© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 13, 2008

Someone once remarked, "I would give anything to know the simplicity that lies behind the complexity that lies behind the simplicity." It is so easy to lose our way in life's complications. We need simple principles that serve as guiding lights to help us get back on the path.

This morning as I prepare to shift from parish ministry to a full-time ministry of ideas, I want to talk about some simple principles I find helpful, most of which I have shared with you during the past eight years. And one way to look for basic life principles is to try to step outside of my usual point of view, attempting to free myself from my own frame of reference. To escape my own viewpoint I could pretend to be a creature from outer space, as I did one Sunday when I walked up to the pulpit wearing these antennae. So I was going to call this talk, "Life 102: The Space Alien's View." But instead I'm going to focus on another trick that helps me get perspective, the trick of pretending that I have just been born. So I have retitled my sermon as "Life 102: Beginning Anew."

Suppose I am being born this very moment, "born into myself," as it were. Being born into my own mind, I would have all of my knowledge and memories, and my usual thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. But I would be arising anew in the midst of it all, experiencing everything with what Zen Buddhism calls "beginner's mind." So I'm being born right now. I notice lots of stuff around me, and most of this "stuff" seems familiar. I'm in a room with typical walls, floor, and ceiling, with people that I know, others I don't know, and so on. And interestingly, it seems as if there is an inside and an outside to this world in which I find myself. What's inside, I am accustomed to calling "me." What's outside is you and everything else.

Although what I see seems familiar, as a newborn I can question whether I know as much as I think I do. I can even re-examine my personal philosophy of life. But I notice an inner resistance to doing this. I can start fresh, but I'm not sure I want to! I might prefer to cling to what I already believe.

This resistance to questioning my beliefs reminds me of one of my first sermons at Mission Peak, in which I asked, "What is the most popular religion in the world?" That was a trick question, because I wasn't looking for the name of some huge organization with billions of followers. Instead I suggested that the most popular religion is an unnamed faith - a secret religion which is even more common than the worship of material possessions. The most popular religion in the world is the worship of one's own opinions. The creed that sings in the heart of almost every Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Agnostic - and Unitarian Universalist - is the passionate conviction that "I'M RIGHT!" - the reverence for one's own beliefs. Now of course, there's a problem with this religion, because we can't all be right. Furthermore, there is no reason to put more stock in our own opinion than in somebody else's, at least in cases where people who are as sincere, intelligent, and well-informed as we are disagree about what's so. But we are cheerfully confident that we're correct and they are mistaken.

So once in a while it's good to look at everything with beginner's mind, questioning how much we understand the "stuff" that's going on around us and within us. And we will notice that we are usually focusing on stuff that is close to us. We tend to ignore what's far away - what is literally far away in space, far away in time, far away from our interests, or just far away in the sense of being unfamiliar. Therefore we are mostly unaware of the bigger picture, and we have virtually no idea about the overall context of "life, the universe, and everything." Traditional religion teaches that our overall context is far greater than we can understand, except that these religions have (conveniently) received a special revelation which explains it all. And those of us who are secular humanists also realize the enormity of our context - the far-flung cosmos, dark matter and dark energy, and perhaps billions of universes beyond this one.

Not knowing our context is a big problem! We all know how words can be distorted when "quoted out of context." To understand anything, we need to know the larger reality in which we are embedded, but we don't. For example, even if we could be absolutely certain that the god described in the Bible created the universe, maybe that's just the god of this minor universe. In our vast ignorance all we can do is act with humility, doing our best with what little light we possess, and staying open to new light which may expand our horizons further.

I mentioned earlier that we tend to divide the universe into the inside and the outside, our own inner experience and everything else. But we can question this idea. Maybe we overestimate the amount of separation between ourselves and our surroundings. On the Sunday when I pretended to be a space alien, I talked about how we are thoroughly interpenetrated by the outside world, both the physical world around us and the society in which we are embedded. And I quoted this wonderfully ironic statement by Alan Watts:

Society...pulls [a] trick on every child from earliest infancy....the child is taught that he is...a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions...[The child]...accepts this make-believe for the very reason that it is not true.... He has no way of resisting this kind of social indoctrination.

We seldom realize...that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent,...We copy emotional reactions from our parents...Society is our extended mind and body. [from The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, pp. 64-65. I have inverted the order of these two passages.]

We think about the world in ways that are convenient for us, as when we neatly divide reality into "me" and "everything else." Even our sensory perceptions distort the world for our own convenience. For example, we do not see air - except when it's full of crud like it has been lately. If we saw air molecules in the way we see the molecules of a wall, then we couldn't see anything else. We'd essentially be blind. So we mostly see air as if it were not there.

When we question traditional concepts such as the separate and "individual" self, we start to notice how easy it is to get ideas mixed up with reality, or at least to think that our beliefs should fit reality perfectly. But very few of them do. In some ways I am separate from the rest of the cosmos, but in other ways I am part of all that exists. (Similarly, in some respects my "self" persists through time, but I can also imagine myself being born again each moment. And sometimes it helps to think of myself as one organism, but other times it's better to see myself as an entire congress with many political parties.) No mere concept can capture our full complexity. So here's another simple life principle: Do not worship concepts. Worship the truth. Concepts, ideas, beliefs are only tools for helping us cope with life. Most religions tell people to bow down to some set of opinions as if those opinions were god. But the truth is what's sacred. Concepts should point us in the general direction of the truth, and then get out of the way.

