Reflections on the Jewel Net

The Season of Wonder













If you look in the dictionary, there are two uses of the word “wonder.” The first meaning curiosity, as in “I wonder how that works.” And the second meaning awe, as in “They gazed in wonder at the star(s).” The two meanings feel different to me. When we wonder about something, there is the sense – whether it’s true or not – that we can use observation and reason to eventually discover the answer. When we wonder at something - marvel, behold in awe - there is more the sense that this is something so grand, so amazing, that all we can do is experience it. Yet the two definitions of wonder are clearly related; both start with the recognition of not knowing. As I thought about it, I realized that the times when I do not know - whether it’s curiosity or awe - are the times I feel most alive; and that I’ve pursued that feeling throughout my life.

You see I started vocationally as a scientist. Got a PhD in neurobiology from Caltech and worked in a research lab for seven years at SUNY Stony Brook. But then changed professions. Studied religion at Georgetown; then got a job working for the UUA. (That’s the national association of Unitarian Universalist congregations.) I got into science for the same reason that most scientist do, I think - curiosity, the desire to understand the world around us. And left science once I realized, belatedly, that while I loved asking questions and designing experiments, I almost always felt disappointed by the results. Knowing answers seemed far less rich, less magical to me, than posing questions. So I switched to a field where answers are much harder to come by than questions. (Come to think of it, no wonder I’m a UU.)

Of course, we're here to celebrate Christmas, but there are several other holidays this time of year as well. One of them is Bodhi Day. That's the day when Siddhartha became the Buddha, when he “awoke” and attained enlightenment.

On one level, Buddhism, like science, is a quest to know. We practice in order to see more clearly, to know more truly. And if one believes the sutras, they tell us that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he could see everything. Every previous life. Every karmic consequence. The entire interdependent web, past, present, and future. He didn’t teach about those things because they are not relevant to the goal of Buddhism, which is to end suffering. But if the sutras are to be believed, with full enlightenment comes perfect knowing.

Whereas Christianity values mystery, NOT-knowing. The mystery of the Divine incarnating as a poor infant in an occupied land. The mystery of what the shepherds saw that night, trembling in awe. Every year, whether we believe it literally or not, many of us repeat the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in order to re-experience wonder.

Yet knowing and not-knowing are not mutually exclusive. Followers of Zen are taught the value of not-knowing, or beginner’s mind, which isn’t the same as confusion or ignorance. Not-knowing means always being aware that we don’t see the whole picture, and thus approaching each situation with curiosity. After all, we are not enlightened yet. (Or at least I’m not.) In order to learn, it’s necessary to first recognize that we don’t know. When we think that we already know, we miss things due to preconceived ideas, filter out due to interpretations, and dismiss due to judgments.

In science too, every conclusion is to be held lightly, tentatively. So that one is always open to new information that might transform our understanding. Looking back, I realize now that, while I don’t regret it, it wasn’t necessary to leave science to maintain wonder, if I had kept my focus on the process and not the so-called results.

Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Jing tells us, “To know that we do not know is health. To not know yet think we know is disease.”

We live in a society that values knowing over not knowing. Not-knowing is seen as weakness, whereas knowing - certainty - is seen as strength. What’s more, the people who “know” tend to assume the worst. That things are going to turn out badly, that people can’t be trusted, that suggestions won’t work. Those who “know” are quick to say ‘I told you so’ and to make others feel foolish for hoping and trying and, yes, failing.

Right now, this country seems determined to hurl itself backwards a half century or more, and daily reports of violence assail us; it is extremely tempting to despair. Most of us, myself included, think that we know what the next few years are going to be like. But if we “know” that it’s hopeless, then we will not see opportunities. We fulfill our own naysaying prophecy.

This darkest time of the year is also the season of wonder. The season to tell stories of babies born who will redeem our world, of oil lamps that burn eight times longer than reason would allow, of people who sit under trees until they become Buddhas. Let us have the courage to NOT know what is not possible, to believe that the future is still ours to imagine.

