Monday, September 27, 2010

"The Only Way Out Is Through"

Throughout the month of September we have been talking about vision in different ways here at the Fellowship. When we celebrated our water communion and built a common spiritual well, we gained a deeper understanding of the shared vision of our community. Last week, we talked about the keeping a vision of hope for the future and how often the smallest moments of our lives are sources for profound inspiration. This week, we talk about vision in a different way. This week we explore the gift and challenge of focusing on the present moment. Because if we can focus on this moment, the here and now, we can face our challenges one step at a time.

The title of this morning’s worship service, “The Only Way Out Is Through,” I knew only as a witty phrase that reminded me of Buddhist principles. And it still does, we will get into what the Buddha taught later. But in my preparation, I found that the quote, “The only way out is through,” comes from a poem by Robert Frost. It’s called “A Servant to Servants.”

The poem is far too long to share in our worship service. But I want to share with you what it is about. It is the mental meanderings of an over worked and under-stimulated farm wife. She’s having an imaginary conversation with some free-spirited campers who have landed on the farm. Of course she sees them from her only vantage point on the world: the kitchen window. She’s envious of them and angry that her life is reduced to taking care of loutish farmhands, while her husband runs all over the place. But eventually she gets to the point of seeing that the only way through this life, is to deal head on with what life hands you, and make the best of it.

It’s a pretty universal theme ­ girding yourself to get through what life has to offer you. In this poem we hear the heartfelt yearnings of a board farm wife, wondering what a more adventurous life might have been like. Finally, she comes to realize that most likely, if she were with those free-spirited campers on her farm, she would grow tired of sleeping on the ground, and board with that lifestyle.

The only way out is through. The only way to get through life and get anything out of it is to engage it head on. I think this is a wonderful message, a very Buddhist message, but some may think it an easy answer. If your life is easy, of course you would say, dive in and embrace it. Well, that’s not quite the vantage point hat Robert Frost was writing from. Rather than boredom of the farm, Frost’s life was rattled with challenges.

Here was a man with a childhood so disrupted by his father's drinking and gambling that he was too nervous to attend school till the fifth grade. When Frost was 11, his father died of tuberculosis, leaving the family with just $8. Subsequently he had to put his sister in a mental institution where she eventually died. And, his own children were a lineage of tragedy. One died just after child birth, one died of cholera and yet another committed suicide. His wife died 25 years before him and he gradually grew blind ­ too blind to read the poem prepared for Kennedy’s inauguration so he recited "A Gift Outright" from memory.

I guess I point all of that out to say that if anyone has the backing to be able to say those words, “The only way out is through,” it’s him. Certainly the only way to survive that sort of repeated trauma is to take it one day at a time. And perhaps the only way to survive the cruelly boring domestic life of this mythical farm wife is one day at a time. The only way out is through.

All of that talk of one day at a time may sound familiar to a few of you. It is a bit of a mantra in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs. For many people it’s a life saving mantra. In the midst of recovery, a period that is filled with regret for the past and concerns about the future, the only way to not be overwhelmed is to take one day at a time and focus on the present moment.

But there’s another essential piece to 12 step programs that resonates with the idea that the only way out is through. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and addiction that has overtaken your life. Only when you recognize and admit that you have a problem, can you go about addressing it and moving forward with your life. But you have to start with that moment of confrontation. You have to admit that there is a problem to begin with.
But admitting you have a problem isn’t just about being an addict. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, a necessary step to dealing with any of life’s challenges. Admitting you are scared or angry or hurt, or in danger, whatever the moment presents, admitting what you face is a crucial piece of coming through it.
I say admitting, as if it’s about making some public confession. That is the case for AA programs. That’s what that whole introduction that we know about is. Hi my name is _____ and I’m an alcoholic. It’s about naming your problem publicly. But admitting you have a challenge begins with yourself. Knowing yourself, knowing how you are feeling, and acknowledging that feeling. Admitting to yourself that you are hurt or scared, admitting to yourself the way you feel can be just as terrifying and just as important as making a public confession.

I mentioned that believing that the only way out is through is reminiscent of Buddhist thought. It actually is in several ways, more ways than I can describe in one sermon. But we’ll take a stab at it. You may know at the foundation of Buddhist thought is the Four Noble Truths. This was the great realization that Buddha had when he reached enlightenment under the Bohdi Tree.
The first Noble Truth is that “life is suffering.” At least that’s the way it is usually translated. Life is suffering. From the time we come into the world we are always longing for more. We experience pain sickness and death. Even as we enjoy things, there is a knowledge that they are for a limited time or quantity. We are never satisfied.
In fact, a better translation of this First Noble Truth that is “all life is dissatisfaction.” The Buddha wasn’t a complete pessimist, saying that life is just pain and suffering. It’s not that dramatic. But the essential experience of life is dissatisfaction. We always want something more or something different. We attach ourselves to something other than what we have or what we feel.

