Trying to Be Good

You are one body, brain and organs, separated by a layer of skin from the not-you all around you. Also, you are the whole universe, and there is no not-you. Kabir, the mystic poet of India in the 1400s, calls these two versions of you "the great one" and "the little one." He writes of the love between the you that is all things and the you that is one small skinbag:
Why should we two ever want to part?
Just as the leaf of the water rhubarb lives
floating on the water, we live as the great one and the little one.
As the owl opens his eyes all night to the moon,
we live as the great one and the little one.
This love between us goes back to the first humans:
it cannot be annihilated.
Here is Kabir's idea :
as the river gives itself into the ocean,
what is inside me moves inside you.
The Apostle Paul had a different conception of the two yous. He described not the love affair, but the conflict between the self that wants to do good and the self that ends up doing bad.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do....So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand....Wretched man that I am! (Romans 7: 15-24)
Why do we have a hard time being the person that we want to be? I came across this story – I don’t know if it’s true; I cannot vouch for the source. It might be true.
Roger was one of these people who would always go into the refrigerator late at night and get out the ice cream. Three large scoops. And the chocolate syrup. Chopped nuts. Whipped cream. In the quiet of the night, when his wife was not around to nag, when his children were not around to see, when the dog was curled up and fast asleep on the rug in the family room, Roger would be in the kitchen, rummaging as quietly as he could for the little jar of marachino cherries – because presentation is important. Roger’s body was slowly broadening. Roger wanted to get control of his habit. He knew that he was addicted to ice cream, sugar, chocolate and nuts. Roger actually did what maybe some of us have threatened to do. He went and bought a chain and padlock.
Yes, he actually chained the refrigerator shut, padlocked it, and gave the key to his wife. The first night he was restless, but he got through it. The second night, in the darkness his wife heard the chain rattling out there on the refrigerator, but she gradually fell asleep again. The next morning as she was unlocking the refrigerator for breakfast, she noticed what seemed to be claw marks on the refrigerator door.
Been there? OK, maybe not exactly there, but you have probably not always been the person that you wanted to be. According to another unreliable -- yet, I find, plausible -- source, the median date on which New Year’s resolutions are abandoned is January 2.

Traditionally we in the West have sought to account for this by invoking a distinction between the spirit and the flesh. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, we say.

I understand, by the way, that one of the first attempts years ago at a translation machine between English and Russian, was tested with that saying: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." The machine translated that into Russian. And then the Russian was fed back into the machine to translate it back to English. What came back was: "The vodka is good, but the meat is so-so." So, now, sometimes, if someone is bewailing human frailties, and the mood seems right for it, I might shrug, and I say, "Well, you know, the vodka is good, but the meat is so-so."

What are we to make of this meat of ours? There is wisdom in the Christian teaching of confession – acknowledge that the impulse is there, it is a part of who you are – and in acknowledging that something other than your own internal controller is needed.

You know what I mean by "internal controller"? It’s the voice, or persona, in you that is seeking to control. The controller wants to make things just right for you. Its job is to think up strategies so that your life will be exactly what you want it to be. The controller in you has a useful job to do – we wouldn’t want to get rid of it. At the same time, it operates under a very basic delusion. The controller operates on the assumption that you are a separate, independent, self-contained entity -- and that this entity, you, is on the verge of finding happiness. All you need is just a few more things lined up, straightened out, fixed.

The controller, however, keeps losing battles. Despite its best efforts, we find ourselves in the night reaching into the refrigerator of indulgence. Is there some other approach we could have to the demons that beset us – the impulses which we later regret?

Just recognizing that we ourselves are not in control is helpful. The Christian tradition speaks of turning over control to divine authority. That language might be helpful for helping us remember that we aren’t in control, for helping us encourage our inner controller to relax a bit.

