Sarah Richards
August 21, 2016


Well, the students are back—school’s started again, all of a sudden, my calendar is filling up with all types of commitments. What was that stuff we were thinking about for the last two weeks, “Slowing Down” to listen deeply, to approach resistance with curiosity? That was a nice break, but I’ve got to get busy! This was my internal dialogue—my monkey mind talking. Sticking to slowing down when everything seems to be speeding up is a big challenge, and it’s this challenge that I invite you to reflect on this morning. Hanging in and really listening, turning to curiosity takes practice, and they are practices.

Our chalice lighting reminded us: “We are gathered to learn, to unlearn, to hear, and to move forward.[i]” I think that slowing down is more unlearning the subconscious, embedded ways of understanding the world, the self, and others than it is learning. Or at least the unlearning is harder to do, more difficult to practice and make into practice. I recently ran across this story of Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, and his daily practice of taking walks, in silence, with one of his students.

“On one occasion, a new student was granted the honor of accompanying Lao-tzu on his walk. That day, the master and his disciple reached a ridge in the mountains just as the sun dropped below the horizon. The western sky was streaked with deep crimson, gold, yellow, like fluttering banners for some celestial celebration.

The young student, in awe at the natural spectacle, burst out excitedly, “Wow! What a beautiful sunset!”

He had broken the strict rule of silence.

The master quietly turned around and walked back to the monastery. Once he had returned, Lao-tzu decreed that the young student could never again accompany him on a walk. He had broken the rule.

The young man’s friends tried to intercede for him. After all, it was only one sentence. What was wrong with commenting on such a glorious sunset anyway?

Lao-tzu explained: “When my student spoke, he was not seeing the sunset any more. He was only noticing the words.[ii]

Yikes! Pretty harsh, from my western extrovert perspective – I totally would have been that student. On the other hand, yup, I get it, the words become a distraction from the experience itself. Kind of like my thoughts about the coming busyness of the fall—my internal dialogue is a distraction from what I’m doing right now, in this moment. For me, trying to unlearn the habit of immediate response—verbally or internally—is a challenging practice. So let’s practice together now.

I invite you now into a moment of meditation. With your feet on the floor, back straight, shoulders relaxed, hands resting on your lap, take a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth…on your next exhale, let your eyes close or lower your gaze, and return to normal breathing. Note the physical sensations: feet touching the floor, the weight of the body on the chair, sounds in the room and outside. Focus on the breath, flowing in and out of the body. When your attention wanders away from your breath, gently bring it back. Simply rest attention on the breath. ….Now let go of the focus on the breath, let the mind go wherever it wants…. And open your attention to the sounds of your breathing, the sounds around you, the physical sensations of your feet on the floor, your hands touching your lap. On your next exhale, gently open your eyes.

Slowing down to pay attention in the present moment is hard enough when you’re by yourself, meditating, or taking a walk, or listening to music, or anything, really. Yes, as the song says, you’ll never walk alone—the monkey mind is always with us! But that’s okay, we need to make friends with the monkey mind—it will calm down when we treat it gently, and then we can really listen. We can get curious about different ways to approach the things that make us anxious, or angry, or just stuck.

So it takes practice to be mindful on our own, what about slowing down when we’re stuck in conflict with another person?

Nate Walker, Buddhist UU Minister, takes on this challenge in his book Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person—Without Exception. He recounts an example of the failure of moral imagination – his own, in his story, “Meeting the One Percent.” One Tuesday evening during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, Nate travelled from his home in Philadelphia to a lecture with his partner Vikram at NYU. They had gotten there very early to get seats, the theater filled up fast. Vikram left his coat on the seat next to Nate, and went to the bathroom. A woman came over, removed Vikram’s coat and sat down. Nate explained that the seat was taken, but the woman stared straight ahead and ignored him. He tried again, noting he and Vikram had been there for a long time, and had come a long way…no response, until Vikram came back. Not budging, the woman said, “We sponsored this event.”

Nate remembers words from his Sunday sermon just two days before:

When we feel the impulse to be enraged, we must accept the invitation to be empathetic and no longer make people the object of our aggression. Well. [He writes] I did not do that at all. Instead, I said, “Oh. You’re the one percent. I’ve been wanting to meet you. You say you sponsored this event. Do you own the chair or the whole theater?”….I stood and said [to Vikram] “She’s a one-percenter—she thinks she owns the joint.” People started to look at us. The woman’s spine became erect, which seemed to add an extra glimmer to her pearls. I, well—I kept going. I said, “You must be someone really important. Are you famous? If not, let me help you be.”

