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Icy Transcendence

A transcendentalist embraces the world differently than a materialist does.  We often are sillier, more engaged with nature, and find joy and equanimity where others might find misery.  I was walking around Walden Pond one cold day last month, where we had had several days of bitterly cold weather already, without any snow or other disturbance of the pond’s surface.  I discovered the ice was several feet thick and as clear as glass, walking on it I could look down six or eight feet through the ice to the clear pond bottom below me.   Further out onto the pond it was like looking down into the abyss of the deep.

This brought to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seasonal transcendence walking Walden Pond.  In many of his winter journal entries he wrote about embracing icy cold winter days.  In one he wrote, “Pleasant walk yesterday, the most pleasant of days.  At Walden pond, I found an instrument which I call the ice-harp.  A thin coat of ice covered a part of the pond but melted around the edge of the shore.  I threw a stone upon the ice which rebounded with a shrill sound, and falling again and again, repeated the note with pleasing modulation…  I was so taken with the sound that I threw down my stick and spent twenty minutes in throwing stones singly or in handfuls on this crystal drum.”  So, I decided to try it.

Skipping stones across the thick ice generated a very satisfying sound.   I began to play.  Generating music somewhat more resonant and deeper but akin to Henry David Thoreau’s summer wind harp.  This is seasonal transcendence.  Looking further across the pond I watched the ice fishermen adjusting their lines for their winter catch.  Then a couple of ice skaters came whizzing across the pond much as Henry David was wont to do.  I became enraptured.  Here was my transcendental paradise.  Concord’s form of transcendental meditation is deeply connected to the seasons of nature and discovering our wildness.

God’s Time

One of the Andover Newton at Yale Divinity School students in my Unitarian Universalist Ecclesiology, Ministry and Polity class last semester invited me to participate in her Mid-Degree Review along with other YDS professors and ordained clergy.  As this distinguished group talked among ourselves about the challenges of ministry today, a recurring theme centered around church time and expectations management, until it dawned on me, we were often seeking to follow our own sense of time and priorities, rather than God’s time.

To walk with God requires that we humbly adjust our expectations to God’s will, in God’s sweet time.  This felt like a humbling Lenten reflection, this time of the church year when we are annually stuck in this already/not yet pilgrimage of waiting for God’s time to finally arrive. For those of us who are over achievers, or simply seeking to exceed expectations, it can be difficult and frustrating when we are not able to set our own pace.  But discerning God’s call for us is best done in God’s time at God’s pace.

So, I took a breath, remembering we cannot walk with God, except we walk at God’s pace.  We cannot comprehend God’s purpose, yet we can trust and obey, and thereby go with God.  I need only to focus on my faithfulness, rather than my accomplishments or lack thereof.  This is the blessed assurance that carries us through the Lenten season all the way to Easter.  Thank God!

 

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom, YDS Lecturer

Author of Spiritual Audacity: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing

Kolkata New Year’s Day

I have always loved the Upanishads and was rereading them on my flight to India.  I arrived in Kolkata on New Year’s Eve 2015 to join our group of pilgrims.  That evening our Harvard professor briefed us on Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s great secular humanists, who led the Bengal Renaissance in Calcutta with the Upanishads at its center.

Rabindranath Tagore is someone many Unitarian Universalists know well.  In speaking of the importance of living life as a spiritual pilgrim, Tagore said: “The great morning which is for all appears in the East.  Let its light reveal us to each other who walk on the same path on pilgrimage.”  I had come to the East to more deeply discover my inner Light on pilgrimage.

There are seven selections from Tagore’s writings in our Unitarian Universalist hymnal, one more than even Ralph Waldo Emerson, and my favorite is called THE STREAM OF LIFE:

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day

runs through the world and dances rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless

blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death,

in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.

and my pride is from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

It’s the principle of the non-duality of life force which most draws me to the Upanishads.  Every living thing, including human beings, co-arises and is a manifestation or emergence of life itself.  As the wisdom teacher Yajnavalkya says in the Brihadaranyaka Upahishad:

 A wife loves her husband not for his own sake but because the Self lives in him.

A husband loves his wife not for her own sake but because the Self lives in her.

Children are not loved for their own sake but because the Self lives in them…

The universe is loved not for its own sake but because the Self lives in it…

Everything is loved not for its own sake but because the Self lives in it.

This Self has to be realized.  Hear about this Self and mediate upon Him.

I awoke early on New Year’s Day in Kolkata to find a large raven perched at my window.  It was sitting among the flowers on a large window box.  It was soon joined by two more.  I decided to take their squawking as a positive omen.  Looking further afield in the growing light I began to discern dozens of fruit bats hanging from distant trees.  Even as I watched a few late ones ended their nighttime feeding and came to hang upside down on tree branches joining their mates in sleeping the day away.

