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Sunday, November 22 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am
Unitarian Universalists pride themselves in being activists, doers, makers and shakers. But on the cusp of Thanksgiving, Rev. Furrer is preaching on the value to be found in receiving. A focus on scientific discovery, artistic creativity, biofeedback and yoga.
how to attend
• To virtually attend, please Zoom in using room number 989 3107 9078.
• To phone into the service, call 669-900-6833, Meeting ID: 989 3107 9078.
For those joining, please mute as soon as you enter the room, so everyone can hear. Please note, the services will be recorded, but at this time, there are no plans to share the recording.
Today I want to talk about receiving. My aim is to lift up the value, the virtue, and the goodness of receptivity. My inspiration and much of the source material comes from my late and close colleague Roy Phillips’ 1985 Barry Street Lecture on nurturing insight and inner sensitivity.
A brief look through both our gray and teal hymnals, and through other Unitarian and Universalist hymnbooks over the decades, reveals that this topic—receptivity—goes against the grain of most liberal religious teaching.
It’s true: we Unitarian Universalists tend to perceive ourselves as makers and shakers, doers, givers and helpers—and it is strongly reflected here [hold hymnal]. Judith Walker Riggs, a highly regarded colleague, points out: how fascinatingly one-sided! “Sort of ignores reality…” Judith goes on to explain. “The reality that as infants we survive only by receiving…the reality that in old age we will survive only by receiving…the reality that NOW we only survive by receiving.”
Consider the lyrics of the Opening Hymn we sang moments ago:
I walk the unfrequented road
With open eye and ear,
I watch afield the farmer load
The bounty of the year.
I filch the fruit of no man’s toil
No trespasser am I
And yet I reap from every soil
And from the unmeasured sky.
I gather where I did not sow,
And bind the mystic sheaf,
The Amber air, the river’s flow,
The rustle of the leaf.
I face the hills, the stream, the wood,
And feel with all akin,
My heart expands: their fortitude
And peace and joy flow in.1
Consider also the late philosopher Alan Watts, who preached in two Unitarian churches I have served and several others, too. In his autobiography, Watts describes a 1958 meeting with Carl Jung at the psychiatrist’s home in Switzerland.2 Walking along the water’s edge, and in response to the 83-year-old’s many questions, Watts had the temerity to suggest that the term “the Unconscious” was unfortunate, since psychic processes (indeed, all processes) are more verb-like than noun–ish. Jung agreed. Their conversation continued: it’s not just consciousness vs. unconsciousness going on inside the psyche; there is something else, too: a differentiation between what we call the scanning, deliberative mind and the creative unconscious. The scanning, deliberative mind—what Cal State historian Theodore Roszak and others have called our “objective manipulative consciousness”—is to be distinguished from the creative unconscious. Best-selling author and physician Andrew Weil refers to the creative unconscious as the natural mind; my late UU colleague Roy Phillips called it the spontaneous mind.
Call it what you will. The important thing is to find a way to express (and thereby more fully notice) the truth that in our experience there is a spontaneous functioning, an inner kaleidoscope that is turning constantly and churning up new patters. We can block this out of our awareness…or we can foster within ourselves an attitude of receptivity to it.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine. As with events, so it is with thoughts. When I watch that flowing river…I see that I am…not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire to look up and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come.3
One of religion’s primary functions, I believe, has been to advocate that we become ever more receptive to our inner natural, spontaneous mind—what Emerson here describes as an “ethereal inner river.” Down through the centuries and across cultures much in religious myth and ritual encourages the faithful to open up to the creative activity of their own natural mind. This creativity, this inner river, is operative within us, but it has a life of its own. We cannot control it; we must allow it to be, and try to cultivate a passive receptivity to its creative working.
Thirty–four years ago—in August of 1986—I had a remarkable experience. My then six-year old daughter Meredith and I had just come back from a ten-day camping trip to Acadia National Park and had stopped, on our way back to Connecticut, for a two day visit with friends in Belfast, Maine, on the edge of Penobscot Bay.
