Five Inward Journeys

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I recently heard a podcast featuring Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder whose family belongs to the traditional healers from Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland. He says, “I wish you could meet my grandmother…. She says ‘we are really, really big. In our mind, it’s absolutely enormous. And in our spirits, it’s enormous. And our body has enormous capacity.’ So we ask her … ‘What does it really mean?’ She says, ‘You can think of anything….’ She talks about the great sky over you. The great sky is your spirit. The home of your spirit is your heart. That is bigger than the big sky above us…. You are bigger within yourself than the big sky above you…. You really must be enormously capable…. But do we understand it? …. No, we don’t understand … the significance of what [we] carry within [ourselves] every single day.”[1]

His premise if this: if we cannot comprehend the vastness within ourselves, then we cannot comprehend the vastness within others. If we cannot comprehend the vastness within others, then we cannot collectively solve the global climate crisis, or any other crisis. I’d never encountered Angaangaq before. After viewing a number of his presentations, clearly one of his central messages to audiences all over the world is the need for human beings to comprehend and trust the vastness within ourselves.

Our ministry theme for March is journeys. In previous sermons on this theme I’ve observed that where most religions offer specific spiritual paths toward specific spiritual goals, Unitarian Universalism is more open-ended, more self-guided, the directions less specified, the available paths more numerous. We tend to value spontaneity, creativity and curiosity more than the discipline of sticking to pre-ordained rules. For these reasons and more, it can be challenging to explain the ‘typical’ UU spiritual journey.[2]

Yet I hear Angaangaq’s contention that without understanding the vastness within ourselves we will fail to understand the vastness within others, and we will fail, ultimately, to solve the challenges confronting life on this planet. There is much at stake. Understanding ourselves is a spiritual journey, and it matters that we journey with intention. With that in mind, I’d like to offer you a set of paths into our inner vastness—five inward journeys.

Observing

Picture the Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, in 1845, living alone in his cabin at Walden Pond. Despite his solitude, he describes an experience of “doubleness.” There is someone with him who is himself, but also not himself—an observer, a spectator, a critic who stands “aloof from actions and their consequences,” who is “as remote from myself as from another.”[3] This ‘other’ who is himself but not himself provides perspective and insight, raises questions, asks ‘Why this thought?’ ‘Why that feeling?’ It seeks to know his deeper motivations. It is not a voice of self-doubt, not a scolding, mean or belittling voice. It is gentle, even playful, but mostly detached. It observes, pays attention, studies, takes note. It wonders.

Thoreau says all this happens by a “conscious effort of the mind;” and indeed, this capacity for self-observation is rooted in the mind. It is a conscious capacity. It requires thought and analysis. I’m mindful that Thoreau lived before the advent of the therapeutic professions. He wouldn’t have known therapy as we know it today; but in a way, this ‘other’ he’s describing does what therapists do—help clients reflect on the origins of their thoughts, feelings and actions, help them make meaning, help them tie different facets of their lives together, help them notice and bring into consciousness what may otherwise remain buried in the vastness. The observer may actually be external, a therapist, a spouse, a good friend, a parent, a teacher. Whoever the observer is, whether within you or beyond you, do you give yourself time each day to consider the observations, to take them in, to reflect on them, to peer, in this way, more deeply into the vastness within you?           

Praying

I read to you earlier from St. Teresa of Ávila’s 16th-century, landmark mystical text, Interior Castle. In it she describes the soul as a castle made of a single diamond. She is concerned people have no knowledge of what’s inside the castle. “All our interest,” she says, “is centered in the rough setting of the diamond, and in the outer wall of the castle—that is to say, in these bodies.” Through the course of the text she describes seven mansions within the castle, which are really stages in the soul’s journey to communion with the divine. She says, “in the center … of them all is the chiefest mansion where the most secret things pass between God and the soul.”[4] And she says, “as far as I can understand, the door of entry into this castle is prayer.”[5] At each stage of the soul’s journey, as it enters each new mansion, prayer and meditation take on new forms, have new purposes, always with the goal of growing in closeness to the divine.