It Matters Where We Came From

Between my serving as worship associate on this Sunday and helping to create the accompanying communal altar for the congregation, I’ve been thinking about Day of the Dead and ancestors a lot these past few days. The other night while Dad was watching the Warrior game, a commercial for a beer came on - Modelo Especial. The commercial ended with “It doesn’t matter where you came from; It matters what you’re made of.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re using a uniquely USAmerican perspective to sell a Mexican beer.” Because Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a recognition that it does matter where we came from, that what we’re made of is in large part due to where we came from.

So... the Chinese traditionally do not celebrate Dia de Muertos. That holiday originated with the peoples of Mesoamerica. But we observe similar practices at other times of the year. Multiple times of the year. (Our ancestors are pretty demanding.) We too visit the graves of departed loved ones on special days, and we too invite our ancestors home for a visit and meal at the family altar.

In my family, the biggest ancestral observance is QingMing. On QingMing we visit the graves of loved ones and bring their favorite foods and drinks. When Mom died in 2009, QingMing became a lot more complicated, since she's in Colma and my paternal grandparents are in Walnut Creek.

Last year, in 2015, QingMing fell on a Sunday, so I was at church, prior to driving all over the Bay Area. Before I left UUSF, I worked up the courage to do something I'd wanted to do since I first joined the congregation. Sheepishly, furtively, I approached the sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King, who lies just outside our church. I awkwardly bowed (3 times), and poured a small libation of coffee for my spiritual ancestor. The embarrassment I felt came from what other people might think, who were passing by. Not because of any question in my mind that Thomas Starr King is my ancestor and deserves an offering.

Starr King may not have contributed to my genetic makeup, but he nevertheless contributed to the making of me. I am who I am because he was who he was. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson's blood may not run thru my veins, but his ideas run thru my mind. And just as my forebears sacrificed and strived to make life better for their descendants, so too has my life, our lives, been bettered by the labors of Clara Barton and Frederick Douglas. I've learned from my aunts, and I've learned from Sophia Lyon Fahs and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. I am who I am because they were who they were.

To recognize our spiritual ancestors is to recognize the interdependent web, and the ongoing unfolding of life. It is to recognize that we don’t just come from a lineage of blood and that we are even now, no matter what age, continually being created, and helping to create others by our actions.

On my altar at home, there’s a picture of Mom, the names of my grandparents written in Chinese, a small pantheon of deities, AND representations of several spiritual ancestors. They can’t all occupy the altar at once - there isn’t enough space - but they make their appearances depending on whose counsel I most need at the time.

Now, it is easy to recognize someone as an ancestor - in other words, someone we have a connection with - when they are people whom we greatly admire. It might be harder to recognize people who are neither familially related nor did they necessarily say or do anything profound. In fact, I likely would never have known they existed had their lives not been cut short. Mario Woods, surrounded by five San Francisco police officers, crouching against the wall, obviously scared of what he likely knew was going to happen next. Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, a 14-yr old girl from El Salvador who died alone in the desert, while trying to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. 14 year olds should not be anyone’s ancestor.

Their likenesses and those of others who were killed by injustice share space on my altar with family relatives and bodhisattvas and luminaries. Because they too have something to teach me.

We honor our ancestors so that we know who we are.

Reflecting on Evil

Fountain of Peace, St John the Divine

By most counts I am a religion nerd. Not only is it a favorite topic of discussion, but if there is a church, temple, mosque, synagogue, shrine or ritual place of note in the area that allows visitors, I am there. So when I learned that the fourth largest Christian church in the world - the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - was in New York City, I of course had to go.

The cathedral itself was grand, Gothic, and a little too dark, but what I most remember is that just outside the building was a sign inviting visitors to stroll in the “Children's Peace Garden.” And in the center of the small garden, dominating the space, was a very large statue of the Archangel Michael, wings unfurled, sword drawn, standing over the prone and nearly decapitated body of Satan, his horned head hanging over the edge of the piece by a single bronze ligament. And I thought in horror, “Who in their right minds would put something this violent in a children's peace garden?

Reading the inscription, I understood. For the creators of this garden, peace comes when good annihilates evil. In their theology, there are good people and bad people. If you are a good person, then goodness is inherent and evil is external to you, and if you are a bad person, then evil is inherent in you. Actions are neither inherently good nor evil, people are. So killing an evil person is a good act because it reduces the amount of evil in the world. The ends justify the means. According to that theology, Michael decapitating Satan is the triumph of good over evil.

This is the same thinking, regardless of religion, that motivates religious wars and attacks. It's the thinking behind capital punishment. It's the thinking behind most murders, actually, like the many we’ve grieved this month including in Baton Rouge this morning. And if I am honest, it's the same thinking, on a smaller scale, that I revert to when someone has hurt me and my first reaction is to hurt them back. Verbally. When my desire is to say something so devastating that the person is overwhelmed and does not mess with me again.

In those moments, I have to stop and remember that from a Buddhist perspective, overcoming evil doesn't work that way. First, as the Heart Sutra says, “All phenomena in their own-being are empty.” No thing including us is inherently in and of itself anything. All things including us are conditional upon other things. (That whole interdependent web of existence.) Thus, people are neither inherently good nor evil. Whatever state we're in is the result of our conditions.

Now, emptiness doesn't mean that there is no good and evil. It's not “all relative” and “anything goes.” Rather, the focus is on actions, not people. Those actions that benefit beings are wholesome and can be considered good and those that cause harm to beings are unwholesome and can be considered evil.

The focus is on actions, or karma. In common usage, karma is often interchangeable with punishment. Sometimes, punishment and reward. In the original Sanskrit, however, the word “karma” literally means action. Simply put, karma is the consequences of our actions, all consequences of every action. We cannot take any action, good or bad, without it affecting both the wider world AND ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, even an angel of God such as Michael cannot kill someone, even the Devil himself, without that act of violence tainting their own being, making them more inclined to violence in the future. Because of karma, the means are the ends. Thus, we cannot end evil through violence, because violence itself increases the evil in the world.

And unfortunately, that includes name-calling and insults. The only way to overcome evil is to meet it with good, to meet violence with compassion. SO MUCH easier said than done. But then I remember that the good news is, if every action we take affects our being, then when we do kind things - even if we don't feel particularly kind at the moment - it makes it easier for us to be kind in the future. Little by little, it makes us better people. We really can “fake it to make it.”

Thank You Body

Being religiously savvy Unitarian Universalists, most of you probably know that one of the core teachings of Buddhism is impermanence. All things are conditional and thus all things change. For example, people get older. When you're a kid this seems like a good thing. As an adult, not so much. (Young adults may not yet relate to this, but trust me, it's coming.) You probably also know that Buddhism teaches that attachment, or grasping - for example, not wanting things to change even tho all things change - is the cause of dukkha, the Sanskrit word that gets translated into English as suffering, or dissatisfaction.

Knowing this, I try to not be attached. I try to accept that everything changes, including us. People are born. People die. And those of us in between those two events, grow older with every day. So it is partly due to age (and partly due to inactivity) that my joints are far less flexible than they used to be. I’ve suffered frozen shoulder on both sides, limiting their range of motion, and my knees ache if I sit in half-lotus position (forget full-lotus). My eyes don't focus quite as well as they used to. I accept getting older with the intellectual understanding that aging is inevitable, unless you're dead, and thus there is no point in lamenting the changes that come with it. But while stoic acceptance of aging may mitigate dukkha, suffering, dissatisfaction, I can't say as there was any joy in that approach.

Back in February I took a day-long workshop at East Bay Meditation Center or EBMC, in Oakland. I really did not know what to expect from the class other than I admire one of the two teachers and wanted to learn from him. And he did not disappoint. But it was the other teacher, whom I did not know, whose wisdom that day was transformative.

One of EBMC's core teachings is to embody the Dharma. Literally. Reminding us that we are embodied beings. So I was not surprised when this other teacher started leading us in movement meditation. But I was a bit apprehensive about whether my body would be able move as requested.

I needn’t have worried. Using language that acknowledged our various degrees of mobility in the room, she guided us to stretch and bend, so far as we were able to, emphasizing that whatever we did was enough, asking us to be gentle with ourselves. She encouraged us to focus not on what our bodies could not do but instead on what they could and did do. And that for me caused a profound shift. I realized that, without being consciously aware of it, I’d been thinking of my body as like a machine that my mind rides around in, and machines break over time. But that way of thinking only looks at change in terms of loss, and the best you can do is to accept it. Instead, our teacher reminded us that whoever we are is in large part due to our bodies, however they are. We are continually becoming something new together.  AND, she reminded us of the things our bodies do for us that we usually take for granted.

Our hearts beat without us having to ask.
Our lungs breathe without us having to tell them to.
Stomach digests.
Liver filters.
Our bodies – right down to the individual cells - provide for us without our even thinking about it.

By the end of the meditation, I felt well-cared for, loved, and was overflowing with gratitude. For this body, my body. Instead of stoic acceptance of what it/i could no longer do, I felt JOY, in breathing, in moving, in being alive.

So.... we can't do moving meditation here, but I invite you to repeat these words in your minds:
Thank you heart, for faithfully pumping blood to every part of my body to nourish my cells.
Thank you lungs, for steadfastly drawing in life-giving oxygen and pushing out CO2.
Thank you marrow of my bones, for making the blood cells that protect me from infections and injuries.
Thank you muscles, for flexing and extending to the extent that you are able.
Thank you body.
Thank you. Thank you.

Truth In the Time of Babel

A few months ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I no longer trusted my friends to tell me the truth. Some people expressed hurt feelings, and in retrospect, I should have anticipated how that would sound. But I wasn't questioning anyone's honesty. Rather, I was expressing dismay at feeling lost in a sea of misinformation.

It must have been easier in the days of Edward Murrow and then Walter Cronkite. Whether justified or not, the general perception was that you could trust these journalists to tell the truth, even if governments or corporations didn't want them to.

But by the time my generation came of age, that sense of trust in the media was gone. One of the defining characteristics of GenerationX is that we are distrustful of institutional authority - whether it's political, religious, advertising, or media. While sociologists have attached that cynicism to GenX, this distrust of mainstream media has arguably increased across all age groups.

And no wonder. We all know the biases of Fox News. And that CNN helped Bush and Cheney sell the public on the second Iraq war. We know that the mainstream media don't just report the news, they create it, shape it by what they choose to report and how they frame the story.

Just as a brief aside, in Buddhism the three poisons that stand between us and realizing our Buddha nature are hatred, greed, and delusion. Buddhist scholars like David Loy have argued that these three poisons are institutionalized in our society – hatred in the military industrial complex, greed in Wall Street and advertising, and delusion is institutionalized in our mainstream media.

For a while, the rise of the internet and then social media seemed like the antidote, because we could get information from other sources. Whether it was events that the mainstream media didn't cover, or someone pointing to biases in their reporting, we could learn about it via independent sites. These stories were shared among friends, first via email and now via Facebook and Twitter. And I trusted my friends when they shared these stories.

Now, my friends tend towards a certain political persuasion. Occasionally, a story would be shared of someone of the other persuasion doing bad things, to which we'd be outraged, only to learn later that it wasn't true. Either it was a misunderstanding, or exaggeration of a partial truth, or a completely fabricated story on a website designed to look legitimate. I've shared a few myself. And such mistakes are understandable. Your friends share something. You trust your friends. And sharing takes only a click, which makes passing on false information too easy. But it's also because we have a tendency to believe stories that fit our preconceptions whereas if a story doesn't fit, we're more likely to investigate its validity or just dismiss it outright. Confirmation bias.

At first these questionable stories came up only occasionally.

Then, election season happened.

And my online friends support two different candidates.

My Facebook feed was overrun with posts about the two candidates or their supporters. Claims of people doing bad things, to which they'd be outraged, but I wasn't sure were true. Or exactly opposite claims that couldn't both be true. Wading thru these articles, the only thing of which I'm certain is that we are locked in collective a feedback loop of confirmation bias. People preferentially believing and sharing those stories that confirm their preconceptions and discounting those stories that conflict. And since we tend to be friends with those whom agree with us, we preferentially see stories that confirm our view and the effect is magnified. In addition to the mainstream media deluding us, we are deluding ourselves.

