Transcribed from a sermon Bo gave at Unity of the Triangle Church in Raleigh, NC.
When I teach meditation, I'm a stickler for keeping the body still. In the Old Testament there is a curious passage that says, "Be still and know that I am God." Isn't that curious? Be still, not "be righteous," not "be busy," not "be productive," not even "be kind," but "be still" to know God. Do we make enough room for stillness in our lives to know God?
We just sang a hymn a few minutes ago - "we will know everything there is to know and we won't know why." Are these just nice words that we get together and sing socially on a Sunday, or is religion telling us something about you and me, not just about the saints and sages, not just about the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa? We just sang, "Deeper than the ocean, deeper than the sea, deeper than the mountains." Do we believe it? Do we feel like our purpose here, walking around on Earth, is to really become that deep, that strong, that quiet, that powerful? And that this happens through something connected to being still?
It's always challenging to me to know what to say in about a twenty-minute space of time in a church sermon because there are such big and deep things to talk about and they don't lend themselves to sound bites. So in church services it usually comes down to "go deeper." You and I can actually become a little deeper, a little more still, a little more open every day to that indescribably profound mystery at the heart of who we are. It doesn't happen automatically when we're at some arbitrary age like eighty-five. That's not how it works. If we're not becoming a little bit deeper every day it doesn't just descend upon us when we wake some morning when we're the right age.
This is where religion and spiritual practice come together. There was a prisoner in Illinois a couple of months ago who was saying he doesn't know what this spiritual practice stuff is about, he's a Christian and all he needs is his religion. I said, "Tell me something that is especially meaningful to you about your religion, like what's a really important piece of it." And he didn't have to give it much thought at all, he immediately said, "The Serenity Prayer."
You know the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." I said, "So how has the Serenity Prayer changed who you are?" And he gave me this kind of blank look. He said, "Well it means a lot to me." I said, "Talk is cheap, how has it changed you?" Because all spiritual practice is about, is taking something from religion and working with it in a way that changes us, really alters who we are. Not just changes our attitude, but actually our DNA. That's the promise of every religion, we're supposed to change, and spiritual practice really changes us in a very cellular way.
So I said to the fellow, "Here's what I'm talking about: You're the one who told me that the Serenity Prayer is really meaningful to you. That means every morning of your life as soon as you wake up, before you go to the bathroom, before you get out of bed, the moment you realize you're awake what you say to yourself is:
'Lord today, grant me more serenity than I had yesterday to accept the things about this world that I am not going to be able to change. TODAY GOD, PLEASE may I have a little more courage than I had yesterday to influence the things that You want me to influence, and not turn my back. Oh please God, may I have more wisdom than I had yesterday, to know the difference between the two so I don't waste your time and mine.'"
It takes about 30 seconds to do a prayer like that the moment you wake up. The Hassids, the mystical sect of Judaism that started in the Middle Ages with the Baal Shem Tov, the Hassids prayed more fervently than anybody I've ever seen, every prayer, every day. Every prayer was just rip your shirt open, "Oh God, please!" And you know what? They changed, because they meant it. They didn't just come and sing politely and go home. They wouldn't assume when you park your car this morning that you're going to have no problem finding your way back home. We change.
So imagine if every day this fellow-who says for decades that the Serenity Prayer is his favorite-imagine if every day, even the tiniest bit, he actually gained more serenity to accept the things he couldn't change about his prison and his life sentence. And he gained more courage to influence the people and events that God does want him to try to influence, as a responsible person. And every day he has the tiniest bit more wisdom, more insight of being able to see where he needs such serenity and where he needs such courage.
If you're doing it a little better Sunday than you did Saturday, and Monday you're doing it a little bit better than Sunday, and Tuesday you're doing it better than Monday, 365 of those changes later you're going to be different.
So in the brief time slot that I have in church sermons I find mostly what I want to say is, go for it! Every major religion agrees that there is something divine, and that you and I, every one of us who draws breath, can directly and fully touch this by going within in stillness. Every religion. And so the question that I ask and the link between religion and spiritual practice is, are you going for it? Are you taking religion up on its reality or are you settling for being a nice woman, a nice man?
There is a power and freedom that all the religions talk about. And there are elements in our popular culture, even the popular spiritual culture, that are unfortunately going 180 degrees from real spiritual freedom and power. Jesus said thirteen really, really big words about all of this. He said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." These words are like a mantra, like a formula or a riddle, they're a real DaVinci Code on how to walk through our lives.
The real sages and saints and avatars, like Christ, have absolutely never said you're never going to get cancer, you're never going to be poor and you don't have to live in adversity, like this silly thing, "The Secret," that claims all you have to do is visualize whatever you want and it will come to you. That's silly and it's beneath our dignity. The so-called "Law of Attraction" is one tiny element of life. Like a box of Cheerios says, "Cheerios can be a part of a daily balanced breakfast," well, the way we think, the way we focus our minds, can be one part of a balanced life. But for "The Secret" to say, "The Law of Attraction is the most powerful force in the Universe," and "The Universe is your catalog, just visualize anything that you want and you'll bring it to yourself," oh, thank God that is not true, because you and I can be real selfish idiots sometimes.
