Food: We were advised not to drink water, or anything not from a bottle, not to eat raw vegetables,especially lettuce, not to eat fruit unless it has a peel you can throw away.
Sorojchi: altitude sickness. This is for real. Fatigue, shortness of breath, vivid dreams, trouble sleeping, nosebleeds, loss of appetite, headache, dizziness. I had each and every symptom.
Medicine: specifically what you take to ward off altitude sickness. Nauseated me. As did the typhoid oral vaccine. Worse than that is malarone, the malaria preventative. The symptoms are severe and include persistent vomiting. Malaria seems preferable.
Peru is not for the faint of heart.
During the Buddha’s lifetime, more than 2500 years ago, Hindus prayed that after death they would go to heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal god. Brahma was understood to be the source of love and in order to dwell with this god, Hindus had to practice the Brahma abodes, or the Four Immeasurable Minds: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are the abodes of true love and if one practiced them, it was believed that they would grow in the practitioner until they embraced the whole world. These Four Immeasurable Minds came into Buddhism as well, though not for the purpose of dwelling with god, but as the best way to realize the Buddha’s spirit. I’ve been thinking about each of these and I want to explore them with you because they have great relevance for our world today.
The second of the four immeasurable minds is compassion. It’s a word much in use but not so clearly defined. What do you think it means? Forgiveness? Understanding? Loving? Mercy? Pity? Kisa Gotami, a young woman, married a man who loved her very much. In time, she gave birth to a son. She and her husband were exquisitely joyful and lived together quite happily. Sadly, two years after their son was born, the child became quite ill and died very quickly. Kisa Gotami was devastated; her heart was broken. She was so stricken with grief that she refused to admit that her son had died. She carried his small corpse around, asking everyone she met for medicine to make her boy well again. Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him if he could please cure her son. The Buddha looked at Kisa Gotami with deep love. He said, ‘Yes, I will help you, but first I need a handful of mustard seed.’ When the mother in her joy promised to collect the seed immediately, the Buddha added, ‘But the mustard seed must be taken from a house in which no one has lost a child, husband, wife, parent or friend. Each seed must come from a house that has not known death.’
Kisa Gotami went from house to house asking for the mustard seed, and always the response was the same: ‘Yes, we will gladly give you some mustard seed. But alas, the living are few and the dead are many.’ Each had lost a father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. She visited one home after another, and every home told the same story. By the time she got to the end of the village, her eyes were opened, and she saw the universality of sorrow, Everyone had experienced some great loss, each had felt tremendous grief. Kisa Gotami realized she was not alone in her suffering; her sorrow had given birth to a compassion for the larger human family. Thus, Kisa Gotami was finally able to grieve the death of her son and bury him, and she returned to the Buddha to thank him and receive his teachings.
Compassion isn’t sympathy and compassion isn’t empathy. Although all three words stem from the same Greek root, pathos, which means one’s experience, particularly what one has suffered, their different prefixes give them different meanings. Empathy has the prefix en, which means in, so combined with pathos empathy means to have an inner state of emotion, to suffer within. Empathy is knowing another’s suffering inside yourself, maybe because you’ve been there before. Empathy both validates and understands our suffering. This is one reason why specialized support groups are so effective. There’s often something healing in being with people who were, or are, in the same boat. A person who has mourned the loss of a love can usually understand our broken heart and offer empathy. A cancer survivor can offer empathetic courage to one newly diagnosed. Those who have shared painful circumstances know about these circumstances in a way that an “outsider” never can. That shared knowledge and feeling makes empathy possible. Its understanding of the pain is so powerful.
Sympathy is the prefix sun, which means along with, in company with. Symphony, for instance, is the coming together of sound. Sympathy is coming together, standing beside someone in their suffering. Not necessarily sharing it, but coming together because of it. We offer people our sympathy. It’s a way of saying I’m sorry you’re in pain. Let my caring about you comfort you. Sympathy is healing because when others reach out to us we don’t feel so alone in our sorrow. We may not always feel empathy because our life experiences differ. We may, though, extend our sympathy even if we haven’t a clue about what it feels like in another person’s shoes. Sympathy recognizes suffering with kindness. It recognizes it, acknowledges it, and offers goodwill. That is powerful.
