Sunday, September 25, 2011

Memories of the Future

Originally delivered on 9/25/11
at Mission Peak UU
Fremont, CA.

My relationship with my dog Buddy was truly love at first sight. I had been following his litter online for weeks through the website of a local bay-area rescue group called Second Chance. Finally they announced that this particular group of puppies would be available for adoption at an event the next Saturday. When I arrived I saw that they had created a pen in the middle of the space that was just chock full of puppies. Never had I seen such an overpoweringly adorable site, as I watched several litters of puppies - easily over 20 dogs in total - scampering around, wrestling and playing with each other. I knew that to enter that arena would be to enter into a life-long relationship, because with the power of cute spilling out of that pen, I knew that no one could possibly leave empty-handed.

So, I waded in and sat down towards the middle of the circus. And - this may be a surprise - but for the first time it dawned on me that I was going to have to make an actual choice, a decision between all these amazing dogs. It hadn't occurred to me to think this part through ahead of time: how was one to pick between so many adorable options?

Just as this moment of anxiety began to descend on me, so did Buddy. He simply plopped down on my lap, rolled over onto his back and presented me his belly. I instinctively began scratching his little pink fuzzy stomach and within seconds he was napping on me and I was head over heels in love.

It has now been over eight years since that August afternoon in Marin and I have never regretted bringing Buddy into my life, not for one second. Buddy is my first dog, as I grew up in a cat home. And I know there will likely be other dogs in my life. There already is one more, as I gained Stella along with my wife Nicole. But I know none will ever be like this one. Buddy truly is my best non-human friend, and he is pretty high on the list even when humans are included. Through all of the ups and downs of the last eight years of my life, Buddy has been by my side, just simply loving me. We have traveled through dozens of states together, climbed mountains, swum in lakes, walked on countless beaches, and moved across country together 4 times. His unconditional love is a gift that I will never stop being grateful for. I could quite easily spend the next hour talking about what a wonderful aspect of my life Buddy is, but we are here to talk about all animals, not just my companion.

I suspect that many of you can relate to what I am talking about. For you, it might be a different creature, one with more legs or fewer, one with more fur or less, one that slithers or crawls or swims. So many of us have meaningful relationships with animals that we never get to speak one word to, and there is good reason for that.

Our relationships with our animal friends do so many important things for us. One is that they allow us to map ourselves right on top of them, imagining them in our image and thus connecting with them through our shared understanding of being alike. Another is that they model to us a completely different way to live, because in one very essential way animals are completely different from humans. I always suspected we were different in this way, but it was confirmed for me a few months ago by an interview I heard on NPR. I was listening to Ira Flatow on Science Friday as he interviewed neurologist Antonio Damasio about his new book on human consciousness entitled Self Comes to Mind. At one point Ira asked Prof. Damasio if we should expect animals to have consciousness as well, and his response was that they do, but that it is different from human consciousness in a key way.

In his words: "It's perfectly obvious that it is not going to be a consciousness of the kind we have in terms of scope, because animals will have a limited amount of what I call the autobiographical self, which you and I have in spades, and which allows us to have a full sense of the narrative arc of our life from beginning to where we are today, and something quite unique to humans, I think: the possibility of having already a sense of what the future may be.

I can't imagine that your dog is going to be very worried about Christmas presents or what it's going to do for vacations, but some of us are. We have a plan of what we're going to do tonight or over the weekend. That plan is in fact our anticipated future. We have made plans. We have revised plans. And more important than all of that, we have committed those plans to memory, so that we can, in an almost paradoxical way, say that we have memories of the future. And our present in our consciousness is constantly placed sort of instant-by-instant between the lived past and the anticipated future that we're constructing right now."

As I heard these words coming through my radio, one piece of that last sentence just jumped right out at me: we have memories of the future, and animals do not. Wow! What an enormous difference that is.

Buddhism and many spiritual systems talk about this human phenomenon - that we invest in outcomes that are far from guaranteed. Inasmuch as these plans are what enable us to do and be all the amazing things we humans have done and been, it is also a huge part of the cause of our suffering. This is the core of so much of our human anxiety. Yet our animal friends live, it would appear, completely devoid of that.

