The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] 'What am I to myself that must be remembered' [Chalice]
A Search for What is Real

Presented June 6, 2010, by Carol Nichols

Welcoming Words:

From The Great Jewel of Wisdom by Shankara. "The nature of the one's Reality must be known by one's own clear spiritual perception: it cannot be known through a learned man. Similarly, the form of the moon can only be known through one's own eyes. How can it be known through others." Today, I offer only my own musings. To quote Paul's people as they gather, "Stay if you will. Go if you must."

The Talk:

The following excerpt was taken from Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay. As a very precocious teen, she had lived in Camden, Maine. Overlooking the city, she saw, as one can see today, the open bay with its three islands, surrounded by the distant wooded hills. At the age of nineteen, she looked out one morning and it caused her to reflect, and even to worry about the limits of her own grasp on reality. She was challenged and frightened, yearning to understand her place in and the meaning of existence.

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all. (Millay)

I came home this Thursday night after nearly a month of travel, which took me half way around the world to Australia and New Zealand. I saw, listened, touched, tasted and walked my body through sites and marvels which will take my mind years to digest. I had intimate company and awe-inspiring magnificence, minute miracles and overwhelming vistas, the crush of humanity and the press of raw creation: all teeming into my senses. And as Aja, our daughter, brought to my attention, we had moments in our "walk-abouts" that were filled to the brink with absolute silence.

My husband, and I moved from site to site, city to town to mountain hide-away in a barrage of adjustments: the food was always different; the toilets flushed weirdly; the beds never felt the same way twice. So much to absorb; so much to take in. We drank the experience: both literally and figuratively, as Australian wines flowed along with engaging conversation among people. Conversation even extended down to an enchanting dialogue with a flock of kookaburras (all of whom were named Basil), who exchanged bird language with their evening hand-feeder: our son-in-law's Aunt Flossy.

Since coming home just three days ago, I have had a very minor appreciation of what it means to keep your grip on the usual reality, as Quincy, home, the mail, the laundry, grocery shopping, the lawn, my pitiful garden, an unceasing cry-baby cat (who missed us greatly), and a continuous catch-up with friends have all managed to re-direct our understanding of what is real, where is real and how is real. I have immense empathy for those who return after a long stint in the Peace Corp, or have been somewhere ministering to the latest global disaster, or have to adjust after time spent in a war overseas. Their attempt to re-connect must be so overwhelming and exhausting in comparison to mine.

Not at all the world traveler, I could easily understand my husband's insightful reflection that, above all, traveling left him with the profound understanding of how small we really are. I could not say that my reality shift in the last few days was anything akin to the shock of losing a dear friend, as with Gail Starkey's death in 1999. Nothing that altering at all. But, it has left me awake at night between 12 midnight and the wee hours of the new day thinking about place and time, events and people, and how my memories of them can transport me and my feelings back in an instant to where I have just been. I marvel, even ache to feel how acutely I can sense another place now, which I now feel shares my present time, as well as my heart.

In writing this to you, I thought about a poet whose words I have long kept close. Time and again, I have rendered his words into calligraphic art pieces. He is Robert Creeley, a seedy, non-conforming genius, who shakes my confidence to the core for what I image to be real. Here are his opening words in a poem called
The Rain

All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quiet, persistent rain.

What am I to myself
that must be remembered,
insisted upon
so often? Is it

that never the ease,
even the hardness,
of rain falling
will have for me

something other than this,
something not so insistent -
am I to be locked in this
final uneasiness . . . (Creeley)

When I was a sophomore in college, I had the opportunity to select my own roommate for my second year, because like most freshmen, I had to take what the school had assigned me in my first year. My mutually chosen roommate was a very thoughtful, intelligent young woman from the Boston area. She was a Chinese philosophy major, calling her subject area the politically incorrect term of "chink-think." In the seventies, we weren't as aware of cultural slurs as all of us should have been. In any event, the new ideas, coupled with her own demons from the past, rattled her sense of self very severely. By the end of our first semester, she was a full-blown schizophrenic, and I saw firsthand someone's personal bearings go totally out of kilter. In a much later experience, as a graduate student, I worked weekends in the acute wing of the Rochester Psychiatric Hospital. I was astonished at the constant parade and glaring evidence of those struggling souls who lost all connection with what the rest of us consider normal reality. I couldn't believe how graphically these cases could illustrate illnesses where humans had a total disconnect between their inner self and the supposedly concrete world around them.