It does seem to be the case that when we most think we are in control – when we think we’ve really licked some fault that we see besetting others around us – that’s when we’re most vulnerable ourselves to an attack of exactly that fault. Unitarian Universalist Minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse, says that such confidence in our control over failings is liable to wake up the Karma Fairy. She writes:
Meg Barnhouse
The Karma Fairy is one of God’s teachers. She is ruthless in her desire for you to pay attention to your judgments about other people and about yourself. For example, if you were to look at that man from your church who fell in love with the trapeze artist from the circus, and if you were to say something unwise like "I can’t understand how he could do something like that to himself and his family," the very next year you would find yourself in a mad affair with the mulch guy.
You see unruly children in McDonald’s and you sniff to your young self, "My children will never be allowed to act like that." Ten years later as you wipe barbecue sauce off your shirt and get your screaming child off the floor where she has thrown herself in a tantrum, you remember, and cringe. That’s the work of the Karma Fairy.
Here’s how I attracted her attention. A tenth-grader was interviewing me on the phone for a school assignment. One of the questions she asked was, "Have you ever had writer’s block?"
Listen. Can you hear it? Can you hear the dissonant chord of warning from the string section of the orchestra that plays background music to my life?
"No, I haven’t had writer’s block," I laughed carelessly. "I have three part-time jobs and two children. I don’t have time for writer’s block." After hanging up, I didn’t give another thought. Until four days later when it came to me that I hadn’t written anything since that interview and that for the last four days I had been in school with the Karma Fairy.
Thank you, Karma Fairy. You love me, you tough old hag. You want me to be wise and kind, compassionate, and careful. And you teach me over and over again this lesson I hate and cannot hold in my mind, that I am not an exception to any of the rules.
The Karma Fairy is here to show us that we are not safe in our righteousness, our intelligence, our careful nutrition, our common sense, our hip and groovy walk in the Dao. She is here to give us deep, full hearts. She is here to show us that we have it in us to make as big a mess as the next person. If we are ever going to find a cure for self-righteousness, the root of all separation, of all cruelty, we need her touch. (Waking Up the Karma Fairy)
Thank you, Meg. I do know the Karma Fairy. How hard could it be to straighten up a cluttered office? To eat healthy? To exercise enough? To maintain a definite schedule? Here's something else I know: "You, too, have met the Karma Fairy" (Barnhouse).

Your inner controller attempts to order all things in your life just so. It tries to do this because its deepest need is to protect the illusion that it is in control. So when an unwanted impulse – an "out of control" movement arises in your life, your controller knows how to deal with such a miscreant. In fact, it has a vast array of weapons at its command. OK, it has two: Repression and Denial. Whatever isn’t pretty – whatever your controller, judgmental persona that it is, deems unlovely – the controller’s first move is to deny that you have it.

Take the seven capital vices – called that because they are the origins of so much behavior that is bad for us and bad for others. Anger, envy, lust, sloth, pride, gluttony, greed. We are all susceptible to each of these. The meat, indeed, is so-so. Your controller, however, prefers to deny this. So you might find yourself sputtering with clenched fists and teeth, "I’m not angry. I don’t get angry." Or saying, "I’m not envious, but don’t talented people just make you sick?" And so on.

If outright denial doesn’t hold up, the controller shifts into its other strategy: repression. I’m just going to push away this part of me that I don’t want to be there because it doesn’t fit with my plan for who I am. Sigmund Freud coined the phrase, return of the repressed. Whatever you push away, will come back. Sooner or later, repression fails, and having no other way to engage the impulse, we are left with indulgence. Indulge the sweet tooth with another midnight chocolate Sundae; indulge the anger with bout of rage.

There is a middle path: neither repressing nor indulging. Whatever urge or impulse it is, it’s a part of you, and just like you, it wants to be seen for what it is, it wants to be known, acknowledged. Hal Hobson’s hymn, which we will sing, gets its first two verses straight from first Corinthians, and then Hobson added on a third verse of his own, writing, "our spirits long to be made whole." To be made whole. Your inner controller’s compulsive drive to sever, deny, and repress the parts of you that it doesn’t like divides you, splits you up. Angel parts over here, devil parts over here. But our spirits long to be made whole – to bring all of who you are together. Acknowledge all of who you are. Embrace it.

It isn’t just charity that begins at home. Or peace. Diversity begins at home: by accepting and embracing all the diverse, often conflicting, impulses that make up who you are. As Unitarian Universalist write Philip Simmons put it:
There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight. Nothing that confuses them more than our embrace.
Our embrace, we might say, confuses the devil out of them. For, with our embrace, the impulse ceases to be demonic. It becomes just a sometimes-eccentric member of the household of you -- a member who, along with all the other internal voices and personae that constitute you, has a welcome place at your table.

As a replacement for control, there is creative engagement. Let’s just suppose that you’re not here to make yourself or your world fit some model of how you think you and it should be. Let’s suppose that you are here to engage with whatever presents, and to do so creatively and unpredictably. If so, attentive observation is the first key. The foundation for creativity, as artists and poets know, is keen observation. Notice what is there. Look carefully at what’s there outside you and what’s there inside you. When you bring nonjudgmental open curiosity to every moment, you'll notice things that you overlook when you already think you know, or when all you're interested in is what you want to control.

Most of us are so quick to put things in a category, neatly packaged with a convenient label that makes any further investigation unnecessary: a rude driver, a hard worker, an earth-mother type, an aging hippie, a clean-cut conservative, a new-ager. In my high school, we had three pure types: the jocks, the brains, and the freaks. And then there were the hybrids: the cross between the jocks and the brains was the student council and homecoming court. The cross between the jocks and the freaks was: the soccer team. The cross between the brains and the freaks was: the debate team. I was on the debate team.

We love categories. But any category with more than one member distorts all its members. Only from an open and accepting awareness of whatever is there will emerge creative possibilities of response. The artist can then explore ways to represent it in colors and shapes; the poet can play around with ways to represent it words and rhythm. Your inner controller has a definite predetermined outcome it wants, but creative engagement doesn’t know what the outcome might turn out to be.