But it was a New Year, and I was anxious to travel up the Ganges River and walk in the footsteps of the Buddha.  So, we bid Kolkata farewell and boarded our Bengal Ganga riverboat headed upstream.

Cambodian Santa

Cambodia is an extraordinary place, especially at Christmas.  Despite the Kmer Rouge genocide of nearly a third of the Cambodian population in the late 1970’s, they are a gentle happy people.  Despite being a deeply religious Theravada Buddhist country, they welcome any reason to celebrate life.  Despite having no evergreen trees, snow, or Christian traditions, they celebrate Christmas in joyous fashion, so much so that many middle class Chinese tourists travel to Seam Reap, Cambodia to celebrate Christmas.  The big tourist hotels are decked out in Christmas lights, Santa and his reindeer, fake trees, and displays which makes it look like it is snowing in a country which never experiences snow.

My last night of spiritual pilgrimage I took my Cambodian guide Tek, and his nine and six-year-old daughters out to dinner at a restaurant of their choice.  The girls, Regina and Reginie, chose their favorite meal of French fries and pizza.  The girls attend Kmer public school from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm weekdays, and after going home for lunch, attend an English language class from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm.  As a result, Regina speaks remarkable English and was eager to practice her English on me.

We speak of many things, particularly similarities and differences in growing up in Cambodia versus America.  This being late December a big Christmas display is visible across the street.  The girls sang me Christmas songs they learned in school, none of which were religious, and talked about presents they hoped to receive.  For them Christmas is a joyous family centered international holiday, with lots of presents, which doesn’t conflict with their Theravada Buddhist family traditions.  Santa appears to them as a Laughing Buddha type figure, a jolly, fat and happy manifestation of divine mystery.

Regina finally asked me an important question: “If snow is made from frozen water, doesn’t it hurt you when it falls from the sky?”  So, I explained to her about ice crystal formation in the clouds, resulting in the airy fluffiness of snowflakes, and how children catch snowflakes on their tongues.  She pensively asked me: “So can you eat snow?”  And I explained about snow with syrup, and snow fights, and snow men.  The girls decided to throw snowballs at their father.  So, we ordered snow from the kitchen.   They will be expecting Santa in Seam Reap again this Christmas Eve.  Merry Christmas!  Jim

 

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice

This time last year I was on spiritual pilgrimage in the Seam Reap area of Cambodia walking among the ruins of extraordinary ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples.  One of the earliest surviving temple-mountains is Bakong at Rolous, built in the late 9th century as the state temple of Indravarman I and Indarvarman II.  This is a temple dedicated to Shiva consisting of a five-story step pyramid surrounded by three concentric enclosures and two moats presenting a stylized representation of Mount Meru.  It is oriented towards the cardinal directions so it is particularly appealing in the early morning and late afternoon light this time of year.  The four entrances to the central tower each has Nandi, Shiva’s bull, patiently awaiting his master, and the stairways are protected by Chinese style lion guardians.  Though the buildings are much eroded, and statuary broken or missing, it still is awe inspiring.

For our next temple-mountain we decided to rise early (4 am), to climb the Phnom Bakheng Mountain in the dark, in order to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat.  By the time we gathered, and drove to the base of the mountain, it is about an hour before sunrise.  The ascent in the dark was surprisingly steep.  We ascended a footpath path rather than the elephant path to save time.  We reached the ramparts of the temple just as the first cock crows.  The waning nearly full moon beamed down upon us.

Our local guide tells us this early 10th century temple-mountain was the state temple overlooking Yasovarnman I’s new capital city, a four-kilometer square palace surrounded by an earthen bank.  Bakheng looks much like Bakong, but is dedicated to Yasodharesvara, the one who brings glory.  Slowly the sky begins to lighten in the east.  The details of geography began to take form as the world emerged into the light of day.  The first birds began to sing in the predawn light.  My heart soared!

Like Bakong this temple-mountain is oriented to the cardinal directions.  To the northeast and southwest are holy mountains, to the west a great reservoir making this land fertile, to the north the dark forests, and to the southeast the massive structures of Angkor Wat.  Today it is nearly the winter solstice, so the rising sun lines up directly through the sacred portals.  The Buddha sitting in the central tower is bathed in morning light.  I sit in a sacred portal bathed in morning light, aligned with the universe, and all that is.  All is one and I am glad.

 

Marble Mogul

I preached at First Parish U U in Needham, MA last Sunday and the high point of the service was the TIME FOR ALL AGES where I told the story of how I became a marble moguil

If you haven’t read my book, please buy it; if you read it and like it, please review it on amazon,

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Ranger Elementary School was a small brick building that served kids from the poorer side of Tiverton, RI.  My family was among the poorest in town.   My father was the minister of a working-class Baptist church and I was the fifth of his ten children. Beginning in first grade, I discovered the boys played marbles at recess. I didn’t know how to play. Marbles cost money. No one was allowed to play unless you played for keepsies, where the loser must give his marbles to the winner. This felt like a form of gambling. And even if you won, you could still lose your marbles. If they spilled onto the floor, the teacher would confiscate them and give them to the janitor.

Many boys bought bags of fifty shiny marbles for one dollar per bag at the local variety store. For those who didn’t have that kind of money or couldn’t get it from their allowance or their parents, it was possible to buy three shiny new marbles for a dime. As a last resort, the janitor was willing to resell any used marbles gathered from the classroom floor for a penny apiece.  So everybody could play, except me. I had no money, not even a penny, and knew better than to ask my mom or dad for gambling money. I couldn’t afford to play marbles. Yet I had to play! I knew I could be good at it. If only I could find a way to escape being poor long enough to accumulate some marbles!

One day coming out to recess, I found a marble lying at the edge of the grass. Someone had forgotten it or dropped it running for the bell. Now I had my chance. I chose to play one of the smaller boys, Paul. Paul shot his marble and won.  I felt doomed to no money and no marbles. But Paul lent me a marble to keep playing. This time, I won. By the end of recess, I had played dozens of games and miraculously had won more than I lost. I went triumphantly back to class with two warm marbles nestled in my pocket.  Every recess thereafter, I played, and every recess, I got better. I brought an intensity and focus few could bring to marbles. By spring, I was the best marble player on the playground.

My marble collection grew to several hundred marbles. I began to sell them back to the other boys at two marbles for a penny, undercutting the janitor by half and virtually eliminating any competition from the variety store. Because my prices were the best in town, everybody bought marbles from me. Most days after school, my pockets bulged with marbles and increasingly with money. Now I had spending money. I no longer thought of myself as poor. I had financial resources.

By the end of third grade, it was no longer cool to play marbles at recess. But by then, I’d earned more than $18 from marble sales, plus gave over three thousand marbles to my younger brothers. My sense of the possible skyrocketed! I was an entrepreneur.  Much I would later accomplish in life took root in those playground victories. I would never underestimate the power of focused intent and awareness ever again.

In later years, when people would ask where and how I developed my unsinkable confidence, audacious resilience, and sense that anything was possible, and that many risks really are worth taking, I’d say I learned it all playing marbles.

 

Gurdjieff and Ouspensky

What does it mean to be a mystic, to live between two worlds, embrace all of life as a spiritual pilgrim, to treat every moment as if it matters, every step as if it is upon Holy Ground?  Perhaps I should begin by telling you some of what I know about mystics.  I have traveled to distant lands, over the course of decades, traversing diverse cultures and ways of being human, in answering this question of what it means to be living in divine mystery as a transient spiritual pilgrim.

There are so many spiritual pilgrims who have traveled this way before me.  I am not the first and shall not be the last.  You will meet many of my fellow mystics in the pages of this book.  As the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “You are going, not indeed in search of the new world, like Columbus and his adventurers, nor yet another world that now is, and ever has been, though undreamt of by many, and by the greater part even of the few.”

Perhaps the most famous, or perhaps notorious, such spiritual pilgrim in the beginning of the 20th century was the rascal sage George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.  Gurdjieff’s spiritual curiosity led him to travel over decades to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet, Russia, and Rome.  He taught his followers how to attain unity of body, mind and spirit such that they could awaken as if from a hypnotic sleep, to transcend to a higher state of consciousness.  He called this discipline “The Work” or “The Method” but most mystics simply call it the “Way.”

His most famous disciple, P. D. Ouspensky, described The Work as a journey seeking the miraculous.  In his book on the teachings of Gurdjieff, In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky writes: “When leaving Petersburg at the start of my journey I had said that I was going to seek the miraculous.  The miraculous is very difficult to define.  But for me this word has a quite definite meaning.  I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us.  But where this new or forgotten road began I was unable to say.  I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us.”

In his master work, Tertium Organum, Ouspensky explored the mystic teachings of Immanuel Kant’s critical idealism, emerging concepts of space and time, the mathematical basis of being, the eternal now, the core teachings of Indian philosophy, reality and illusion, dimensionality, the limits of our perception, and the possibility of psycho-transformation.  Three generations later I would embark on a very similar journey of becoming.   To find these truths I needed to begin by understanding the mystic roots of my own religion of birth, and then travel outside and beyond this foundation to explore the mystic teachings of the world’s major wisdom traditions, traveling as a spiritual pilgrim in order to do so.  I set out on the Way.