Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons.
November 11, 2018 — Sending Gratitude & Peace to all Veterans
This week I sat down to write about the spiritual quest. And I did. But the focus ended up on how the labels we hold (the words we use to define ourselves) shape our character and action. This is an important sermon and I hope you’ll take the time to engage with it and the reflection questions I’ve offered below.
The sermon’s important because we’ve forgotten how to talk to people different from ourselves. We’re all locked in our own story. We’re attached to the language that marks us as us and them as them.
In between the 2016 presidential election and Thanksgiving, I remember NPR interviewing people about their fears of going home for the holidays and having to talk to their relatives with different political views. These segments were designed to offer catharsis (a safe place to express fear and anger and feel a sense of connection to other’s in the same boat) and if I remember correctly they also offered some ideas on how to successfully navigate the difficult conversations. Because we don’t have this education right? How many times and ways have we been given the message that it’s not polite to talk about politics and religion at the dinner table?
But the thing is, we’ve got to talk about them! It’s not about being polite. It’s about standing up against racism and violence. I’ve been really angry at political leaders who promote fear and open up space for the darkest parts of ourselves to come forward. But I’ve been even angrier at the religious leaders who support them. As a minister it’s my belief that religion is only useful if it’s calling us toward goodness—toward the best version of ourselves. When religion propagates fear and incites violence (physical or verbal or otherwise) it’s nothing more than a dangerous weapon that needs to be stopped.
I think one way to start the difficult conversations we need to have around politics and religion can be through an examination of the labels we’re all attached to—the labels we allow to define us. What assumptions do you hold because of the labels you identify with in regards to your race, gender, sexuality, religion, work, economic standing, education level, nationality, politics, hobbies, passions, etc? Now, don’t get me wrong here… these labels matter a great deal and shape how the world has shown up for each of us (it’s important to remember that the world doesn’t treat us all the same). But when we’re so attached to the labels we hold (whatever they are) that we can’t allow ourselves to even imagine anything other than our own world view there’s no room for change. And we’ll all remain stuck.
As you’ve heard me say a million times: We can’t control the choices of other people. But we can make our own choices with intention. This week I invite you to examine the direction your spiritual quest is taking you in. Who are you becoming through the labels you hold?
I also invite you to use this sermon as a tool for conversation. Is there someone in your family or community that you struggle to talk to? Invite them to watch this sermon too and allow it to become a starting point for the two of you. Name the labels you each hold as a way to better understand each other. Name the values that you each hold the closest. And work to find the places where your values meet. How can you find a point of connection? Even with your different “labels,” how can you support each other in adding more love to the world? How can you support each other in helping the world move away from hate, fear, and violence?
The Labels We Hold
As a writer I love words—they’re powerful things. I mean think about it. We define ourselves by the words we identify with. And we define others based on the words they use. We meet someone new and wonder: “Do they speak my language, or do they belong in that camp?” As a minister there are certain words that hold ideas so big I’m certain I’ll be wrestling with them for the rest of my life: words like God, evil, love, transformation, suffering. I’m also always wrestling—in a slightly different way—with the words “of my trade” so to speak: words like religion, spirituality, tradition, dogma, search, and practice. Let’s explore how these words work in the world. They can define the camp we identify ourselves with. As in: “I’m religious” vs “I’m spiritual.” And words like dogma, with its corresponding idea of ‘right belief’ can create shame, oppression, and power. And spiritual search and practice, well these words can mean just about anything. In some circles they refer to some pretty big business. People are getting rich off this stuff. In some circles they can turn into painful cultural appropriation as one culture borrows from another in inappropriate and insensitive ways. And, of course, spiritual search and practice can also communicate deep commitment and effort as people work to reach their highest potential.
Words are powerful. But they’re limited. You and I can speak the same word at the same moment and mean something completely different. We must learn to hold things—all things, including our words—lightly. Nothing in this life is static or permanent. And when we lock our identity in the words we use, we’ve guaranteed ourselves pain. Because our words simply cannot be expected to contain the reality that is our True Self. When we find our definition in words, we limit ourselves.
Let me say this another way. Or better, let me allow my teachers to say this another way. One of my main yoga teachers, Gary Kraftsow, often says: “All models are false, but some of them are useful.” And seeker and scholar Ravi Ravindra wrote…. “All religions, like all philosophies, are ultimately lies; the very act of formalizing betrays the spontaneity of the experience. Is it for nothing that both the words tradition and betrayal are derived from the same root?”
At first hearing, these ideas can seem extreme and maybe even off putting. How can we say that everything is false. And that all religion and philosophy are lies? I remember struggling to understand what Gary was trying to communicate, but I finally came to the realization that when we hold so tightly to our own model of the world, or to our own religion, we have utterly missed the point. Spiritual truth isn’t something to be possessed.
This doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to find usefulness, solace, and direction in our models and religions, but it does mean that we have to remember that the system isn’t the Way. It isn’t the Truth. It’s simply a compass or a map pointing us toward an experience of the Truth. The finger pointing toward the moon isn’t the moon. And if we lock our vision on the finger, we will utterly miss the experience of seeing the moon.
There’s no such thing as Christianity. There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. As William Blake said: “The vision of Christ that thou dost see is my vision’s greatest enemy.” And, of course the same can be said for Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These are all models of religious belief and practice. And they are all false. But remember the second half of Gary’s words: All models are false, but some of them are useful. It isn’t the model that ultimately sets us free. But the model is useful insofar as it sets us on our path and leads us toward experience. Again, Ravi Ravindra writes:
“Spiritual life is not ultimately a matter of belief in something, although this may be relevant at some stage of development. It is a matter of living—searching, struggling, overcoming. It is an effort to become what one ordinarily is not. And this transformation is not reserved for some special activities in some special places. Even the most ordinary act is done differently by one who is free. A Hasidic pupil was asked whether he visited his master to hear his words of wisdom. “No,” came the answer, “I want to see how he ties his shoe laces.”
The spiritual quest is not about finding the perfect dogma or creed. It’s about experiencing something new. It’s about becoming something new.
Religion as a model is useless if it doesn’t change our lives. Religion as a model is useless if it reinforces our complacency. If it creates a system in which we can feel comfortable with the status quo. Religion as a model becomes less than useful, and in fact dangerous, when it becomes a system that reinforces the worst parts of ourselves—our fear and anger and judgement. When it becomes a system that teaches us to fear, or hate, or oppress someone different from ourselves.
Religion as a model is useful when it calls us toward our highest Self. When it asks us to become a new creation. Second Corinthians 5:17 reads: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Religion as a model is useful when it challenges our assumptions. When it asks us to let go of our attachments. When it leads us beyond our comfort zones into a bigger view of humanity and the world.
Religion is just a word with a definition. So is spirituality. Whether you identify as religious, or spiritual, or agnostic, or atheist doesn’t matter. These are just labels and the only thing that matters about a label is how it works in your life. Ultimately what matters is your life. How do you live? How do you work? How do you participate in relationship? How do you respond to oppression and suffering?
Ravi Ravindra quotes Vivekananda—an Indian sage—who said:
“Show by your lives that religion does not mean words, or names, but that it means spiritual realization.”
In the Bhagavad Gita we read: “Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who see the Lord everywhere.” (2.46)
While models, systems, religions, philosophies, scriptures, churches, and temples may help us on our journey—help us a great deal—we must always remember to hold them lightly. The model can point the way, but it is not the way. We must guard ourselves against becoming attached to the model. We must remain vigilant to how the model is working within us. And we must challenge ourselves constantly to stop and ask: “Who am I becoming? In thought, word, and deed? How do I live? Am I moving toward the experience of freedom? And love?”
- What labels do you hold? How do you label yourself in regards to your race, gender, sexuality, religion, work, economic standing, education level, nationality, politics, hobbies, passions, etc? What assumptions do you hold because of the labels you use?
- How do these labels work in your life? What direction are they taking you in?
- Are you aware of how the labels you hold effect the way you think, the things you say, the decisions you make, the actions you take (or don’t take), the people you associate with (or don’t associate with)?
- Make a list of the labels you hold the tightest. And then, one at a time, figure out who you’d be without them.
Let me be clear: These questions are not designed to force you out of any of your labels. This is an exercise to help you explore how the labels you hold are actually working in your life. It’s an invitation to be more aware of what you claim to value most and to be more intentional about how you enact those stated values in the world.
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation.