© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 21, 2007

[Prior to the sermon Jackie Porter read "The Land of Beginning Again," by Louise Fletcher.]

Islamic New Year's came on January 20 this year, not long after January 1 on the Gregorian calendar. Those of Chinese or Vietnamese heritage celebrate New Year's February 18th. And with the turning of the year, it's natural to think about where we are in our lives. We may be wishing we could travel to a "land of beginning again." We may be longing for a deep and lasting spiritual transformation.

In thinking about spiritual transformation, we can remember that the word "religion" comes from an old Latin word for "binding together again" - binding up what has fallen apart. All the world's great faiths help people gather up the fractured, battered, and shattered fragments of their lives and unify them in a meaningful pattern that gives them a fresh start. So the goal of real religion is to create something new out of the fragments of the old. Religious literature speaks of revival, renewal, repentance, being saved, being born again, becoming a new creation, entering the kingdom of heaven, and becoming enlightened. Spiritual awakening is a land of beginning again.

The idea of starting completely fresh is so powerful because it points us toward an impossible possibility. We can't completely start fresh, but we can try. It can be good to sincerely attept to carry out an impossible task, as long as we don't make ourselves crazy with unrealistic expectations. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, "You ... must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) What's that?? We're supposed to be like God? Well, Jesus wasn't so naive as to think we could be godlike, but he was a radical idealist. Be perfect like God is perfect! Regardless of whether we understand God as a real being or as a poetic idea, God represents the impossible ideals we strive for - perfect wisdom, unconditional love, total compassion. These ideals are great magnets, pulling us into creative action, stretching us beyond ourselves. We can't know what's possible unless we reach for what's impossible!

Modern science helps us see our potential for rebirth, because science sees the universe and everything in it as a process rather than as a thing that stays the same. Every person is a whirring, buzzing, vibrating energy system. As Buckminster Fuller put it, "I seem to be a verb."

Yet even though we are in constant change, we may feel stuck in a rut, and they say that a rut is just a grave with the two ends open. We may keep ourselves in a rut by concentrating on our troubles and ignoring what's getting better. We may focus on being tired a lot or some other physical problem, feeling frustrated at work or in relationships, or always hurrying and feeling harassed. We may fill our minds with resentments, regrets, self-doubt, and self-criticism. When we obsess about one of these problems, it's as if we were looking at this room through a tiny peephole so we could only see one square foot of the wall. There could be a three-ring circus in here and we wouldn't see it. And so much is always happening under the circus tent of our minds - shifting moods and thoughts and perceptions and impulses. We are human kaleidoscopes - we are much more like verbs than like unchanging nouns.

How can we seize the impossible possibility of starting fresh?

Imagination is the key. Imagination is an almost magical way to lift ourselves out of the rut and learn to fly. If I could do anything in my life over again, I would certainly want to use imagination to more expand my own alternatives. So let's talk about using imaginative techniques to start fresh.

Last fall I told you about a little game I play in which I pretend that I have materialized right this second. And do you remember the spaceman who visited us a few weeks ago, who left these antennae? [Holding up antennae.] Our visitor from outer space said it is absolutely true that we are born anew every minute. But even if we don't believe this idea literally, it is a very useful fantasy. When I imagine being born as a new creature into my old self, I still have all of my memories and knowledge, and even my old habits and preferences. But these are things that I have instead of things that I am. I can be born into all that stuff, just like we can walk into a room without thinking we are the room. The objects in the room are there for us to use or not use, to keep or to discard, and the same is true of the thoughts, feelings, and habits we find in our heads. So when you experience an emotion like anxiety, think of the anxiety as a thing that is with you. The real you is not that emotion. Instead, you have come into the presence of that emotion, as if you were noticing a lamp on the table or the rug on the floor. This is an old trick of Eastern religions - to dis-identify, to detach from our thoughts and feelings, to treat them as something external. I admit that in some ways it makes sense to say, "I am my thoughts," but in other ways it works better to say, "I have thoughts."

I am free to rearrange my old mental stuff as if I were rearranging furniture. Admittedly, some of that furniture is fairly heavy. We may need a dolly, a forklift, or even a crane! But it can be moved. My own psychological furniture does not define who I have to be, just who I tend to be. It is raw material which I can use as I choose. It does not dictate my feelings or my fate.

Lately I have been so busy that I haven't taken much time to play this game. Like a lot of us, I've gotten used to being busy and I generally handle it well, but after a certain point it's too much and it feels as if the walls are closing in around me. Do any of you ever have that experience? Sure. Writing this sermon came at a good time to remind me to keep starting fresh, keep being reborn. I still have just as many things to do, but toward the end of the week I noticed that I was keeping them in better perspective. This imaginative exercise does help. I like to pretend I am being born again.

