A sermon and discussion by David Freiman
July 31, 2011
Unitarian Universalist Church of Queens
[perform UUCQ’s usual chalice lighting ceremony]
Hello, my name is David Freiman and this is my wife Ann Beirne. We are honored to be back with you again. We enjoyed the spirited discussion about our last theme. We were originally scheduled to join you in August. I assume many of you know that we are filling in for another presenter who took ill.
We had other plans last Sunday: we were at the City Clerk’s office in Manhattan as straight supporters of the gay couples getting married. Our son Will became quite the celebrity, as many people asked our permission to take his picture. He was even on page two of AM New York newspaper and photos of him and our family were Tweeted and uploaded to Facebook by a number of gay rights organizations. On short notice, Ann was invited to serve as a witness for the marriage ceremony of a colleague.
I am a yoga teacher and to help us all be supportive of each other and to encourage deep listening, I would like to begin today with a brief centering before we begin our talk.
Centering and Guided Meditation
[Meditation on the breath. 2-3 minutes]
Learning and Practice
Like any self-respecting Unitarian Universalist, I like a good cup of joe. [sip]
There is a donut shop in my neighborhood where I get coffee sometimes. I place my order: “medium hazelnut coffee, light with skim, and one Equal.” Then they ask me, “Medium coffee?” “Yes, medium hazelnut coffee.” “What do you want in it?” “Light with skim, and one Equal.” “Skim milk? You want sugar?” “Light with skim, one Equal.” Then the person actually preparing the coffee starts in: “Hazelnut?” And so on. This really taxes my patience. I am speaking coffee ordering language. Why don’t they understand me? After all, coffee is probably the most purchased item on their menu. It is difficult for me to keep cool but I bite my tongue.
In fact, the ability to listen and learn things quickly is a skill that takes years to develop. As I watch my young children learn, I am constantly reminded of how much parents drill language, vocabulary, behavior, and how much babies practice instinctively.
How did you learn to roll over in bed? I watch my four-month-od daughter practice over and over, rolling from her back to her side, back to her side, back to her side, until she learned to roll over.
My two-year-old son continually practices identifying the color of cars when we go for a walk. On his own he loves to practice the alphabet, counting, singing, jumping, and so on. He even teaches the baby. Now he imitates things we say, sometimes to our chagrin. What will he teach her next?
Perhaps the employees in the donut shop need more practice taking coffee orders. There are many times in life when I am impatient with myself for not learning something quickly, or for making the same mistakes over and over. Then I remind myself how long and how many trials it must have taken me as a baby to be able to form a word, move my arm where I want it to go, or produce a smile. I have to give myself permission to experience trial and error, to have a learning curve.
Compassion in our relationships is a skill we have to practice. We are predisposed to discern, which leads easily to judging. Karen Armstrong, delivered the Ware Lecture at the UUA General Assembly this summer, on the topic of compassion. She is a best-selling author of books on the history of religion. Ms. Armstrong said that she hates the expression, “I’ve done my good deed for the day,” because it implies that you are off the hook for the rest of the day. Shouldn’t we do good deeds all day? She observes that compassion is common to the basis of every religion. Every religion has a version of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She has put her words into action with a Compassion project to bring together people from many faiths to make a difference helping others.
Compassion is in our second Unitarian Universalist Principle, “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” which we teach to the children as “be kind in all you do.” It seems like being kind is something that should be second nature, but have any of you read blog comments lately? Does anyone listen to talk radio or watch television pundits discuss the news? When we casually go through our day without being mindful of our UU principles, we sometimes forget to be kind and compassionate. If we don’t practice kindness on our good days, we literally don’t have a prayer of being kind on our bad days. It is even hard to order a decent cup of coffee.
If you are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslem, there are daily and weekly rituals to remind you to be humble, forgiving, grateful, loving and compassionate. You are reminded to be kind and to do good deeds. Unitarian Universalists need a consistent spiritual practice besides fellowship and coffee. As religious liberals we are leery of imposing ritual practices for fear of offense. It took years to introduce a chalice at All Souls and it sits below the chancel to the side, barely visible past the second row. It is also white so it blends in with the white marble behind it. There were members who did not want to introduce the ritual because it was not the way we did things in our congregation. And when the ministers changed a few words in the Bond of Union to make the language more inclusive, it produced outraged debate, with hurt feelings, shouting and tears. When I attended training to teach the Our Whole Lives curriculum, the trainers told us that using a “talking stick” in discussions was not acceptable to some Native Americans because it is a misappropriation of their tradition.
What is the old joke? What is the difference between Universalists and Unitarians? Universalists believe that God is too good to send them to Hell; Unitarians believe they are too good for God to send them to Hell. Is it any wonder that UUs are sometimes criticized for elitism if we do not even engage in regular practices to remind us of our principles and purposes? We pat ourselves on the back with our “Deeds Not Creeds” slogan as if we invented good deeds and as if religions with creeds didn’t get that memo. Really?
At All Souls, our congregation is taking steps to introduce a personal practice–completely voluntary–to start the day on the right foot. We are implementing a strategic plan called All Souls Aspires. This plan sets a course for our shared future, envisioning the kind of church we want to become. By popular demand, our senior minister, Rev. Galen Guengerich has instituted a voluntary Daily Common Meditation. One can subscribe to them by weekly or daily email from the website. Everyone can then contemplate the same quotation on a given day. Galen offers a suggested meditation practice that one may observe.
I think this is a good start as it allows our community to get on the same wavelength each week, just as the readings and hymns at a service are selected by the minister to prepare us for the sermon. Still, for the most part we are on our own with personal practice, and some UUs supplement going to church with social justice or a hodge-podge of personal practices. I have a personal yoga and mediation practice. One method I practice from yoga is known as the Four Attitudes toward People. It says, “In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.” This may seem simpleminded and impractical, but it is a challenging, profound and rewarding practice.
We will return to this after I read you the Story of the Thief and the Mask.
Story of the Thief and the Mask
(traditional, retold by David Freiman, all rights reserved, with appreciation to a retelling at the Siddha Yoga Foundation by _________)
In old China the Emperor decided that it was time for his daughter the princess to be married and he set out to choose her husband.
“But, Father,” said the Princess, “I can not just marry anyone you choose. I must marry the most generous, noble and good man in the empire. I believe that if I look at a man’s face, I can tell if he is all of these things.”
The Emperor announced, “I will then send word to every corner of the empire that there will be a party in the palace where every eligible man may seek your hand.”
Well, the news went out, and practically every man, young or old, handsome or plain, single or married, considered himself a likely suitor.
Now, living in the empire at that time, was a master thief. He was a particularly evil, despicable, sneaky, clever, dishonest man and he had a face that matched, twisted and mean. He was well known and despised throughout the land. He was so infamous that he was recognized everywhere he went. It had started to affect his business. It was getting so bad for him that he was thinking the most awful thoughts possible for him, he was thinking that he might actually have to get a job!
When the thief heard about the party he decided it may be an opportunity to get into the palace.
“I will slip in with the other suitors,” thought the thief, “In the chaos I will steal something precious and slip out in the crowd unnoticed.”
So he would not be recognized he went to the best mask maker in the land. The mask maker was a brilliant craftsman who created a mask with a face so noble, honest and gentle, and so lifelike, that no one would suspect the evil face beneath.
On the day of the party the thief bathed in his golden tub, which, of course, he had stolen. He washed himself with the fragrant soaps and expensive perfumes that he had also stolen. He dressed in his finest stolen robes and wore his finest stolen sandals. He put on his new mask and he went to the palace.
At the festival the princess, as had been planned, generously met every man who attended, gazed at each face and found fault with each one.
When the thief arrived he was astonished by all the wonderful, beautiful things surrounding him. There were golden lamps and silver platters and jade and ivory statues and intricately carved wooden boxes.The thief, tried not to be obvious, but he could not help himself and he stared in amazement. He could not decide what it was that he should steal. The mask hid his scheming face and his avarice.
The minute that the princess saw the thief, she fell in love with him. She mistook the sideward glances of the mask for bowing and deference to her. His face was the most kind and gentle and loving and generous and honest face she had ever seen.
She beckoned him forward and said, “You came.”
The thief could not believe it and froze. Not knowing what to do, he slowly turned his head to be sure she was addressing him.
The princess found this so humble and charming. She said, “I was sure you would be here.”
The thief was so afraid that he it was all he could do to hide his shaking. He was in a panic. The princess read his slow movements as dignified grace.
The thief had never expected to speak to the princess. His stomach was in his throat. He disguised his voice and said, “Your highness, I do not know what to say.”
“You have the most gentle, kind, generous and honest face I have ever seen.” she said.
The thief’s face was doing all kinds of things behind the mask, but his silence impressed the princess as refinement.
“Father,” said the princess to the Emperor, “I have found the man I wish to marry.”
“Daughter,” the Emperor replied, “I will clear the palace and we will begin the wedding preparations immediately.”
The thief was completely surprised. He did not know what to do. The mask hid his creased brow and the cold sweat trickling down his face.
Completely flustered, he said, “Your Highness, I never considered the possibility that a princess would ever actually want to marry me. I am most unworthy of your affection.”
The princess was impressed with his modesty. The thief’s mind was spinning.
Finally, he said, “Your Highness, obviously this is an important decision and it needs careful consideration. You will understand that I need time to wrap up my affairs before I can move into the palace.”
The thief was still searching for the exits and had given up all hope of stealing something now. “I promise I will return in one year with my answer.”
“Oh,” said the princess, “I can see that you are an honest, humble, and responsible man.”
The thief self-consciously lowered his face which the princess took to be the most noble gesture she had seen.
The Emperor said, “It is settled then,” and had his guards clear the palace.
When the thief reached the entrance, a cheer went up in the crowd. The people lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him about the city. It wasn’t until the thief got home that he realized that he hadn’t even stolen anything!
The next morning, the thief realized that all eyes were on him and he would have to wear his disguise until people lost interest in him. As long as he was in disguise and in the public eye, the thief could not steal.
People treated him differently. They gave him their full attention and were interested in hearing his opinion. They were polite and kind and brought him food and little gifts. They invited him to tea and to dinner. They invited him to concerts and theater. Growing up in the mean streets he had never experienced this before.
He learned that these people gave to philanthropy for the poor and contributed to the arts. He saw them volunteer their time on behalf of those less fortunate and for causes.
The thief began to act in a way that was gentle and kind and honest.
He tentatively began to donate to charity and volunteer his time and he discovered he enjoyed it, so he increased his efforts and began to sell the precious items he stole in order to give the money to those who needed it. In time, his stash was completely cleaned out.
The thief gradually discovered that he felt more content and harmonious than ever before.
When the year had passed the thief returned, as he had promised, to the Emperor’s palace.
“It is a shame,” he said to himself. “I am so grateful for the good life I have enjoyed this past year. I have no choice but to tell the Princess the truth and fall on her mercy.”
The thief went before the princess, bowed his head, knelt down and softly explained the whole story to her:
“I am nothing but a common, ugly thief and I was not lying a year ago when I said I was truly unworthy of you.”
The thief told the Princess how a master craftsman had made a wonderful mask to disguise him. The thief looked up with tears in his eyes, and asked the princess to forgive him for his cruel deceit.
“Please spare my poor, miserable soul.”
The Princess, being a kind and generous Princess, said, “I am such a fool. I thought that I could tell what kind of person you were from your face. I forgive you and your life will be spared. This must have been a terrible year for you. It is I who should apologize to you. But first, will you remove your mask so I may see your true face?”
The thief, fearfully, took off the mask. The Princess gasped. Then she said, “But why would you have a mask made to look exactly like your own face?” The thief was confused once more and he asked to look into a mirror. Surely enough, the face that stared back was exactly the same as the mask.
Well, as you probably guessed, the thief and the princess got married. They hung that mask in a place of honor in the great hall and they had wonderful, gentle, kind, generous and honest children.
This fable starts off as a story about deception. The red herring is that one should not judge based on appearance alone. One thinks the story is going to be about the vanity of the princess and her comeuppance. The princess judges all the other men and they fall short based on their normal appearance with all of life’s flaws and imperfections. She is fooled by an impostor who tilts the scale in his favor by crafting a perfect appearance. But in the middle of the story it unexpectedly turns out to be about the transformation of the thief. The story ends with a twist as the thief miraculously embodies the transformation and is truly a changed man.
Let’s unpack the factors and conditions that led to the transformation. What is the teaching of this fable?
What clues does the story give us about the factors and conditions that foster transformation?
- Consistency: regular practice: Forced to practice 24/7.
- Duration: daily practice over a long period–a full year.
- Strong motivation: fear of exposure, punishment, even death.
- Fake it till you make it: has to pretend to be something he is not.
- Morality: Inherent knowledge of right and wrong and how a good person behaves–can figure out the proper things to say and do.
- Environment: Treated differently by society. People seek him out and want his recognition.
- No access to previous temptations: unable to steal because of public scrutiny.
- Practice new habits: Due to being in the public eye, changes actions, his reading habits, his personal habits, his behavior
- Enjoyment: feels good and content because he is being good and acting content.
- Encouragement: His good feelings create a desire to access more good feelings by improving himself in other ways, such as education, appreciation of the arts, engaging in good conversation
- Empathy and compassion: after learning the plight of those less fortunate, wishes to help others.
- Service: Helps others through service and charity which creates a positive feedback loop so he feels better about himself.
- Gratitude: appreciates the opportunity he received.
- Remorse: regrets his old way of life and does not wish its return.
Fake it till you make it
“Fake it till you make it” is a common strategy taught in 12-step programs. It means to imitate confidence so that as the confidence produces success, it will generate real confidence; that is, pretend to be happy until the happiness is real.
Behaving your way to success
Dr. Phil McGraw calls this “behaving your way to success.” He says, “There’s a thin line between ‘fake it till you make it’ and behaving your way to success,” It is about doing things that will give you small successes on the way to successful change. He says that if you want confidence, you have to take on a confident posture. This can be as simple as putting more confidence in your walk and in your demeanor.
Is this a story about Fake it Till You Make it or about Behaving Your Way to Success?
Attitude in Relationships
I would like to suggest that the thief’s change came through developing a new attitude in his relationships with others and himself.
The sage Patanjali, circa 400 BCE, said, “The fire of disciplined practice destroys impurities and leads to mastery of the body and senses.”
Patanjali is saying that a spiritual practice done regularly and over time is like a fire that burns away the behaviors, actions, and thoughts that no longer serve you. This leaves you able to think more clearly, see more truthfully, take right action, and respond appropriately to situations. No more self-destructive choices. No more “stinking thinking.” Patanjali could teach Dr. Phil a thing or two.
We can summarize and group the changes in his relationships using the practice I mentioned earlier, Patanjali’s Four Attitudes toward People (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.33). You will find it in on the last page of your handout.
In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of:
- friendliness toward those who are happy,
- compassion for those who are suffering,
- goodwill toward those who are virtuous, and
- indifference or neutrality toward those we perceive as wicked or evil.
How does the thief come to practice each of these attitudes in the story?
[Other topics of discussion: Two movies with similar transformations by people who did not engage in a spiritual practice with intention are Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Mrs. Doubtfire with Robin Williams. These will likely be the topics of future sermons–and I know they have been done by others already.]
Thus, if you practice these relationship attitudes diligently, then, in time, your relationships will be easier, you will stop engaging in self-sabotage, you will achieve greater success and you will experience more happiness.
Conclusion – The Garland
I will leave you with this thought. The guru teaches, “lift one flower and the whole garland comes with it.” In other words, work on one area of your life and all the others will improve as well. That is the reward of steady practice. The takeaway then is if you practice these relationship attitudes diligently, then, in time, your relationships will be easier, you will stop engaging in self-sabotage, you will achieve greater success and you will experience more happiness.
Anyone for a cup of coffee?
[Play CD: Java Jive, The Ink Spots]
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