Practicing the Art of Losing (sermon)

Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Soceity

May 4, 2013

Karen G. Johnston

Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry

Over the New Year, for the first time in my life, I spent ten days on a Buddhist silent retreat.  I was with 93 other “yogis” as we meditated while sitting, meditated while walking, meditated while completing our assigned “yogi job” – all in silence.  The teachers got to talk, sharing dharma wisdom, while we listened…in silence.

Though we were told over and over again that there are no “shoulds” or “supposed to’s” one does think that with all that not talking, all that silence, that the mind would slow down.  I have been engaged in some degree of Buddhist exploration for over a decade now and despite that decade, I can tell you, my mind did not quiet.  My mind was busy, busy, busy.

Perhaps you have seen this cartoon, which was originally in the New Yorker magazine, but I saw the cartoon online after a teacher of mine described it.  It is of a person driving a ca entering the desert.  The car passes one of those ubiquitous highway signs.  This one, however is a bit different, in that it says, “Your Own Tedious Thoughts: Next 200 Miles.”

Yup: that was my experience of a silent Buddhist retreat.

One rather unwholesome way that I spent New Year’s Eve was my mind spinning the story of losing both my daughter, who is away in Germany for the year, and losing my husband, who was visiting a friend in Boston that night.  The art of losing isn’t hard to master?  That’s right, because I did it, I lost Mariah and Tony over and over again in the most tragic of circumstances.  I don’t recommend it.

That said, I do think there is something quite valuable to practicing loss, to practicing losing oneself.  Of course, how my mind engaged on New Year’s Eve is not skillful or wholesome.  Or useful.  Or holy.

There are holy ways to lose oneself, ways which might lead to greater gains.  I’m guessing all the spiritual traditions of the world have some version.  Christianity has Matthew quoting Jesus, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  (Mat 10:39. NRSV)

The key distinction is between getting lost and losing oneself.  Passive and active.  Intention versus mere impulse or accident.  Not mere tolerance, but vigorous embrace of not knowing, of not being in control, of being open to Lord-knows-what…

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the writer, activist, and cultural documentarian, Rebecca Solnit, writes,

“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal.  It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says the twentieth-century philosopher-essayist Walter Benjamin.  “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.”  To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.  In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.  And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

“To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.”  That is certainly worth repeating.  I wonder if in this psychic state achieved through geography, if that’s when we might become in touch with what David Waggoner’s poem, Lost, calls us to: an ability to stand still, understanding the forest knows where we are (even when we don’t) and will find us or allow us to be found.

Yes, I mean forest with trees and other natural life.  But I also mean our metaphorical forests, other places and spaces, geographical and psychic, mental and spiritual, where we can choose rather to get lost, to lose ourselves.  Inviting a comfort, an ease, a sense of being home in the unknown.

In that book, Solnit quotes the historian Aaron Sachs – which makes me a little giddy because Aaron is my brother’s best friend and I really, really like Aaron.  Apparently, Aaron wrote that early American explorers/frontierspeople,

“were always lost, because they’d never been to these places before.  They never expected to know exactly where they were.   Yet, at the same time, many of them knew their instruments pretty well and understood their trajectories within a reasonable degree of accuracy.  In my opinion, their most important skill was simply a sense of optimism about surviving and finding their way.”

In reflecting upon this congregation, about which I knew few things, and the invitation to preach here – thank you, by the way —  I thought of how your minister is on sabbatical.  Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle came immediately to mind:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I thought how you have the gift of an opportunity to practice losing Claudia on very reasonable terms – for what amounts to just a few weeks.    A small, manageable loss.  She has gone away on sabbatical: it’s practice for that time – may it be long in the future – when she won’t be the minister here anymore.  Every church must greet ministers and every church must see them depart – retire, move on to another settlement, there are lots of reasons.  No doubt Shoreline is special, and in many ways, unique, but not in this particular way.

Instead of a sense of loss or of getting lost, I wonder how you can make this short absence – which is nearly over — into a losing of yourselves?  As David Waggoner’s poem prompts, I wonder what permissions must you ask to know it and be known?  I wonder what you have been learning? I wonder what Claudia has been learning?   I wonder how it will change all of you, grow all of you, enrich all of you…

Supposedly Daniel Boone once said, “I never was lost in the woods in my whole life… though once I was confused for three days.”  I love that.

It makes me wonder what are my woods where I can be confused for awhile rather than lost.  What immediately comes to mind is parenting.  Boy, have I gotten lost in parenting.  Especially now that I have teenagers, I can feel particularly lost, particularly confused.  When do I speak up and when do I shut up?  When do I hold on and when do I let go?   And if I let go, which is not my initial temperamental inclination, will there be something to guide me (and my kids) if we get lost or confused?

What about you?  What are the woods where you get lost?  And if not lost, then confused?  Have you recently emerged?  Are you there now?  How might you find, like the little girl in today’s Story for All Ages, touchstones from where you have been to help guide you back, or guide you along the way further?  How might you allow yourself to lose yourself in this wood, rather than to be lost?

There is a pop song you can hear on the radio and you can certainly find it on YouTube.  It’s called, “Home.”  It was written by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden, sung by Phillip Phillips, the winner of American Idol last spring.  I quote it here, not to be particularly hip, but because of its resonance

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

If we get lost, may we be found.  May we find ourselves.  May we all get home with an experience of feeling so lost that we are fully present, and being fully present, we are capable of being in the midst of uncertainty and mystery.  Amen.  And blessed be.

* a version of this sermon was preached in January, 2013, at West Cummington Church

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