Compassion is the Latin prefix cum plus pathos. Cum also means, like sun, in company with, but contains a shade of difference. A companion, is one who shares bread with you, cum plus panos, bread. Compassion is to share suffering. What would it mean to share suffering? Think of yourself carrying a heavy load. You arms ache, your legs ache, you think you cannot go another step. The person feeling sympathy will feel sorry that you are struggling so. The one who feels empathy will know what it feels like to struggle. The person who feels compassion will step forward and shoulder a part of the burden. In bearing some weight, they make it easier for you, even though you still carry the larger part. Compassion, the second of the four immeasurable minds, is the intention and the capacity to relieve and transform suffering. Compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering, and in the relieving, transform it. It does this by sharing suffering. Sharing suffering means to lighten its load. When we care about one another’s suffering and take steps to lessen it, we are doing the work of peace and justice. Compassion is far more than simply feeling good. When we help to carry one another’s burdens, we get to understand them and our view widens. Such understanding, coupled with caring and generosity of spirit, motivates us to an ethic of justice.
Many of us have known suffering. We’ve had hard lives or we have experienced tragedy, loss, betrayal, violence. Perhaps we’ve participated in these also. The tragedies of our lives help to define us, both who we are now and who we were then. Even tragedy that affects whole groups serves to define those groups. Most of us can remember where we were on September 11, 2001. We know the effect of that tragedy on our self-identity as a people and our subsequent behavior in the world. Personal tragedy marks our lives the way a bookmark holds the page of a book. When I was five years old my mother contracted tuberculosis and went away to live in a sanitarium for eighteen months or more. I was five and I didn’t understand where she was going, or why. Or if she’d ever come back. I was in kindergarten when my mother left and finishing second grade when she returned. A defining time of suffering in my life? Absolutely. In a painful way tragedies touch our deepest parts and we are forever changed.
So when we talk about compassion as an intention and a capacity to relieve and transform suffering we have to recognize that it can be very hard to want to let go of our suffering because on an important level, our suffering is our individuality, or so we think. It’s ours. Who would we be without it? What would it mean for me to want to let go of that childhood tragedy of losing a mother for almost two years? Who would I be without it? Letting go of that suffering does not mean I forget it. It does not mean I pretend it didn’t affect me. An intention to relieve and transform my own suffering means, for me, that I don’t want to live in the grip of it. I don’t want to remain caught up in those painful feelings. Maybe most important, I don’t want to think of myself as a victim of my mother’s tuberculosis. I don’t want to present myself to others as a victim, but rather as a strong and resilient person who came through a difficult time. It will always be a part of my history but I want to know, and to show, the fear, sorrow and helplessness of that little five year old has transformed into courage and competence. The intention to relieve suffering means we have to intend to let go of it and view our own stories through a different lens.
Compassion, though, is not only the intention but also the capacity to relieve suffering. We may very well think it good to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, but can we do it? What would it take? How do we relieve another’s troubles? How do we relieve our own? In three main ways. The three building blocks of compassion: acceptance, empathy, understanding.
We relieve suffering by accepting one another exactly where we are. Your friend, your spouse, your child, your parent comes to you afraid, worried, angry, down. You let them know that you accept them where they are. You say something like, “I see that you’re feeling really bad right now.” No saying, “What are you so upset about that for?” No saying, “What! You should be over this by now.” No pretending it isn’t there. No saying, “It’s your own fault.” Just acceptance and recognition, without judgment. And for those of us who, out of the goodness of our hearts, want to fix the problem, give advice, make the person feel better, simply accepting him/her is very very hard to do. But we also know that we don’t hear advice we’re not ready to take and we can’t feel better on cue because someone else tells us to and we are not broken and so need no fixing. Once my wallet was stolen out of my backpack. That was upsetting and I felt a little violated. I went home and told someone in my family about it and she said, “Well, why do you go around with your wallet in a backpack? You should put it in your pocket instead.” Great advice, but I wasn’t ready to hear it and it did not relieve my suffering. Actually, it added to it because now I also felt like an idiot. I needed to get past my initial feelings of upset before I could recognize the sensibility of moving my wallet out of the backpack. Maybe if she had said, “yeah, that is upsetting” it would have helped me. Just experiencing someone accepting us wherever we are in the moment can be the impetus for finding our own ways out.