The early morning light streaming through the window awakened me, and after a moment’s hesitation, I put something on, went to the front porch and quietly, calmly watched the sun rise. I say “calmly” because after nearly two weeks outdoors and on vacation I was able to just sit and watch instead of thinking all the while about events in the news, songs in my head, the million and one things I had to do, favors I owed, slights I had received and all the other clap-trap inner dialogue that usually fills one’s constantly churning monkey-mind.
Across the wide waters, fishing and lobster boats plied their way to the open sea. Waterfowl glided by. Billowy clouds modulated shades of pink, orange, and purple, reflected in the gently waving bay. It was a glorious morning.
As I watched I paid—just ever so slight—attention to my breathing. Suddenly I realized what the breathing exercises so important to yoga are all about. You spend months and years learning to breath in one nostril and out the other, to slow breathing, to pace it, to manipulate it, to discipline it, and the paradoxical intent of such discipline is to show you at last—to show you with world-shattering, mind-set demolishing impact—the momentous truth that all along you had missed: that you do not breathe; that the fundamental existential truth is, rather, that breathing happens in you. You do not ultimately control it. The truth is not “I breathe.” The truth is, rather, “I am breathed.”
Something beyond the controlling self—something beyond the ego—is at work within me, something beyond-yet-within me; some “it” is breathing me, some “thou.” The Beyond is simultaneously within me; when I am awake, when I am asleep, it breathes itself through me.
It breathes me. And beyond this, it lives me. It is up to me to develop a full receptivity to its life within me. When I can do this—become fully receptive to the natural spontaneous mind within—I will live as a fully integrated human being, at one with myself.
Openness to the beyond, the beyond within—this is not cultivated enough among us, especially today. Instead, we are pressured to keep our eyes hard-focused on a publicly agreed upon external world all of us hold in common. And to that “outer world” we are constantly urged to pay attention. Serious attention. With no navel-gazing!
Just for the fun of it, let us stop for a moment and think about that: “No navel-gazing.” Navel-gazing: a term used to refer to the wasted time spent by a self-absorbed narcissist. In our age, contemplating one’s navel is seen by most people as an enormous waste of energy. Yet, just for a moment, truly contemplate your navel. It is a physical symbol of our contingent nature. Your navel—ponder it! It is scar tissue from your original primal connection. Even after the umbilical cord is cut, no one is on his or her own. No longer dependent on an individual mother, the newborn begins his or her unmediated direct dependence on, instead, an entire nexus of others: community, culture, traditions, ecosystem, the plenitude, the mystery of being….
Were we to allow ourselves to engage in navel-gazing we might be more aware of our continuing status—no matter how much we also give—our continuing status forever as receivers.
Many of the symbols and practices of religion, I believe, have as their subliminal intent the cultivation of an open receptivity towards the workings of “the beyond”—the beyond outside ourselves, surely, but even more “the beyond within.” Interestingly, religious myth and symbol usually advocates trust toward and faith in this “beyond,” whereas conventional wisdom urges caution. For example, psychoanalysis refers to the unconscious, spontaneous mind as the “id.” It urges guardedness and caution when approaching what it considers the rapacious seat of infantile craving and sexual desire. Religion, by in large, is kinder, urging trust in the natural mind with references to “the presence of the Holy Spirit” within.
* * *
No doubt many of you here saw the highly acclaimed play or movie Amadeus about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his anguished contemporary, Antonio Salieri. One of the show’s most vivid scenes has Salieri looking over some manuscripts of Mozart’s music, which he first took to be copies, only to suddenly realize that, in fact, what he was looking at were drafts: first and only drafts.