I also realized something else as well: that their acute sensitivity to that reconciliation between our internal reality and the insistent outside demands of the "real world" was often the precarious price some people paid for creative insight and seeing the world in a very sacred, yet non-conformist way. These people showed most clearly to me the price of turning up the knob of awareness to its highest notch on the dial of perceptual input. It created a dis-ease in them, as horrifying as the opposite result we often see today. More often than not, society's stupor is the norm, where thoughtless, perceptual input is maximized through over-eating, too much stimulation and incessant indulgence. In the best and most balanced of self-realizations, the body should bring measured, controlled stimulation to the core, hoping to feed the soul's sense of self-discovery. But, in engaging in the frenzy of twenty-first century modernity, there is an absence of self-reflection, and there is seldom any effort made for the difficult but necessary work of meditation or reflection on our experiences. In the absence of any real effort to define reality, in the rush to simply experience its sources of stimulation, there is no soul to be found. Further, there is no guiding, coherent explanation to be defined by a healthy, mythological system we should develop to support and structure of our understanding of that reality. Matthew Fox comments that in some cases, "We are without cosmos, without myth, without ritual worthy of the name. No wonder we are cosmically sad, cosmically lonely, cosmically destructive in our military plans {and environmentally devastating actions} to rain death on the rest of creation as we know it." (Fox)

If one extreme is the unfortunate schizophrenic, the artistic visionary or the insane shaman, the opposite extreme is equally troublesome: the mindless, consuming idiot who lives for pleasure until his or her perceptual vehicle is worn out, and the body is spent, used up and with little or no benefit for the deeper well-being and essence of the individual. One could say that this is a tragic figure, far more so than the acutely sensitive visionary. We have work to do in order to avoid this dismal fate, to avoid this mindless, soul-less approach to the creative world in which we find ourselves and of which we are part. To find a solid reality that speaks the truth to each of us, we need to know how to bring our bodies into service toward the greater nurturing of the soul (or simply of the mind, should you find a soul hard to imagine in your own personal understanding of what you are). We need to house this understanding in the words of an active mythology relevant to each culture's time and space - this is the work of which Matthew Fox speaks. Bede Griffiths, the Catholic monk who found his voice in a fusion with Eastern religion, states "Each person must discover this Centre in himself, this Ground of his being, this Law of his life. It is hidden in the depths of every soul, waiting to be discovered. It is the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price. It is the one thing which is necessary, which can satisfy all our desire and answer all our needs . . . " (Griffiths) Griffiths is talking about the need to build an understanding of who we are and what our place is in this life. Without this, he feels that humans are without a center point of reference: an awful predicament if and when you happen to be in such a frame of mind.

When we take the time to think about the reality of our existence, actually, we are all on a quest to find our own, authentic version of life. Traveling gives one a chance to do this, to shake one up, as it were. Unlike a sudden life-threatening illness or catastrophic event in our lives, travel is a lot kinder to our sensitive selves. It is an awe-fulfilling pleasure, rather than having a chair pulled out from under you. But, all such events get at what Sri Ramana Maharshi states is our greatest purpose in life. Maharshi says "Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render the world." (Maharshi)

But what is it that we are meant to discover? What truth is at the core of all this effort? Is your truth the same as mine? Before we start to answer or at least to explore these next questions, let us at least assume that our bodies have a greater purpose than simply serving as a conduit for endless physical gratification. Let us assume, as the yogis and countless others believe, that the body is a tool meant to serve our soul. The link between the body's input and the soul's understanding and enlightenment is an open and fluid mind. For some cultures, there is no divide among these three entities. Mind, body and soul are all one entity while we live. They exist in a state of flux; body and soul are in an intimate connection or better yet, a continuous flow, as with our very breath. And the mind, should it be keen enough, rises above the isolation of the ego to "see" this and to truly know. But, to know what?

When a child is very young, it has been said that he or she sees the world as a continuous entity. There is no starting point and no division between self and the surrounding ocean of body parts, clothes, parental arms, air, light. It is all perceived as one. At some point, also early in life, we become aware that we are separate entities. Usually, it is around the time that a child begins to recognize himself or herself as an "I" or by their first name. Albert Einstein recalls watching his hair burn, and realizing simultaneously that he was separate, apart from the rest of the universe, and also mortal. The best of philosophers and mystics say that we spend our entire lives trying to re-capture that sense of oneness, intrinsic to the newborn. To fold back the fabric of the universe until our essence blends again with the emerging flow of life around and through us. Like rolling out dough into the spreading manifestation of life, constantly folding it back over on to itself, only to roll it out again and again. Ours is a struggle with our ego and our senses, quieting the ego, so that we might see our deeper connections to the other, but using our perceptions, senses and experiences to feed an intellectual mind. The active intelligence of the mind then works to open an inner eye of insight, which we use to truly understand and see our connection to all that is part and parcel of our life in this world of life. There is another difficulty in all of this (as if there were only a few things to work on), and that is the active monkey mind. It is so hard to tame the mind, to make it receptive enough for reflection upon the input it receives. Here is the confusion in all of this effort aptly put into words by Rilke: "I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. And I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don't know if I'm the falcon or a storm, or a great song." (Rilke) We live IN this world, and yet we are so much a part of it. So, confusing. After millions of years of evolution, we have finally become the eyes and ears of creation, long in coming, long in evolving to the point where we can turn around and see ourselves apart (that is, separated) as well "a part." So powerful, so difficult to use, so imaginative and so dangerous.

We are consciousness enough to create, because consciousness must come before creation. But, we are hardly intuitive enough. Our feelings, our love are limited at first (and in the most primitive of states) to serve our OWN elimination, digestion and reproduction. To burst through up into the level of the heart is to reach out beyond ourselves, to be aware of what we see and what we do and what we create - because we ARE what we make of this world. Yu Shih-nan tells us what we already should know about our creative selves: "In the transformation of his mind, the calligrapher borrows the brush. It is not the brush that works that miracle. The transformation can only take place when the mind is tranquil and penetrates into the utmost subtlety. Thus, the spirit or soul responds and the mind is transparent." (Shih-nan) When the mind is still, when our egos are truly quiet and our bodies reasonably secure, the mind becomes the conduit from our sensory input reacting to the world into our soul. We learn to use all of these tools to increase our insight, to grow into what we are essentially from the beginning. To exist in this world, understanding and appreciating its reality and to create in concert with creation. This feeds our soul. Only this preserves our integrity with the cosmos. With such a process, St. Paul speaks of our breaking through, our resurrection. He says that now we see as in a glass darkly, but then we shall see even as we are seen. The Buddha says that seer must quiet the rings which emanate out from the center, just as from a stone dropped into a pond, to wait until the waters of reflection are perfectly still. And finally, Psalm 46 utters the cryptic imperative: Be still and know that I am god. In the deepest form of blasphemy, in the greatest form of liberation, the I is not some Divine overlord. The Divine is ourselves. If your body is a scoop which holds within in it the essence of life itself, lifted from the infinite continuous ocean of creation, then we are part and parcel of the infinite universe itself. The illusion for us is the sensation of the inside walls of that scoop, the physical forces pressing in on us, the height to which we are lifted, the idea that someone is holding the ladle. All that is just the initial perception of the senses. All that is an illusion resulting from the body we happen to be in, an illusion we need to give up. The reality is that there is no scoop.

So, when we travel, there is something so awesome about what we see, what we experience, so stimulating and so intensely familiar. We are the child turning to trace a strange horizon with our finger, trying to draw the limits for something that baffles us. We try to contain the sky, the earth, the moment. It stimulates us anew, jars our awareness, and comes around home to us over and over again to our center. We realize that every new place and time are profanely ordinary, and every new place and time are profoundly sacred. Whenever and wherever we stand in the world is our center. And every act is a prayer.

This is my deepest and purest vision of reality. I lose it, I find it hundreds of times in a day. I go through the time allotted to me missing so many instances, where the opportunity of enlightenment flees by without my notice. There is a miracle in the palm of my hand, should I only know how to look or when to bother. The answer is always and everywhere. Millay chooses the mythology of a god to house her version of awareness. Don't let that turn you away. Listen to this nineteen year old express what her reality causes her to see and to feel.

About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e'er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, --
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.

Whatever life gives to you now to challenge your grip on reality, I send you these thoughts and hopes. I wish for all of us a clarity of vision, a timeless insight that all of us can experience with physicality and emotion, can understand with intelligence and comprehension, and can meld into the core and center of our souls, which are, always and everywhere, the very essence of reality itself.

Closing Words from Robert Creeley:

Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
Be wet
with a decent happiness.

Works Cited

©2010 Carol Nichols

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Nichols, Carol 2010. 'What am I to myself that must be remembered' - A Search for What is Real, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20100606.shtml (accessed December 17, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.