Toward Silence

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I shared with you the opening paragraphs of Morris Berman’s 1989 book, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. He describes childhood memories of family gatherings—though it could be a dinner party, a date, a classroom, the lunch table at school or the office, a job interview, a work meeting—any gathering where people are interacting, talking, chatting, connecting, achieving good chemistry—where extended silences appear to be unwelcome. Most of us have had the experience of an unanticipated pause in the conversation, an awkward, uncomfortable silence.

Berman says, “it is as though silence could disclose some sort of terribly frightening Void. And what is being avoided are questions of who we are and what we are actually doing with each other. These questions live in our bodies, and silence forces them to the surface.”[1] This is probably an overstatement. Not all awkward silence holds existential significance. But when it happens to me, I definitely feel a sense of relief when the chatter starts up again, when the conversation carries on, when the chemistry recatalyzes. There’s something in that silence that I—and perhaps we—don’t typically want to explore. When it happens, we don’t say, “ah, this is nice, let’s continue not talking.”

Of course Berman isn’t only talking about awkward dinner party silences. He’s offering a metaphor for all the silences and empty spaces that hover around the edges of our awareness. Whatever resides in that silence, he’s convinced it matters. He challenges us to explore it, rather than start up the chatter again. I find a striking resonance with various passages from the ancient Taoist masters; Chuang Tzu’s “fasting of the mind”[2]; and Lao Tzu’s admonition to “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[3]

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Our April ministry theme is transcendence, a nod to spring’s rebirth transcending winter’s death-like slumber; Easter’s resurrection transcending death on the cross; Passover’s story of the Israelites transcending slavery in ancient Egypt. I’ve been reviewing my previous sermons on this theme, and I discover, not surprisingly, that I come to it with mixed feelings. Transcending adversity or oppression, yes; transcending something in ourselves that holds us back, yes; but transcendence as a quality of God, no. In his Handbook of Theological Terms, which I’ve quoted in sermons before, Van Harvey says transcendence “has been used to designate any ideal or thing or being that ‘stands over against’…. It conveys ‘otherness.’” God “is said to transcend the world in the sense that his being is not identical with or his power not exhausted by the [earthly realm].” “When this idea of transcendence has been radicalized … it has led to the view that [God] is ‘wholly other’ and, therefore, unknowable.”[4]

This transcendent God doesn’t speak to me—neither literally, nor metaphorically. I’ve always dismissed this God in favor of a radically immanent one. Quoting a previous sermon, “I’ve longed for God to be nearby, close, present, immediate—like a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover—a wise counselor when my way is unclear, a source of inspiration when my well runs dry, a muse for my creativity, a provider of comfort and solace when life is hard, a bringer of peace in the midst of chaos.”[5]

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I originally titled this sermon “I Sing the Body Transcendent.” I thought I was being clever. I thought I could expose God as utterly immanent. I reasoned that human beings cannot have a spiritual experience without our bodies being involved in some way. Whatever counts for you as spiritual experience—whether it is based in emotions, perceptions, thoughts, physical activity, ritual, prayer, meditation—something happens in the body. I wrote in the newsletter that, though God is often described as transcendent, “people across the planet purport to commune with God through spiritual practices that use the body. Do our bodies transcend?” I imagined the answer would be no: our bodies stay here—at this pulpit, in these chairs, weighty, grounded, bounded by age and time, caught in gravity’s pull. If God is real, then God must come to us. God cannot be wholly other. God must be immanent.

We have a monthly meeting called God-Talk. Every fourth Tuesday at 4:30, a small group meets for exploration of what God means in our lives. I asked participants what they thought about my clever idea. They didn’t think much of it. They felt I was simplifying something that doesn’t need simplification. They felt I was reducing concepts like soul, spirit, and mind to purely mechanical, bodily functions, when they are more than that. Not only did they not find my answer all that compelling, I’m pretty sure they didn’t find the question compelling.

But something about the question wouldn’t let me go. I turned to Morris Berman’s Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. His work on human consciousness and its grounding in bodily experience has been extremely influential on my spiritual growth. Nevertheless, I find reading him frustrating because he compiles vast mountains of evidence, theory and analysis from a wide range of disciplines to point in certain directions, to hint at certain possibilities, but without ever confirming anything. What he says feels right to me, but I’m never quite sure it’s true. As a Berman disciple once suggested, his work comes with a wink; as if to say, ‘yeah, I know, maybe not; but it could be right.”

From here on, I’m winking.

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One experience common to all humanity is the womb. In the womb, and to some extent through the earliest periods of infancy, we live in complete oneness with our environment. There is no ‘I’ or ‘you,’ no ‘us’ or ‘them.’ There is oneness, what Lao Tzu might call profound union.[6]  Berman argues this is a completely embodied experience. Though we are unconscious, our bodies feel it, and it feels good.  

Then, inevitably …  rupture. We are launched out of oneness. Some contend the rupture happens at birth, others locate it whenever consciousness begins. Berman says, “up to this point, all of us feel ourselves more or less continuous with the external environment. Coming to consciousness means a rupture in that continuity, the emergence of a divide between Self and Other. With the thought, ‘I am I,’ a new level of existence opens up for us. There is a tear in the fabric.”[7]  

This tear, though it has psychological, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions, is fundamentally physical. Our bodies experienced oneness in the womb; thus they experience rupture more keenly than our other faculties do. There’s a barreness, a void, something missing, perhaps a broken feeling. The Hungarian psychoanalyst, Michael Balint, called it the “basic fault.”[8] The British novelist, John Fowles, called it the “nemo.”[9] Berman argues this basic fault nags at us, haunts us, drives us, motivates us. He says, “the enormous power of this feeling … derives from the fact that the basic fault has a biological foundation. It is laid down in the tissue of the body at a primary level, and as a result can never quite be eradicated.”[10]

Berman’s primary question in Coming to Our Senses, is what do we do with this basic fault? What do we do with this rupture that lives deep in our cells, and comes to the surface, often unbidden, not only in awkward dinner party silences, but also in our anxiety, fear, yearning, addiction, attachment, lust for power, desire for control, need for order and stability? His answer? We fill it up.

