The spring equinox is another opportunity to declare a new year, and to make positive changes in our lives. When faced with major turning points or big obstacles, spiritual discipline helps us to gather our inner resources. Resilience, balance, and persistence are some of the fruits of practice. This sermon was written for the UU’s of Fallston by Rev. Lyn Cox, March 22, 2015.
The bakers in our house are in the process of changing our ways. Out of the five of us, one of the adults and both of the children have made an enthusiastic conversion to measuring flour by weight rather than by volume. Most recipes are written with reference to a certain number of cups of flour, so it requires some research, some math, and some experimentation to find the best number of grams or ounces of flour and then write that number in the margins. Key words like “math” might tell you which grownup is very keen on this change, or at least give you the hint that it’s not me. The kids find it easier and more fun to scoop flour into the bowl on the scale until the right number comes up than to very carefully hold the measuring cup in midair over the flour bin without spilling.
Intellectually, I know scales are the way to go. Flour can be persnickety with its volume, depending on the season and the weather and on how much running and jumping in the kitchen has shaken up the pantry. Measuring by weight is more accurate. I’m less likely to lose count. “Was that one and three quarter cups I’ve already added, or three and one quarter?” If I’m measuring flour into a bowl on the scale, I can scoop some out again if I put in too much. If I’m using a measuring cup, the mistake is more complicated to correct.
On the other hand, I find it deeply satisfying to run the back of my knife over the top of a measuring cup to level it off. That’s how my dad taught me. That’s how I’ve always done it. There is a certain adventure in not knowing exactly how much flour I’ve added, but perhaps it would be better to add excitement with intentional experiments rather than leaving things to chance. All it would take to learn a new way is practice. The scales may be a better way, yet I resist.
The use of level measurements was a gift from Fannie Farmer, famous Unitarian Universalist and culinary revolutionary. Her edition of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book in 1896 brought standard measurement and consistent results into home kitchens. She is reputed to have said, “Progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery.” I feel a little like it’s a betrayal of Fannie Farmer if I don’t use level measurements by volume, but maybe it’s a better tribute to her spirit if I accept progress in civilization and cookery.
The spring equinox is a good time to consider weights and measures. We hang here in the balance between day and night, on the threshold of an uncertain spring. The things we can touch and count help us navigate through a transition that can be spiritual and emotional as well as atmospheric.
The spring equinox is also a good time to set our intentions for the months of ahead, to do the wise planting for what we hope to harvest later in the year. Pagans have been thinking about the path ahead this week in celebration of holidays such as Ostara and Mabon. As I understand it, there are Hindu, Baha’i, and Zoroastrian new year celebrations around the time of the spring equinox. So let us begin anew with spiritual practices that bring us in tune with spring. In particular, let’s cultivate spiritual practices that may later yield the fruits of resilience, balance, and persistence.
Spring reminds us of resilience. We learn that, after a hard winter, something will grow again. We learn that grass that bows in the morning dew reaches upward in the heat of the day. As the wheel of the year turns, perhaps some of us are wondering if we will ever grow again. Bouncing back might seem like a random occurrence, yet one of the ways we can prepare for it is through repetition. With regular practice, putting one foot in front of the other becomes second nature, even when our minds are distracted. Practice gives a foundation for improvisation. My colleague John Newcomb Marsh puts it this way:
An old upright piano serves as an altar in our home. I see it as a place of daily ritual; a place where the temporal meets the eternal; where, in the words of the poet W. H. Auden, we “practice the scales of rejoicing” and sometimes encounter the holy. My children are just as likely to view it as a place of human sacrifice, where the precious moments of their childhood are torn from them and offered to a god about whose goodness they harbor many doubts …
One of the things I like best about the study of music is that it provides the opportunity for correction without reproach… If they miss a note, or play the wrong note, it does not mean that they have been inconsiderate or greedy or that they acted out of anger or lied about the truth; it simply means they have hit the wrong note and need to try again. The trying again can be trying on their patience, but they can also hear and understand improvements in their playing. Learning how to benefit from correction is no small accomplishment …
There are moments, however, when the melody engages and my children, in spite of themselves, are glad of the moment. The practicing of the scales of rejoicing falls away and all is rejoicing.
(From “Practicing the Scales of Rejoicing” by the Rev. John Newcomb Marsh, printed in Essex Conversations: Visions for Lifespan Religious Education. Marsh currently serves the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, Canada.)
Marsh goes on to suggest that the futures his children will be able to bring about, ideas beyond the horizons of his own imagination, might be launched from structured foundations. Although he admits that repetitive study is not necessarily the most exciting thing, Marsh is saying that our ability to recover from mistakes and our courage to try new things can both be supported by regular practice. He uses the example of playing scales on a musical instrument. There are other structures that can be useful for learning resilience.
