We live in a bustling, busy culture. How do we find the space to simply be present and centred in the glory of being alive? Join Rev. Fiona Heath in exploring the fine art of doing nothing.
Rev. Fiona Heath became a UU minister in September 2012. She is our part-time minister and, since she was recently ordained, we are delighted to now be allowed to address her as Reverend. She lives in Waterloo with her partner and son.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Highway 401 is one of the busiest in North America. Half a million cars travel across the Greater Toronto Area each day. Cars are often bumper to bumper, and when I drive during the week, there is always at least one, if not several times, when I have to come to a full stop as the traffic bunches up. Not from a traffic accident or lane closure, but because of the density of the traffic.
This bunching phenomena, has, of course, been studied by scientists. As soon as a car speeds up and then slows down quickly when it meets slower cars ahead of it, the traffic slows down in a wave that ripples through all the cars behind it. And when people, frustrated by the slow down, speed up even more when the space opens up, they cause another bunch up when they slow down to the pace of the traffic ahead. Which causes more frustration…
This has never happened to me on the 407. On the 407, everyone leaves several car lengths between vehicles. The people who need to go fast, do so, and then the rest of us pass them after they have been stopped by the police. The difference between the 401 and 407 is simply one of space. There is more than enough room on the 407 for everyone, on the 401, the density of cars overwhelms the system.
This happens to us too. The sheer number of activities can overwhelm our systems. More and more of us seem to be living a life that like the 401 – dense, busy, noisy, moving fast. Life is happening at full speed. It can be stressful, but it is not always terrible. Lots gets accomplished, it can be kind of fun in an adrenalin fueled way. But we can also get all bunched up inside ourselves, caught in an endless stop and go.
We all need space to drive safely. The emptiness is as important as the car. We need space and unscheduled time to live well. To have room around us is essential to our mental and emotional well being. But in a culture of high activity, this understanding can get lost, this valuing of tranquility.
Tranquility belongs to a long list of shadowy essentials to which our culture pays lip service, but to which we are mostly oblivious, among them rest, sleep, silence, stillness, and solitude. (Christian McEwan from World Enough & Time)
As a society, we tend to be impressed by people who sleep little, as if it is a sign of accomplishment; not taking vacation is seen as a good work ethic, instead of a poor life choice.
We need, I believe, to participate in what might be described as a certain vibrant emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the tacit understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly”.
That ease, that spaciousness is ma. (McEwan)
Give it space to fly. How often do we give ourselves space to fly? How often do we experience ma? Today I want to encourage you to consider how fast or busy life is, to consider what it means to slow down and make room for stillness. This notion of empty space is, or was, an essential concept of Asian religious cultural traditions. The idea of having space to fly, to grow, to live, is embedded in Taoism and Buddhism.
Just as a bird needs the sky in which to soar, we too need space. In the Tao Te Ching, a book of wisdom written down almost 2,500 years ago, in what is now China, chapter 11 discusses the value of space:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it is useful.
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it is useful.
Cut doors and windows make a room.
Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
Where the pot is not is where it is useful. I love this kind of backwards revelation, this reminder that it is the space itself that is useful. Where the room isn’t, there is room for you. I believe the text is reminding us of the importance of emptiness. The absolute necessity for room to simply live, that spaciousness is a meaningful necessity to humanity.
It is the unused space in a room that makes it habitable. This space might be physical but its effect is metaphysical, it allows our spirits to stretch and unfurl, helps us to find calmness and focus.
The universe itself is largely empty, vast distances lie between planets, stars, and galaxies. Yet that emptiness is the foundation for life. Our chalice, while it can be filled with fire, with water, and with flowers, can also be empty. It is the empty spaces that free us to be ourselves. It is in the empty spaces that we can re-connect to the awesome, unnameable sense of the immensity of being.
There is a story about a military chaplain who served in World War II in England. He recalled his conversations with young soldiers during the war. He remembered especially those who served in the Air Force or the Navy. When he asked them about fear, when he asked about loneliness and how they survived, they told of their long hours alone, watching infinite expanses of the sky or the sea at night. The chaplain was struck by how they seemed wise beyond their years, centered and calm. Their comrades in the Army, who were almost always busy on the ground, rarely spoke of such things to the chaplain, who remained intrigued all his life by the accidental assignment to a contemplative post, and the way some men had fallen, by grace, into the embrace of emptiness.
We live in the age of information and technology. Information is readily accessible at all times through several layers of technology. Multi-tasking has become the norm. We check our work emails at home while in front of the tv, we check our personal emails at work at our desk. But we are not as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. Computers can perform many processes at once, but our competence reduces with each additional task. Many of us are so busy dealing with the constant bombardment of data that it affects the quality of our attention and our capacity to understand. As Gertrude Stein said ``everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense``. I know that I am getting too distracted when I realize that in unpacking the groceries, I have put the cans of chickpeas in the fridge and the bottle of milk in the cupboard.
It is counter cultural to live at a slow and quiet pace, so much so that when one man in Italy publicly suggested it was time to return to the leisurely evening meal, he inadvertently began the slow food movement. How strange to live in a time period that requires an organized movement to encourage people to community and conversation!
It is precisely these slower moments that help us make connections with others and most especially ourselves. The Chinese character for leisure is made up of “space” and “sunshine”; it is the pause, the gap, the attitude of relaxation that allows the sun to shine into our lives and our spirits. We all need a certain amount of fallow time.
English poet John Lubbock reminds us that "rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time."
Indeed, there is some research to suggest that our deeper intellect cannot emerge without times of rest. That time spent in quiet places actually improves our mental and emotional resilience. A series of tests has shown that subjects who spent time in quiet rural settings then exhibited greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains became both calmer and sharper. Neuroscientists have found that our sense of empathy depends on neural processes that are inherently slow (from Aeon magazine). To be our best selves requires quiet time.
It seems our Jewish ancestors had it right when they called for a regular day of rest: the Sabbath. The Sabbath, the day of rest, is holy according to the Hebrew Bible. It is the moment which reminds us we don’t live on the earth but in it as part of the weaving of all life. It reminds us to value all that cannot be measured, bought and sold. The practice of the Sabbath calls us to the things which restore our flagging spirits and connects us to the heart of who we are.
There is a Catholic legend about Saint John the Evangelist, who was one of the disciples beloved by Jesus. St. John was sitting out in a garden, stroking the feathers of a tamed partridge. A young hunter passed by, with his bow slung over his shoulder; he stopped, and said to the older man, “How can it be that a holy man such as yourself wastes your time playing with a bird?”
The saint smiled and, like all people with wisdom, answered the question with another question. “As a hunter, why do you not keep your bow string taut and ready for an arrow at all times?”
“If I did that”, said the hunter, “My bow would lose its strength and flexibility and no longer serve its purpose properly.”
“Just so” said St. John. “And in the same way, I take the chance to relax, so that I might give myself more fully to my work. No person lives well who does not take the time for recreation.” (adapted from McEwan, ibid)
It is in the quiet spaces that our spirits open up and become receptive to the world. It is in these times that Mystery has room to enter. It is where the pot is not that it is useful. It is silence that allows words to be spoken and heard. A painting needs a blank canvas to begin. Music needs the space between the notes. The empty chalice is waiting to be filled by us.
I want to finish with one final comment from essayist Henry David Thoreau, famous for retreating to the woods; he was clear on why he needed times of stillness:
”Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, until… [by] the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance…. “
My wish for all of us in the coming summer months is that we may find moments of stillness in the midst of all the activity, moments in which our spirits are revived and we are restored to our compassionate and creative selves.
May it be so.
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