To be clear, by ‘we,’ he means people living in modern, western societies. He conceives of the basic fault as a western, more than an eastern phenomenon. We fill it up with anything that might recreate the experience of original unity, anything that can bring a moment of relief, comfort, solace, ecstasy, anything that might approximate our body’s womb experience. We fill it with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, video games and other screen-based entertainments. We fill it, perhaps more ominously, with ideologies and isms. Note how nationalism makes some people feel powerful and whole; how being American, makes some feel powerful and whole; how racism, sexism or homophobia make some feel powerful and whole; how fighting against those things, having a cause, makes some feel powerful and whole; or even how having a favorite sports team makes some feel powerful and whole. We fill it up with stories we tell about our people, how we’re moving through history toward some better era in which there will be justice and peace. We fill it up with religion, with visions of Heaven, Paradise, the Promised Land. Note how belief in an all-powerful God, or a resurrected God, a prosperity God, a liberation God, a judging God—some transcendent God to whom we must ascend—makes some feel powerful and whole.

So often we believe we’re transcending, but all we’re really doing is filling the basic fault, attempting a return to the womb, to that bodily feeling of oneness. But none of it works.  None of it fulfills, satisfies, quenches indefinitely. None of it ultimately transcends anything. This is Berman’s central insight. The basic fault—no matter how it manifests in us—cannot be sufficiently filled by anything—no food, no substance, no ideology, no ism, no religion, no heaven, no God—because it is physical, because it is an unavoidable feature of the human condition that can never be fully eradicated.

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I don’t know if the basic fault is real. There’s a lot it doesn’t explain. But let’s say it’s real and we can’t eradicate it. Or let’s say it isn’t real, but there are other sources of rupture in our lives, and the physical effects are enormously difficult to eradicate, so we live with something like the basic fault. Either way, we can treat our bodies differently. We can tend to our bodies where the basic fault resides. But such tending to the body is counter-cultural. This is Berman’s enduring cultural criticism. We so quickly seek to fill the basic fault; we so readily seek to transcend our condition, because we live in a modern, western culture that, in myriad ways, discounts, devalues, ignores, abuses, embarrasses, starves, stuffs, and shames the body. It’s difficult for us to be truly comfortable in and close to our bodies. And, Berman says, “When you’ve lost your body, you need an ism.”[11]

Tending to our bodies begins with accepting the physical root of the rupture. Instead of seeking transcendence, Berman says “learn to live with the Abyss; recognizing the [basic fault] for what it is. Far more important than finding a [new ism, ideology, paradigm, God, Heaven, etc.] is coming face to face with the immense yearning that underlies the need for [it] in the first place. This means exploring what we fear most … the empty space or silence that exists between concepts and paradigms, but never in them.”[12] He’s essentially saying, ‘let your yearning be. Resist the temptation to fill it up.’

“Do our bodies transcend?” It’s the wrong question. We seek transcendence to fill a void in our lives that doesn’t actually need filling. Instead of transcendence, try silence. As Lao Tzu said, “Shut the mouth. / Shut the doors. / Blunt the sharpness. / Untie the tangles. / Soften the light. / Become one with the dusty world.”[13] As Chuang Tzu said, “the Way gathers in emptiness alone.”[14]

Entering into silence, becoming comfortable with it, learning to just be, begins to relieve us of the need to fill the basic fault. When we’re not dedicating energy to filling it up, we can live more fully in our bodies; we can tend to our bodies physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually where they hurt, where pain, fear and anxiety persist.

So often, transcendence is a denial of who we really are, where we really hurt, and what we’re actually doing. “The true enlightenment,” says Berman, “is to really know, really feel, your … somatic nature,”[15]—your body, your body’s integrity, your body’s magnificence. He advises us not to go up, but to go across, or even down.

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“The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy; presence, self-remembering, is terribly difficult, and where the real work lies.”[16]

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We have bodies. We are incarnate beings. “Incarnation means living in life, not transcending it.”[17]

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Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Berman, Morris, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (Brattleboro: Echo Point Books and Media, 1989) p. 20.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 54.

[3] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[4] Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York; Touchstone, 1992) pp. 242-243.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “From Radical Transcendence to Radical Immanence,” a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, April 13th, 2015. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/from-radical-transcendence-to-radical-immanence/.

[6] Lao Tzu, in Wing-Tsit Chan, The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching) (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 199.

[7] Berman, Senses, p. 25.

[8] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[9] Berman, Senses, p. 20.

[10] Berman, Senses, p. 24.

[11] Berman, Senses, p. 343.

[12] Berman, Senses, p. 307.

[13] Lao Tzu, The Way of Lao Tzu, p. 199.

[14] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, p. 54.

[15] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[16] Berman, Senses, p. 310.

[17] Berman, Senses, p. 315.

Risking Creativity

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”[1] Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”[2]

Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts.[3] He also says “creativity is our natural state.”[4]

I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?

This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.

This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.

So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.

Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”[5] I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.”[6] Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.

Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”[7]

This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.

But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given.  The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider.[8] One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.

This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.

In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”[9]

We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us.[10] Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.

[2]Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.

[3]Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.

[5]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.

[7]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.

[8] Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.

[9] Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-33.