I no longer trust my friends to share the truth. Or trust myself for that matter. Lost in a sea of misinformation. How do we navigate? Where is our anchor and what is our compass? Well, as an anchor I'm keeping a list of websites that have proven from past experience to be reliable. If a controversial story comes up, I'll try to remember to look to these sites to see if they confirm it. And as a compass, this rule of thumb – if a story validates my preconceptions, scrutinize it carefully, and if a story challenges my preconceptions, try it on for size. I'm not saying that I always succeed. Just the other day, I shared a story that while factually true was two years old and thus misleading, because it fit my preconceptions, and because I trusted the person who shared it. So the challenge continues. And if anyone has suggestions for how they navigate, I'm all ears.

Mother Earth Does Not Need Saving

In June of 2009, I was still reeling from my mother's death from cancer the month before when two DC metro trains collided near the stop I took every day, killing 9 people. One evening shortly after the crash, I got off that stop after work, walked by the flowers left for those killed, turned towards home, and then saw them... dozens, maybe hundreds of fireflies, flashing on the lush green grass. They didn't care at all about the recent deaths – they were looking to reproduce, to create life. Lives end but Life continues.

As we near the end of Climate Justice Month and approach Earth Day, some people talk about needing to "save the earth." But Mother Earth does not need us to save Her. It is us humans and our cousin species who are in serious trouble. Our populations are built around predictable sources of water, and as weather patterns change with rising temperatures, some places suffer drought and others flood.  Either way, sources of clean water become scarce, and people fight for control. The violence in both Darfur and Syria have been linked to climate change and things will only get worse.  Not to mention the poisons we're digging up and sending into our air, water, and soil.  So the need to act is urgent, particularly for those of us who are poorest, most vulnerable, as we saw with Katrina and with Flint. But Mother Earth, Pachamama, Gaia... She will ultimately be fine with or without us.

We've all seen plants growing, even blooming, out of cracks in concrete and asphalt and the cypress trees clinging to the craggy rocks in Monterey. I don't know how many of you have been to Bryce National Park but there are enormous trees growing from the dim light of the canyon floor up all the way until their tops surpass the canyon walls and they finally see direct sun. How many seeds fall and are unable to take root, or even if they do germinate are unable to survive, because the conditions are too harsh? But even as the vast majority don't make it, a few do. Any one life is fragile and vulnerable, even species can be extinguished, but Life collectively is amazingly resilient and adaptive.

There is a famous study of the adaptation of peppered moths in England to environmental changes brought on by industrialization. Before industrialization the moths were a light grey to help them blend with trees and avoid predators. As soot from the factories stained the tree bark darker, the moths too became darker grey to match the trees. Of course, individual moths didn't necessarily adapt. Countless lighter colored ones were eaten; the ones that happened to be darker survived and were able to reproduce. Collectively, the population adapted.

We are now living during the Sixth Great Extinction, by our hand. Unless we act, it's predicted that up to ¾ of species on earth will die. But Life on Earth has survived five other mass extinctions and will most likely survive this one. Some species are already adapting to fill the new niches created. For example, populations of mosquitoes have exploded in more northern latitudes and higher altitudes as temperatures climb high enough for them to live there. And populations of American robins that migrate south are declining, but those that now stay north where winters were once too cold are rising. Both pink and sockeye salmon populations are migrating earlier than they used to, to better deal with warming waters. (Personally, I care more about cheetahs and rhinos than I do mosquitoes, but Mother Earth does not distinguish between insects and cute, fuzzy mammals the way humans do.  We are all Her children.)  Many species will die; others live on.  Lives end but the glory that is Life continues.

Anthropomorphization and Objectification

Image from

    I grew up in San Francisco in the neighborhood of Parkside, one block away from the city park. There was a small copse of trees and bushes there that together created a private space, if one was small enough to crawl into the center. And there, sitting on the cool earth against a tree trunk in the filtered sun, I could hear the birds and insects and, I thought, I could hear the trees. Talking to each other, joyfully. And taken all together – the sun, the earth, the chirps and buzzes and especially the trees - I heard God telling me that I was part of and connected to all. Loved.

When I was nine, my Buddhist parents sent me to West Portal Lutheran school, where I was taught, among other things, that God was NOT in the sunlight and the trees, and that humans were special, separate from the rest of creation.

By age 16 I had rejected Christianity, in favor of the rational reductionist materialism of science, which taught me to look at things objectively; not subjectively. To distance oneself mentally and emotionally from the world we observe. Rational people do not anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects. That is, rational people don't attribute human qualities to things, like our “superstitious” ancestors used to do.

So trees cannot be joyful, let alone talk to each other. They are just … things that are useful to us, as wood to build new things, as lungs for the planet exchanging CO2 for oxygen, or as prettiness to look at. Trees are objects; we are subjects. Subjects have inherent worth – worth in and of ourselves. Objects only have worth if they are useful to subjects.

Science has given us so much – and even that is an anthropomorphized thought – so it's not my intent to disparage science. But over time, following the rational, objective approach, the world seemed less magical, less loving to me. What I've found is that, if one thinks of trees as objects whose worth is dependent upon their being useful to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about (non-human) animals. And if one thinks of animals as objects whose worth is dependent upon their use to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about fellow humans. The circle of who has worth gets ever smaller. The distance between us, ever greater. This type of thinking justified slavery both then and now. It is what allows people – usually men but increasingly women too – to rate other people on whether or not they are “do-able.” It's why this society cares so little for those who are aged and/or disabled, who are of “no use.” It's what allows people to write open letters to the mayor complaining about having to see people on the street who are not “contributing to society.” And it is why I get anxious when people ask me “what do you do?” – a very common question – yet I worry, am I being useful enough?

So much of our society actively trains us to objectify others, creating deeply ingrained ways of thinking, of which we may not even be aware. It requires active resistance on our part to counter it, to balance it by training our minds otherwise. So I decided, if I'm going to err on one side or the other, instead of treating subjects like objects, I'd rather treat objects like subjects. I'd rather anthropomoprhize trees than objectify humans. (Incidentally, scientists have recently discovered that trees do indeed talk to each other and support each other.) I'd rather strive to enlarge the circle of who has worth, and recognize our kinship with all things.

The other day I was at East Bay Meditation Center and in the context of talking about mindfulness our teacher, Mushim, mentioned thanking the tea cup for holding the tea. Faint alarm bells about anthropomorphization rang but they were drowned out by a louder, deeper joy welling up in me. To thank the teacup is to be grateful, to not take it for granted. As an object, its existence barely registers on my consciousness, except when things go wrong, like if it breaks or is dirty. Otherwise, it's just a conveyance for the tea, which I drink also without much notice, thinking instead of my next task. I've done that with tea, and honestly, I know I've done that with people. As a subject, whom we thank, the cup has my attention and has inherent worth. I/we are fully present to the moment, between the self, the tea cup, and the tea.

Solstice Rest and Reflection

Like many of you, I consider it my duty to stay well-informed, and often times that desire to be informed conflicts with the desire to.... remain hopeful about the world, and humanity.  Almost daily it seems, a new video of another person, usually black, being killed by police bullets.  On the one hand, the terrorist attacks of ISIL, on the other, xenophobic attacks against Muslims.  Desperate refugees being turned away at borders. Murders of transgender people. Attacks against women's health care providers. New laws to further burden the homeless. Poisons in our water, earth, and air.  Overwhelmed, my instinct is to withdraw –  to contract into the protective cocoon of my home and closest loved ones.  And then berate myself for exercising the privilege of being able to do that.  The question always is, is it ok to withdraw occasionally, and for how long?

Many of you may know that the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, because Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year with respect to the Gregorian solar calendar.  In fact, almost all the major Chinese holidays are lunar – they're seasonal but don't fall on solar dates – with two major exceptions, one of which is Winter Solstice, or Dong Zhi. Historically the second most important holiday in the Chinese calendar after New Years, Dongzhi is a time of family reunions, feasting, and making offerings to our ancestors and to heaven.  In ancient times, winter solstice was the start of the new calendar year (which frankly is the only starting point that makes sense to me).  And even tho solstice marks the darkest time of year, we all know that the coldest time usually happens afterward, in January and February.  In an age before electricity and central heating and cars, winter was a time to rest and to reflect.  Not just for our Mother Earth but for her people as well.

