Find a Stillness in the Wholeness and Holiness of the Season
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
December 13, 2020
Video of Full Service
A story I read about ten years ago has stayed with me.
Shortly after her father dies, a woman’s 8-year-old son begins having severe health issues, which are eventually diagnosed as a form of lupus. For a few years the boy is in an out of the hospital with many, shifting, severe and painful symptoms, and dangerous reactions to the medications that treat the lupus, including heart attacks. He is close to death numerous times, especially while he is in a comma for three months, and not expected to live. Yet, when he is once again awake and alert he is, as much as he can be, his usual, funny, clown of a self.
In the midst of trying to hold herself together and make sense of holding both the joy and the terror of having a beautiful and funny son who is often in pain and not likely to live too much longer, Evelyn, who described herself as a secular nothingist, bumps into a rabbi who had offered a reading at her father’s memorial service. When the rabbi asks her how it’s going, she tells the story, the real story, including of the many well-meaning people she encounters in the hospital who offer religious platitudes and explanations for her son’s illness that are no help and that make no sense to her.
After a meaningful conversation about what religion is and is not, and what causes illness and what does not, the rabbi says, “I have an idea. Why don’t you try celebrating Shabbat on Friday. I’m not trying to convert you. Just clear your table, put on a white tablecloth, get out your nice dishes, the ones you save for company or special occasions. Serve something special or order out, light a couple candles, pour some wine and toast each other.”
So, that Friday evening she makes taco delight, even though it’s messy to make and to eat, knowing that her family likes it. For the first time in a long while they roll their son up to the table. He is being fed through a tube at that point and can’t eat. But when it comes to toasts each other, he toasts, and toasts, and toasts, and they laugh and keep toasting and Evelyn said it was like celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas and their birthdays all at once, all the holidays they had missed while he had been ill, and they so enjoy these moments with each other that they don’t even watch TV that night and instead the kids play goofy made-up games with each other into the evening.
So, they do it again the next Friday. And the next.
Evelyn said that in the middle of all the tremendous pain, and worry, and messiness, every Friday they celebrated beauty and joy and each other. It transformed them and their experience of what was happening.
Her son dies about 6 weeks after that first special meal. He dies on a Friday. Friends bring them dinner and they once again hold their family Shabbat as only they know it. At the gentle invitation of the rabbi, who had been with them in the hospital earlier that day when her son was dying, she attends the Shabbat service at the synagogue for the first of many future times.
(Kathryn Armstrong’s story in Berman, Phillip L.. The Search for Meaning: Americans Talk about What They Believe and Why. United States, Ballantine Books, 1993.)
I have long valued rituals in my life, and when I read this woman’s story years ago, I was taken by the power of such a simple ritual act – a weekly meal set aside to be different from all other meals, an act invited and undertaken without any overtly religious meanings or words attached to it at the time. I was taken with the value of time set aside, repeatedly, regularly, physically, sensually dedicated to simple intention and attention and connection.
Just… just that.
Usually at this time of year, the holidays come barreling down upon us with all their frantic expectations, and in some ways they are coming up mighty quickly and with pressure, but there is also new space around them this year, opened up by stay-at-home orders that give us a chance to look anew at what we’ve always done and that invite us to consider what we really want to happen this year and in the future. They can invite a special kind of internal stillness and integrity this time, amidst the losses we are grieving. A stillness from within which we can see and sense what’s around us more clearly and openly.
It’s been an anxious year, for many of us, and it’s likely to be angsty for a while yet. If we want to find stillness in this season, we probably can’t simply will ourselves there, though a few among us do have tried-and-true spiritual practices to draw upon for centering. The rest of us may be able to draw on the familiar rituals of the season to help, the physical rituals themselves, freed from outside expectations and anyone else’s meaning that might interfere – candlelight, fire, singing, food, a nice table and meal, Christmas tree lights and decorations, conversation, even over Zoom or the phone, breathing more slowly. All of these have value, even outside of any explicit meanings we give to them.
THE EYES HAVE IT
A set of detours. And then I’ll swing back ’round.
First, I learned recently that the retinas in our eyes are a piece of our brain. Not merely attached to our brain, but a piece of the brain itself. These windows to our souls, found a way to get outside of our thick skulls so they could take in light, not first in order to see objects, but first to register the rhythm of daylight and darkness, the rhythm of the sun, which then sets all of our internal clocks to match the season and synchronizes our internal organs’ processes, our circadian rhythms. Birds’ skulls are thin. Light can shine right through them and they, like reptiles even have a hole in their skulls that allows even more light to shine through to reach the pineal gland that registers it. Our human skulls are thick, which protects our brains, but does not let the light pass through.
(from interviews on YouTube with Dr. Andrew Huberman, including this interview with Lex Fridman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ktj050DxG7Q&pbjreload=101)
Through our eyes, we are tuned not only to each other, but first to the light of the season and its rhythms. It is no accident that candles and fire and light figure so prominently in the holidays and holy days of December in the north. They are not merely symbolic representations of something we miss. Human beings figured out long ago, by experiment and experience, which activities help surface feelings of hope and connection and joy and possibility when the nights are longest and food production has dwindled for the year. I think it’s in the gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, where they address seasonal affective disorder. Or maybe it’s the Tao Te Ching.
MOUTHING THE WORDS
A second detour. I’ve come to realize that I self-soothe sometimes by eating, I’ll eat handfuls of something before I realize how much I’ve eaten and without taking time to enjoy the taste after the first bite or two. I’ve learned to try to eat one small piece at a time so I can keep the eating going for longer. I’ve learned that an important part of what soothes us, in the act of eating, isn’t the content of the food itself, as much as the use of our mouths. The movement of our mouths and facial muscles is associated, neurologically, with connecting to other people, particularly in determining whether another person is safe to be with and communicating whether we are safe to be with. Chewing, talking, singing, reading aloud, using our mouths and facial muscles has a calming effect all its own that communicates to our body and therefore our entire being that we are safe, that all is well.
Singing, humming, eating, talking, speaking words out loud have value even outside of the meaning we give them.
One more detour. There is a practice in some Buddhist meditation traditions of holding a soft gaze while meditating.
The idea is to look at something without really focusing on it – to hold a soft gaze, kind of like those mystic eye photos that require you to look without focusing in order for the three-dimensional object hidden within them to lift off the page and become visible to you. When we are anxious past a helpful, motivating level of stress, and we start to feel in danger, our vision narrows – our physical vision and our spiritual, emotional, intellectual vision narrow, to zero in on the threats we perceive, closing down our ability to see the rest, our ability to see possibility. It’s a survival move. But it works in the other direction as well.
When we soften our physical gaze, when we look at something gently without zeroing in and focusing on it, our eyes start to take in more of our surroundings, and beyond that, by taking in more of what’s around us, gently, calmly, we start to gain a sense of ourselves within that larger picture – not separate from it looking at it, but part of it. All of which helps us feel more calm, and therefore more open, and able to see dimensions we couldn’t perceive earlier. Our smart phones and zoom screens, in contrast, keep our eyes zeroed in at specific distances, and so, keep us on alert.
I realized what when I look at my lit Christmas tree in the evening, I use a particularly soft gaze. Occasionally I zero in on an ornament to remember its story, a person, and a part of my life, but most of the time I look at that lit tree for long stretches with a soft, calming gaze.
And I’ve already mentioned that breathing slowly, and extending our outward breaths has a profound calming effect for most of us.
So, to come back ‘round…
The intellectual, rational side of our tradition, particularly the Unitarian side, comes at things through our heads, analysis, information and our conscious thoughts.
The emotional, compassionate side of our tradition, particularly the Universalist side, comes at things through our hearts and empathy and the powerful engagement of our feelings.
What is so often missed, are the ways that the activity and engagement of our bodies, influence our thoughts and perceptions and our ability to analyze, and influence our feelings and emotions. We are embodied creatures, and though we think we are in conscious control, so much of the time in truth the tail is wagging the dog rather than the other way around. Recent neuroscience simply confirms what human beings have figured out over the centuries, and built into religious traditions, spiritual practices, and our holidays and holy days.
In this week’s wonderful conversations about being a community in these times we asked people to name what we’ve lost this year. So many people named the importance of the physical connections and interactions, the importance of the physical rituals we were used to sharing. We are being given the gift of understanding those needs and benefits more deeply.
The richness of the holiday rituals offers a feast of possibilities for soothing ourselves so that we might find the stillness in the season, and so see more openly and clearly, even and especially while we are sequestered in our separate homes.
Some of us will be held by the miracles in our lives, the oils that we thought could not last, that somehow sustain us and light our way still. Some of us will find joy and guidance toward lives of goodness, truth, love and justice modeled by a courageous and charismatic leader born into poverty in the most humble of places. Some of us will gather and sing and maybe even dance around fires to link ourselves directly to the rhythms of earth and sun and so know ourselves intimately part a turning world that stretches into time long before and after us. Some of us will follow our breath, again and again returning to the moment, that we might awaken more fully to what is, including ourselves. Those of us who already find meaning in the holy days and rituals of the season have doorways to the available stillness.
I invite us all to enter the wholeness and the holiness of these days with a soft gaze. Let your menorah, or kinara, your solstice bonfire, your Christmas tree or your neighbor’s yard display become the gentle object of your visual meditation. Let special light enter your eyes to feed your spirit. Bring in only the meanings that serve, that center.
Sing carols or chants or nursery rhymes, hum, speak, read stories aloud, call somebody, get on Zoom, let the movement of your face and your lips remind you that all is well. Just remember to lift your eyes and look away from the screen every few minutes.
Dance, move, stretch, reach like nobody’s watching,
And even if it’s only you, consider getting out a nice tablecloth, your good dishes, a candle or two, a glass of a special beverage, and toast a gratitude. Maybe every week.
And to connect yourself explicitly to this community of fellow travelers and its shared hopes, I invite you to light your chalice as a source of light and an object for your soft gaze. If you don’t have a chalice, I encourage you find a special candle holder, or a treasured bowl or cup. Know that it represents, a community that holds you, or that could hold you. Light a candle or an oil lamp within it. Let your gaze upon it be soft, take in your wider surroundings too, see yourself part of the larger picture, part of the scene that will, in time, lift off the page into whole new dimensions we have yet to see.
I invite you to use what is already in front of you, to find a stillness in this season, in yourself, and in the seasons to come.
So may we be.
Berman, Phillip L.. The Search for Meaning: Americans Talk about What They Believe and Why. United States, Ballantine Books, 1993.
Dana, Deb A.. Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). United States, W. W. Norton, 2020.
Huberman, Andrew: Neuroscience of Optimal Performance | Lex Fridman Podcast #139