Mirror Image

Reading 1:

Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower, but is already present, in open relaxation and letting go. Don’t strain yourself, there is nothing to do or undo…

Only our searching for happiness prevents us from seeing it…

Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences; they are like today’s ephemeral weather, like rainbows in the sky. 

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable, you exhaust yourself in vain.  as soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping, infinite space is there open, inviting and comfortable. 
Make use of this spaciousness, this freedom and natural ease. Don’t search any further …

Nothing to do or undo, nothing to force, nothing to want, and nothing missing. Everything happens by itself. 

~Lama Gendun Rinpoche~
 
 

Reading 2:


The Guest House
Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

Sermon

Mirror, mirror, on the wall.  Who’s the fairest one of all?
Each day, Snow White’s “evil stepmother” would gaze into her magic mirror and asked that question. The answer she sought – "You are the fairest, lady Queen" – would reassure her that she remained the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.  In the story, we were to understand that this sort of extreme vanity could only be a sign of evil.   

As a child, I thought the whole mirror thing was just absurd.  Who has to be the best?  Who needs to be perfect?  Why was she so insistent on being number one?

I wish that I still retained that innocence about perfectionism. Unfortunately, I have come to know this impulse well.  So many people, when they finally let down their flawless façade, tell me how inadequate they feel and how even small things – like not being the best – can quickly deflate their fragile confidence. I hear this often, but I know it best because it is something that I too live and struggle with.

Snow White’s stepmother now appears very different to me. Every day, the stepmother queen turned to her mirror desperate for reassurance. To compensate for painful feelings of being not quite good enough – she focused on her appearance.  If she was not the best, then she felt she was nothing. Today, we might well recognize the stepmother – not as evil – but as a victim of an all too prevalent modern-day malady.  We live amid an epidemic of feelings of inadequacy.  Today, we might expect to see the queen rushing off to her plastic surgeon for a face lift, liposuction, dermabrasion, or to have her lips plumped up with an injection of silicone.  Or perhaps worse, she might seek to numb her pain with alcohol or drugs as many do in trying to deal with their sense of worthlessness.

Feeling inadequate can be a very lonely thing.  When we feel this way, the last thing we want to do is tell everyone.  Instead, we may put on our cheerful confident masks and go out into the world trying to look as though we haven’t a doubt or a fear.  The façade feels safer than risking exposure but it has a steep cost.  We become afraid of being close to anyone for fear that they will discover our carefully hidden imperfection.

One day I picked up a book by Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach. The book is called “Radical Acceptance,” which is probably what attracted me.  I’m a sucker for anything with the word “radical in it.”  I began reading, not sure of what I would find.  I didn’t have to read far.  On the very first page of the prologue, I found these words, which, I felt, spoke directly to me:

“My guiding assumption was ‘something is fundamentally wrong with me’ and I struggled to control and fix what felt like a basically flawed self.

At the time, these words struck me like a revelation.  These were the words that I was afraid to say myself, and here – someone else felt this way too.  I was not alone.  Not only that, but if other people felt flawed too, and there must be many because the book was selling well – then maybe none of us were really in terrible need of fixing. Just maybe I was OK.

Where does this sense of inadequacy come from?  Why are so many of us walking around afraid that someone will find us out – realize that we are really not interesting, smart, or compassionate.

For some of us, these feelings began in childhood. Very few of us had perfect childhoods, and even in the best circumstances, there can be events that scar us.  Childhood, for some, involved a constant message that we were not good enough – that nothing we did would ever be good enough.  

Tara Brach recounts a story from the childhood of one of her patients.  This man was very talented musically – for all his life he had been able to play just about any instrument he picked up.  He recalled his parents talking with each other for what seemed to him to be a very long time.  To get his parents’ attention, he took an accordion out of his toy box and began to perform for them. Instead of the delighted attention he hoped for, his parents turned, went into their room and closed the door behind them.  He did not remember how long the boy he was stood outside of that closed door playing the accordion.  Eventually, he lay down there, exhausted and ignored, and went to sleep.

Several years ago, the Dalai Lama met with a group of Buddhist teachers and psychologists from the United States.  The topic was the relationship between emotions and health. During their discussion, an American teacher asked the Dalai Lama to talk about the suffering that is brought about by self-hatred.  I can imagine all the Americans nodding, but the Dalai Lama just looked puzzled.  He asked them if self-hatred were some type of psychiatric disorder. No – they assured him, this was a common problem among their American students. The Dalai Lama was taken aback – he had never come across such a thing, even in his community in exile. How – he asked – can they feel this way when, as he said, “everyone has Buddha nature.”

In our society, many of us grow up not with a message of unconditional acceptance, but rather with a very conditional one.  We will be proud of you if you get good grades.  We will love you if you do well in sports.  We will accept you if you are handsome or beautiful.  We will be your friends if you are funny and make us laugh.

On top of that, we have the insistent and insidious presence of advertising to contend with.  Every day – hundreds of times a day or more – we are exposed to messages designed to make us want to buy this or that product.  Today’s advertisers are very sophisticated and have a very profound understanding of human psychology.  To get us to buy, they take aim at what is most important and most tender in us.  They do their very best to convince us that we are incomplete unless we buy their product.  No matter how sophisticated or cynical we may be, these ubiquitous messages seep into us like the sea into driftwood.

We are bombarded with messages telling us just how we are not measuring up.  We are not rich enough.  We are not beautiful enough.  We are not smart enough.  We are not witty enough. We are not successful enough. Enough for what, we might ask.  What is it that these clever marketers have homed in on?  What is it that drives so many of us to try harder and harder to change ourselves?  To do more and more and to strive for some unattainable perfection?

Mother Teresa said this: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.”  Despite the crushing, desperate hunger and deprivation that afflict those she ministered to – the poorest of the poor – she insisted “The most terrible poverty is … the feeling of being unloved.”

What does your heart truly long for?  If you were to answer this question, you might begin by saying you long to be more intelligent or funnier – more handsome or beautiful. It could be that you want to be more kind, or unselfish, or compassionate.  If you seek beneath these answers – if you look for something deeper – what do you find?  I suggest that what we are all longing for in some way is to be loved and valued.  This is a basic human need and – once we have shelter and food – it is the thing we crave the most.
Given how important is our need for love, it is not surprising that religions have, throughout their history, developed a variety of ways to try to meet this need.  

The Judeo-Christian tradition seems to veer between two very different approaches.  At one extreme, we are offered unconditional divine love. We are told that each one of us is worthy of God’s love just as we are. We simply need to accept this reality to find happiness. At the opposite pole, religion teaches that humans are flawed or even sinful creatures who must be reformed and changed to become loveable. Divine love is conditional like that of a judgmental parent – we are loved if!

For myself personally, Buddhism’s answer to this question has proven to be the most helpful.  After living a life of luxury and then years of strenuous ascetic practice, the Buddha finally became spiritually awakened when he found what has been called “the middle way.” He would not push away his experiences through asceticism or strenuous effort.  Neither would he grasp onto pleasure and sensation.  The middle way involves accepting and being present to all of our experiences – they can be a source of wisdom.  As Rumi tells us:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Seeking a middle way means avoiding the extremes of self-indulgence and self-negation. Acceptance and change are not incompatible – quite the contrary.  Carl Rogers, the pioneering psychologist puts it this way: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”  Tara Brach teaches exactly this as “Radical Acceptance.”  She explains that it is not acceptance that prevents us from changing but its opposite – avoidance.  

The more strongly we feel that we are flawed and unlovable, the more desperately we try to push away those parts of us that we find unacceptable.  Pushing them away, as Brach puts it, only “deepens the inner darkness.” Aptly, she compares our frantic efforts to escape our own flaws to being stuck in quicksand.  The more we struggle, the deeper we sink.  Our efforts to push away a part of ourselves only further convince us of just how defective we are.

I am reminded of many experiences I have had behind the wheel of a car. Some of you know that I have a terrible sense of direction.  If Miriam is not with me in the car navigating, I will get lost – it’s as simple as that. What do I do then? If you’re a man or have driven with one, you probably know what I do not do:  I do not ask for directions.  And so I keep driving – trying to convince myself that I am not really lost or that I will find my way eventually.  The truth is that, by not accepting that I am lost, I get further and further from the right route [root].  And as I get further and further off course, it gets ever harder to ask for directions without seeming obviously lost – which, of course, I am!  

What Tara Brach calls Radical acceptance is a very basic and very powerful way of seeing ourselves clearly but also gently and kindly.  It combines two important Buddhist precepts: mindfulness and compassion.  We practice mindfulness to learn to see and understand ourselves clearly.  We practice compassion to be gentle to ourselves in whatever we observe there.  She describes mindful self-observance and compassion as two wings of a great bird.  Neither can stand on its own.

Brach offers this advice: “Without judging yourself, simply become aware of how you are relating to your body, emotions, thoughts and behaviours. As the trance of unworthiness becomes conscious, it begins to lose its power over our lives.”

This is a powerful insight, but it is also true that becoming aware is no simple thing.  It is certainly not something that comes of hearing a sermon. Like so much that is truly worthwhile, it takes diligent effort and practice.  There are very few easy answers in this life, despite the messages to the contrary from those who would have us buy their products.

Growth toward wholeness takes work, but that is an essential part of why we’re here together, isn’t it.  We come together because we understand that the most important things in life are often difficult. They sometimes call upon us to face difficult challenges and to enter into uncomfortable situation.  They require commitment and support.  

We also recognize that part of our purpose here on this earth is to help one another to take these difficult steps.  Rachel Naomi Remen tells us this: "One moment of unconditional love may call into question a lifetime of feeling unworthy and invalidate it."  This may be the only true quick fix, but it something that we can not buy – only something that we can give to others. 

By offering love and acceptance in communities like this one, we may help others more than we can know. Caught in our own trances of unworthiness, we tend to doubt that we can have such a profound effect on others.  I am not one to speak casually of miracles, but – to my mind – the power of unconditional love and acceptance qualifies.  I have seen the miraculous changes they produce over and over again.

It is not always easy to look in the mirror when what we see looking back at us is not the fairest or the smartest or the funniest or the richest or the most successful in the land.  But if we can begin to wipe away the fog and see ourselves clearly, and treat with compassion and kindness what we see there, we will be on the path to greater joy and wholeness.

So may it be with you.