My dog Buddy could hardly be called a Zen Master, and he is certainly not devoid of anxiety. Although he has spent thousands of hours trying to unwrap the koan of the tennis ball, he definitely gets anxious. But his anxiety is always caused by forces outside of his control. Basically it is caused by wondering when he will be fed and when I, his master, will come home. That is about it. So as long as he is fed and basically aware of where I am, he is good to go. And according to Prof. Damasio, rather than being busy dreaming of an uncertain future, he is completely living in this present moment.

This concept of living in the moment is indeed the antidote prescribed by most spiritual systems that see this attachment to outcomes as the root cause of suffering. But, as so many of us know from firsthand experience, this is much easier said than done. I think it is fair to say that none of us will achieve the level of mastery that our pets display. But they really can be very helpful in moving us towards the goal.

One of the major ways my life has changed because of having Buddy in it, is that he forces me to periodically stop thinking, caring and doing all of the things I want to focus on so that I can take him on a walk. This means stepping away from the TV and computer; this means not returning emails or reading a book. When I am out walking with Buddy I am forced back into the present moment, one footstep at a time. Of course if one is going to be out walking, it might as well be somewhere beautiful. Nicole and I always make it a top priority whenever we move somewhere new to quickly learn all the best places to take our dogs. And between Chabot and Garin and the amazing regional park system, we are at no loss for options around here.

I often have some of my most incredible moments of truly being aware and in relationship with the moment I actually inhabit when I am out on these walks. Of course, not every animal lover is a dog lover like me. Nonetheless, any relationship with an animal has similar opportunities to stop thinking about ourselves - and more importantly to stop thinking about our memories of the future - and to just be in the present moment with this lovely creature that is so different from how we are. I think that, in the end, this is a huge part of why we have invited animals into our homes - because of this amazing reminder and connection they can be for us of this other way of being.

The Blessing of the Animals service is traditionally about bestowing our blessings upon the animals, but after hearing Prof. Damasio, it sounds to me like we should be much more focused on the blessing that our animals bestow upon us.

About 30 minutes after this service concludes, we will have a wonderful service outside when I will bless our animal friends, one by one, as they deserve. What I would like to do now is for all of us to have an opportunity to be aware of how they bless us.

I would first invite you to take a few moments in silence to think of an animal that you have loved. It may be a pet, it may be your spirit guide, a bird that frequents your backyard feeder, a favorite stuffed animal, or cartoon character, or some other creature that you have shared time with on your journey. Remember what it was like to play with your friend, to feed it and care for it, and to know that it loved you. In the mystery of the silence to come thank your friend and know they will be with you forever. If you feel so moved, please come forward and leave a picture, or memento on our altar, and/or write their name in one of the books and I will include it in the blessing that follows the silence.

Silence... Ring the bell...

With all the energy that is in this room, all the energy we have created here together today, all the energy of creation that animates us all and that wordlessly guides our evolution from form to form, I ask that you bless all of the animals that we love, those that we have represented here on the alter, those that are with us in our minds and in our hearts, those animals that we have known and loved, those that we have required to make the ultimate sacrifice so that our bodies may be nourished; all the animals of the sky, of the ground, those that climb and those that slither. From the depths of the great oceans to the peaks of the highest mountains, we recognize our animal friends as created beings, just like us, with inherent worth and dignity. We give thanks for all that animals do for us and pledge to work harder to protect them in the future.

May it be so. Ashe.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Poured together or blown apart?

*This is the message I wrote for worship at my Congregation on the 10th anniversary of 9/11/11. It may seem strange to any non-Unitarian Universalist who read this that I begin by talking about water. This is because on the first Sunday after labor day most UU congregations celebrate a service called the Water Communion. More info on this ritual can be found here.


When I have worked up a good thirst, and take a big gulp of water, it feels like the cleanest and purest taste there is. And on one hand it is, since most water we drink has been through both natural and human engineered processes to filter it before it reaches our mouths. But on the other hand, your mouth is hardly the first place that water has been. Besides waters journey through drains, down pipes, along rivers, up streams, around oceans, into the clouds, down again as rain drops, suspended in ice, there is also a good chance you are not even the first creature to drink those molecules of water. You see, earth is like a terrarium, one of those glass walled environments many of us have seen in a science classroom or even had in our homes. That is, earth is a closed system, and every drop of water we have has been with us for roughly 4.6 billion years and just continues to be recycled, so it is not impossible to believe that you have shared a drink with Genghis Kahn, or Elvis or Einstein.

