Sunday, November 24, 2014
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
Barbara told me that story about the Titanic sinking because of a lack of paying attention to what is important last spring and I knew when I heard it that I wanted her to tell the story to you. I knew I wanted to preach about paying attention and the blessing and gift and struggle of paying attention, about the blessing and gift and struggle to bring attention to the present moment, to live our lives with more care, with more focus, with quieter minds and hearts, but I kept forgetting the topic. What is that story about the Titanic I asked her. I will send it to you again she said kindly. So she sent it and I got too busy to read it and got distracted again. What is that service about again?, I asked her last month. I think it is about paying attention, she said. Right, paying attention. And what do you think the point of the story is? I have been too busy to think about it. The point is sometimes saying “Shut up, shut up I’m busy!” leads to disaster or at least to lives that are less than we want then to be, lives which are less meaningful, less purposeful, less glad, less of a blessing to the world. For some reason I found this lesson difficult to remember.
I did a little research on the Titanic disaster this week. And while the story cannot be completely confirmed, it turns out it was probably the British Wireless Telegraph Officer Jack Phillips who said “Shut up, shut up I’m busy!” and who was at least partially responsible for the disaster. Apparently the second telegraph officer Charles Lightoller survived the wreck and he reported that the ship’s wireless had been down for a day and once it was working again the passengers were demanding that their messages to friends and family be sent immediately. So Phillips was madly telegraphing messages that had piled up. When the ice warning came in from a nearby ship, Phillips saw it and read it but stuck the message in a pile under his elbow and it never got delivered to the Captain. Poignantly, however, according to Lightoller’s recollections, Phillips stayed at his post frantically delivering distress calls to other ships once it was clear the Titanic was in trouble. He did not survive.
It is so hard to stop what we are doing and pay attention to what is. It is so hard to pay attention to what is happening in front of us, what is happening inside of us when there are so many other messages waiting to be sent. It is easy to miss the distress call, easy to miss what really matters. “Shut up, shut up, I’m busy” we say, but we say it to the very things that may matter the most.
There is a well-known Zen Buddhist story and one of my favorites because it is so simple and painfully funny about a learned European university professor of Oriental Studies who visited a Zen master at a temple in Japan. The master received the professor in his private room, and a young student brought in tea. As soon as the professor had seated himself, he began talking to the master without pause about his understanding of Zen philosophy. He was eager to say as much as he could in the short time he had with the Zen master.
After greeting the professor the master said absolutely nothing more. He silently began arranging the tea things and begin to pour tea for his guest. The professor had not noticed the master’s silence and had been talking this whole time- in fact, he felt, and believed he sounded pretty inspired. Suddenly though, the professor realized that the Zen master was still pouring tea, even though the small bowl he was pouring the tea into had long since overflowed and the tea was flowing out onto the table, the papers, the books, and then onto the floor in a steady stream.
“What are you doing?” cried the professor, “the bowl is overflowing!”
“Yes.” said the Master, looking up. “As are you. Just as the bowl cannot hold any more tea when it is overflowing, how can I teach you anything when you are already so full. To receive a bowl of tea, you must first hold out an empty bowl.”
The holiday season is upon us. It is a good time of year to think about distraction and busyness, to think about our full to overflowing tea bowls. Many of us have lives that feel much too full already. We are, so many of us, trying to juggle some combination of work, the care of children, grandchildren or parents, relationships with spouses, family, friends, community work, church work, not to mention things like cleaning the bathroom, paying bills and keeping ourselves fed and clothed on a daily basis. I recently had the dreaded little red wrench symbol come on in my car. “I don’t see you,” I told it for days, actually it was a couple of weeks. “Shut up,” I told the wrench light. “I am busy.” Then I remembered the Titanic and went to get it fixed.
Most of us yearn for a better balance in our lives. We long for simplicity, for less to do and less to take care of, less to want, less to buy and clean and accomplish. But it is difficult to know how to find that. How can we work less if the bills are barely getting paid? Or the emails and tasks and demands are already piling up as it is. How can we do less when there is always so much left undone already? How can we lower our expectations, when everything feels essential?
And even if our lives are not full to overflowing, our minds definitely are. We are full of opinions and thoughts about everything, we think we are supposed to be. We are full of regrets and grudges and hard feelings related to the past, full of desires and plans and hopes and imaginings about future.
Buddhist philosophy teaches that the root of all human suffering is our desire. Our pain is caused by our attachment to all of our things, both material and immaterial. We are attached to our houses and cars and washing machines. But we are also attached to our ideas and opinions, to our status and authority or lack of it, to our educational degrees and titles, We are attached to the way that others see us, to the positions we hold in the world, to our own ideas and thoughts. We are attached to our children being successful. We are attached to seeing our lives as impossible. We are attached to our assumptions, to the stories we tell ourselves about how things are and why they are that way and how they can’t be different. We are attached to being busy even to the point of overwhelmed because it keep us from paying attention to the present moment. All of these attachments keep us from being in the present moment, with what is, with how we feel, with the people around us. We are full to overflowing already so we cannot receive what is being offered to us the blessings, the riches, the pains and sorrows and beauty of this present moment because we are somewhere else. If we want to receive tea, we have to hold out an empty bowl. I believe this is the key to a quieter heart, if there is a key. Most of us most of the time cannot strip our lives down to the bare essentials. But we can pay attention to this moment.
Dr. Omid Safi is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is also the editor of the book Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. I know his work as a regular column writer for Krista Tippett’s website and radio show On Being. Safi recently wrote a column called The Disease of Being Busy which I thought was just so incredibly important - a little treasure of truth. Ironically I received it in my email inbox but almost missed it because I was too busy to read it. Buen then a friend reposted it on facebook saying, Read this! And another friend sent it to me in an email with the subject line saying, Elea, Look at this!
Dr. Safi writes:
I saw a dear friend a few days ago. I stopped by to ask her how she was doing, how her family was. She looked up, voice lowered, and just whimpered: “I’m so busy… I am so busy… have so much going on.”
Almost immediately after, I ran into another friend and asked him how he was. Again, same tone, same response: “I’m just so busy… got so much to do.”
The tone was exacerbated, tired, even overwhelmed.
And it’s not just adults. When we moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, we were thrilled to be moving to a city with a great school system. We found a diverse neighborhood, filled with families. Everything felt good, felt right.
After we settled in, we went to one of the friendly neighbors, asking if their daughter and our daughter could get together and play. The mother, a really lovely person, reached for her phone and pulled out the calendar function. She scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled. She finally said: “She has a 45-minute opening two and half weeks from now. The rest of the time it’s gymnastics, piano, and voice lessons. She’s just…. so busy.”….
How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?…
What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?
How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?…
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know. I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.
Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.
Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being…
We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human…
I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing. I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence….
How is the state of your heart today?
Let us insist on a type of human-to-human connection where when one of us responds by saying, “I am just so busy,” we can follow up by saying, “I know, love. We all are. But I want to know how your heart is doing.”
How is your heart doing today? Right now? Take a moment to pay attention. And to remember that you are a full human being, whole, just as you are, right now in this moment. Then listen to these words of blessing by Jan Richardson; they are for you today:
Blessing in the Chaos
To all that is chaotic
let there come silence.
Let there be
of the clamoring,
of the voices that
have laid their claim
that have made their
home in you,
that go with you
even to the
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
or feel the grace
that fashioned you.
Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.