Secondly, we relieve suffering with empathy. In other words we try to gauge what it feels like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Maybe we don’t know what it’s like to have a wallet stolen, but we might know the feelings involved with losing something valuable. Empathy begins with careful listening, taking note of what is said and focusing upon the other person. No outdoing one another in troubles. “You think you had a heart attack? I had a heart attack and required bypass surgery. Want to see my scar?” “Your dog died? Well, my dog got this rare disease and . . . ” You know how someone ostensibly wants to comfort you and ends up dominating the conversation with his/her own troubles? Can you think of a time when you sensed that another person really understood what you were going through? When I have experienced that kind of empathy I have felt my own load lightened, my burden eased.
Finally, we relieve suffering with understanding. We don’t have to agree in order to understand. We don’t have to approve. But if we can see where the other person might be coming from and offer them some indication that we “get” them, it makes a difference. The night before I got married my mother and I had a huge fight. It seemed as if she was criticizing every choice I had made. Right in front of the whole family. Very unusual for us. We were just going around and around and then suddenly I thought I understood what was really going on. I’m an only child and I thought my mother was afraid she was losing me. So I said to her, or yelled really, “I’m not abandoning you. I’ll always be your daughter.” And that was the end of the fight. I had understood and she had no more need to criticize me.
Why does compassion relieve suffering? Because, as you probably know yourself, when we give each other the gift of acceptance, we start to feel better. Things don’t seem quite so out of control. When we give each other the gift of empathy, we feel that we have been truly heard and seen. We can release feelings and thoughts and it is okay. When we give each other the gift of understanding, we don’t feel quite so alone. We start to calm down. Compassion breaks our isolation, soothes our pain, provides support, and in doing all of that it gives help. Acceptance, empathy and understanding, offered by another to us helps us to to better accept ourselves with empathy and to better understand ourselves. It’s the beginning and it opens up something in us, enabling us to figure out the next steps, to unstick ourselves. How amazing the world is when people want to relieve one another’s suffering and have the skills and the capacity to do so.
Remember though, compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering. Not to end suffering, but to lessen it. We can accept, we can listen with empathy, we can understand; our very presence in that way is healing. But we can’t take it away. We learn not to expect that we will make suffering go away. Not the suffering of anyone else, not our own. We learn not to expect that we will fix it once and for all, or make it better. If we think we can eliminate our own suffering forever, we’re only fooling ourselves. Life contains suffering. I don’t know why it is so, but it is. If we think that our role is to take responsibility for everyone else’s suffering, we will undermine our compassion and find failure and frustration over and over again because we cannot fix one another’s pain. We can help to make it less but we cannot take it away. Relieving suffering means helping to carry the load, not shouldering the whole thing ourselves. This is a hard lesson – to care without being tied to a good outcome. Compassion means to be with suffering, not to expect that we can make it disappear. Can we do that?
Willingness to let go of our suffering. Acceptance, empathy, understanding — the building blocks of compassion. They are powerful. Their presence moves us to do what we need to do. It frees us to make choices. Compassion is a practice that flows back and forth, within the self and beyond the self. Understanding, empathy, acceptance are what we can give to ourselves and to others, and they are enough. Compassion is a way of being not easily achieved, but worth the attempts we make at it. Like Kisa Gotami, when bad things happen we do not want to experience them. But when we come to learn that others also feel grief, or anger, or sadness the way we do; when we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our suffering; when we can begin to gain some kind of insight into ourselves and our experiences, then compassion grows inside and compassion grows outside. May compassion fill our lives. May it be so.
