but certainly not who we are? Would we be as devastated by changes in our relationships, job status or health? Would we feel so guilty about our so-called failures and mistakes? Would we struggle so with habits we don’t want?
There is a place in each of us where we know who we are. It is a place of wholeness and well-being. It is a place of peace. There is a voice that comes from this place – a voice beneath the superficial voice of our personality, roles and habits – a voice that speaks a greater truth and guides our way. Deep within, there is the intuitive awareness that we have access to a power far greater than any condition or circumstance.
Beloved sons and daughters of God – divine in nature. This is the truth about us all. And deep down, we know it. In fact, knowing this is the reason we’re upset about our imperfections and mistakes. But listen – the way to handle these things is very different than we thought. Instead of fighting them, we could embrace them with compassion. Be the love we are. And then … forget about them and return our focus to the truth. Almost the way Mom forgot she smoked.
It’s inevitable that the way we see and name ourselves plays out in the way we see the world. In How Then Shall We Live, Wayne Muller tells the story of a man whose ax was missing and who suspected that his neighbor’s son had stolen it. After all, wasn’t it obvious that the boy walked like a thief, looked like a thief, and spoke like a thief. But one day the man found his ax while digging in his garden. The next time he saw his neighbor’s son, the boy walked, looked, and spoke like any other child.
As long as the idea of “thief” was in the man’s mind, that’s what he saw and the boy became, for him, obviously guilty. But then, when the ax was found, the boy seemed to be transformed and was again just a boy. These are two radically different identities: thief and boy. And the sole element that determined the boy’s character was the man’s eye.
The way we see ourselves – the names we call ourselves and others – determine the way we live. “The eye is the lamp of the body”, Jesus said. “If your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of life.” Most people believe that physical appearances are the truth. They call their perception reality. They don’t know that what they see is a projection of their own minds. They think that the condition or other person needs to change. They don’t know that their eye is cloudy because past pain and conditioning and false beliefs have caused them to forget who they really are. They don’t know that there a far greater reality is possible … that there is a different way to see.
So what practices can we use to help us clear our vision when it has become cloudy? Well, today I’d propose two:
First is the practice of self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness shines light on the illusions, fears, and self-judgments that have made us our own jailors and which we tend to project onto others. It is a decision – to retire from the merciless job of self-criticism and instead, affirm the truth that we are powerful, loving instruments of God come to this earth with a purpose. Self-forgiveness is essentially the practice of “forgetting” the past so that we can bring our whole selves to the present moment. It is the key to joyful living.
The second practice is that of being true to yourself. I once heard on NPR an interview with a country song writer – I wish I could remember his name. But anyway, he is a sort of a modern-day Bob Dillan. He writes controversial protest songs on two main themes: war and the death penalty. I almost dismissed him since I no longer believed that problems could be solved by protesting against them. But something he said really caught my attention. He said, I oppose violence because I must – in order to follow my heart. It’s not about blaming THEM – there’s always been a THEM. It’s about saying what I must say – it’s about standing in my own truth. The interviewer then asked him, On what authority do you speak out in opposition to war and the death penalty? I oppose them on my authority as a citizen in a democracy, he replied. I speak my truth out of personal integrity and my own understanding of patriotism.
Listening to this man I heard a person at home in himself. He revealed that he was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. He said that his recovery depended on personal integrity – being true to himself. He said that he could not afford inner conflict. I don’t think any of us can.
To be peace in the world, we have to be at peace with ourselves. To be at peace with ourselves, we’ve got to be ourselves. We’ve got to speak the truth as we know it. Whenever we withhold our wisdom, we block the possibility for God to create through us.
So, these two practices:
Self-forgiveness. Breaking the habit of self-criticism, guilt and shame through the practice of affirming the Truth of who we are.
And second, being true to ourselves. Speaking our truth knowing that we are God’s instruments – as Mother Theresa said, pencils in God’s hand.
So … Who am I? Who are you? Well, the Absolute Truth is that we are sons and daughters of the Most High. But who are we in the world? Why, we are who we say we are.
And now, let’s allow our minds to rest, turn our attention to our hearts and prepare for meditation. So, I invite you now … to relax … feel your seat on the chair and your feet on the floor. Take a nice deep breath, close your eyes and tune into the blessing of Michael Gott’s beautiful song, A Quiet Christmas.