The scene dramatizes what Mozart himself reported of his own inner experience as he wrote scores. In the movie, Salieri spoke of the music Mozart heard in his head as “the voice of God” sounding within. Call it what you will, the testimony clearly demonstrates the artistic and creative value of cultivating one’s receptivity to the workings of the spontaneous mind.4
A friend of mine, the late Dr. Art Gladman, was the owner and director of an Oakland rehabilitation hospital and a pioneer biofeedback researcher. Having conducted biofeedback experiments with thousands of patients, Art told me that those most successful at adapting his techniques were artists, especially musicians, and in particular jazz musicians. For these musicians, the art of spontaneous composition—what makes authentic jazz jazz—is the practice of just listening to the spontaneous mind within and simultaneously playing what you hear; or as Dr. Gladman, the scientist, put it: tuning out the beta waves and tuning into alpha and gamma waves.
The movie Fences was released a few years ago, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.5 My partner Carol and I both saw Fences and were powerfully affected. Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson wrote the screenplay. Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My partner Carol grew up in Pittsburgh. I had a six-year ministry and Meredith went to high school in Pittsburgh. August Wilson wrote his first plays there, but his artistic breakthrough did not come until 1978 when he moved away from the Hill, Pittsburgh’s historic African-American community, to St. Paul, Minnesota. In doing so Wilson left a neighborhood that had 55,000 black people for a state that had about the same number. “There weren’t many black folks around,” he wrote. “In that silence, I could hear the language for the first time. I could hear the music.” 6
Not only have artists learned how to do this; many top scientists have described the experience of scientific discovery in similar terms. The German chemist Fredrich Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene molecule is a classic case. Kekulé had spent years wrestling with the structure of the molecule but could not figure it out. Then, one afternoon he pushed his papers aside and lay his head down for a nap—whereupon he dreamed of an ouroboros—the common mythological image of a snake swallowing its own tail. As he came out of dreamland and into consciousness Kekulé knew immediately and intuitively that he had found his answer: the carbon atoms took a ring, not a chain, formation.7
Then there’s the example of the poet, William Blake. In two 1803 letters to a friend, Blake commented on a poem he had recently completed.
I have written this poem for immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will. The Time it has taken in writing was thus rendered Non Existent & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life all produced without Labour or Study…. I may praise it since I dare not pretend to be other than The Secretary [. T] he Authors are in Eternity. 8
Blake’s poem came to him. He did not work it into being. He was the recording secretary. He wrote down what he received. The “Authors” were in “Eternity,” beyond him, beyond his control. Whatever else it means to say, “The Authors are in Eternity,” I take it to mean, at least, that the creative unconscious, the spontaneous mind, is the source of the poem.
I am concerned that some may protest that to speak of receiving—as I have been urging we do—will encourage a self-centered, narcissistic lifestyle. But I don’t think so. It seems to me, instead, that it grounds us by providing a more honest and realistic and less grandiose picture of ourselves as beings who oscillate continually between dependence and independence, between waking and sleeping, between giving and receiving.
And there are some who will voice the fear that if we urge people to be more trusting of their spontaneous unconscious, we will be encouraging licentiousness and violence and unleashing everyone to become murderers and rapists. No. I think otherwise…. For while there are murderers and rapist in this world, we are not they—certainly not the vast majority of us. Let the murderers and rapists be guarded. We ought not to mute our spirits because there are evil persons and processes in the world. Most of us, I am quite certain, are more likely to become dangerous to ourselves and to others when we bind ourselves in and tone ourselves down, when we suppress, mute, and restrain.
This is the question, I suppose: Is it the dangerous id or the presence of the vaulted Holy Spirit stirring there, inside our heart of hearts? My answer, I contend, is fully continuous with the teachings of our tradition, which holds to belief in a spark, a touch of the divine, within every person. There is a deep wisdom there, far greater than we think. In our lives and in our work we are the locus of creative impulses whose origins are lost in the mystery beyond us. We are here to do the bidding of this creativity, to learn to wait for it receptively, and to struggle bringing it to expression.
So may it be. Namaste. Amen.