Which brings me to the Second Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is that the root of suffering, or dissatisfaction as I prefer to call it, is attachment. Life is suffering because of attachment. We get attached to material things that are fleeting. We also get attached to disappointments of the past, or anxieties of the future. We are attached to the way things could have been, or the way we didn’t quite make the mark that one time. We even get absorbed in how wonderful life used to be. We get attached to what is not here and now, and we long for a different experience. And thus we are dissatisfied.

The challenge within the Buddhist framework, and I think the challenge in all of our lives is to be aware of your mind in the present moment. Are you focused on the past or future, or maybe some other place? Or is you mind present in the here and now? That is the primary goal of Buddhist practice, to live in the present moment, free of attachments that only bring dissatisfaction. It’s a big challenge if you take it seriously.

That is where the practice of meditation comes in. That is the stereotype of the Buddhist, or at least the first thing that comes to my mind, the meditating monk or the Buddha. That’s because meditation is a central practice of Buddhism. And it is also the one spiritual practice that I do on a regular basis.

For ten to fifteen minutes I sit and breath. I know it sounds easy; anyone can breath for ten minutes. But I don’t just sit there. I focus on each breath, each inhale and each exhale in the very moment that they occur. In and out, one at a time. Only breath, only that moment. That’s a very hard thing to do for fifteen minutes. Your mind goes in 50 different directions, wondering what’s for dinner, what time is it, am I doing this right, did I remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
But your breath is always there, in and out, to help refocus on the moment. In and out, one at a time. Only breath, only that moment. It’s a wonderfully helpful experience in my life. I don’t meditate as often as I would like to, but I do do it when I can.

So the first challenge in Buddhism is to focus your mind and heart on the present moment. And then, once you are there in the present moment, you tap into compassion and joy.
The Buddha taught endlessly about compassion for other living beings, and compassion for yourself. Without diving too far into it, the root of that compassion comes from a recognition of interconnectedness. I can feel compassion for other people’s suffering, because I know my own experiences of suffering. As Unitarian Universalists, we talk about it as the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. For most of us that’s a reference to ecological concerns. But it’s also a central theme in Buddhist thought. In the core of our being, we are interdependent, so much so that our identity, our self is blurred with the rest of creation… Okay I’m getting carried away.

Suffice it to say that compassion is a key component of Buddhism, and the root of that compassion is an understanding and embracing of our interconnectedness. And compassion is a multilayered thing. We must have compassion for ourselves, in our times of challenge. And we have compassion for those who are close to us. After all we know some of their pains like we know our own. And then compassion gets a bit more complicated as we stretch to feel compassion for people we don’t know. After all, they too must have disappointments, dissatisfaction occurring in their lives. But we are called to extend compassion to them. And finally, perhaps most difficult, where is the compassion in our hearts for our adversaries, the people who have done us harm? Can you feel compassion for them?

This is one of the most powerful pieces of meditation in Buddhist practice. It’s actually reflected in both of the hymns that we are singing today. We can cultivate a sense of compassion in ourselves, we can stretch our hearts, if we just take a little time to do it. Start with yourself, identifying a dissatisfaction or frustration, and feel compassion in your heart. No one wants to hurt, and you know that. Just hold yourself in compassion. Then extend that compassion toward someone you know and love. Maybe someone in your family facing a challenge, or even someone here. Next, imagine someone you don’t know well, perhaps the grocery store clerk or a waiter at a restaurant that you frequent. Holding that person in your thoughts, know that they too have struggles and disappointments. Hold them in compassion. And finally, and sometimes this is not possible, but if you can, who are you angry with? Who has hurt you? See if you can hold that person in your heart, knowing that he or she also experiences disappointment, dissatisfaction. Maybe, just maybe they have hurt you as a response to their own disappointment.

Those two practices, meditation to center on the moment, and the practice of extending a feeling of compassion beyond yourself are pretty much the core of Buddhist religious life. Usually when we talk about religious diversity, we tend to talk about religions, like Christianity, Islam, Hundism, Jainism, groups of people that believe a certain thing. But we should be careful about how we lump people together. For most Buddhists, their tradition is a practice, rather than a religion. You may hear people describing themselves as Buddhist practicioners. The key isn’t what you believe about metaphysics, it’s how you live your life in the present moment. It is sort of like Unitarian Universalism; what you believe is not as important as how you life your life. And in Buddhist life, two key practices are meditation and stretching your heart to embrace wider and wider circles of compassion.

Buddhism is largely a practice, like a sport or an intellectual endeavor, it takes practice and time, lots and lots of time. And eventually you land in the here and now. You come to realize that this life is full of struggles and dissatisfaction. But, if you take what life offers you, and live it out in this moment, it is possible to find joy there.

Whether you are a Buddhist practitioner or a discontented farm wife from Robert Frost’s imagination, or even an every day resident of Southern California, with hopes and desires unfulfilled, and maybe a few regrets, the only way out is through. As Frosts farm wife puts it, “I 'spose I've got to go the road I'm going.” The only way out of a struggle is through it. The only way to live this life is one day at a time, with as much compassion as our hearts will allow.



  1. Brilliantly done, and very consistent with my experience.

  2. I needed this today -- thank you for posting it, so it would be findable five years later.