I’m not recommending St. Theresa’s theology, or even her specific pathway. I went to her this week primarily for the beauty of her metaphor, her stunning, sparkling, interior diamond castle—this vast, intricate, finely wrought spiritual space within us. I take such space as a given. I contend, as so many do, there is a spark of divinity in each of us, which we can understand in myriad ways, but we find it in this space. For St. Teresa of Ávila it is the soul. We might also refer to it as the heart, or that place I invoke at the beginning of worship, “that place inside of you, that place where you may go, etc.” We journey there not through remote observation or critical thought but through prayer, meditation, contemplation. And as I say often, not petitionary prayer, not prayer for some thing or some outcome, but prayers for openness, readiness. Prayers that move us deeper into our longings, that remind us of all we imagine our best selves to be; prayers that orient us toward that spark of the divine within. Prayers that seek to experience that spark, to rekindle it when it grows dim, to shelter it when the wind is strong, and to let it shine brightly when the world calls for its light.

Do you give yourself time each day to contemplate your interior castle, to reach for the spark of divinity within you?

Dreaming

I read earlier from Black Elk Speaks. These are the words of the late 19th, early 20th-century Oglala Sioux holy man, Black Elk, translated by his son Ben Black Elk and written down and published by the White poet and amateur ethnographer, John Neihardt and his daughter, Enid. There is some debate over the extent to which Neihardt truly understood what he was hearing. I quote Black Elk with that caveat. I quoted him to share a sense of the vividness of his visions. In his Great Vision,[6] which happened during an illness when he was nine years old, he describes a journey across the universe where, along the way, he encounters the six grandfathers who give him gifts and empower him to restore their nation.

The Great Vision offers a sense of the expansiveness of our interior world. For Black Elk it contains the entire universe. Of course, a person like Black Elk has a very unique spiritual profile which unfolds in a very specific cultural and historical context. The vast majority of us will never experience visions coming upon us in the way they came upon him. Neither will we have visions that are so lengthy and detailed. Having said that, most people dream. Most people have some degree of imagination, some capacity for becoming lost in reverie. Some of you have reported visionary experiences—some while dreaming, some while awake, some while in a trance—that have been very meaningful to you. My point is that the visioning, dreaming, imagining part of ourselves offers another path to the vastness within.

Do you take time to notice and reflect on the images in your dreams, visions, reveries. Do you value the products of your imagination? Do you write them down, follow them, interpret them? Do you understand them as revelations of your own internal vastness?

Sitting

This is a reference to zazen or seated meditation in Zen Buddhism. I offer this as yet another path down into the vastness of ourselves, though if practiced correctly over time, the sitter comes to understand the self as an illusion. I read earlier a passage from the 20th-century Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale….  When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.”[7]

This might seem to contradict what I’ve already shared. If there’s no self, then what is Thoreau’s remote observer observing? What is communing with the divine in St. Teresa’s prayers? What is perceiving the images in Black Elk’s vision? On one hand I say, ‘let the contradiction be.’ Let each of these pathways into the vastness have their own integrity. Afterall, there are always many truths in one room. But on the other hand, I’m mindful that all spiritual practice at some level seeks to soften the boundaries of self, seeks to reduce the power of the ego, seeks to blend self with a larger reality. In each of the inward journeys I’ve described, the boundaries around the self constantly shift, blur and blend. Thoreau hints at this when he says “When … life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only.” St. Theresa’s self merges more and more into communion with God. Black Elk’s vision blends his consciousness with the entire universe. As we take journey into the inner vastness,  we may very well find our previous conception of self no longer fits given what we’re discovering. The insights about the non-existence of self that flow from Zen Buddhist practice may not be so different from the insights that flow from observation, contemplation and dreaming.

And even if, through the course of your journeying, you find that the self persists, can you nevertheless give yourself moments each day to sit quietly, calmly, peacefully, welcoming the present moment, watching your thoughts arise, then letting them trail away? Can you, for at least a few moments, sit as if “there is … no ‘I,’ no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door?”

Stretching

I would be remiss if I did not include stretching, a reference not only to yoga, but to any form of physical activity—running, walking, swimming, weight-lifting, dancing—working with one’s hands. We say body, mind and spirit are connected. If this is true, then the physical body must also offer pathways into the inner vastness. Stretching the body, exercising heart and lungs, stretching the legs, the arms, moving through postures—it all requires a certain focus and discipline that ultimately feeds the mind, feeds the spirit, feeds the heart, feeds the soul. This is a hunch for me. I can’t put into words how this feeding works. But I know a great workout—one that gets the endorphins flowing—has the power to expand one’s sense of self, or to blur the borders of the self.

Do you give yourself time each day to stretch your body, to let it carry you into the vastness within?

****

Observing, praying, dreaming, sitting, stretching. Five inward journeys. I say give yourself time to take these journeys every day, mindful of Angaangaq’s wisdom, that if we don’t know our own vastness, we can’t possibly begin to know the vastness in others. And if we cannot know the vastness in others, we cannot begin to address the problems facing the planet. There is much at stake. We must dig deeply. I wish you good journeys.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Interview with Angaangaq ‘Uncle’ Angakkorsuaq, “Melting the Ice in Our Hearts & Understanding our Inner Depths, Religica, March 14, 2019. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVPxZ5YfkH0.

[2] See Pawelek, Josh, “On Setting Out and Coming Home,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 3, 2013, at http://uuse.org/on-setting-out-and-coming-home/#.XIkKAShKhPY.

[3] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden or, Life in the Woods (New York: New American Library, 1960) pp. 94-95.

[4] Peers, E. Allison, tr. and ed., St. Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle (New York: Image Books, 1961) p. 29.

[5] Ibid., p. 31.

[6] Black Elk via John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993) pp. 20-47.

[7] Quoted in Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian UniversalistsI (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 45.

On the Art of Being Lost

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Photo by Duffy Schade

Photo by Duffy Schade

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”[1] These words from the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau ring true to me. They echo the wisdom of more ancient spiritual teachers. The Taoist master, Chuang Tzu, said “Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects…. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail.”[2] Jesus said “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] These teachers are not referring to loss in the sense of losing something or someone. They mean lost as a state of being: not knowing where you are, where you’re going; not knowing what to say, how to act; not knowing how to get back to the familiar, or if it’s even possible to do so; not feeling the solid ground beneath you. Being lost can be frightening, overwhelming, but it also offers blessings. As it takes us out of our everyday experience, away from the familiar, the comfortable, the routine, it invites us to encounter the world from a different perspective. It challenges us to find sources of strength and creativity in us we didn’t know we possessed. It may even require us to ask for help, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our world actually gets larger. In the process we learn something about ourselves. We wake up, we stretch, we grow, we break through, we transform. These are blessings. Getting lost from time to time is a good thing.

This makes sense to me, but I cannot remember ever being lost and thinking, Oh, great, I’m encountering the world from a different perspective. What a wonderful growth opportunity! The first thought that occurs to me when I’m lost isn’t fit for the pulpit! One of my earliest childhood memories is of being lost in a grocery store. I must have been three years old. I became separated from my mother and brothers. I remember crying very loudly. In fact, I have a memory of being outside of myself, watching myself crying from a few feet away. I was afraid but I suspect there was more than fear in my body. It was my first conscious experience of separation from my mother without knowing where she was or how I could get back to her. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that she might be gone. 

Then there was a family hike. I can’t quite remember which summer it was or which national park—it was either Yellowstone or Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia. My mother was nervous from the start, mainly due to the signs instructing us what to do in the event we encountered bears. My father, perpetually unconcerned, led us onward to a supposedly beautiful lake out in the wilderness where only the most experienced campers camped. We eventually found a small pond full of duckweed and decided that either the map was not drawn to scale, or we were lost. It turned out to be both.

But perhaps the most embarrassing experience of being lost was on my honeymoon in Italy. Steph and I were staying in a hotel in the town of Sarno about an hour’s drive east of Naples. We had spent the day exploring Pompeii and didn’t start heading back until after dark. Steph fell asleep as I drove. I soon stopped recognizing landmarks along the highway, and realized I had no idea where we were. I took a random exit. At the bottom of the ramp was a toll booth. I started speaking to the attendant in English, a reasonable thing to do since many Italians speak English. This Italian was not one of them. But instead of waking Stephany, who is relatively fluent in Italian, I panicked. I started speaking louder English to the attendant. This strategy was unsuccessful. It got worse from there. I won’t go into details, except to say it was not one of my finer moments. Steph eventually woke up. She had a long conversation with the attendant in Italian, which I suspect had very little to do with directions, and very much to do with me. We paid the toll and continued our journey. We knew from the attendant that we were heading in the right direction, though we still didn’t know how to get where we were going. As I remember it, we came upon Sarno by sheer luck. It was a long night.

All this is to say that even though the words of Thoreau, Chuang Tzu and Jesus resonate with me; even though I know being lost offers certain blessings, I don’t like the way it feels. Which is why I had originally not planned to read Thoreau’s famous words in praise of being lost, but rather a more cautionary tale from the American writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez entitled “Within Birds’ Hearing.” In this story the narrator gets lost hiking in the Mojave Desert. It’s grim. “By evening I was winded, irritated, dry hearted,” he explains after many days of wandering. “I would scrape out a place on the ground and fall asleep, too exhausted to eat. My clothing, thin and worn, began to disintegrate. I would awaken dreamless, my tongue swollen from thirst.”[4] He doesn’t speak of the wonderful things he’s learning about himself. He says, “I was overwhelmed by my own foolishness …. I knew the depths of my own stupidity.”[5] He may be having a spiritual experience, but it’s one of suffering. He may be learning about himself, but it’s a lesson of human folly and frailty. If there’s a blessing, it’s that he didn’t die. And this feels really important to me: I want to speak of the spiritual blessings of being lost, but I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s never wise to romanticize wilderness experiences. There is no way to be truly lost and entirely safe at the same time. Anyone who’s ever been truly lost in any kind of wilderness—whether in Nature or in some metaphorical wilderness—the depths of depression or grief or poverty or war—knows it can be terrifying. Lost people don’t always return. The blessings of being lost may not be worth the cost.

Well, Mary Bopp was having none of this. We started working with the Lopez story on Tuesday and she said “you’re taking all the fun out of it.” Unlike me, Mary is drawn to being lost. She told me about the dissonance she feels when visiting a foreign city with friends who want to plan the day in great detail. Rather than following paths prescribed by the local tourism bureau, Mary prefers to wander where there is no trail, to get off the beaten path. She says she enjoys the experience of solo hiking on a trail she’s never been on before. She also told me about her favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who often wrote in an early twentieth-century, late Romantic style in which the music continually modulates from key to key, so that the listener keeps losing their sense of the tonal center. Just when the listener feels like they’re arriving somewhere, the next modulation takes them in a different direction. They get lost. Different keys feel differently, offer different colors, different qualities. A modulation brings the listener into a new musical landscape. Mary loves this! She says it feels like it can go on forever, that there’s something eternal to it. She gets lost in it.

Mary’s appreciation of being lost reminds me of the historian Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She blends memoir, cultural history, nature writing and philosophy into a prolonged and varied reflection on the many ways we can be lost—lost in thought, in love, in a good story, in a city, in nature; lost as one comes of age; lost in the sense of not knowing entirely who one’s ancestors are. Solnit writes: “I love going out of my way, beyond what I know, and finding my way back a few extra miles, by another trail, with a compass that argues with the map.” She writes in praise of “nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am, nights with strange paintings and floral spreads and cable television that furnish a reprieve from my own biography.” She writes in praise of “moments when I say to myself as feet or car clear a crest or round a bend, I have never seen this place before.”[6]

So let me pull back from my concern with being dangerously lost. Yes, it can happen. Yes, we can become so lost we may never return. But we also cannot limit our lives in fear and expect to grow spiritually. Solnit says “the word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…. I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” I commend to you the practice of disbanding your army. I commend to you the practice of going beyond what you know. And with all seriousness but tongue somewhere near cheek, I implore you to get lost.

I remember hiking with my boys when they were younger, taking them a few hundred yards off the trail, blindfolding them, spinning them around, taking the blindfolds off, then instructing them to find their way back to the trail. At first it was an exercise in frustration. I would have to give them clues. But eventually they learned to look for landmarks as we walked away from the trail. Find the landmark. Find the way back. Over time they learned to pay attention to their surroundings, to observe and remember details in the landscape.

What trail in your life might you intentionally wander away from blindfolded and spinning? What new neighborhood, town or city might you explore without a map? What new experience do you want—or need—to have? Or consider the life-paths that lay ahead of you. Might there be one that excites you but feels just out of reach or more unknown, more difficult, more risky? Is there a way to start down that path even though you’re not sure where it leads? Or might there be some stasis that has overtaken your life; you know you need to break out of it, but breaking out would mean leaving the familiar behind, being lost for a while. Perhaps now is the time to wander where there’s no trail.

The benefits of intentionally being lost may be as simple as learning a new place, finding a new route, meeting new people, acquiring new skills, or just experiencing the joy of a nice surprise. But they may be more complex: discovering new dimensions of you, finding reservoirs of creativity, strength and resilience you didn’t know were in you. And they may come on a more explicitly spiritual level. Mystics throughout the centuries have described their ecstatic experiences of the divine in the same way we might describe being lost—entering the unknown, the dark, the cloud; feeling ungrounded, unanchored, dislocated; soaring, flying, falling, vertigo. For some being lost is a profound spiritual experience. Solnit suggests that “in relinquishing certainty we approach, if only fleetingly, the divine.”[7]

I’m suggesting we practice being lost. But I’m also mindful that we practice for a reason. Being lost is an inevitable human experience. I’m not referring to getting lost in the actual wilderness, though that is certainly a possibility. I’m referring to being lost in our lives: lost in suffering, in illness, in decline; lost when everything around us is changing; lost when we realize life isn’t unfolding as we hoped. It happens. We lose our confidence, our sense of purpose, our sense of direction. We can feel lost in our schooling, in our careers, in retirement. We can feel lost because we know what we have to do, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We lose those we love and become lost in grief. The greatest benefit that comes from practicing being lost is that when we become lost for reasons beyond our control, we have some knowledge of how to be and what to do. We know to trust ourselves more than the map which may not be drawn to scale. We know to look for landmarks. We know panicking doesn’t help, though it may be hard to avoid. We know it may be a time to disband our armies. We know openness matters. We know patience matters. We know breathing deeply matters. We know it may be dark and cloudy for a long time, but that we can live with not knowing for longer.

When we’re lost, our world gets larger. I didn’t tell you that when I was lost and crying in the grocery store at age 3, a stranger helped me find my mother. And I didn’t tell you that when our family was lost in the woods, and we really didn’t know which way to go, a young couple happened by and gave us directions back to our car. I won’t say they saved our lives, but their chance appearance definitely kept us from spending a night in the deep woods. And I didn’t tell you that in Barry Lopez’s story about being lost in the Mojave Desert, his narrator is ultimately saved, as he puts it, by “the unceasing kindness of animals.” “Not till we are lost … do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” said Thoreau. Perhaps that is the greatest blessing of being lost: not always, but more often than not, there is someone there to help. Our world gets larger. The extent of our relations is literally infinite, but we forget this. Sometimes being lost is what helps us remember.

 Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1960) p. 118.

[2] Chuang Tzu, in Watson, Burton, tr., Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) p. 94.

[3] Matthew 10:39 (NRSV).

[4] Lopez, Barry, “Introduction: Within Birds’ Hearing,” Field Notes (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) p. 5.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).

[7] “A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit,” The New Yorker, August 8, 2005. See: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/08/a-field-guide-to-getting-lost.