The longest night of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) will be Monday night, and the shortest day Tuesday.  After that, the nights will shorten, the days will lengthen, as yin recedes and yang advances, until we get to summer solstice and the directions reverse.  The Taoist yin/yang symbol is a representation of this yearly cycle.  In Taoist cosmology, yang is male/heaven/light/warmth/active/activity/expansion/summer, and yin is female/earth/darkness/cold/passive/rest/contraction/winter.

It may be that our very earliest ancestors feared the sun might disappear. But logically, by the time people had a concept of what the winter solstice was, they clearly already knew by definition that the sun would be returning.  At least by 1000 BCE, which is the earliest known record of the yin/yang symbol, people understood the annual cycle of light and dark, and winter solstice rituals were a celebration of the resurgence of yang, of light.

I want to be careful here.  It would be unreasonable to deny that we, being diurnal creatures, have an instinctive fear of the dark.  We need light to see, to be able to move around our environments safely.  Moreover, we need light to live – for plants to grow, which provide both our food and energy. And many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder during the shorter days of weaker sunlight. So it makes sense to celebrate the return of light.  Yet I do not want to perpetuate the idea that light is “good” and darkness is “bad.”  Knowing that yin and darkness is seen as feminine in Taoism.  Knowing that many of us – whether consciously or subconsciously – see darker skin as less “good,” and how that results in the devaluing of black lives.  There is already too much of that theology out there.   We need light to live, yes, but we also need darkness.  To rest.  To dream.  One form of torture is to keep people in constant bright light so that they cannot sleep.  LIFE thrives in the balance of light and dark, yang and yin.  It isn't darkness but imbalance that is destructive.

So I want to return to the practices of my ancestors, our ancestors.  After the frenzied activities required to celebrate solstice (and other winter holidays), I want to take the following winter days to rest and reflect, trusting that the period is both temporary, and necessary.


Losing Face

Back in 2010, some Unitarian Universalist congregations were already deeply involved in work on immigration, but most of our congregations weren't yet aware of the escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in several states. That changed in April of 2010 when Arizona passed SB1070, which was the most punitive law against undocumented immigrants at the time. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention to Arizona, and calls went up to boycott. The UUA had previously scheduled our 2012 General Assembly to be in Phoenix, so a heated debate ensued as to whether we should honor the boycott or go to Phoenix anyway but working with local immigration activists to protest.

No where was that question more hotly debated than among UUs of color and anti-racist white allies. For some of us, laws such as SB1070 posed a direct threat to self and/or loved ones. For others of us, this was a crucial moment in which our actions would demonstrate whether we UUs really lived the values we espouse. (Much like the Black Lives Matter movement is right now.) We all agreed on the importance of the moment but not the correct course of action. A decision was to be made in June, at General Assembly 2010 in Minneapolis, and during the weeks leading up to it, arguments flared in emails, on list-serves, and on social media.

I had my opinions but generally avoided the heat, until one day during such a debate, I was rebuked. By an elder UU of color. A minister and a long-time leader in our association. Someone whom I greatly admire and whose opinion of me mattered deeply to me. In the semi-public domain of Facebook, he sharply dismissed the points I was trying to make, and dismissed me as someone who “likes to argue.” His words were actually really mild so far as internet arguments go, but hurt deeply coming from him. Someone I admired had questioned my motivations, my character. Moreover, given his stature within a community that I treasure, I feared others would turn against me too. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face as I weighed different possible responses. What would be the most effective way to make him and everyone else witnessing the exchange realize just how wrong he was?

Luckily, I put off my retort to talk first to a friend. She asked me, “Is this relationship important to you? Are you willing to lose it in the process of defending yourself, even if you feel you're in the right?” It had never occurred to me to not defend myself, to drop the argument altogether. The idea that people might be swayed by his words against me still gnawed. But with her encouragement, I set aside both pride and the bullet point arguments I'd compiled, and told him a broader, single-sentence truth - that he has always had and will always have my deepest respect. With my friend's help, I did this even though I still felt wronged, still felt shaken, and actually had little hope of reconciling any time soon.

