CLICK HERE to listen to this sermon.
Throughout this month we have been exploring the theme of resistance. I have implored you to join together as a people of resistance in facing the struggles for justice in our world. And you have responded. Over thirty of us joined the Newtown Action Alliance several weeks ago to protest gun violence in front of the Sport Shooting Foundation only a few miles from the tragic site of Sandy Hook Elementary School. That was a remarkable hour, much of which you will be able to read about in my upcoming Sounding article, not the least of which is for the interchanges that came when those of us protesting gun violence, joined the crowd of gun rights supporters. While each of us was “resisting” one another over the issue of guns, we found ourselves in conversation with the opposing side. A sort of human interchange took place there around an issue that has everything to do with resistance.
Today I want to talk about when to know not to resist. When to give in to the path of events unfolding before you. This is not easy to do. We are by our nature, it seems, strivers for a certain outcome. But as the Buddha reminded us two and half millennia ago, striving for an outcome leads to suffering. So when do we take the path of least resistance? The wisdom to know if this is the right path is known to the Chinese as the Tao, the way. It was Lao Tzu, the great 6th century bce Chinese sage and founder of Taoism who said that “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield”. —Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8. When should we be like the rock, holding steadfast to our way and when to be like water, yielding to the contours of life, but ultimately grinding resistance to an end?
I think the wisdom lies first in determining the immediacy of your challenge. If your plane is crashing to the ground then by all means grab a parachute and jump. The story is told of a small plane crash landing, there were five people, Donald Trump, Deepak Chopra, Coby Bryant, and old man and a young girl, five people on board but there were only four parachutes. Coby grabs a parachute and says it would be too great a loss to his fans for him to die and he jumps. Deepak Chopra, grabs a parachute and proclaims that he has more wisdom to share with the world and he jumps, Donald Trump grabs a chute from the girl’s hands and explains that she is running for president. The old man and the girl look at each other. The old man says to the girl “here you take the last parachute, you have your whole life to live”. The girl says “We still have two parachutes, one for each of us, the guy with the funny hair grabbed my backpack”.
So if the impending path is not too dangerous, and if you are finding that pushing against the world is not working, I suggest you follow the path of least resistance, the wu wei wu, of Taoism. When is it time to stop resisting? Well, certainly when there is no other choice. I have found the serenity prayer to be my own ethical compass,
“God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things that I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference”
It is the part about accepting the things I cannot change that suggests a Taoist approach.
Doesn’t that sound better than just accepting your ill fate like some tragic fatalist? Perhaps we need to stop struggling, and fall into the true nature of ourselves. There is a limit to this of course, my true nature would like to stay in bed till 10, when I know my future nature needs to get up and go to Y. But what would our lives be like, indeed what would the world be like, if we fell into the way we are? If we are inclined to sing, to sing, inclined to read, to read, inclined to love, to love those around us
Taken to its logical conclusion, the path of least resistance, does away with the body-spirit dualism, stops attempting to explain our lives as subject to higher purposes and helps us accept things as they are in the here and now of our lives.
I deeply resonate with that blending of opposites and so, I guess I am a part time Taoist. I will push for change, I will drive myself and my people forward towards the beloved community, but I will also let go when there is no point in holding on, to fall into the stream of life, taking me down its river of time. This is especially true at the end of life. I have sat with many people in their last moments of life, and the one wisdom I have observed is that it helps immensely to fall into death, to revere life by giving it up when the time is right. Yes, dying can be painful, but the suffering is almost always worse when we push against it.
Some years ago, on my daughter Courteny’s 21st birthday, I flew up to Oakland where she was finishing her studies at Mills College and we went for tour of Napa Valley. I love great wine, to be honest, it’s one of the reasons I stayed in California for as long as I did, and Courteny, who had been making wine since she was 14 (but never drank it) was my oenophile companion. It was a wonderful two days. Late summer, the vines were just turning, and we sampled some of the finest wines in the world. We took turns being the designated driver. On Sunday we arrived back at her house and as I started to get out of the car, I felt a sudden and sharp pain. My back gave out. Now there are many reasons our backs give out, sitting wrong, moving wrong, too much stress, a pot belly, but there it went and I literally couldn’t move. Somehow we drove to the hospital and they brought me into the ER on a gurney. It was agony to even breathe. They put me on a morphine drip. As it started to take effect, I could feel myself falling and I yelled out, the nurse put her hand on my head and said, “its ok, that is the morphine, just fall into it, don’t resist”. And I did. I felt myself falling into folds of grey satin, and I saw before me, visions of my life, and a sense that I still had so much more to do. I was nowhere near death but I decided later I had had an out of body experience.
I believe now that this was a lesson in the Way of the Tao. Only by falling could I sense the real essence of my soul; the yin of enjoying life’s bounty, with the yang of its struggle towards justice. It was, despite the pain, a moment of profound enlightenment.
“Be who you are” is the last of Forrest Church’s great temperate instructions, “want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.” Even when it pushes against sanity. There was a NY times article about Milt Greek, a schizophrenic living in Ohio who has been trying to channel his higher delusions into a positive center. He tries to ignore the voices of destruction. But he does listen to the voices that implore him to make a better world. Being who we are means embracing our given talents. Sometimes it is right, if the danger of the path is not impending to let the course of events take their turn. I must admit that this is not easy to decide. I am not a full time Taoist but I commend the possibility of taking the path of least resistance, when resistance can no longer drive your life. How can we accept the hidden lessons of life, if we are full up with only our plans, our ego, our desires, and our striving?
As we walked away from the Newtown rally against gun violence, my feet completely numb from the cold, I remember feeling oddly warm about the whole experience. Nothing had changed really. Guns would still kill people, and children, yet, I understood what each side feared and in that understanding, I could feel a wisdom emerging, free of strife, hopeful in its possibilities and alive in the path of justice still before us.
Blessings be upon, you my people, in the words of the Irish:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of Her hand