In our “Spirit in Practice” class, we have been talking about and experiencing different kinds of spiritual disciplines. We tried out a guided meditation, longer than we would probably use in a regular service. We experimented with free-form movement and with creating visual art for process rather than product. I think it’s fair to say that one of the obstacles we’ve discovered is that many spiritual practices don’t feel comfortable, let alone transcendent, at least not right away. If the discipline is also something we do by ourselves, such that nobody else might know whether or not we are maintaining it, keeping up is doubly difficult.
One of the things I have discovered in the class is the value of setting goals and partnering with others. Honestly, I don’t do guided meditations that often. Gathering in a group with spiritual intention spurred me to attempt it again. Setting a goal to explore new practices within a finite period of time made it more likely to happen. Perhaps one of the things that makes musical scales work is that, presumably, the musician is also working on other projects and hearing progress from the totality of different ways of practicing. Scales and drills and attempting new challenges and returning to old favorites all come together for a productive discipline.
Practices that yield resilience remind us of our connections to each other. Resilience is supported by an atmosphere safety, where we can try again without reproach. These practices may be repetitive, yet come in a larger context of comfort and challenge. By repeating something like prayer or meditation while being mindful of community, forgiveness, and complexity, we may learn to move into a new season of our lives in the same way.
Another fruit we might cultivate at the spring equinox is balance. The hours of daylight and nighttime dark are equal. We are somewhere in between the weeks of endless ice and the assurance of consistent warmth. For any of us whose lives are affected by the rhythms of gardens, sports, academia, or seasonal work, this is a time for shifting our weight and getting our bearings. A consistent spiritual practice might help us make the transition as the days change, little by little and all at once.
One of the practices we talked about in our class was sacred rest. It is possible for some of us to build a few minutes into a day or a week when we protect our time from deadlines, interruptions, and economic activity. Some people can even work up to a whole day of rest every once in awhile.
Our group found, though, that entire days to unplug are rare. It is easier to think in smaller increments. Turning off the phone for 24 hours may not be realistic, but maybe turning it off for an hour over dinner is an achievable goal. Set aside ten minutes for quiet journaling on a regular basis before scheduling a weekend of silent retreat. Neither rest nor spiritual practice is an all-or-nothing proposition. Balance is a dance in motion, with 360 degrees of variation. Just as the spring comes along with the sun rising a few minutes earlier each day, temperatures careening back and forth in an eventual trend upward, we might achieve balance through a bunch of small adjustments that add up.
Small adjustments are harder than they sound. We can take hope in the fact that little rituals throughout the day make a difference; trying again today even if we missed yesterday matters. On the other hand, small obstacles also add up, so it helps to be prepared to overcome them. More importantly, we need to get over the false promises of commodified spirituality, the market forces that try to sell us enlightenment in a weekend or soulful contentment in a five-step manual. Sometimes dramatic change happens quickly, but more often it’s the visible result of a long-term process. It would be nice if spiritual growth came in economy-sized chunks that we could identify right away and put into our calendar ahead of time. I don’t think it usually works like that.
Which is not to say I haven’t tried. I have certainly done the routine where I throw myself into a trendy religious discipline or inspirational book, crammed like I was about to have an exam, and waited for my life to change once and for all. There are times when I thought I had the final answer, and I wanted to catch up on all the time I lost not having it. I keep having to learn that there is no single final answer, at least not for me. There are lots of little intermediate answers, balls to keep in the air in relationship with each other, and even more intermediate questions.
Disciplines like prayer, meditation, and sacred rest are not the only temptations for sudden immersion. I have tried this with different musical skills, parenting techniques, scrapbook projects, and D.I.Y. home repair. There are cases where an intensive period of study and experimentation can help a person make progress, if that period is part of a larger arc. Sometimes jumping into something too deeply and too soon makes it more difficult to continue in a sustainable way.
For the last year, I have been learning about balance through running. I have learned to think of the balance between activity and rest in incremental terms, not simply as a binary. I started out with a plan to run just a few minutes at a time, alternating with walking a few minutes at a time. When I started, I could not imagine running for twenty minutes in a row. Now I can actually do it, not just imagine it.
In my enthusiasm, I forgot that progress is not a straight line. I kept working on my skills fairly consistently until about November. Between some minor surgery and the little bit of ice we had this winter, I hit a wall. Not literally, although I did have one or two encounters with the sidewalk. About the middle of last month, I was in despair about reaching my goals. My cousin reminded me that (1) my journey is my own and need not stick to “shoulds” defined by someone else, and (2) I could use a strategy of balancing running and walking, just like I did at the beginning of my training. She flew up from Austin to join me, and we completed a half marathon together last weekend. We ran most of it and walked parts of it.
Motion and rest are not all-or-nothing values. We have gears and gradations. Running isn’t for everyone. I do think that breaking our goals down into smaller parts with different levels of intensity can help them seem more achievable. Whatever it is that will help us feel more balanced probably comes in smaller packages. There are times for high energy, times for total rest, and times to roll forward slowly. Even if we can’t take a holy week or a Sabbath day, we can take a moment to (as the song says) breathe in peace and breathe out love. The spiritual practices of spring may yield balance.
A third possible result for making a new commitment at the spring equinox is that our practice could yield a greater capacity for persistence. Those among us with green thumbs will probably tell us that gardens need to be weeded more than once in a season. Anybody with furry or scaly members of their family knows that living beings need food, water, and other kinds of care on a regular basis. Spring reminds us of life, and life is an ongoing process.
In her essay, “Amethyst Beach” (from the meditation manual of the same name), my colleague Barbara Merritt (now retired and honored as the Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts) writes about sustaining the energy for a search. While on vacation in Nova Scotia, her family heard about a place by the ocean where it was possible to find and collect your own amethysts. Merritt continues:
I’m unsure whether my children, the rock hounds, were more excited than the adults. We brought along a large canvas bag to haul back all of our semiprecious gemstones. We found the beach with the black smooth volcanic rock and the white lines. Using our hammers and safety goggles, we went to work.
An hour later we were still smashing at rocks for no apparent reason. Deep within the white crystal cracks, we discovered a lot of rock, but no amethyst.
Initially I scanned the boulders for visual clues for hidden caches of amethyst. I’d make a thoughtful scientific appraisal of the area, following fault lines, looking for subtle gradations in color, listening for hollow echoes with my hammer. At each spot where I initially chose to chip away, my hopes were high. I was sure that this was it. It wasn’t.
Later I decided to use my intuition. I “opened” myself to the presence of amethyst; I tried to become emotionally in tine with the geological harmony of the place. I attempted to be “guided” to the right spot. When everything felt “just right,” I’d strike with the hammer. And lo and behold, underneath the surface, were more rocks …
As we were leaving the beach, with my still empty canvas bag, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a small piece of black rock. I picked it up, turned it over, and I saw it—a faint pinkish cast to the crystals. I tucked it in my pocket and went on my way…
Having spent a little time on Amethyst Beach, I suspect the ones who “find” are the ones who never give up the search.
(Excerpted from Amethyst Beach: Meditations by Barbara Merritt.)
Merritt and her family may have come home with a rock with some gems hidden in there somewhere. It also sounds like they took pleasure in the search. She describes her children as “rock hounds.” They may have had some previous experience with seeking without finding, exploring an unfamiliar landscape as a kind of meditative presence as well as a quest for something in particular.
We are human beings, not human doings. I need that reminder as much as anyone else. Our worth does not depend on achievement or product or contributing to the economy. We are precious sparks, one with the universe, just as we are. And. I think many of us like to have a little bit of doing, challenges to reach for, signposts along the search for meaning.
Perhaps we are both being and doing. It may be that the secret of persistence is the ability to hold both the focus of a quest and a non-attachment to outcomes. If we can revel in the search and also not worry to much if we find something other than what we’re looking for, we might last a little longer and enjoy more companionship along the way. As anyone who brushed snow off their car on the first day of spring can tell you, transitions are unpredictable. Let us cultivate persistence in our practices this equinox, and be open to surprise.
I did use the kitchen scale this week, though not for flour. I used it to measure spinach. I will consider this a victory in my incremental journey toward progress in cookery. Maybe getting more familiar with the practice of weighing food for cooking will help me transition to using it for baking. I will have to overcome my conservative attachment to level measurements by volume. Small adjustments matter. Besides, I can try out a new way of doing things without committing to a drastic change for all time. Balance can come from moderation. I hope to keep cooking and baking regardless, even if deciding between the measuring cup and the scale is kind of a speed bump. Taking pleasure in the process as well as setting flexible goals for the outcome may yield persistence.
This spring, may you find resilience. May you feel embraced by this beloved community and by the Spirit of Life, knowing that relationship endures through minor corrections. May your ordinary, everyday habits give you a launching pad to try extraordinary things.
May you find balance. May you enjoy times of passionate intensity, quiet rest, moderate advancement, and thrilling reversals. The dance of life uses the whole ballroom floor. Make the most of it.
May you find persistence. There may not be a final destination in the search for truth and meaning. Let’s keep our eyes on the horizon anyway, and let’s cherish this moment of the journey, right where we are.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.