I'm going to talk some more about using imagination to start fresh, and I admit that some techniques for doing this may seem silly at first. But if we never do anything that seems odd, contrived, or awkward, we'll just turn into robots. Like Bob Dylan said, if we aren't busy being born then we're busy dying.

The techniques I'm going to suggest involve pretending that we know nothing, and pretending we know everything.

It's a bit of an exaggeration to say, "Imagine you know nothing." I'm not sure how I'd pretend to know absolutely zero. But I can approach specific experiences as if I were having them for the first time. In Zen they call this, having "beginner's mind." For example, you can play the game of "I've never seen that before." Encounter whatever you experience as if for the first time, approaching everything with open-eyed curiosity. Just take it in, without judging it or fixing it. One way to do this is to take a walk and whenever you see an object or a person, tell yourself with conviction, "I've never seen that before," and you will discover things about physical objects and people and animals that you had never noticed.

You will also learn a lot by noticing that you keep falling out of this exercise. The thoughts and the feelings of the mind are like a torrent that sweeps us along. It's difficult to jump off of our "train of thoughts" and step aside and look at them naively. But the only reason this is difficult is because we haven't practiced it. Our habitual thought patterns have become a kind of treadmill, and we can't get off the treadmill until we realize we're on it. But as you get the knack of this technique, you will begin to look with fresh eyes, and that restores sensory contact. You will really see an apple. You will truly feel your cat's fur, and hear the wind. For periods of a few seconds, you will literally come to your senses.

So when could you find time in your busy schedule to do this? How about now? Look around the room and focus on something, seeing it as if for the first time. What do you experience? Just do that quietly for a minute, now.

Can two or three of you share what you noticed? (Discussion)

So one way to develop a new perspective is to imagine that we know nothing about what we experience, with objects we see or even with inner experiences such as sadness, anger, pain, pleasure, and affection.

You can also start fresh by imagining that instead of knowing nothing, you know everything, or at least far more than you realized. One traditional way to do this is to say that God knows everything and we can come to God for guidance - we can pray and listen for a response. New Age religion sometimes speaks of tapping our own inner knowingness. Some speak of getting in touch with the higher self, the Buddha nature, or the Tao - or just tuning into our own best judgment. I suspect that all these words describe similar processes. You may access this knowingness through meditation or prayer, or just by thinking clearly in a quiet room. You are Unitarian Universalists, so you get to choose how you do it. Find some way to place yourself in the middle of a great stream of wisdom. We are much more likely to act intelligently, effectively, and compassionately if we remember to stop, step back from the situation, and make a new beginning based on deeper insights.

Suppose you're watching a TV program about some social problem, such as war, racism, pollution, the prison system, homophobia and trans-phobia, or the loss of civil liberties. Perhaps you're feeling helpless, as if you don't know how to make a difference in the world. That helpless feeling is your cue to shift your attention, to use your imagination to access the wisdom of a higher power or your higher self. Say, "I believe I already know what I can do about this," and see what comes to mind.

Remember that you don't have to save the world alone. We can think of humanity as a gigantic brain and each of us as a single neuron. When something stimulates us, we either act or do not act, just as a neuron either fires or does not fire. When it fires, it sends an impulse in many directions, affecting lots of other neurons. So we don't have to do it all, but it's up to us to either play our part or not. We are responsible for being a functioning neuron in the mind of humanity instead of one of the broken links, to respond instead of going to sleep when an important message comes along. And the way to keep ourselves awake and alert is to affirm, "I already know what I need to do to help humanity thrive and survive."

We may wish that we could travel to "the Land of Beginning Again/Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches.../Could be dropped like a shabby coat at the door." And we can travel to that land, on wings of imagination. Religion at its best points us toward radically new beginnings. We cannot literally start over. Even a newborn baby is already part of a powerful network of influences. But starting fresh is one of those impossible possibilities that makes the difference between merely existing and truly living. One way to climb the mountains is to reach for the stars.

The key is to focus our attention in ways that help us start fresh. Through imagination, we can pretend that we are being born right this minute, into our own mind. We can also see things freshly by pretending we know nothing about them, as if we were seeing with the eyes of a child. Or we can imagine we know far more than we realize, tuning into higher sources of wisdom within us or beyond us. Next week we will continue to explore these ideas, partly by considering how we can start fresh in our personal relationships.

At a UU conference I saw a T-shirt that said, "Unitarian Universalists: Born Again...and Again...and Again...and Again." Whether we know it or not we are always being born, and it's never! never! never! too late for starting fresh.

To the second sermon in this series.

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