Healthy Relationships: A Spiritual Practice for Life


The Reading

Today's reading is a story from ancient India, attributed to
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. It's called, "A Flock of
Birds."

A great flock of quail lived together in the forest. Food was
plentiful and life was peaceful. One day a crafty hunter, who could
imitate their song perfectly, came to the forest. When he whistled, a
great group of quail gathered in response. When the flock landed on
the ground, the hunter approached silently and threw a huge net over
them. With a hearty laugh, he slung his net over his shoulder and took
the quail to market. Each day he played his trick, and the flock grew
smaller and smaller.

After some time, the wisest old quail assembled what was left of the
flock and said, "The hunter is skilled and can easily trick you
into his net. If you work together, he cannot defeat you. Beat your
wings as one, and you will lift the net that binds you."

The flock listened carefully to the old quail's words. The next
time the hunter came and threw his net over the group of quail, they
were not dismayed. As one, they beat their wings. They rose, taking
the net with them. They swooped down onto a tree. As the net caught
and snagged in the tree's branches, the birds flew out from under
it to freedom.

The hunter looked up in amazement and thought, "When the birds
cooperate, I cannot capture them. Each bird is small and yet together
they can lift the net!"

The next day, the hunter again flung his net over a large group of
quail as they pecked seeds on the ground. Pleased with their mighty
accomplishment of the day before, the quail began to beat their wings
together. Accidentally, one quail bumped into another and started a
ruckus. "Watch out!" squawked the bird. "You are
stepping on my tail fathers."

"Someone pushed me!" retorted the other with a hard peck.

"This is no time to fight, "scolded another still. "The
hunter is almost here. We must all work together and peacefully fly as
one."

"You are not the mighty ruler!" sniped the first. "Stop
telling us what to do!"

And while they squabbled and scolded, postured and fought, the hunter
arrived, and the birds were caught. He scooped up his net and
proclaimed, "I'm the winner! Together they were strong, but
divided, they're dinner."

Here ends our reading for today.

The Sermon

Think back to the Buddha's story I read a moment ago and, in
particular, to the flock of quail. For me, the flock represents the
relationships in our lives. Friendships. Partnerships and marriages.
Families. Work relationships. Our relationship together as a
congregation, which this circular sanctuary so clearly emphasizes. The
flock of quail in the Buddha's story is us. We are that flock. We
feed together and we fly together; and either we pull together when
adversity strikes, or we pull apart and give the hunter with his net
reason to cry out, "I'm the winner! Together they were
strong, but divided, they're dinner."

Let's not be dinner. Let's spend some time today with the
Buddha's story and explore its wisdom on the issue of healthy
relationships as spiritual practice. Next week, we'll focus on the
difficult conversations in our lives and how to have them with less
stress and more success. And then, in two weeks, we'll be hosting
a workshop by Helen Bishop, focusing on all these themes and more. The
workshop will take place on Saturday the 29th; and then, the following
day, Helen will be preaching from this pulpit. Something to really
look forward to.

But back to today: healthy relationships as spiritual practice.
Let's begin with the figure of the hunter. The Buddha describes
him as being able to imitate quail song perfectly, so he has no
problem infiltrating the flock. He gathers them with his whistle,
sneaks up and throws his net over them, laughs a hearty laugh, and
takes his catch to market. All of this description is interesting
enough, but what strikes me as even more interesting is what's not
there, what the Buddha doesn't say: that the Hunter is
reprehensible and ought to be resented. The Buddha never even suggests
that. It's as if the he sees the hunter as a simple fact of life,
neither bad nor good, not worthy of even a millisecond of
condemnation. And in this, I see him affirming the first of his Four
Noble Truths, that life is difficult, life is suffering. The only real
question becomes, very simply, How do we respond?

The hunter is an inescapable fact of life. For every relationship in
its honeymoon phase, there's a hunter out there who knows how to
infiltrate it. The hunter could be things growing settled and stale.
The hunter could be an illness. The hunter could be money anxieties.
The hunter could be a bad turn of fortune. Sometimes, the joy of
having a baby can turn into confusion and frustration, for the new
baby has changed everything. Sometimes, people who have lived with
each other for years stop and look at each other, and they hardly know
who that other person is anymore, or who they are themselves. All this
and more represents the hunter, infiltrating the flock, casting his
net upon them. The net coming down. And it's just the way of the
world. It's the way life is.