Peruvians are Catholic, but a strong current of the Inca spirituality remains. We attended an Offering to the Earth ceremony and by accident came upon a Blessing of Waters ceremony.
A shaman (male or female) prepares a bundle of coca leaves and other materials, on which people have prayed their blessings and wishes, chants, and burns the bundle. Ceremonies can take many hours. Lots of music.
Crisis Chaplaincy Program Graduation
April 13, 2013
The Reverend Dr Linda Anderson
I want to tell you that it is my pleasure and my honor to be here. I’ve been in ministry for twenty five years, serving congregations and more recently serving as a chaplain and educating others to be chaplains. It’s a special calling. First, let me offer my congratulations to you upon your completion of the Crisis Chaplaincy program. For the past ten weeks or so you have learned, not only about the role of a chaplain, but also about yourselves and what you are capable of. Now you will go out into the world, as volunteers, to respond to the spiritual and emotional needs of people in crisis. That is no easy task, as anyone who serves as a chaplain knows. So secondly, I want to offer my gratitude to you. For every day and every night that you are called to an emergency and you stop what you are doing or you get out of bed or up from the dinner table, or you turn off the TV after an already long and tiring day, and go out into the unknown to help a stranger, I thank you. We all thank you.
As you embark on your chaplaincy, I have three things to ask of you. Number one: don’t ever forget that you make a difference. When things seem completely awful, devastated and broken beyond repair, when it looks like the wounds are too severe for any healing to take place, when too many people have too many needs to attend to, don’t forget that you make a difference. Don’t lose faith in the value and the goodness of what you are doing. I tell you this because sometimes crisis feels overwhelming and you are just one person and you can’t possibly do everything. Don’t forget that what you do matters to someone.
Have you ever heard the story of the Starfish? Star fish live in the sea and instead of blood they have water circulating in their bodies. They come in many colors and some of them have more than five points to their star shapes. They are not fish, despite their name. On their undersides they have feet, which allow them to walk along the bottom of the water and hold onto rocks and the like. So the story goes that a young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” (adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley)
We make a difference to someone. And even though we wish we could do it all and even though we stand helpless in the face of disaster and crisis, our efforts make a difference. Don’t lose faith in the goodness of what you do, even when, and especially when, it never seems like enough.
Number two: don’t lose faith in the goodness of other people. You will be called to emergencies and some of them will have resulted from accidents and some will have resulted from the acts of destruction that we human beings can inflict on one another. We can be cruel and mean, thoughtless, stupid, and the consequences of our actions can do untold harm. As a crisis chaplain you’re going to see the effects of human beings at their worst. But you are also going to see human beings at their best. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Stephen Jay Gould, a professor wrote an editorial in the New York Times and he said, “every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” 10,000 acts of kindness. I have held onto that saying these past eleven years because I have needed to remember it. The acts of hatred seem big and their effects devastating. I get to thinking that all we are is cruel. It’s easy to overlook the smaller acts of kindness. Half the time we don’t even know the person who did them because they remain anonymous. The person who called 911. The one who waited to make sure the responders arrived. The one who brought coffee to the family in the waiting room of the hospital. Or a blanket. Or a shoulder to cry on. The passers by who said a silent prayer at the scene of the accident. The one who stayed after her or his shift was over, just to help a little more. 10,000 small acts of kindness. When the world seems to be nothing but crisis caused by the carelessness, the ignorance, the violence of other people, look around for the acts of kindness. When life itself seems to be too risky, when bad things happen to good people and you have no answer for the suffering that comes, look around for the acts of kindness. Look for the helpers. You will find them. They are always there. You are not alone. Let the kindnesses you find lift you and inspire you in your work. Don’t lose faith in the goodness of people.
Some people say the starfish story does not end where I ended it. They say that when the man heard what the little girl said, he came up beside her and started picking up the starfish himself and throwing them back into the sea. Soon other people on the beach joined them and lots of starfish were saved.
Finally, number 3: don’t lose faith in the necessity of taking care of yourself. It can be exciting and deeply gratifying to serve as a chaplain, to help people in times of crisis. It’s what we are called to do. Caregivers are terrible at taking care of ourselves. In our great desire to serve and to help we can forget about ourselves. We can forget that we need to take a break and rest. We need to be cared for. We need someone to tell our stories to. We need to spend time with our families and our friends. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are indispensable or that nobody else can do it as good as you can or that you cannot stop because there’s so much to do. The beach is always going to be full of starfish washed up on the sand. You make a difference to the ones you throw back in the water. But you can’t do it alone and if you try you will do harm to yourself and the people who love you. Others will come and stand beside you and throw the starfish back into the water as well. It is not selfish to respect and honor yourself. Don’t lose faith in the necessity of taking care of yourself.
I want to end with a poem by a minister in my tradition. Choose to Bless the World by Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the Intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
A holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love,
Protesting, urging, insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life as a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
May you not lose faith in the goodness of what you do; may you not lose faith in the goodness of other people. May you not lose faith in the importance of taking care of you. As you have chosen to bless the world with the gifts of your chaplaincy, may you in turn be blessed. This is the prayer of my heart.
Thank you for listening to my words this afternoon.
North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Jamesport Meeting House
April 7, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
Welcome and Announcements
Prelude Donna Demian
Lighting the Chalice and Opening Words (#515 We Lift Up Our Hearts in Thanks)
Hymn #38 Morning Has Broken
Sharing of Joys and Sorrows
Spirit of Life Hymn #123
Message for Children
Offering/Offertory Donna Demian
Meditation (from Luke)
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not notice the log in your own eye? What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Silence
Morning Message: Less is More The Rev Dr Linda Anderson
“What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. (Life is what it is about, I want no truck with death.) If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence could interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive. . . .” That is one of my favorite quotes from Pablo Neruda and to me it means less is more.
Less is more. Less is more? Think about it. We are taught by our culture, by our economy, by our history that more is better. When asked how much is enough, Donald Trump said “Just a little more.” Supersize it. Onward and upward; bigger and better; you can’t have too much of a good thing. If our civilization isn’t progressing, we are in decline. If a company doesn’t expand, it shrinks. If a person doesn’t make more and more money, he or she has less and less money. Even some religions teach that more is better. Religiously speaking, everyone boasts of the god with the most. The most power, the most knowledge, the most judgement, the most love, the most truth. My god is the best. My god knows all, sees all, controls all. My god is the only god. You’ve seen the bumper sticker “My god can beat up your god?” One draws the conclusion, then, that if more is better, less is worse. Less is inferior; less is unworthy. Who wants to have less under those conditions? Who wants to be less?
The picture on the order of service is from the Amazon region of Peru. There are only two seasons there: high water and low water. This, obviously, is high water time and the family who lives in this house was about to be flooded. We boated up to them and they told us something of their life. They had two rooms with only a table for furniture. At least seven people lived there, sleeping on the floor and using the river for all their water needs. There was no electricity and no running water or indoor plumbing. They fished and grew some crops like potatoes, which they sold. Our guide assured us of their happiness with the simplicity of their lives. I really can’t speak to that. I suspect he was not telling us the whole story, though I don’t know what the whole story is. To me life seemed poor and hard, but then of course it would, given where I come from. Is their less really more? Or is it truly less? I thought of me and Margie. We had come to Peru with two huge suitcases, which we were lugging around everywhere. You just never knew when you were going to need that extra pair of shoes or the fleece jacket in the Amazon, where it is always between 80-90 degrees. So why not take almost 90 pounds of luggage to Peru? In our case maybe the river people could teach us something about less is more.
Why do we cling to the notion that more is better? To strive for always more, always better defies our experience of the nature of life. To paraphrase poet Wendell Berry, we dance the circles of life, the cycles of the years. We can see the cyclical nature of life as day becomes night becomes day; as fall becomes winter becomes spring; as the young are born and the old die. We can experience the changes of our own maturity, of our own aging. In some ways we become less, in some ways we become more. Life seems to hold more and less in some kind of ever-shifting balance. We are both more and less at the very same time.