Don’t control it; work with it. That means letting it in and letting it work on you. Trying to be good has too much trying to it – too much control. Trying to be good also has too much preconception about what "good" is. A large part of creativitiy is getting yourself out of the way and letting the finished (or provisional) product emerge in the way it seems to want to: whether it is a sculpture or a conversation, whether it is a symphony or a walk in the woods, whether it is the preparation of a meal or the sitting down with family and having the meal. All of those are opportunities to creatively engage, to participate in a partnership with your internal and external reality. It is that partnership, rather than the "you" of ego alone, that can bring forth something fresh, new, and unpredictable -- something that control alone can never make happen.

Trust who you are. It is a gift to the universe. It really is a blessing you were born. Give that gift – "as the river gives itself into the ocean," as Kabir says.

Step one, then: cultivate observation -- neutral, nonjudgmental noticing of what is within and what is without. After all, "Why?" is not a spiritual question. "Why?" is the controller’s question, wanting to know about causes so they can be manipulated. The spiritual question is: "What?" What is this? What is this?

The Zen lore is full of tales of traveling Zen monks who stop in at the monasteries and visit the master there. Huineng was such a master in China in the 600s. Huaijang was such a traveling monk, stopping in for visit. The master begins, as these stories so often do, asking where did you come from? It seems like simple polite conversation, yet in the master’s hands such a question is a deep probing into the visitor’s nature and level of awareness.
"Mount Sung," answers Huaijang.
"But what is this thing?" says Huineng. "How did it get here?"
Huaijang was speechless. What is this thing? Huaijang remained practicing with Huineng for eight years, holding always that question: What is this thing?

The trick, when cultivating observation, is to hold the question. For each answer that comes to you, accept it, then return to the question to see what further answers may come.

Step two, while still observing, noticing what it is and how it changes, engage creatively. For Roger and his ice cream habit, this would mean paying minute attention to what he experiences. When you look steadily and closely at a craving, what is it, really? Small cravings will vanish entirely under the gaze of attention. For the stronger cravings, as you examine them and deepen your familiarity with them, you enter into dialog with them and explore what they're really after. The craving sneaks in when we aren't watching it, and it takes over behavior without us ever stopping and really closely examining the craving itself. If Roger could notice the craving, personify it, talk to it -- "Hello, there craving. I see you there" -- then the craving would have something to teach him, and he would begin to see options. "Hello, craving. What is it you want? Do you want ice cream? What is it about ice cream that has such appeal?" If there is an actual legitimate hunger, then perhaps that need can be met in more healthy ways. Or is a chocolate sundae a kind of comfort food for Roger? OK, what are some other ways to meet the need for comfort? What stresses are going on in Roger's life that make the need for that sort of comfort so strong? The right questions naturally arise when we take the step of truly paying attention.

Master Basho
Step three, engage creatively for others. Service to others helps break down the idea that there is a distinction between you and others, and this helps further loosen the grip of the controller who wants to protect the illusory separate and distinct thing it thinks of as "you."

In Tim Myer's story, Basho and the River Stones, both Basho and the Fox help show us how. The Fox gives Basho three gold coins in exchange for rights to the cherries from Basho's cherry tree. But the apparent gold coins were an illusion, and the next morning Basho's coins were nothing but river stones. Basho was actually more pleased to have river stones. He wrote a poem:
How many years have
These stones loved the river, not
Knowing they were poor?
The fox is so impressed with Basho's freedom and wisdom, that he wants to repay Basho for the beautiful lesson. Basho refuses. Ultimately, the fox must trick Basho into gold coins just as she had previously tricked Basho out of gold coins.

Thus there's one morning when Basho wakes up to find that what he thought were gold coins are actually river stones. He awakes another morning to find that what he thought were river stones are actually gold coins. In both cases, he so quickly adapts, so quickly releases frustration at the uncontrollable changeableness of his world. He comes back to what is, and to its possibilities of delight. He notices his own reactivity, lets it go, and moves, as smoothly as the stones, into creative engagement. He becomes, thus, a teacher for the wily fox, who began the story as a representation of our inner controller – seeking stratagems to secure cherries for itself. In the course of the story, her cleverness is transformed into a force for assisting others rather than gaining for herself. As a final gift, the fox leaves a poem for Basho:
I’ve eaten cherries
Alone but they’re much sweeter
When shared with a friend.
Oh, my friends, the vodka is good – in moderation. The meat is disappointing only if we were expecting something else, and only if we are trying to avoid sharing it with others.

The meat, like Basho’s cherries, is sweetest when shared. Then we will have stopped trying to be good – and will have become...at ease with who we are...and changed, too, in some surprising ways we never saw coming.

* * *

An earlier version of this was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, 2011 Jun 12.

Suggested also read on self-acceptance/self-improvement:
What the World Needs
Gratitude and Faith
Then We Will Know How to Live

For all sermons posted, see Sermon Index.

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