Home is the Present Moment by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
Today we begin a new worship series that takes up the question of “home.” But by “home,” I’m not talking about a mere physical place where a person might happen to sleep, and nor am I talking about the physical space where a person might attend services.
We all know that physical locations can change.
We also know that physical locations are, ultimately, smaller causes of happiness than others.
There’s an old story about a traveler who came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.
“They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.”
“Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.
Disappointed, the traveler trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. “What sort of people live in the next town?” he asked.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer once again.
“They were the best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.”
“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
That’s the story. And I do want to affirm that sometimes you have to move. Sometimes it really is in your best interest to leave town and go to another. But, as the story suggests, there are times the only change that needs to happen is in your attitude and your heart.
Change that helps us find a way home. Because the kind of “home” I am talking about is precious:
“Home” is where we are happy and at peace.
“Home” is where we feel safe, and where we are given strength to launch ourselves into the challenges of the world.
“Home” is where the heart is, where the soul thrives, where we are inspired to be our best selves.
“Home” is where we want to be.
But where is that?
And can you really take it with you, just like the second traveler in the story, meaning that you can be less fear-based and stressed-out and more open to the people who come into your life, more hopeful about what your world can offer, despite all?
No matter what your physical location happens to be?
The answer is yes. For the next month, our preaching team of myself, Rev. Rogers, and Intern Minister Taryn Strauss, will explore how and why.
Today’s angle on the question of home is inspired by a Zen Buddhist gem of a story. A university professor comes to ask Nan-In about the Zen he is master of. Nan-In then proceeds to pour him tea and he just keeps pouring and pouring until the cup is flooded and tea is spilling everywhere. “Like this cup,” says Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Other Buddhist stories use a different metaphor. Instead of calls to empty one’s cup, they talk about “monkey mind,” and how we are predisposed to disconnect from the present moment and get lost in worries about the past or future, to mindwander, to recklessly vault from thought to thought like a screaming monkey swinging from tree to tree.
But whichever metaphor we use, the point is that Zen can’t get in. Richness, vitality, happiness, creativity, understanding, transformation, peace, can’t get in. Because the space of the mind is already full of mind-stuff, and that mind-stuff is primarily anxiously self-referential. Why did she look at me that way? What did he mean by that exactly? Why did I do that thing I did? Is my nose too big? Am I too short? Do I sound weird?
Are they liking this sermon?
“The story of me,” says mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn (whom we heard from in the video from a moment ago), “is often a depressing story. And a fear-based story. We’re like driving the car with the emergency brake on.”
It’s like this. You are in an amazing vacation spot, and this is what you say, “This place is beautiful! I want to come back here someday!”
But you are there already!
That’s driving the car with the emergency break on.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s scientific findings on all this are echoed and extended by that of happiness researcher Matt Killingsworth. People are indeed less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are in the moment, and this is true no matter what might actually be happening in that moment. “People don’t really like commuting to work very much. It’s one of their least enjoyable activities,” says Matt Killingsworth, “and yet they are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else.”
That is amazing.
But what’s also amazing is his finding that people’s minds wander 47% of the time.
47% of this time, the cup is overfull and no Zen can come in.
47% of the time, we are NOT home and NOT where the heart is and the soul thrives.
What are we going to do about that?
The reality is, people mind wander 47% of the time.
47% of the time, people are NOT in the present moment, NOT home.
What ARE we going to do about that?
Let’s do what the Buddha suggested in a story he himself told 2500 years ago, about acrobats, an adult male teacher and a little girl student, performing every day on the streets.
The act? The teacher balances a tall bamboo pole on his head. The little girl climbs to the top and stays there while the teacher walks around.
Why? So they can earn enough money to buy food. They are very poor.
But how can the acrobats maintain concentration and balance and prevent an accident? Empty the cup is of course the answer. Be in the moment, be fully mindful.
But tell me more…
Part of it is this: having the right attitude.
This amounts to rejecting the notion that personal development is unjustifiable self-indulgence. “I will watch you and you will watch me,” says the teacher to his student, and that’s like any of us today saying, “There is so much to do and so little time and so how dare I take some of that precious time away from you and go to the yoga studio and do something that seems just for me: sweat on a mat performing absurd-looking poses while the instructor says in a modulated, spiritual-like tone, ‘Stay with the breath, don’t forget to breathe….’”
But how else will we learn to be in the present moment? Whether by yoga or some other spiritual practice? When we are already mind wandering 47% of the time, how are things going to get better by just doing more of the same?
That’s like trying to sharpen an ax by chopping wood.
If we are ever to find home in the present moment, we must have the right resolve of the little girl, who says to her teacher, “I think it would be better for each of us to watch our own self. To look after oneself means to look after both of us.”
Abraham Lincoln said it this way: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
Think of the hours of your day. How are they proportioned? How much time is given to sharpening the instrument of your mind, so it can serve you well as you use it?
But there is a second teaching about mindfulness in the Buddha’s story. The little girl says that her teacher ought to watch himself.
But what ought he watch?
One thing might very well be how he’s responding to the experience of poverty. The poverty that forces him to walk up and down the street with a small girl balanced on a tall bamboo pole balanced on his head.
Maybe it makes him feel humiliated. Full of rage. Or sad. Or all three, and more.
But if he can allow the hurt to be there, without trying to judge it or push it away, he’ll still have sufficient presence of mind to maintain concentration and balance.
On the other hand, the little girl goes flying if he spends needless energy telling himself he should be ashamed to feel humiliated. To tell himself it’s wrong to feel rage, or sadness.
That’s tying himself up into emotional knots, and THAT is the sort of suffering that makes a person definitively homeless. Because we are refusing to be where we are. We are rejecting our very life. We are demanding, futilely, that what is should not be so.
Everyone here has a bamboo pole balanced on top of your head, and some kind of little girl is up there hoping we don’t drop her. The life circumstances that have conspired to put you in this position might hurt you as much as the teacher in the story, or maybe even more.
Here we are, for all sorts of reasons in a place poised to move from this physical location, and it’s a hard moment, but we can’t afford to refuse to be where we are. We’ll drop the girl.
Maybe a disease, or a divorce, has put you in a hard place. Accept it, and make choices that are not reactive but responsive to the reality you are in. Don’t drop the girl.
All of us are in a hard place in America right now. So easy to be anxious and afraid. Or angry all the time. But there is a sweet little girl balanced on the bamboo pole on top of your head, and she is your family and friends, the things that bring you alive, your meditation practice that teaches you how to be at home no matter what the external circumstances are, even when you’re driving in Atlanta traffic.
Buddha says, Don’t drop her.
Allow the present moment to be what it is, be in this moment with an open heart, and there can be no other way to happiness, if happiness is to be found.
The Mystery unfolds.
Let the Zen come in.