Why do we cling to the notion that more is better? On the large level, I think, we cling to more is better because our life is finite. Our time has an end. And we know it. Oh yes, we live as if it didn’t; as if we weren’t going to die. We deny the face of death, banish it to the corners of hospitals and nursing homes where most of us never have to see it at all. We wage war against time, defying its limited nature and longing for an unlimited supply. We stay young as long as possible so we don’t have to be old; we learn to do three things at once, racing from here to there, so that we can have more time. But deep down we know: we know that we can’t have more time. There are 24 hours in each day, no more, no less. But believing that more is better, and living that way, and accumulating more and more: more knowledge, more things, more people, more space, more wealth, more health, is one way to cope with, and at the same time deny, the finite nature of our lives. Having more provides some measure of illusory security. After all, life is risky. Nothing is guaranteed, we know that too. We could lose it all in a second. But if we have more, maybe it will protect us against the vagaries of existence.
All of which feeds a sense of scarcity, of not having enough. That’s why I had a suitcase almost as tall as I am. We brought three containers of bug spray for five days in the jungle. How many legions of mosquitos did I think I was going to encounter? It embarrasses me to tell you this, but fear of the unknown, fear of the uncertainty of the trip took hold. I didn’t know what I would find so I tried to anticipate every possibility so I could feel secure. And believe me, we were not the only ones with giant suitcases. More is better because we fear we won’t have enough. Less is worse because we fear we won’t have enough. Scarcity makes us hold onto that which we have all the more tightly, even as we want more, for scarcity breeds scarcity and if we come from a scarcity mind, then we will never have enough, no matter how much more we have. Scarcity breeds scarcity.
On the other hand, if we come from abundant mind, a way is found for there to be enough. Once upon a time a farmer died and left her land to her son and daughter. The son married and had seven children. The daughter remained unmarried. During a particularly hard and long winter, the daughter got to thinking of her brother next door and all of his kids and she decided to give him six sheaves of wheat from her storehouse, anonymously. So in the dark of night she filled her wheelbarrow and deposited the wheat beside his barn. Unbeknownst to her, her brother was thinking of her at the same time and wondering how she was doing alone. He decided to give her six sheaves of wheat from his storehouse, anonymously, and while the woman was carrying wheat to her brother, he was carrying wheat to her. Imagine each one’s surprise to find six sheaves of wheat beside their barns the next morning. Well, the winter went on. It got even colder. The brother carried twelve sheaves of wheat over to his sister’s and the sister carried twelve sheaves of wheat over to her brother’s. Then fifteen. Then twenty. Then, at last, on a moonlit night, while carrying twenty four sheaves of wheat, the paths of the brother and sister crossed. They realized the identities of those anonymous givers of wheat. They laughed and embraced and the next day made a feast together. Abundant mind brings enough.
If we can begin to believe that we already have enough, then we can share our resources more readily and most of us really will have enough. If we can courageously face our limited time and all the unknowns and uncertainties of our lives, and let go of some of our desires for absolute security, then more will no longer be automatically better; less will no longer be automatically worse. We will be satisfied with less, having put away the unconsidered, anxious craving for more. Less will be enough. Enough will be abundance. Less will be more. This is what I mean.
Years ago, as I began to pack for a wonderful 2 month sabbatical in Europe, my carefully crafted plan had been to bring all bags onto the plane with me. First because I didn’t want the airline to lose my luggage and second because I had to be able to move around easily from place to place. However, I am a packer, as you have learned. I always carry all I need, times two. It’s a kind of a security thing, stemming from scarcity mind and all that, but this time I wanted to travel light: for the reasons I just named and as a spiritual exercise in less is more. My plan was, alas, foiled before I left home when, after skillfully packing my cheerful blue carry-on with wheels and after stuffing my red backpack almost to bursting, I looked at my bed and saw a pile of stuff that still had to go somewhere. I looked at the suitcases, I looked at the stuff. I looked at the suitcases, I looked at the stuff. Very, very reluctantly I concluded that it was too much to disregard. Everything I had already packed was essential. Everything on the bed was essential. I would need another bag. A little disappointed I filled my small black duffel and began to prepare myself psychologically to check the blue case. All “essentials” were removed and put in the black bag. All non-essential essentials were put in the blue bag.