Water is, besides birth and death, the thread that connects us all. Not only would organic life not exist without it in the first place, but it likewise does not last long when it is withheld. Our bodies are between 55-70% water, and that gentle balance, a reminder of our oceanic beginning contained within each of us, is extremely important to maintain. And water provides us with an incredible illustration of what true unity is, when one molecule of water seamlessly unites with others as they are poured together. That kind of perfect unity is a high bar for we complicated and multifaceted creatures, but imagine if just for a minute we human beings were made aware that we are in actuality every bit as connected as those molecules of water.

And that is one of the main reasons we use water in this ceremony every year, in order to remind us of the truth of our connectedness. This pouring together of our hopes and dreams, of our sorrows and pains, of our unspoken truths and the aspirations we wear on our sleeves, is a reminder that we are in this together. And it is also a reminder that like the water we pour together, we also come from many different sources, yet still choose to be in community with each other. We choose to once again be poured together into the vessel we call Mission Peak. We UU’s see our differences as a source of strength, rather than as a weakness, and that makes us very counter culture.

And it also makes us very important, because our world desperately needs this reminder. Every once in a while the curtain of illusion blows back for but a moment, and we are all in touch with this truth, but it is all too rare and fleeting. And for many, September 11, 2001 was just such moment. That was certainly the emotion I was most struck with on that clear blue sky day. I remember it very clearly, after finally ripping myself away from the misery being repeated ad nauseum on the television that morning of our innocence being blown apart by airplanes streaming through the sky, my roommate and I went out to take a walk. We had both just moved to Berkeley, having arrived from the east coast less than 10 days earlier we felt light years away from the friends and family we had just left behind in Boston, NYC and D.C.

Unable to reach anyone by phone or email, we felt beyond disconnected, we felt hopeless, and scared and utterly alone. But within minutes of leaving our apartment that feeling began to change. As we walked up University Ave and headed towards Cal campus I began to feel something I had never experienced before.

Eye contact. From everyone. Every single person who passed us on the street looked us right in the eyes. And it was the warmest connection with strangers I had ever felt. It was obvious to me what those eyes were meant to communicate, no words were necessary, I read them loud and clear: “I know we are in this together,” they said.

And for one amazing week, under airplaneless skies, I truly felt that. I felt connected not just to my family and friends, but to so many millions of other people. And I thought, what an incredible moment in history, what a positive and wonderful place to work from. In that moment, anything seemed possible. Please, I pleaded with the universe, may there be someone, somewhere who can help us build on this connection, some great orator who can remind us that it is not merely with our fellow Americans that we are connected, but with all of creation. We needed a great poet or spiritual leader who would remind us that we now lived in a time when the illusion of isolation was fully exposed and the truth of the interconnected web was the reality of the future.

But as we all know, this was not the message we were told by our leaders. Far from ever being asked to examine our own selves, instead of being required to make a sacrifice for the betterment of all, we were told to go shopping. We were told to warm up our credit cards and to empty our saving accounts, because it was essential to save our economy, our souls would be left for another time. And then, shortly thereafter, we were told to support a war, or our very patriotism would be questioned. And instead of being poured together, we were once again blown apart. And, like a flower that blooms once or twice in a human lifetime, the spirit of connectedness and possibility that lay dormant within us all, once again withered away and disappeared below the surface.

But hope did not die that day. It still hibernates within every man, woman and child. I strongly believe that within all of life lives the natural yearning to love and to be loved, to see the other in our own hearts, to make reassuring eye contact with perfect strangers on the street. And that is exactly why what we do here every Sunday matters. Because, unfortunately, there is no great leader who will move this world towards the truth of our connection, there is no one single person who can change the trajectory of 6 billion humans. But rather we must each wake up to this truth, and by living within this reality, we must help others wake up to it as well. It is up to us. It is our voices that must be raised, our bodies that must stand on the front lines of this struggle.

