The Inner Clutter of Old Emotions

Patterns DSC02538The second step on my journey into emptiness was getting to my inner clutter. When I had longer spells of unplanned time, I found myself feeling a little depressed—sometimes sad or cranky. One day, I found myself writing a long letter to one of my conservative sisters. Two years before, she had refused to let me stay with her family, because she didn’t want her children to be exposed to a different perspective on the world. I had never been able to respond to her letter. I needed to let her know how deeply she had hurt me. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine between us, except for this small matter of not being allowed to have a relationship with my nieces. The empty time gave me space to feel and grieve and name the reality between us, and write my own letter back to her.

When we take time for emptiness, old feelings emerge, all the unresolved emotions that we haven’t attended to. Perhaps that is one reason we like to keep busy. If you had a long period of silence, (and you had already completed a list of all your unfinished projects,) you might start to remember some of your own unfinished emotional business, the inner clutter you carry in your heart. Perhaps a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a while. An unresolved conflict. Guilt, pain, anxiety, anger, loneliness. By calling it clutter, I do not mean to imply that the feelings are unimportant, but rather that the feelings are stuck.

As my own unfinished emotions emerged that summer, I wrote in my journal: Remember the difference between grief and hunger. If I can recognize grief, that will make room for hunger. Keep them separate to keep hope alive. Here is what I meant: Grief involves a process of letting go. Hunger is a kind of reaching for something. In our emotions, if our grief becomes fused to our hungers, we become too attached to our feelings, rather than letting them go. If we do not let go, by grieving whatever is filling our soul with sadness, we will not have any room to draw to ourselves that for which we hunger.

One example of this is unrequited love. If we hold on to loving someone who does not love us in return, we barricade our hearts from the possibility of finding a mutual love. Just as I had to clear away the books I wasn’t using to make room for the books I was, so I had to clear away old unfinished emotions, had to clear away my attachment to situations that I could not change, to make room for something new.

 

Unfinished Projects and Clutter

At the beginning of my intentional journey into emptiness, I wrote in my journal: So much of life’s activities seem to be preparation for something else, a kind of infrastructure. We need to fix the bulkhead on our house, prune the vegetation in the yard, make a will to protect each other when we die, do the dishes and the laundry, and so on. I wrote down a whole list of unfinished projects. I am sure if you had five minutes of silence, and a pad of paper, you could fill in your own current list of unfinished projects. 

My journal continued: If “everything else” was done—the whole list of infrastructure projects—what would I like to be finally doing then? What are we preparing for? What is at the center? Sometimes I meditate, to feel centered for the rest of the day. But then that also seems to become so much preparation for something else. What is the something else? Is there something at the center? What is worth paying attention to? The yard right now reminds me of my life because it is being taken over by invasive species. When I look at it, I feel a sense of clutter there, too. I feel clutter within, and clutter without.

So, the first step on my journey into emptiness was an attempt to clear out some of the outside clutter. When I woke in the morning, I would gravitate in the direction of some cleaning project or another. I cleaned out my office at home. I moved books I wasn’t using from the bookshelves into the basement, to make room for the books I was using, that were stacked all over the floor. I cleared the surfaces of my dresser, of the desk, of the floor, sorting and putting away paper. Another day, I worked in the yard, to try to clear out some of the bittersweet, wild roses, and raspberry bushes that had formed an entanglement over our leach field.

But after a while, I realized that I could spend my whole vacation just working in the yard, or just doing various house projects. It wasn’t even possible that I would get to the end of the list. Even if I did, I wouldn’t find what I was looking for. But I needed to do some of it. If there was too much outside clutter, I couldn’t find the space within for what was most important.

Do you feel your life is full of outside clutter, surfaces that are full of paper or books, projects that you can’t get to?  Part of a journey into emptiness might to clear out some of that clutter.  Try taking one area and see what happens if you clear out the clutter there.

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

A Journey Into Emptiness

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness
                                           Lao Tse

In order to enter the consciousness of now, we must quiet the activity of the left brain mind. This is not easy. Most of us keep very busy with left brain activities. The United States is a country of work, projects, and keeping busy. We are a country of doing. Did you know that Americans take less time on vacation than all the rest of the industrialized nations of the world? Workers outside the U.S. enjoy as much as three times more vacation than their American counterparts. And often when we do take a vacation, we fill our days with so many activities, we are as busy as when we are working.

I know that has happened for me. I can become so accustomed to a pattern of filling up my days that even my time off is soon filled with more projects. Even spiritual practice can become a project. But when I get too busy, even with work that I love—when I fill my days with more and more activity—I start to feel that something is missing. In the midst of my busyness, I can’t even tell exactly what it is I am missing, but I feel some sort of undefined emptiness within. And so I have learned that for me, it is essential to find a time for not doing anything, so that I can remember that lost something, and find being again.

I entered this process in an intentional way several summers ago. I decided to use my vacation time not in travel or some other highly scheduled activity, but for a different kind of journey. It is interesting to note that the word vacation comes from a Latin root, vacare, meaning, to be empty. I wanted to journey into the emptiness, into the interior of my life. I wanted to find the center.

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I hope to share with you some of what I experienced in my next few blog posts.

Can intellect and ecstasy co-exist?

The Unitarian side of my church’s heritage partly developed in response to what it saw as an excessive focus on “feeling after God” in the Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century. During the Great Awakening, revival preachers were traveling across the countryside stirring people into a frenzy of religious devotion. Salvation was marked by conversion experiences of great emotional intensity. The underside of this fervor was a pessimistic theology that claimed that all human beings were inherently evil and destined to eternal damnation. Salvation was seen as a literal rescue from this horrific fate. An emotional conversion experience marked you as one of the saved.

By contrast, the preachers who were my forebears mistrusted this approach of salvation by catharsis. They advocated a religion based on reason and character, and believed we might participate in the process of spiritual growth. God, they said, would not despise our use of the intellect which he had given us. Reason and character have remained hallmarks of our faith.

Unitarianism became known as a religion comfortable with words, mistrustful of emotion. Yet from the beginning there were Unitarians who worried about the coldness of such a reasonable approach. Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “the father of American spirituality,” complained about it:

“Where now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origins in heaven?… The test of a true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul…”

Is it possible to find a faith which charms both the mind and the soul? Can intellect and ecstasy co-exist?

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Emerson quoted from “The Divinity School Address” in Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism

The Seed of God

The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote,

The seed of God exists in us…
Pear seed grows up into pear tree.
Nut seed grows up into nut tree—
God seed into God.

What might we do together if we remembered that each of us has the seed of God inside? Antoine de St. Exupery, in The Little Prince, tells us “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Each one of us is like Jack and the Beanstalk. Each one of us has within us this spark of divinity, like a Mystery Seed, a seed of what we might become, fully alive. And we also have some husk that tries to keep it contained and hidden. We have to plant those seeds, let them break apart, tend them, and help them to grow. If we let those Mystery Seeds grow, like Jack with his beanstalk, we will become much more than we ever imagined.

I can’t help but think of one of the elders I knew in the congregation in which I served on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Her name was Ellie. Ellie died at the age of ninety-four. She had always suffered from a stutter. As a child, she was sent to all the specialists that her prominent father could afford, and nothing cured the stutter. But in the midst of this, Ellie was able to find her voice.

She became a writer, both in her career, and in her passion for politics and social justice. She was a speechwriter for several political campaigns and an active member of the League of Women Voters. She was also active in the nuclear freeze movement. Somehow, she didn’t need to get rid of her stutter to bring forth her voice. It was almost as if her stutter helped her to find her voice. It was like an old husk, long ago cracked open, lying almost unnoticed around the bright flower of a plant that had grown from her heart. She had brought forth her latent divinity.Violets in Tree MJ DSC05246

Quote from Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), from “The Nobleman” in Meister Eckhart, From Whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings and Sayings

Latent Divinity

During our ministry retreat, Rev. Ray Tetrault invited us to move beneath the turmoil of politics, beneath the struggle of winning or losing elections, to the place where all that we value finds its roots. He called it “latent divinity.” I knew that he meant what I have been calling the Mystery Seed. Sometimes we get caught up in words, but at our retreat we were not worrying about that. We were letting ourselves go to the deeper place that Ray was invoking. Latent divinity is like a spark of the sacred, hidden inside each of us, burning like a glimmer of light and beauty and possibility.

I had written in my email to my family, “I believe that the presence of God is in every being on earth, every shoreline, every tree, every rainfall, every turtle, every person.  Even the word God is incomplete. The doors of my heart have expanded open like that. We are all bright sparks of light.” 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

In the silence of the retreat, I could feel that spark in my heart, that Mystery Seed of life and love. I could imagine that seed of divinity in every person alive, pulsing to grow, laboring to be born, and I realized just a glimpse of how beautiful we are. In that place of Mystery, we are all connected, and anything is possible. In that place of Mystery, there is hope for the problems facing our world.

I could also feel how the seed of divinity in me was surrounded by an old husk of separation and division. I was attached to that old husk, that part of me that needs to feel separate from others. That old husk didn’t want to be connected with those who disagreed with me, or to see divinity in people who believed differently from me. I just wanted my side to win. But in order for divinity to grow in me, I would have to let go of the husk of separation.

What Is Really Going On?

Tree Reflection DSC03816One fall, I was on retreat with other ministers, and our retreat leader was a priest, Rev. Ray Tetrault. He was a friend of one of my colleagues and known to us as a passionate advocate for social justice. Our task together was to reflect on the politics of our time, in light of our role as spiritual leaders.

He started us off with an unlikely reference from the gospel of Luke, familiar from the Christmas story. Luke tells us that a census was called during the time when Herod was the king of Judea, Augustus was caesar of the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ray reminded us that they were the politicians in charge of the regional and imperial governments some two thousand years ago.

But what was really going on?” he asked. Something mysterious. In a small town, a baby had just been born—we know him as John the Baptist—and something new was beginning that would literally transform the world. This new thing emerged, not from those at the top, but from underneath, from an unexpected and hidden place.

Since our retreat was happening just before the national elections, all of us were sitting there with many stirred up feelings about the issues facing our country. It would have been easy to talk together about our political leaders, our concerns and our analysis. But Ray invited us instead to be silent, to listen deep in the quiet of our hearts, underneath our thoughts and feelings. He invited us to reflect on the question: “What is really going on?” What else might be happening here in our own time and country, underneath, unseen, and yet full of potential significance? What is really going on?

We kept the silence for an hour, and then we shared from our hearts. The next day we went back into silence, and then shared again from that deeper place. When I went into the silence, I felt something like a seed in my heart that was swelling and expanding, and also something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

I remembered an email that I had sent a few days earlier to my family members. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and my parents are both still alive. I have family living in Michigan, Texas, Montana, and West Virginia. I remember that my family was excited when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, but mostly we had not been very involved in politics. Now we have vast disagreements among us. In fact, the deep religious and political divisions in our country are directly mirrored in my family.

I had been moved to send an email to my family members about my feelings and concerns about the elections, and about the spiritual beliefs underlying my hopes and fears. Then others started replying: several of my sisters, my father, a niece and a nephew sent emails to all the others. Many began by expressing fear that if they shared their beliefs, others might reject them, but still they wanted to take the risk. And even those with very strong views kept repeating that, in spite of these differences, they loved each member of the family and hoped that everyone still loved them.

Somehow, in the midst of the cultural divisions facing our nation, we had ventured across the walls of politics and religion, painfully but hopefully, to share our truths with love. Our differences were deep, and our emails did not make them go away. But we were touching each other at a deeper level than our differences. And that gave me hope for facing the divide in our nation. In the silence of the retreat, I was realizing the mysterious unfolding that had taken place in our email conversation. It felt something like a seed in my heart swelling and expanding, something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.