I took out my phone and started, yes, taking her photo. I said, “I think people should know how you behave in the public square.” I pressed the little camera icon while saying, “I’ll label this one Entitlement.”

Oh, my god. I cannot believe I behaved this way[iii].

And that’s not the end of the story: Nate remembers how he later showed the picture around to his friends and colleagues, inviting them to share his indignation. Then a colleague got curious, and asked him why he kept the photo, which helped him to slow down and reflect deeply. He deleted the photo, but that was only the first step in learning and unlearning from his experience. The second step came when he moved the photo to trash, deleting it for good and “returned home” – shared with his faith community the hypocrisy of his Tuesday behavior when compared with his Sunday words. Nate Walker tells this story, and many others, to construct a different perspective on seeking justice by religious liberals, one based in the moral imagination and emphasizing empathy instead of division. His stories and reflections demonstrate that it takes practice, and practice with others, in community.

So even the most well-meaning individuals can become stuck in their responses, whether it’s “Wow! What a beautiful sunset!” or “She’s a one-percenter—she thinks she owns the joint.” And it’s the same for groups—such as the liberal fundamentalists to whom Nate Walker addresses his proposal to practice empathy. What can the practice of curiosity, breaking out of being stuck look like when applied on a wider social scale? Journalist Krista Tippet recalls one such example. She writes:

I have experienced that even with the most intractable lightning-rod discussions that have ripped our families and some of our institutions apart, reframing the animating questions can start whole new conversations. We can reject the predictable posturing and the inevitable stalemate. … I once engaged [the former head of Catholics for Choice] and [an] Evangelical social ethicist…in a conversation about abortion. Our framing question was to explore what is at stake in human terms in all the things we approach when we approach abortion and what makes this subject so exquisitely fraught and divisive. We nearly succeeded in avoiding the language of “pro-choice” and “pro-life” altogether The conversation was big and messy in a whole new way. It was uncomfortable and also thrilling because it opened provocative territory we hadn’t charted before we began—whether the sexual revolution was good for us, and how to rehumanize and deepen our relationship to sexuality in public as well as private spheres. There was a realization in a room full of people that we long to ponder these things, but they had been obscured by the predictable, well-worn debates.[iv]

I’ll bet if we gave it some thought, we could come up with some good examples of predictable, well-worn debates that we’re stuck on right here in the Fellowship, in Carbondale, in Southern Illinois and beyond that could benefit from the practice of curiosity, of reframing the animating questions. In the past two weeks, I’ve mentioned the Continuing Conversations of the Race Unity Group as being an example of a new way of talking about race, and making connections across racial divide —it happens to meet on Tuesdays! You might have other examples. Nate Walker envisions this practice at the center of liberal religious community:

“Each time we gather, someone among us will have the courage to cast a vision. And we will collectively ask whether such a vision is idealistic or realistic. And a few days later that same person will offer a confession and say, “I totally blew it.” We will respond by saying, “That’s what Tuesdays are for—to test our ideals.” That is when we reach out a hand, offer a seat, and suggest pressing delete. In that moment the new game begins. We try again Sometimes we win, and many times we fail. With each round we are given the chance to return home. We return to our religious home to meet people who inspire us to restore our moral imagination, and who remind us to also take out the trash.[v]

So let’s practice together now. I invite you not into meditation, but a moment of quiet reflection and curiosity. How do you practice empathy? How can we, as a religious community practice curiosity in our justice-seeking?

Friends, “We are gathered to learn, to unlearn, to hear, and to move forward.” May we learn to slow down, unlearn the habits of divisiveness in mind and behavior, hear people’s stories with compassion, and move forward with mindfulness for justice. “We are needed now, all of us. All of us together, all those who feel a calling to be who we are to the fullest, make a difference, to give it all we’ve got[vi].”

Let us practice together!



[i] Kendrick, Stephen. 2015. Reading 48 in Lifting Our Voices: Readings in the Living Tradition. Boston: UUA, p. 15.

[ii] Brahm, Ajahn. 2014. Don’t Worry Be Grumpy: Inspiring Stories for Making the Most of Each Moment. Boston: Wisdom Publications, p.189

[iii] Walker, Nathan C. 2016. Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person–Without Exception. Boston: Skinner House, p. 3.

[iv] Tippett, Krista. 2016. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York: Penguin Press, p. 31.

[v] Walker, p. 11.

[vi] Capo, Martha Kirby. 2015. Reading 53 in Lifting Our Voices: Readings in the Living Tradition. Boston: UUA, p. 17.