The Power of the Pause
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
April 10, 2018
First Reading I Remember Galileo by Gerald Stern – For online: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/gerald_stern/poems/18057
Second Reading I Go Among Trees by Wendell Berry – For online: http://www.stevenkharper.com/igoamongtrees.html
I feel for that little squirrel. Darting out from under the wheels of that gigantic, rumbling, 18 wheeler, hot wind rushing through his hair, loud noise shaking him from head to tail, his soul quivering.
I was interested to learn that poem was written in 1979. I can’t imagine how the author might describe that squirrel now, when it seems like the pace of the world has picked up 10 fold, maybe more.
I look around I wonder, just how many of us feel that way, sometimes? Tiny, caught in or underneath something huge, dashing around as best we can, staying low to the ground, souls quivering.
We are caught, many of us, not in the wheels of a giant truck, but in the wheels of a world that seems determined to fling us from thing to thing to thing as we try our best to just get our feet under us again.
Our lives move at a pace and intensity that many say is un-matched in any period in history. There are more opportunities, more incentives, and more fears about what happens if we don’t, than ever before.
It seems almost inevitable, ending up in the fast lane. Must we stay there?
I heard a “moral tale” not long ago that illustrates something of our modern dilemma.
A business executive from the east coast was on vacation relaxing on a beach in small town CA, when a fishing boat came ashore. The executive noticed the enormous catch & complimented the captain on the size of the catch and asked how long did it take to catch that many fish?
Not long. Was the reply
Well then, the vactioning executive asked, why didn’t you stay out longer?
Because, the captain said, this is enough for me and my family. I’ll sell some and we’ll eat some, it’s enough.
The executive was curious, so what do you do with the rest of your time?
Well the captain said I sleep late I fish for a while, I play with my children, take a nap spend some time w my spouse. Then in the evening I go to visit my friends in town, I have a few drinks I play guitar I sing some songs I volunteer in a few organizations… I have a full life.
The vacationer was surprised. And wanted to help.
I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you, he said
You should spend more time on the water fishing, then you can sell the extra fish, make more money & buy a bigger boat.
And, The boat captain asked: after that ?
With the extra money from the bigger boat you can buy 2 or 3 boats and eventually hire more people to operate a fleet of fishing trawlers. Instead of selling yuour fish to a distributer you can start to negotiate directly with the processing plants and after a while you’ll be able to operate your own processing plant.
Then you can leave this little town, it’s quaint, but, you know, for NYC – from there you can operate the whole enterprise.
The captain asked, how long will that take?
The executive says: 20-25 years I would guess.
And after that?
Well, my friend, the executive says, that’s where the fun starts, when the business gets really big you can sell stock in the company and make millions.
Wow, millioins, I like the sound of that, the captain says, what happens after that?
After that… you’ll be able to retire on the coast here. Sleep in, every day. Do some fishing, play w your grandkids, take a nap, spend time with your spouse…
The captain just shrugged & walked away.
The story misses some of the nuances of modern life, of course. There are times when we must work hard. Periods that demand extra effort, and seasons of life when we must work more.
And, the margin with which we are working – the extra fish, as it were — that margin is not always feel so large, the fish not so abundant, we don’t always feel so free to shrug and walk away.
But there’s something to that story, nevertheless.
Particularly when we realize that that helpful Harvard exec… He’s everywhere. He’s in magazines, on the web, he’s on the morning TV talk shows, he’s got a helpful advice column in the newspaper – he is urging us always, everywhere – prompting us: how can you maximize your return, make your efforts worthwhile, get the most for your money, make the most of your time. Eventually, he ends up in our heads. Nudging nudging nudging. You can do more, be more, make more.
If we listen only to him, he’ll push and he’ll push and until we’ve got nothing left.
How do we emerge from that onslaught? How do we begin to push back, say no, or, say a deeper yes to that which matters most to us?
I wonder sometimes. Most of us don’t like being overbusy, don’t like feeling torn from this to that and the other thing. So why are we so prone to listening to the harvard guy in all his forms? Why are we so prone to running, so fast?
It seems to me there must be more to it than a simple desire to maximize our return.
I can’t help but juxtapose Gerald Stern’s manic squirrel from our first reading, with Wendell Berry’s picture of serenity among the trees, the water, images of sleeping cattle – from our second.
The sleeping cattle of his tasks laid to the side, idyllic, peaceful, quiet.
What I am afraid of comes, he writes.
What I am afraid of, comes.
There’s a saying, that when we slow down it gives our soul a chance to catch up with us.
Perhaps we don’t always like to do it because it gives everything else a chance to catch up with us too.
Wayne Muller, in his book, Sabbath, tells of Juanita, a Native American who leads people on vision quests – journeys into the wilderness where they live for 3 days, alone, listening for the teachings that arise when one embarks on a sacred pilgrimage. What people are most afraid of, she says, is not so much the dangers that lurk in the wilderness, the wild animals, the darkness or cold. Most are far more anxious about having to confront whatever comes up in the empty space, when they are quiet, and alone. Who knows what terror lurks in the anonymous solitude? What voices will arise in the silence?
And, in that same book, a doctor confesses that for him and many of his friends and colleagues in medicine, part of their rush and hurry is fear of the terrible things they will feel in the quiet. They are so close to so much suffering and loss, they are afraid that if they stop, even for a moment, the sheer enormity of sorrow will suffocate and overwhelm them.
And so, my question, for us, how might our unspoken fears and sadness be speeding up our lives?
Muller writes that: “We keep moving faster and faster, so we will not feel how sad we are, how much we have lost in this life: […] friends and lovers, dreams that have not come true, all that has passed away. […]”
And I will add, it’s not just feelings about ourselves, there’s also our spouse who is ill, or struggling, or just not feeling right. There’s our parents, our planet, or our feelings and fears about the children we love. For the first time in history, the majority of American parents don’t think their kids will be better off than they were. Each of these alone can generate a whole stream of to do list items, books to read, appointments to make, conversations to have, experts to consult…
When you look at the real, actual, long long list of things that you could be doing right now for yourself or those around you, combine that with the constant drumbeat equating happiness with doing more and being more, and then you mix in a fear of the feelings that come up when we actually stop, it’s a wonder we’re not busier still than we already are.
And it’s no wonder so many of us shy away from real stillness, from a regular meditation practice, from taking time away, from having real, fully disconnected, total time off.
And yet, if we don’t, how will our souls catch up with us?
How will our joy catch up with us?
How will the sadness of life’s aches ever find us, to soften us, to open us, and help us see more clearly?
There is a parable, of Rabbi Levi, who saw a man running in the street and asked him, “Why do you run?” “I am running after my good fortune!” the man replies. “Silly man, “ Rabbi Levi tells him, “your good fortune has been trying to chase you, but you are running too fast.”
Our good fortune, contrary to popular opinion, is not necessarily more boats, a New York apartment or a California house by the sea.
It’s not even necessarily found in more success, more fun experiences, or arranging our lives just the way we want them.
Our good fortune might begin to emerge, when we pause, make time, create space, for what’s already right here, close, precious, intimate, and slow. Our good fortune might emerge when we take the time to allow old sadness or fear to wash in and through us. Clearing us out, as the poet Rumi writes, for some new delight.
And clearing us out for life. The kind of life we really want. Allowing a deeper call, and our fuller joy, to emerge.
Last month, our theme was balance. This month it is emergence.
This is one of those times where one theme flows right into the next.
Two of the spiritual exercises on balance were devoted to the power of the pause. There was the encouragement to take daily micro-rest, from three deep breaths to 3 minutes to center yourself and regain your balance. And there was the macro-rest – the sabbath – the encouragement to take 1 or even 2 full days off a week. Not just off as in, not at work, but off, as in, not working at all, perhaps even not texting, not watching TV, not online, but really taking time away from the countless demands on our attention.
There are some compelling models on the connection between pausing and emergence.
Jesus, spent 40 days in the desert and from that long pause emerged his whole ministry.
The Buddha spent 7 days under the bodhi tree and emerged enlightened.
The Prophet Mohamed, would regularly retreat to meditate for a month at a time and it was during one such retreat that he received the revelation from which would emerge the beginnings of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
There is some mystical, organic process that can happen when we step away, pause – detach from the crush of the everyday.
And while we may not aspire to be a Prophet, the Buddha or Jesus, we too can benefit from this natural, mystical process.
Actually doing it, though. Actually taking the time, stepping away, making the space, sometimes that’s the hardest part.
I remember when I was just thinking about the possibility of going into ministry I went to a preacher I deeply admired and asked her what it took. I thought she would speak to language ability or organizational aptitude or relational skills. But what she told me as a key thing, was not innate ability or skill or studying hard. What you need, she said, is to have spiritual practices of steel. You need to be willing not just to do it sometimes, but to commit to it, to put it first.
I think she could be speaking to any of us.
There will always be more to do, more to solve, more ways to be involved, more ways to help than you can possibly take on. You have to create space in your life for family and friends and yourself and you have to protect it, you have to put it first.
I haven’t always listened to her good advice.
And although, these days I explicitly build down-time into my schedule I almost always resist my morning meditation time. I don’t want to do it I don’t have the time, there are all these things waiting for my attention…
Yet when I actually sit down *to* do it, I get a little more clarity about what really matters to me, about what really needs to be done. I feel a little less urgent, my decisions are a little better, my perspective feels a little wider. The air feels clearer, somehow. And, I’ve noticed, my life tends to go better.
The only way I’ve been able to do it consistently, though, is to find buddy to do it with. Something about checking in and knowing there’s someone else doing the same thing I am helps me to actually do it every day.
It’s the kind of support a religious community can provide too.
It’s the kind of thing a religious community can help support us to do.
Sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly. We come to worship services together – that’s a spiritual practice of creating space, just knowing other good people will be here can help us decide to come. We, many of us, have joined connection groups, put it in our schedule, carved out time to create space for ourselves and each other…. We are invited, together, each month, to do the spiritual exercises you receive in the newsletter. Many of you attend the biweekly meditation session led here by Joanne Friday. Many of us, I expect, have a spiritual practice: yoga, time in nature, quiet time alone, something else that grounds you back in yourself that you’ve figured out to do with friends or alone.
And my call to you today. Listen to your heart, do you need more space still? Do you need to recommit to a spiritual practice of pause that you have temporarily put to the side? Even just 3 minutes or three breaths in the morning, or the middle of your day? Is there something you need to say no to, so you can say yes to something deeper just waiting to emerge in you?
The same reporter who wrote about today’s parents fearing their kids will not be better off than they were also notes that this is not necessarily cause for alarm. “The biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream,” Courtney Martin says in a talk “The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in.””
I go among the trees and sit still. Wendell Berry writes.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
[Until] What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
[until] it sings, and I hear its song…
May we find our pause, move through fear, and allow the song of a new dream to emerge in us.