What else would we notice if we re-examine our experiences with beginner's mind? Well, we will notice that we have experiences, that we possess what William James called the stream of consciousness. Unlike non-conscious devices such as computers, we are aware of our own thought processes, and we can feel pain and pleasure, joy and sadness. And being conscious of some of our mental processes makes it easier to change our minds. Just by looking within we can see how we tend to be driven by our cravings and our emotions. By practicing mindfulness, we can develop detachment from these harmful habits.

Another simple thing we can notice about ourselves is that we like some things and dislike other things. To be human is to be a creature with values, and the book of Genesis states this mythically by showing the first humans eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Bestowing value and significance is part of our nature, so that we typically view pleasure as better than pain, feeling fulfillment as better than feeling despair, and having companionship as better than being lonely and isolated.

If I look at myself afresh I also see that I mostly operate out of mechanical habit. Sometimes I have used this tin man as a visual aid, to symbolize our mechanical aspects. In my sermon about "The Android and I," I suggested that in a very real sense there are two of me in here. There is a person in here, sharing space in my head with Andy the Android, a humanlike robot. In fact, I think of myself as about 95 percent machine, and perhaps 5 percent human. There is an interplay between my mechanical, habitual, automatic patterns and the part of me that chooses, improvises, and acts spontaneously.

So we need to understand our own mental machinery, and therefore we need to understand the brain. I won't say much about that today, except to remind you that the brain is a very big place in a very small space. That three-pound organ between your ears contains about one hundred billion neurons and (perhaps more importantly) one hundred trillion connections between nerve cells. As one neurologist said, "100 trillion different connections - hell, you can do anything with that. That's more than enough to contain a soul.'" (Judith Hooper & Dick Teresi, The Three Pound Universe, pp. 30-31)

In my sermon about the android, I suggested three simple principles for living with the machinery inside our minds. First, give the machine credit for what it does well, automatically handling many everyday tasks. Second, when it tells you to do something, listen to it, but reserve the right to question its advice. And third, when your inner android tells you what to feel, be skeptical. There's way too much negative programming in most people's mental machinery. Often the mechanical part of the mind is either telling us, "It's time to feel bad" or, "It's time to feel fairly good but also anxious, because something bad might happen later."

If we want to free ourselves from the brain's automatic programming, one way to do this is through laughter and play. Playfulness helps up lighten up, loosen up, and open up. Life is too important to be taken seriously every single minute. People who go around looking grim tend to get stuck and act rigidly. And beware of any religion that will not laugh at itself.

Laughter is such a mystery, and it's interesting that most humor is based on being startled. Jokes end with a punch line, which hits us in a way we did not anticipate. And yet we react to this assault on our own expectations by flipping into a state of mind that we enjoy. As if by magic, we transform shock into delight. It is said that God herself has a sense of humor; otherwise how could we explain the duckbill platypus? Laughter is one of life's everyday miracles.

I often use humor in talking about serious subjects because laughter opens the door to learning and growth. Do any of you remember the sermon series on relationships where most of my illustrations came from the comics? I'll give you just one example from that series, because it ties in with the idea of softening the boundaries between ourselves and other people. In the comic strip called "Cathy," Cathy says to a friend of hers, "I just want someone to share things with, Charlene."

Charlene: Yeah, me too, Cathy.
Cathy: Except a bathroom. I would never share a bathroom with a man.
Charlene: Or a car. . . I would always need my own car.
Cathy: No man will ever share my closet.
Charlene: Or my...luggage.
Cathy: Or my diary.
Charlene: Or my money.
Cathy: Or my chocolate.
Charlene: Or my soap.
Cathy: I just want someone to share things with that aren't mine, Charlene.
Charlene: Yeah, me too.

If you identify with that attitude, notice how much easier it is to admit this when you're feeling amused. I bet it's possible to literally laugh one's way to enlightenment.

So here are some things we can do to cope with life's complexity. First, we can try to step outside of our own frame of reference, approaching familiar situations with "beginner's mind." This means renouncing the religion of "I'm right," the worship of our own opinions, and admitting that we have almost no idea about the ultimate nature of reality. We can notice how we confuse our concepts of the world with the way the world actually is, almost as if we thought that a map was the same as the territory shown on the map, or as if the menu was the meal. We can remind ourselves that beliefs are merely tools for helping us get through the day.

Because we tend to divide the world into the inside and the outside, we can practice softening the boundaries between ourselves and everything else, especially the imaginary division between us and other people. And every day we should celebrate the gift of conscious experience - the wondrous awareness of our thoughts, our senses, our emotions, our dreams and fantasies. Don't waste this miracle by ignoring it!

To avoid being driven by cravings and automatic emotional responses, we can learn healthy detachment through meditation and other techniques. We can expand our freedom of choice by practicing mindful decision-making, allowing the inner android to help us handle easy tasks efficiently, without letting robotic reactions run our lives. To change these automatic patterns we can learn habits of discipline and persistence, and this will set us apart from the culture of busy superficiality that is all around us. And finally, don't forget to indulge in laughter and playfulness, especially in close relationships. In a sense the great gift of being human is that we get to play in two amazing universes - the vast cosmos which surrounds us and the "three-pound universe" inside of our heads. So let's have some fun with this gift of life, and learn the art of sacred playfulness.

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