Witness Within: Why Bother?
Hello, dear friends….Here is my sermon from January 9, 2022, in which I talk about learning to witness to our inner emotional landscape, and the profound gifts it offers to us, in experiencing our own wholeness and our ability to recognize our intimate relationship to the Sacred. Here is the link , and I will also append the text for you
Witness Within: Why Bother?
Sermon, January 9, 2022
Last week Rachel unpacked our wonderful old story of the Three Wise Ones, and invited us to consider all the different emotions they must have experienced, during their long journey to Bethlehem. She reminded us that most of us, most Americans, in fact, really only recognize three emotions: happy, sad, and mad, as she named them. She reported that much research points to so many more – at least 50, and maybe as many as a 100! In her final blessing, she encouraged us to pay much more careful attention to the great variety of emotions which might show up to each of us during this week. I’m hoping you did. I tried …sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn’t. I was searching for more nuance, more specificity, even more texture.
But me, being me, as you all know, wanted to think about why. Why do this? Why pay attention to that sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle flow of emotions within me?And why not continue to deflect, ignore, repress, tune out, or deny all that inner “stuff” – so much of it distressing? Most of us raised in the US have been taught, “Don’t bother. Pursue happiness. Pursue happiness in all the ways the American economy would like you to live your life: buy, consume, discard. Repeat.”
Moving to the island, by the way, is not such a brilliant way to become a devoted shopper, though sometimes I wonder at the mountain of packages in the Ferry shed.
So, back to my question: Why bother? Why might we want to do the very hard work of welcoming the full range of our emotions? And if it would be of value, how do we learn to do so?
We know the usual good reasons. Because emotions carry information, sometimes crucial information, about what is going on in body and mind. Being attentive to emotions can lead us to much better self care. That would include better physical health, more emotional stability, mental wellbeing, and more ease in our relationships. I would guess it is a crucial dimension of growing up into a reasonably contented and responsible adult.
The flip side is that repressed or denied emotions don’t go away, despite our best intentions. They fester down there, supposedly hidden out of sight. From there, they cause enormous troubles – illness, conflicts, paralyzing self doubt, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and lots of suffering.
I could talk about all this for hours, but don’t worry, I won’t. I’m guessing every one of you has some sense of how this internal emotional system operates. And if in doubt, just look at a newspaper or news program, where the evidence of unskillful emotional lives is spread out before you, every day.
I want, instead, to head down a different track, of why we might want to pay more attention to our deeply buried emotional realm. To say it baldly: blocking our emotions also blocks our access to the Sacred, to the very Presence of God, and ultimately, to being able to recognize, we are full of that Sacred Presence, always. It is what holds us in being, in our very life.
One more preliminary: I’m pretty sure we make God laugh, when we try so earnestly to scrunch God into language – be it simple or complex – what “God is,” what “God does,” or what “God thinks.” Better to face first the incomprehensible mystery that there is anything at all, to start with. How then can our puny little brains imagine we can know the origins of life, of being, much less, of consciousness? It’s crazy, really.
But I think perhaps we can draw one conclusion: Given the endless variety of beings, the infinite fecundity of ourworld, Source must intend for it all to flourish. I can imagine Source, the Holy One, breathing out, saying, Yes, Yes, Yes!
I cannot imagine Source getting too involved in which football team wins or which country rules global trade, or, like Santa, is very attentive to “whether you’ve been naughty or nice.” (This, by the way, raises an enormously difficult question: the connections between judgment and the practices of ethics and morality. For another time.)
What does “flourishing” mean, in this context? Obviously, food, water, shelter, safety, and kin. And after that? Delight, affection, belonging, wonder, kindness, self expression, and much more.
Flourishing points to wholeness, to fullness of being, to freedom. And so, with wholeness, we must also include grief, fear, sorrow, loss, anger, frustration, jealousy, and rage.
Now we’ve arrived at the problem. THE problem. We’re happy to embrace the first set of emotions and conditions. But we push away, as best we can, the painful ones. The problem is that we don’t get to choose: repress some, and you lose access to all. And the price you have just paid is your wholeness, your fundamental wholeness and the freedom that comes with it. You have, we have surrendered our ability to know, deep within, our utter groundedness in Source, in the Holy One, in the God from whom we have never been separated.
We literally can’t see. We are blind to our reality. We can’t see the star hovering over Bethlehem. Nor the dream that warns of danger, nor the wisdom that illumines the darkness. None of it. We collapse into the fear and rage of Herod. And the children of the land are murdered.
This drove Jesus crazy. Morning, noon, and night, at every dusty crossroads, he tried to help not only his disciples, but also hundreds and hundreds of others who listened to him teach, who hung on his words. They knew he knew, from his presence, his energy, his flashing insight and power. They wanted to know too.
And most of them, like most of us, couldn’t get it. We ask, what must we do, echoing the wealthy young man in the Gospel, and like him, we go away, dejected. Jesus tells his strange parables: the pearl of great price, the fishes and the loaves, and always, the realm of heaven is right here, right at hand, right in front of you! Because you are within it, and it is within you.
I can’t say anything about the illiterate peasants and fishermen in Jesus’ circle. But I can speak of us, and suggest that what blocks our awareness of our intimate, deep, profound, and unshakeable connection with God, with the great Mystery, is our inability to experience our emotions, all our emotions, or, in other words, the life of our heart. We judge and convict our emotions before we even notice them. Rejecting our painful emotions also blocks our experience of the sweet ones, and along with that, our very ability to recognize the shimmering mystery of our embeddedness in the Sacred Reality itself.
What can we do? How can we gather up all the parts of ourselves that we have rejected and hidden away? (Yes, I’m finally going to talk about Witnessing. ) This is one way to speak of a spiritual path, the path of healing, the path of wholeness, the path of flourishing. And this is how it begins.
What does it mean, to be your own witness of your own, interior emotional life? The witness is neutral, and stands calm and centered, without bias or control or judgment, and with as few old concepts and narratives as possible, in that moment. Although they too become very valuable things to witness as well. The urge to fix things, to fly into action, and to throw out opinions and suggestions is so tempting, so the witness tries to ignore all of them. The witness abstains from anything that would interrupt the arc of the emotion.
(I promised myself I would not read you again Rumi’s wonderful poem, the Guest House, but it would be perfect right now!)
Meanwhile, practice over and over, this steady paying attention until you begin to gain some fluency and easy familiarity with your emotions. It calls for enormous patience. It takes a long time. This is hard work!
And the rewards of that hard work? You will become larger and larger, more whole, capacious, steady, and balanced. Your inner perception of who you are and how all the parts of you are sewn together will become much more interesting and even fluid, as those harsh inner judgments begin to fade away. And they do fade away! You will be able to reclaim your most expansive self, and you will recognize “the pearl of great price” is within you.
At the same time, almost automatically, you will practice being the witness with those around you, standing still, looking deeply “with the eyes of your heart,” and not with the narrow, little categories of judgment and criticism. And because your very way of seeing has shifted, your world will change as well. How could it not?
Then you will say, dear people, this realm of the Sacred, this Presence of wholeness, this kingdom and this realm of God is right here, now, at hand. It breathes you. It holds you in life. It fills you with wonder.
May it be so.