A sermon given April 2003
The following is a sermon given before the Uncompadre Unitarian Universalist Society in Grand Junction, Colorado
My inspiration for this sermon came way back last summer . . . something Dave Miller said in one of his sermons. I can’t really tell you specifically what it was, but it made me think about how little attention I give to maintaining balance in my life and I jotted down on my program the words . . . balance, physical and spiritual. I am constantly working to find and keep balance in my life so I began a thoughtful journey into the subject.
My most prominent association with the concept of balance comes from a very dear friend, Paula Underwood, also known as Turtle Woman Singing, who was trained in a Native American Tradition. She was given the tremendous responsibility of writing down in English the ancient teachings of her people, which had been passed down through the millennia by generations of “Keepers of the Old Things.”
Many of the teachings are in the form of learning stories, such as the Lima Bean story I read with the children, as well as her eight hundred page oral history titled, “The Walking People.” She was indeed an Enabler of Learning. Much of what I talk about today is rooted in what I learned through my interactions with her and her books.
The importance of the concept of balance, within self and community is central to her work. I would like to share how she describes the nature of Iroquois thinking, the balance between logic and intuition from her book, “Three Strands In The Braid.”
“It is the responsibility of each of us to perceive the forest with Spirit Eyes, to hear its echoes with Spirit Ears, to understand the flow of Change through Universe. It is the responsibility of each to choose a specific, sequential path through that perceived forest choosing the path with Earth Eyes and hearing those echoes with Earth Ears. Neither can substitute for the other. Spirit Awareness cannot substitute for Earth Awareness. Earth Awareness cannot substitute for Spirit Awareness.”
“It is understanding these two ways of perceiving and experiencing Reality that makes it particularly necessary for communication to remain a whole process. Language and imagery belong together, the two perceptions, the two understandings walking a parallel path.”
On the physical or Earth Awareness side, in many ways I think we take balance for granted. So easily we walk the path of life . . . Left Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot, without ever thinking consciously about it. But we did not come out of the womb with the knowledge and awareness of physical balance. We spent the first couple of years of life experimenting and developing this skill. First we had to learn to balance the weight of our head, then sit without falling over, then stand and then to walk.
As we continued to mature we fine-tuned our skills . . . running, skipping, hopping, riding a bike. Each required more refinement of that basic skill. Each of these took not only time, but also Earth Awareness or conscious knowing, and Spirit Awareness, the perception gained through the senses. And often perseverance as well! The balance between left brain and right brain.
In my work as an Occupational Therapist, I have the opportunity to work with people who have suffered injuries that greatly affect their balance . . . both physically and emotionally. During my evaluations the response I almost always get when I ask a new paraplegic or quadriplegic what their goal is . . . their answer is “to walk again.” For most, that possibility is not likely. Part of my job is to help them understand that balance has been completely taken away from them. That relearning sitting balance is the first and foremost task – a very necessary step in their progression and being able to return to independent living.
I also work with people who have had strokes or some kind of bleeding in the brain, in which case one side of the brain suffers damage and the opposite side of the body loses some, or all, of its control. Without that equality of left brain/right brain communication, once again balance is compromised.
Have you ever considered how much you cherish your independence? In most cases, to function in this world independently, it requires mastery of physical balance. And to relearn balance takes on incredible amount of careful tuning in to both awareness and perception of your own body and how you control how it moves in space. From an emotional or Spirit Awareness perspective, balance is also crucial. Personally, I feel most balanced when I am able to remain in the present moment without getting lost in the mistakes or pain of yesterdays, or trapped in the worries or chaos of tomorrow’s “to do” list playing in my head.
But it is certainly not an easy task. We live in an age where we expect so much of ourselves; where getting to our destination in the fastest, most direct way is often the goal. There is a line from a song I’ve listened to a lot lately by the Indigo Girls that to me says a lot about our society. It goes like this . . . “Why do we hurdle ourselves through every inch of time and space?” It makes me think every time I hear it. When was the last time I just stopped running here or there, from the time I stop slapping the snooze button until I crawl exhausted under the covers at night? Ten hours of work, exercising over the lunch hour, dashing to the chiropractor after work, then maybe my Tai Chi class, a board meeting or a class here at church. Frequently all the while, thinking of the many other things that need doing.
Just as physical balance is so important to our ability to function within the world . . . so is the balance in our emotional and spiritual lives. But we often get so busy in our daily routines that we forget to take care of that aspect of Self. Many of us here are very much givers in life, and it comes so naturally. But can you give to yourself without feeling guilty? Are you comfortable when others give to you? This is an issue I struggle with a lot. I was brought up to believe I was bad and selfish if I wanted things for myself. Think about how you would feel if, when you tried to give to others, it was not accepted. Receiving, with grace . . . from yourself, from others, is important as well.
Think about receiving as completing the communication of giving. The idea is to find a healthy balance. Unfortunately most of us don’t need to seek out more difficulties, hassles, or worry. Daily life presents plenty. But how often do you do something nice for yourself just because . . . a massage, a trip to the hot springs, a day spent in nature, a concert, a soak in the tub, or reading a book just for fun. How often do you engage in true listening with your loved ones? It is SO important that we nurture ourselves, and the very young, and very old who are not capable of nurturing themselves. Especially in this day and age at the pace we run.
Think about it as a form of nutrition that the body needs to function in health and harmony. What are you feeding yourself emotionally, spiritually? What gives you a sense of fulfillment, contentment, or wholeness? Really think about it, and MAKE time to do more of it. We can also leave time for simply reflecting on the day . . . intentionally replaying our thoughts and actions and asking, “What may I learn from this?” Looking at the myriad of choices we made throughout the day and asking . . . did they support my values of justice, reason and compassion? How can I make my tomorrow more balanced and less hurried?
As Bill Hilty said last week . . . it is important to take the time to contemplate your mortality. Life is a finite gift we have been given. Think about what footprints you will leave upon this earth. Ask yourself if you are taking time to really listen to those people whose lives cross your path. Think about whether your life could use a little bit of slowing down and tipping the scale a bit more towards taking good care of yourself our loved ones and your community in the time you have here.
I believe that life is really about listening and learning . . . which we do through communication. That balance of using left brain and right brain in concert . . . with ourselves, our partners, with our friends our families and our community, with nature and with Spirit. I wish it were less about who makes the most money, who has the most toys, the fastest computer, the most luxurious house, the latest digital miracle.
So . . . how do we get better at communication? . . . at really listening and at loving ourselves enough to ask for what we really need? Lots of practice for sure. But there are other tools that can help. One from a Native American tradition: “Learning to use both sides of your brain at the same time is vital to a better understanding of the Earth and all its treasures.” “So when I say it is in the manner of my People to say things three times, in three different ways – once for each ear and once for the heart – you may now understand that I mean to say it once for the left side, once for the right side, and once again as a way to balance between the two, thereby encouraging inter-lobal communication.”
So I would invite you to try this. Be more conscious about your communication and interactions. Try to think about your responses before the words blurt out. How can you best say what you really mean? Recognize that each side of the brain tends to fulfill certain functions – left brain mostly spoken or written language, right brain tends to process picture images. “In your communications say it the first time in an intellectual way, the second in a way to engender images, and the third time in sort of a mix.” It sounds like a lot of work, but what is more important than understanding and being understood?
Let me give an example from Paula’s work. I just gave you the message of how this works geared toward left brain. Now she would say . . . “let me say this again in a different way, this time for right ear.”
Left foot, right foot
Left foot, right foot
Let those who would hop,
Who would hop, who would hop
Use only left foot.
Only right foot.
Let those who would walk,
Who would walk, who would walk
Use left foot, right foot,
Left foot, right foot.
And now the mix, for the heart . . . And hopping, I tell you now, is not the swiftest way to proceed through life. The seeming simplicity – you don’t even need your other foot – leads to great clumsiness. She goes on to ask . . . Do you understand the structure implied or described by that ancient children’s song (the one I read for right ear)? Do you understand the advisability of balance between two possibilities? Think about it. And develop your own balance, your own strong left, your own strong right, your own way of walking.”
The Iroquois used a great game to help teach the concept of balance to children. It’s called “Stick and Hoop”. A slender stick is used to push along a wooden hoop as it rolls on its edge. The purpose of this game was never told up front. Instead it was felt that the children should play and interpret on their own . . . this they believed was the true way to learn. The lesson was to teach application of energy. “If you hit it with a mighty blow either the stick or the hoop may break. If you stroke it too gently or fail to pay attention, in time it may fall down due to lack of energy.”
Again from Turtle Woman Singing . . . “Too much or too little applied energy always leads to diminished forward movement. Experimenting within these two limitations to efficacy, one may learn the effective application of energy to circumstance.”
An even more extensive teaching about balance . . . Balance and Wholeness are what nature and this world are all about. The seasons, light and dark, peace and conflict, work and play, action and inaction, poverty and prosperity, loud and quiet, birth and death. They all have a continuum and it is our challenge to find balance within it. As I said before, it is my belief that staying in the moment is important to accomplishing this.
I have a saying hanging on the wall in my bathroom that I read at least once every day. It says . . . For yesterday I hold no apologies. For tomorrow I offer no answers. Today is a gift . . . I will honor it by fully living in it.
Thich Nhat Hanh says it in another way . . . “Do not lose yourself in the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. Do not get caught in your anger, worries or fears. Come back to the present moment and touch life deeply. Staying in the present moment, being mindful of how you treat yourself and others, honoring the interconnectedness of all things . . . these things play a big part in maintaining balance in MY life. They are often a challenge. I am often thrown off kilter, but if I stop, take a few deep breaths and come back to these truths, I have a much better chance of replacing discord with harmony.
Another important piece for me is remembering that ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, I have a choice. Turtle Woman Singing sums it up in describing what is the very essence of Native American learning, which is . . . to understand the Universe as a totality. It is to understand it as totally related, every part to every other part. It is to understand individuality as a temporary structure and unity as the permanent structure. It is to understand the relatedness of things . . . to think in three dimensions instead of two. It is not to think in sequential terms only . . . or cause-effect-cause-effect . . . but in terms of a great complex, interrelated web of things where cause-effect can’t be true, can’t be an adequate explanation, because there are so many things going on at the same time and everything affects everything else.
To be authentic in Indian terms, it is essential to respect every element within the totality of Universe and it is essential to speak from the heart. To do less is to deny the fullness of your own existence. As Rob always says . . . the sermon is only the first word in any conversation. I would like to invite any comments . . .
Benediction . . . From “The Great Hoop of Life” . . . Remember that it takes time to absorb a new life-way. Remember to be patient with yourself. Remember to ask questions whenever you can. So be it.