The response was magical. His words back to me were warm and gentle. And when we met in Minneapolis, he greeted me with a big bear hug. All ill will melted away.

As I relate this story to you now, it seems kinda silly. An online disagreement. Happens every day. But relationships do end on such arguments.

To be dissed in public constitutes a loss of face. The Chinese actually have two different phrases that can be translated in English to losing face – diu lian and diu mianzi. Diu means to lose, and lian means your literal, physical face. Whereas mianzi refers to how one appears to others. For example, when we say in English that someone is “putting on a brave face”, we are referring to mianzi. And just as lian and mianzi have related but different meanings, so too losing them respectively means related but different things. To suggest that I was causing trouble because I “like to argue” threatened my lian; it implied something about my moral character. Because it came from a respected elder in the community, it also threatened my mianzi, or social standing. Upon thinking about it later, I realized that even though I had not used harsh words, by openly questioning this elder's position, I too had inadvertently threatened his mianzi, which is probably what prompted his response. By re-iterating my respect for him, I gave back what I'd taken away – ge mianzi, giving face – and thus he was better able to do that too.

If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you: when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

The Physics of Congregational Singing, Or Why I Go To Church

When I was a kid, especially in middle school, I used to love to sing. To myself. All the time. It was in junior high that my depression first manifested, tied with fears of inadequacy and failure – but the act of singing lifted my spirits, momentarily melting away whatever cares I had. Even when I graduated to high school, I still loved to sing. Until one day my mother said to me, “You have such an awful voice. I don't know why your voice is so hard to listen to; your father and I both have good voices.”

It didn't happen immediately, but over time I sang less and less, becoming more and more self-conscious about it, and eventually stopped. The things I struggle with – perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish – these are things that I know many of us struggle with to varying extents. And sometimes, unfortunately, these fears cause us to give up things that we actually enjoy doing.

For years, I avoided singing at all except for the obligatory “Happy Birthday”, and even then I'd mumble along hoping others would pick up my slack. Better to not sing than to ruin the sound with my awful voice.

I stopped singing until the Fall of 2003. That's when I first stepped in to All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC and was so moved that I immediately committed to becoming a UU.

At first the hymns were painful. It'd been so long since I'd sung, and as y'all probably know, like everything else singing is a skill that requires practice. The less you do it, the worse you are at it. I could hear my weak voice wavering. I could feel as I ran out of breath before the end of a note. But something about doing this painful, potentially embarrassing thing in the context of a UU church made me want to persevere.

See, I had bought in – heart and soul – into the vision of the Beloved Community that All Souls preaches, the vision that Unitarian Universalism preaches, that UUSF preaches – come, with all your imperfections, your weaknesses, and still be embraced into community. The only thing that we ask in return is that you commit to creating this community with us.

So I sang, without fear of judgment, and without judging others. And lo and behold, together the congregation actually sounded pretty good. The All Souls Choir even recorded a CD that included the entire congregation on a couple of tracts.

There's a scientific explanation for why untrained people singing as a group sound better than untrained individuals. In physics, when two sound waves vibrate in the air at the same time they get "added" together. The parts of the two waves that are in sync with one another get amplified and the parts of the two waves that are out of sync get canceled out. (As an aside, that latter part is how noise canceling headphones work.) If instead of only two sound waves, we have multiple waves, the same thing happens to an even greater extent. When a person sings, especially an untrained person, there are usually fluctuations in the pitch. But with a whole group of people singing together, all our fluctuations happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas the good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. The over all effect is that weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I think that is a good metaphor for a congregation in general, not just while singing hymns.

Some of my unchurched, “free-range” friends sometimes ask me about my involvement with a congregation. “Why do you bother going to church?” It's a legitimate question. After all, I can hold the same UU values by myself, and be able to sleep in on Sundays, and not have all those committee meetings....

I go to church because it's in church that we actually get to practice living those values, knowing that we'll make mistakes. If there is any place in which it is safe to make mistakes, then church is it. (Or at least it should be.)

In community, all our fluctuations – our momentary lapses and bad days - happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas our good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. Weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I go to church because we have the potential to be better together than apart.


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