This past week, the results of the 2011 census have begun to emerge. As always, there are frantic efforts in the media to pull out enticing titbits of information. There has been a lot of talk about immigration and the changing demographics of this country. It is fuel for both sides of the immigration debate.
The other big topic has been the changing place of religion. The number of people who tick Christianity is declining. The number of people who tick "no religion" is soaring. This seems to come as a surprise to many, but those of us who live in London and interact with a wide range of people are not the least bit surprised. In fact, the high religion census numbers have always been misleading. Two thirds of people who tick "Christian" when they complete their census forms don't even consider themselves religious. Half have not been to a church in at least a year.
The reality is the practice of religion in this country has plummeted and is now at nearly negligible rates. And it's not because people practice religion on their own, either.
But you! You keep showing up here. You show up in growing numbers. Some kinds of religion may be vanishing, but it's not the importance of being in a spiritual community that is in doubt.
I want to share a quote from Buddhist teacher, author, and psychologist Tara Brach. This comes from her excellent book "Radical Acceptance", a book that I recommend very highly and that helped me a great deal in my own growth.
"The spiritual path is not a solo endeavo[u]r... We are in it together and the company of spiritual friends helps us realize our interconnectedness."
I think that we have a sense that this is true - that it takes the give and take of relationship with other beings for us to learn who we are and to identify the direction of growth and wholeness.
In our little story earlier, we met a character so intent on absorbing the richness of the world that he accomplished the opposite. He cut himself off from relationships with other beings. He left himself isolated and alone. He created barriers and obstacles that kept him from experiencing others and growing from those experiences.
What I understand to be spiritual growth is the process of becoming increasingly more whole, compassionate, justice-seeking, and loving beings. This growth is not something we can do on our own. It is easy to see that we cannot become more compassionate, justice-seeking and loving without others around us. These are relational ways of being.
Of course, human beings are not the easiest creatures to related to. We can be very challenging and can make it extremely hard to love and have compassion for us. But being compassionate and loving in the abstract means almost nothing. It is like imagining that your are strong without ever doing anything that actually requires strength. If I can imagine lifting 200 kilograms but cannot lift 10 when it comes down to it, I am not truly strong at all.
Just so, being compassionate, loving, and justice-seeking in the abstract is virtually meaningless.
Is there something more to spirituality - something that - for lack of a better word - I call wholeness? Wholeness, to me is that sense that we are very profoundly OK - that we are of value, that we are acceptable and loveable, that we are intact and unbroken despite everything that may have happened in our lives, and that the world is a place in which we can live with trust and with faith.
Can this kind of wholeness develop without deep interconnection? We human beings are deeply and intensely interconnected entities. It is not an overstatement to suggest that we do not truly exist in isolation. Without interconnection, we can retreat into ourselves, we wither, and we die. Beings who are so very interdependent cannot truly develop a real sense of
themselves without connection. Wholeness without community is not possible.
Let's look at this spiritual growth a bit more closely now. How is it that - in community and with connection - we grow? And when we don't grow as we hope, what is preventing it and what do we do about it?
You may remember the powerful words from Rumi that I have shared before: "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it."
We can equally well substitute the word compassion for love. We can substitute the word wholeness for love. Like the pictures of the world that kept the boy of our story from actually encountering the world, we are very good at creating obstacles that keep us from that which would help us to grow.
We can be so busy that we don't see what's in front of us. We can work so hard to see that we cannot see. We can work so hard to find love that we cannot love.
The paradox we face is that, so very often, our efforts are self-defeating.
Consider the horrible reality of the recent mass killing in the state of Connecticut in the United States. Americans have a lot of guns. They have those guns because they feel unsafe - they feel that they need to have the means to protect themselves. What they miss is that the very thing that they grasp to protect their safety is in fact making them unsafe. The very hard solution is to become more safe is to give up what they believe makes them safe. If we give up weapons, we become safer.
In our own lives, we do the same.
When we feel unloved, we may push so hard for love that we push away exactly what we are seeking. When we feel broken, we may keep people away so intently that we never have the opportunity to heal our brokenness. When we feel unimportant, our efforts to present ourselves differently come across as boastful and selfish. Such an impression drives away the people who would give us real opportunities to be important.
Our only hope to overcome these paradoxical effects - these ways in which we worsen exactly what we are trying to improve - is by walking into risk.
And that risk comes in deep connection. The opportunities for growth come when we strip away our defences and our masks and show up as we are inside - as who we really are without the pretence or artifice that we have come to believe to keep us safe.
This has been described in some religious and spiritual paths as moving ego out of the way or even as killing the ego. This is a different use of the word ego than Freud's. Ego is not who we really are, in this sense, but rather a layer of representation, labels, and construction that keeps our true nature hidden. And this protection keeps us from the interconnectedness that it our true nature and that is our path toward spirituality and wholeness.
What is our true nature? This is the topic we will explore in this evening's service. We will not have an answer.
I would, however, like to come back to Tara Brach and to a part of her words that I deliberately omitted earlier. She writes: "The spiritual path is not a solo endeavo[u]r." and she adds "In fact, the very notion of a self who is trying to free her/himself is a delusion."
Do we have a self? Beneath the constructed and protective layer we show to the world, is there a true essential self? Brach hints at the eastern religious teachings that there is indeed nothing of the sort. In Buddhism, the doctrine annatta means "no self" or "not self." The whole notion of self is a false construct. The great living Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh takes this doctrine toward a principle he refers to as interbeing. In his words as we heard read this morning, we are not separate, but in fact beings deeply interwoven in our existence with everyone and everything. "I know I am here for you to be."