Yet we may nevertheless resist accepting this. Our resistance and
resentment can persist for years, energized by unrealistic
expectations and illusions that seem bulletproof to all reason and all
experience. We have them about our personal lives, and you better
believe it, we have them about congregational life as well.

Let me ask you this. Has a hunter of one sort or another ever
infiltrated the life here at UUCA, and you found yourself saying
something like, "I can't believe this is happening!
Shouldn't church be the one place in all the world where love just
effortlessly flows? The one place in all the world where other people
should be able to see my hurts and be sensitive to my needs (even if
they have to read my mind to do so)-and no one's frustrated or
angry with each other, no one needs an explicit covenant to tell them
how to be, everyone's just an angel to everyone else…."
Does this ring any bells?

Or perhaps you've been around long enough to know that you
can't expect any congregation, including UUCA, to be a constant
source of peace and stability. You've been around the block a few
times; over the years you've witnessed any number of hunters
infiltrating congregational life. When it happens, you can't
really say that you feel shock. But what I want to know is this: do
you feel cynical instead? Do you say to yourself, "Here we go
again, what a waste of time, this is just so stupid"?

But if hunters are an inescapable part of life, as the Buddha's
story seems to be saying, then our best response everytime and anytime
conflict happens is to face it. Learn to see it with a mind that is
unclouded by resentment. See it, in fact, as a teacher. Look for the
lesson. You want to know what life is calling you to do? You want to
know where your destiny lies? The answer is right here and right now.
Dealing with the hunter who has just thrown his net. That's the
golden thread that's going to take you to the next stage of the
journey. That's the golden thread. Not anything else. Don't
wait for anything else. Be here now.

And that's the first thing I want to say about healthy
relationships as spiritual practice. The health isn't going to
happen unless we forgive the fact that our personal lives and our
collective life as a congregation are always going to experience their
share of hunters. Forgiving this so that energy and focus can be
released into the process of healthy response and healthy action. Not
reactivity. Not the ostrich method. But health.

Which takes us to my second point. Besides a forgiving and accepting
heart, the spiritual practice of healthy relationships emphasizes
choice. What matters is not so much that some hunter is going to
infiltrate the flock, but how we respond as a group when it happens.
Do we pull together, or do we pull apart? It's just as the wise
old quail in the story says: "The hunter is skilled and can
easily trick you into his net. If you work together, he cannot defeat
you. Beat your wings as one, and you will lift the net that binds
you."

But so often, this is the choice we do NOT make. We do not beat our
wings together as one. Something happens that we don't understand
or like, or something is not happening fast enough, and our reaction
can be to blame or to find fault. "Watch out!" squawks the
bird. "You are stepping on my tail fathers." To which the
other bird retorts, "Someone pushed me!" and then gives the
first bird a hard peck. How many of you have ever been a part of
something like that? I know I have….

Our tail feathers get stepped on, and instantly we imagine something
negative about the other person. They did it on purpose. They are not
working hard enough. They should have known better. Somehow we know
everything about that person's situation and what their intentions
were, and we react out of this so-called knowledge of ours; and while
we may fully reject the possibility of a supernatural dimension to
life and a supernatural deity, we feel unquestioning confidence in our
supernatural capacity to plumb the depths of another person's
motivations through ESP. And so a fight begins. We snap at them. They
peck us back hard. And away we go.

This is not a choice that frees us to beat our wings together as one.
Neither is this: reacting to trouble with a sense of personal
entitlement. In part, it means feeling like another person's
trouble is not my problem. The only person who matters is me. And so,
when another person steps on our tail feathers, we choose to respond
not by asking, Hey are you OK? I noticed you lost your footing …
how can I help?
Nooooo….. We react instead by saying, Hey
bud, back off. Whatever it is, it's your problem. Just keep it
away from me.

This is what personal entitlement looks like when it infects our
relationships. It also looks like this: we start thinking that our
common rules apply to everyone else but not to me. Go back to the part
in the story when the birds are squabbling and one of them says,
"This is no time to fight. The hunter is almost here. We must all
work together and peacefully fly as one." To this, a bird snipes,
"You are not the mighty ruler! Stop telling us what to do!"
I mean, talk about how incredible the sense of personal entitlement
here is, when the demand to be exempt from a rule so clearly threatens
the safety of everyone else. The rule is there to save lives. No one
is trying to be a mighty ruler! But the personally entitled one
invents that intention so as to rationalize away his or her need take
responsibility for the good of the whole.

This is just not a choice that frees us to beat our wings together as
one. And consider one more obstacle to unity: witnessing the
quarreling around us and doing nothing. Hoping it dies down and goes
away of its own accord. Or, trying to manage anxious people or angry
people with niceness, and so, the more anxious and angry and
destructive they get, the nicer we get, until it's the most
unhealthy people in the system calling the shots. As for the healthy
people: they're done. They're gone. They're not going to
stick around for that. They want nothing to do with a group or a
community that's walking on eggshells, frozen in place, in which
the mission to change lives has been hijacked by a desire to keep the
peace at all costs. The problem with the flock of quail in the
Buddha's story is that not enough of them took personal
responsibility to say NO to the bad behavior. Not enough of them drew
the line. Not enough of them spoke out and said, This is wrong; we
are not living up to our mission in the world and to our highest
values.
Not enough of them said that. And so: the birds were
caught. The birds became dinner, to the hunter's great enjoyment.

Ultimately, what I'm talking about is choices. The spiritual
practice of healthy relationships is about making good choices as we
respond to conflict and crisis. Not blaming and faultfinding. Not
allowing ourselves to believe the inventions of our own imaginations
about other people's intentions and other people's
motivations. Not indulging in a sense of personal entitlement and a
demand that it's my way or the highway. Not the ostrich method,
not peace at all costs, not the most unhealthy people calling the
shots.

Not that, but this instead: choosing to presume innocence or even
goodwill in another person, until learning of evidence that suggests
otherwise. Choosing to take a curiosity approach to people when they
step on our toes, pressing pause on our tendency to invent intentions
and going to the person directly, asking them if they could say a
little about why they did this or that. Choosing to allow the insight
to really sink in that we are in this thing together, we are bound
together in an interdependent web of relationship-the soul, the
person, the house, the nation, the world. Choosing to affirm that
healing in any and all of these dimensions comes through compassion
and generosity-in giving we receive. And then this: choosing to face
the anxieties and angers and conflicts with a sheer resolve to live
out our highest values and highest purpose in this world. Choosing
actions and initiatives that serve this, even if it means we have to
draw a line and we have to say NO. For even if that makes some people
unhappy, it saves the flock. The flock beats its wings together, and
it rises up; and the end of the story is not the hunter laughing his
big laugh, it's the flock laughing, amazed at its own power.
It's us laughing, it's us being free.

It's also us creating a legacy that we can be proud of. This is my
last point. Besides bringing to the reality of our days a forgiving
and accepting heart; besides making the kind of choices that help us
pull together and not apart; there is a third thing to keep in mind
when talking about healthy relationships as spiritual practice.
Building a legacy.

Part of this has to do with world peace. You know, everyday we read
another headline about deaths in Iraq. Everyday we read another
headline about something happening in America, something happening
closer to home. Everyday. And absolutely, conflict is a given in this
world. I know that. The hunter is a part of life. But what I want to
know is this: must conflict always become combat? Must disagreement
always lead to emotional and physical violence? Must it? Is that the
inevitable, inexorable vector of the human condition?

But every time we choose health in our relationships-every time we
beat our wings together and fly up as one-we have our answer. The
answer is no. Conflict need not become combat. Peace is possible.
It's proven, every time we choose it. Not the fake peace which is
merely an absence of tension, but the strong peace which is robust
enough to contain conflict and disagreement, patient enough to help
people get beyond their defenses and hear each other. Strong enough,
patient enough, and pervaded with enough of a sense of humor that
pride is punctured and we can finally be human with and to each other.
Peace and justice beginning right here, where we are. If not here,
then where? When?

Think globally, act locally. If we want to spread peace and justice in
this world, a good time and place is wherever we happen to be
standing, and with whomever we are relating to at the time: our
spouse, our child, our parent, our fellow congregant and staff person,
even the fellow politician that sits on the other side of the
aisle….

That's the kind of peace legacy we can be proud of, and pass on to
the future. A commitment to healthy relationships. In our lives,
material things will always come and go. Fame and renown will always
come and go. But what lasts best of all-and always has-is love.

I'll close with an anecdote by Rabbi Harold Kushner:

He writes: "I was sitting on a beach one summer's day,
watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They
were hard at work building an elaborate sand castle by the water's
edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when
they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and
knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand. I expected the
children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all
their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore
away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build
another castle. I realized that they had taught me an important
lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we
spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our
relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will
come and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that
happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to hold will be
able to laugh."

May it be so. Amen.