And that is why we return once again to our annual water communion. In this ritual we seek to counter the forces that would seek to divide us, to call to that restless force within us that, when awakened, is as unstoppable as water. We once again pour together our very beings as we struggle to defy all that would blow as apart. May it be so, ashe.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Snarky Minister? Please stop insulting me.

An open letter to Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel,

My name is Jeremy Nickel and I am a minister in the Unitarian Universalist movement, serving a congregation in California. Recently I came across the devotional you penned and posted to the UCC denominational website, entitled “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” At the heart of your devotional is an important message, that “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.” A sentiment I completely agree with and think is at the heart of our call as liberal religious clergy. But for some reason, you chose to wrap this important message in a snarky, mean spirited diatribe against those that identify as Spiritual but not Religious. And as someone who himself became an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister to provide a welcome to this exact group, it feels important to respond to your negativity now, before this divide you have carelessly created becomes a chasm.

Now, one might think that after identifying the insight that spirituality is greatly enhanced by community and accountability, that you would then try and create a bridge between your resource rich tradition and these spiritual seekers. But shockingly you go on to do the exact opposite when you dismiss the Spiritual but not Religious as being “comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.” Wow. How is that for a welcome to the fastest growing group of seekers in America according to countless polls including the 2008 Pew Research Poll on Religion in America? In one sentence you manage to perfectly encapsulate all that repels these people from our congregations. Unnecessarily mean, judgmental, privileged, and just flat out wrong.

I certainly agree that this narcissistic tendency exists in society, but I am afraid I must remind you that it is every bit as prevalent in our churches as it is elsewhere. I wonder why you feel the need to create this straw man of the Spiritual but not Religious, a group you admit you only know from forced airplane interactions, when we have so much work to do in our own spiritual homes?

So Rev. Daniel, let me tell you just a little bit about this group of people whose sacred stories bored you. You see, I have personally always felt that having someone share their spiritual journey with me is one of the most sacred interactions we can have. So I spent a year interviewing the Spiritual but not Religious for a Master's thesis, and trust me, it was far from boring. And what I learned from speaking with hundreds who identify this way, is that they could not be more different than how you have imagined them.

Far from finding ancient religions dull, they delight in studying and reading theology, philosophy and history wherever they can find it in a non-hypocritical presentation. And while many of us do appreciate a good sunset, we are far from this one-dimensional caricature you created. You see, these folks are on genuine spiritual journeys, and told me over and over again that they would love to find a community that could actually support them in their search. One that offered resources without the close-mindedness and 18th century worship so many of our congregations stubbornly continue to provide. And they actually have found plenty of communities that do provide some level of guidance and accountability. Unfortunately because of messages like yours, instead of finding that safe space within our congregational walls, they have found them in Yoga and Meditation classes, book clubs, in small group ministry settings in friends homes, in volunteer associations and online in chat rooms and on blogs, and in countless other ways that all turn out not to be your church. And I think at this point, it is becoming pretty obvious why that is.

It is not, as you mockingly suggest, because they find themselves “uniquely fascinating,” but rather because they find us, and our congregations, predictably close-minded and judgmental. I can’t offer an apology on your behalf to the millions you have offended and made to feel unwelcome, but I can offer them a very warm and very real invitation to my congregation. Far from your rejection of the Spiritual but not Religious, Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country would love to meet you, to hear your stories about sunsets, double rainbows, double helix's and everything and anything in-between. We are a non-creedal movement that welcomes people without judgment no matter where they are on their spiritual journey. Our communities are made up of believers, non-believers, atheists, agnostics, pagans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, seekers, gay, straight, queer, transgendered, young and old, black, white, brown and every other beautiful hue and everyone else too, the only person we are missing is you. And in that respect, I couldn’t agree with you more Rev. Daniel. Our communities are living proof that you don’t have to think alike to love alike and that all of our spiritual journeys are enhanced by being in community and being held accountable by others. Rev. Daniel, your reputation assures me this devotional is not a good representation of who you really are. I hope this experience helps you realize that your fleeting interactions with the Spiritual but not Religious is likewise not a good representation of who they are.


Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel