Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons.
This week, we turn our attention toward the idea of transformation. All sermons include something of the preacher in them, but this one asked a bit more of me than usual. In my personal practice the last few years I’ve been working to become more comfortable with the reality of vulnerability (I call it a reality because even though many of us do our best to be invulnerable, we will always fail). So this week I share some of my own transformation with you… Even in the artwork, which is a page from my personal art journal made during a difficult moment of transformation last year.
I share it because transformation isn’t always easy or pretty. But, like vulnerability, it’s a fact of life. Change is constant and we’ll each experience innumerable transformations.
As spiritual seekers we must attend to these transformations—to the direction of change in our lives—with intention.
Transformation Begins with Deep Noticing
Before we get into this sermon, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I used to be a really angry person. I could get mad—really mad—in two seconds over nothing and I tried to control absolutely every aspect of my life. Thankfully, this isn’t so true anymore. But looking back, I realize I can’t point to the exact moment that I changed. I can’t point to it, because it doesn’t exist. I am less angry and controlling. But there was no grand moment of transformation. Because transformation rarely—if ever—happens instantaneously.
There is a well known story of transformation in the Bible that’s often thought of as instantaneous. It’s the story of Saul, from Tarsus, who was persecuting followers of the Jewish sect known as “The Way.” The Way was made up of the followers of Jesus and Saul was rounding them up. But on the road to Damascus, where he was going to persecute some folks, a light from heaven flashed over him and he was transformed. Or at least that’s how I’ve always remembered the story. I remember it as the moment Saul became Paul. But I gotta tell you, I recently reread the story and realized there was no instantaneous moment of Saul the persecuter becoming Paul, the bringer of The Way to the gentiles. What happened is that he was confused and he went blind and he didn’t eat or drink anything for three days. Eventually someone, someone from The Way, who was reasonably afraid of Saul, listened to an inner sense of calling and showed up to help him—and through this help, Saul began to change. Most historical scholarship has him in Asian Minor for 3 years after this event, wrestling with his life and calling. And, in terms of the name change, it turns out that Paul was just the Roman version of his name.
We all love stories of miraculous conversion and change. And don’t get me wrong, Paul was transformed and I’m not in anyway diminishing the power of his conversion. It just didn’t happen in one single flash of light.
It didn’t happen that way for Paul and it doesn’t happen that way for us. I can’t remember the moment I became less angry. What I do remember is an inner yearning to be different. I remember giving my friends—my dear friends—the silent treatment when I was in my early 20’s for absolutely no reason other than I was filled up with unchecked anger. I remember the sensation of trying the impossible task of stopping the reality of change. If things didn’t go according to my plan, I would shut down. I turned inward and nobody could bring me out. Locked inside myself, my desire for control angrily fought with the knowledge that my actions were only contributing to my suffering. But in this inner battle I was helpless to do anything differently. I was stuck.
The stuckness I felt is called duhkha in Sanskrit. A word that originally meant “bad axel hole.” Imagine a wooden cart being pulled by a horse. If the axel hole in the wheel is bad, the cart isn’t going anywhere. It’s stuck. This stuckness—or duhkha—is what the yoga sutras mean when they refer to the reality of suffering. Anger and control made sense in my young life—some aspects of these feelings may even have served me in childhood—but they weren’t serving me in my early adult life. Yet I was stuck in the habit of them. And I was suffering.
But there was no forcing my way out of the habit. In fact, trying to force it would have just been another manifestation of my trying to control things.
My transformation began as I started to pay attention to the battle raging within me. I started to pay attention to the desire for freedom I felt when I was shut down. Even though I didn’t yet know how to come out of my internal locked down state, I knew that I wanted to. I was aware that I wanted something different.
Transformation is one of those words that we use and hear and understand. When asked what the word means we explain that transformation means change. Something has been changed—it’s different. The dictionary definition of transformation is “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” So we can define the word, but do we actually understand it? Do we understand the actual action of transformation? What does it mean to be changed? I was aware that I wanted something different. But what does it mean to be different than we used to be?
Before we explore these questions, let’s back up a minute. Because if we understand transformation as change, then it’s important that we acknowledge the reality that change is constant. Everything is changing moment to moment to moment. But how is it changing? How are we changing? Whether you realize it or not, every moment of your life is taking you in one of two directions. You are either deepening your habit patterns or you are opening up to something new. Let me be clear that neither of these options are inherently good or bad. Some habits needs changing, some need strengthening. I mean, I hope you don’t change the habit of brushing your teeth at least twice a day! And there are some kinds of experiences that it’s good to open yourself up to and others that, quite frankly, should be avoided. Cocaine, murder! Only through the practice of awareness can you decide, in any given moment, which direction you want to go. …
And it’s important to note that ultimately, we are all going in the same direction. We were born and someday we will die. In between birth and death, change is our only constant. We cannot stop change. And we cannot choose another path. The only thing we can do, is pay attention. And through the mechanism of awareness, we can effect the direction of change in our lives. This is transformation.
For most of us, transformation begins with an inkling. A sense. A desire. Some inner wish for things to be different. Different in our minds, our bodies, our spirits, our lives. It begins when we can acknowledge the reality of suffering in ourselves and in our world. And it really begins when we can acknowledge the role our habits play in our own suffering and in the suffering of the world.
When we begin to attune our ears to hear the inner inklings within us, we start to see things differently. We begin to notice how the moments—the small moments—of everyday decisions shape the course of our well-being. The more we see, the more we notice. And slowly, slowly, things begin to shift. Transformation begins with deep noticing. And it continues with deep noticing. Transformation is not about forcing ourselves into some desired goal. And it’s not about self-judgment. It’s about paying attention. So I am calling you… I am inviting you… to pay attention.
Let’s start now. What’s happening, right now? Wherever you are, notice the sensations of your body… notice the fact that you are breathing… Notice your surroundings. Notice the inner feelings arising within your mind and heart. What’s real, within you… right now? …
Transformation—true and lasting change—doesn’t happen in a single flash of light. There was no moment when I suddenly wan’t angry anymore. But there were many moments when I noticed a desire to be free from my anger. Over the course of a decade, I slowly made decisions that led me away from my automatic habits of anger and control. And I’m aware now, that anger and control surface less in my life. And when they do show up, I’m more easily able to find my way out of their grasp. As I said earlier, every moment of our life is taking us in one of two directions. Every action, whether we’re aware of it or not, will either serve to deepen our habit patterns or will open us up to something new.
So listen. Watch. Notice. Pay Attention! Constantly ask yourself, who am I becoming?
And slowly, you will more naturally make decisions that lead you in the direction you want to go. And as these small decisions add up, one day you will notice, that you have been transformed.
- Take a moment to notice what’s real in your life now. And then take a moment to remember what was real a year ago, 5-years ago, maybe even 10-years ago. How have things changed for you over time?
- Have you ever experienced any dramatic “flash of light from heaven” kind of changes? If so, what did they feel like? Did the change last?
- As you look back, are there any changes that surprise you? That maybe you hadn’t even really noticed had happened?
- Are there changes that you worked for? If so, how did you work for them? What kind of effort or practice helped you make the change?
- Looking forward, instead of back for a moment, what transformations feel urgent to you now? What direction do you want to go? What does it feel like when you hear me say that awareness, more than force, might help you get there?
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation.