University Congregational Church
Oct. 2, 2016
“The Path: Vitality”
Based on The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life by Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh
Mark 13:35-37 and Proverbs 4:18-22
Quotes from Inward Training
If I were to ask you to draw a circle to represent your life, what would be in the center? Carole Mayhall wrote an article in Christianity Today about “The Secret to Joy”. She asked her friend the question. The friend responded, “My problems.”
A week later, Mayhall was visiting her younger sister who had just been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Gray and perspiring, her sister was visiting with a nurse who had come to see if she could help. “Oh, I’m a bit fearful of the pain and process of dying – but I’m not afraid of death!” her sister exclaimed, and then she continued to talk to the nurse. She asked the nurse about her training, her children, and her work. In her weakened condition, she was still able to show her care and interest in someone else.
Afterwards, as she was processing it, Mayhall realized that her friend’s heart was occupied with her problems and her sister’s heart was occupied with joy. My guess is that all of us would like to have the strength of character (the strength of faith) to honestly say that the center of our lives is filled with something hopeful, joyful, or faithful.
How can we learn to look at the glass as half-full?
How can we find the joy in living instead of fighting discouragement?
What is the difference between a person who celebrates life and one who trudges through the days feeling depleted?
How can we experience spiritual vitality on a regular basis?
In the Gospel of Mark (13:35-37), Jesus cautions his followers to keep awake, because they did not know when or where God would appear. “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the Master of the house will come, in the evening, or at mid-night, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Abbreviated in the RSV (Robin’s Standard Version)… “No matter whether you’re living or dying, you’re not supposed to be sleeping.”
What is the recipe for spiritual vitality? How can we develop into highly attuned beings that have the capacity to transform the world?
Proverbs 4: 18-22 describes this vitality:
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like deep darkness;
they do not know what they stumble over.
My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh. NRSV
In the last 25 years, documents recovered from the tombs of China’s ancient elite date back to the mid-4th century BCE. Among them is a mystical composition of poetic verses about inner cultivation. It has been called 3 different names: Inward Training, Foundations of Mysticism, and the Original Tao.
These poetic verses also address the issue of spiritual vitality. Each of us, it explains, has 5 potential virtues that need to be cultivated:
• Sagacity (good judgment)
As we develop these virtues, we refine our lives and have balance, especially needed when we have to face adversity. As Inward Training exhorts: “To end anger, there is nothing better than poetry; to set aside worry, there is nothing better than music.”
Every day we feel tossed about by events around us. A lunch with a friend? We may feel happy. Someone snubs us at work? We may feel depressed. A morning run when the weather feels perfect? It makes us feel ecstatic. We twist our ankle at the end of the run? We feel frustrated. These emotional extremes are exactly what Inward Training says devitalize us, exhaust us, and drain us of spirit.
However, these triggering events – whether they make us feel giddy or jealous or furious – are external. Our emotions are being pulled back and forth by things that happen around us, and any feelings of aliveness we may experience this way will not sustain us in a vital way.
That’s why many passages in Inward Training exhort us to pay attention quite literally to our bodies: from standing up straight, with good posture, to regularly practicing deep breathing, to eating regularly but in moderation. What we think of as physical cultivation is responsible for nurturing emotional stability.
So how can we cultivate this spiritual vitality? According to Inward Training, in addition to the physical aspects of spiritual vitality, we can train our senses to respond more profoundly to the world around us. When we are more aware of the world in all its dimensions, we are better able to interact with it. Music, poetry, art, and literature are important elements of cultivating a spiritual vitality. The more we immerse ourselves in them, the more we understand how discrete things resonate with one another.
Inward Training says,
“With a stable mind at your core,
With the eyes and ears acute and clear,
And with the four limbs firm and fixed,
You can thereby make a lodging place for vitality.”
Although we are studying ancient Chinese philosophy, I want to bring in a beautiful Sioux Indian story that also tells about how to find spiritual vitality. In it, the Creator has gathered all of creation and asked for advice. He said, “I want to hide something from the humans until they are ready for it. It is the realization that they create their own reality.” The eagle said, “give it to me. I will take it to the moon. They will never find it there.” The Creator replied, “No. One day they will go to the moon, and they will find it.”
Then the salmon said, “Give it to me. I will take it to the bottom of the ocean. I will hide it there. They will never find it.” And the Creator said, “No, one day they will go to the bottom of the ocean, and they will find it.”
Then the buffalo said, “Give it to me. I will take it to the middle of the Great Plains and bury it there. They will never find it.” And the Creator said, “No. One day they will cut into the skin of the earth, and they will find it even there.”
Then the bear said, “Give it to me. I will take it to the mountains and I will hide it in a cave. They will never find it.” And the creator said, “No. One day they will even level the mountains, and they will find it there.”
Then Grandmother Mole spoke up, and everyone was quiet because everyone knows that Grandmother Mole, even though she has no physical eyes, sees with spiritual eyes, because she lives in the breast of Mother Earth herself. Grandmother Mole said, “Put it inside of them.” And the Creator said, “It is done.”
While most of us in the modern world think of spiritual vitality as a personal pursuit, Inward Training teaches that this cultivation is not about the self. In fact, spiritual vitality is about cultivating energy that is identical to the rest of the creation. When a person is able to meditate and learn balance with all living things, then she is able to express spiritual vitality.
We are called by the ancient word and by the world around us to form webs of connection and relationships with people. They may be drawn to us because of how we energize them. As we become known for being this sort of a person, our relationships and connections grow.
We further develop the ability to respond to people at their best. If we encounter someone burning with jealousy or anger, or someone burdened with sadness or anxiety, we are able to respond not to those energies but to the person’s other facets, bringing out his or her healthier energies. We can be a spirit who pulls things together in harmony, and shift all kinds of situations.
This is a different idea of power and vitality. This is the kind of power a person can have, that resonates with the world, not by imposing their will on it. They don’t affect the world by doing the things that we tend to think of as active and powerful, but by seeing things with full clarity, behaving flawlessly without falling into patterned responses, and through small shifts.
Spiritual vitality is a choice. Some of us look at others and wish we could be like them – they seem to be born with an intuitive sense of God and a spiritual richness. But it’s only an illusion. Spiritual vitality is a discipline, a decision, and a choice. We can choose to look at our world and ourselves through human means or we can choose to develop the eyes and heart of God in the depths of our being. It is up to us to choose the hard work of developing this balance and connection in our lives. What is in the center of your life?