So, we arrived at the airport, where I learned to my dismay that both the blue bag and the red backpack were too heavy to carry on the plane. Oh no. That required some hasty re-packing at the airport. More essential essentials and non-essential essentials were moved around. I took a deep breath. I was ready to check in. The Dudley Moore look-alike at the British Airways counter, upon entering me in the computer, asked a colleague what to do when a person was going to miss her connection. Would that be me? He disappeared behind a screen, emerging some moments later to assure me that, although my flight was delayed, headwinds were auspicious and I should arrive in London at the same time I would have if the flight was on time. But, he said ominously, my luggage probably would not make the connection to Paris. What else was there to do but check it anyway? My friend Linda, who had driven me to the airport, tried to bargain with him. Alas, no, I could not take it all on board. But yes, I could choose to take one–blue or red. I chose red: it had more essential essentials in it. I waved goodbye to blue as it slowly bumped away on the conveyer belt. How prophetic that goodbye would turn out to be.
I did miss the Paris connection in London, but was booked on the very next two hours later flight. I thought the event would give my luggage enough time to catch up with me. When we arrived in Paris and I found my way to the baggage area, I learned that the baggage handlers at Charles de Gaulle airport were on strike and that there was only one person per plane to unload luggage. They were so sorry for the delay. Okay, no real problem, I had already missed my train to Bordeaux in the south of France. I heard my name called. In London they had said that someone would meet me in Paris and I thought it was my greeter. How nice. But noooo. It was an apologetic British Airways employee who said that my darling blue bag didn’t make it out of London. What? Not to worry; it would be on the next flight. They would deliver it to me, even in Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery hundreds of miles from Paris in which I would spend my sabbatical.
So much for promises. It did not arrive the next day, Saturday. It did not arrive Sunday. It did not arrive Monday, as promised when we called on Saturday. I missed my blue bag. I missed the sweaters and shirts inside of it. I missed my favorite clock and flashlight. I missed my new ll bean vest, my hand woven pink shirt, my other pair of black pants. I had with me only 3 shirts to wear for 48 days. I had only one warm jacket. I wished for my other clothes, yet . . .yet, I was learning to travel lighter. I was learning to let go of the clothes I loved and the notions of cleanliness I carried around. You realize that I had to wear all clothing for at least two days before washing because it took three days for anything to dry in the cold dampness of a southern French winter. I grew very tired of my blue jacket and I was chilled mightily. The nuns took pity on me and loaned me an old brown sweater, which I wore every day. My roommates and much of the community knew of my lost luggage and all offered their sympathy. A few offered their clothes. I was holding up. I felt sad at the loss of all my favorite and warm clothes, but as my roommate Lana said, despite the loss, I still looked like I had everything I needed. And I guess I did. Slowly it dawned on me. I really did have everything I needed.
Then one day my blue bag appeared. Just like that. Triumphantly I wheeled it back to my little room. Members of the community gathered around in celebration. I carefully steered it around the other three beds and tenderly parked it beside my corner. Then I left it there, unopened for the rest of my time in Plum Village. Cherished but unopened. You see, I really did have all I needed: one borrowed sweater, three shirts, socks, etc. In my abundance of clothing, I had enough. I learned that less is truly more. And then I forgot it again.
Less can be more, materially and spiritually, when we find what is enough, what is important and pay attention to it and take satisfaction in it. Less can be more when we move our spirits from scarcity to abundance, from fear to trust, from grasping to giving. Less can be more and less can be more justice, more generosity, more caring, more peace, more freedom from the scarcity in our souls. May we find the simplicity we need. May we find the abundance that is enough and then may we share it with all who come into contact with us. May it be so.
Hymn #90 From All the Fret and Fever of the Day
Closing words (#681, adapted from Gaelic Runes) and Extinguishing the Chalice
Postlude Donna Demian