What is immortal and eternal in us can never be harmed, is never not abundant, is never out of touch, is never alone and friendless, is never impoverished, nothing can touch it that other people or societies or the world itself can do. We are free. We are free to move through life as loving, joyful servants of God, servants of creation knowing that we are going to get absolutely chewed up and spit out in the process and that's OK, because nothing can touch us where we really live. We're free. This freedom is a quiet thing, and that's why every religion exhorts us to spend some of our time in spiritual practice being still and humble and silent.
It's not, "Hello God, I'm Bo and I'm special and I'm proud," not that pop culture nonsense. It's "Hello God, it's me again Bo, I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing here, Lord. Help me to serve you. I get it wrong more than I get it right, but I'm willing, and I'm here, I'm showing up again. May I have a little more serenity today than I had yesterday, may I have a little more courage today than I had yesterday, may I have a little more wisdom today than I had yesterday. May I be a simple, humble person walking this Earth knowing that the key to Holiness is unselfishness."
It's not rocket science, we don't have to keep coming up with clever strategies like "The Secret" to get what we want. That's the road to ruination, to get everything we want. Be careful about following the masses to spiritual destruction by adopting this new creed of proud and loud and busy and multi-tasking and confident and "I'm special."
When we do a lot of spiritual practices we have a lot of very powerful experiences, that's all real. I had the personal experience once of being on Calvary while He was on the Cross. Believe me, if you ever find yourself transported to the foot of the cross, and He's on it and blood is dripping to the ground and He's dying, you're not apt to feel so proud and loud. Even knowing about the Resurrection, that's the wonderful part, but being at the Crucifixion is a humbling and life-changing experience. You don't go around saying, "I'm special." You say, "What can I do to turn my life in a direction to serve that Love, that force, that fearlessness, that compassion that says, forgive them, they know not what they do? What can I do to serve that?"
That's the richness, that's the heart of religion. What can I do to serve that? Well, start every morning, the first moment that you wake up, with a prayer that is practical and modest, something that means something to you. For about eight months last year the one I worked with was, "May I be a little less selfish today than I was yesterday, may I be a little less vain today than I was yesterday." It takes about five seconds to say. You let it sink in for another five seconds.
And you know what? You see opportunities all through the day to be a little bit more or less vain, to be a little bit more or less selfish. We get more choice throughout every day because of this very simple couple of seconds. I took selfishness and vanity as a theme, this other fellow takes the Serenity Prayer, there's a woman I know in Texas who took something about vowing not to be motivated by fear all through the day, because that's something that means something to her. If we just make it real and practical for ourselves with a few seconds, the brain imprints anything that we repeat. And so throughout the day we begin to see those choice points. "Oh, I was about to do this but then I wouldn't really be a little less selfish than I was yesterday. This is my moment right now, it's my opportunity so do I really mean this stuff or not?"
What happens when we start making enough of those choices, we look back and say, "I'm doing spiritual practice and I'm becoming what my religion is about. Wow." Wow. The Gospel means good news, and the good news is so much better than what most of us have been settling for all our lives, even in our churches and religious faith. We settle for, "Well I'm certainly always going to have as much stress as anybody else, I've got all my fears." Well then, you should be ashamed of yourself because when we really make our faith real we don't have any fear. Period. It's true, it's real. We're not supposed to be walking around saying, "Oh I'm just this little human being," nor are we supposed to be walking about saying "I'm great and I'm proud and I'm special." The cure for low self-esteem is not high self-esteem. That's the mistake the pop culture has been making for about fifteen years now: replacing low self-esteem with high self-esteem. The cure is to see that we don't need self-esteem at all. The cure for insecurity is not convincing ourselves of security. The cure for insecurity is saying, "I'm going to have faith in my life. I'm going to dispense with insecurity. I'm going to have good days and bad days, periods of prosperity and periods of adversity, because that's what it means to be a full human being on this Earth. There are going to be things that come into my life that suck, but then there's that stillpoint, that rock-like force from God's world that never sucks even in a 24-hour-a-day solitary confinement cell for a crime I did not commit. Sometimes life gets weird but I'm going to trust 'Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil,' because I'm a person of faith."
By the time we're out of our teens it becomes one of our spiritual opportunities to say, "Do I really mean it? It's my choice: am I actually going to be a person of faith?" We all have this choice we can make. There's some mysterious thing going on in this wonderful universe, where there's God and the ego and a couple of very simple guidelines that every religion agrees on. It has something to do with love. It has something to do with me being a little less selfish every day so this greater force in me can grow and blossom. It doesn't grow and blossom by convincing myself that I'm never going to be sick or harmed. It grows and blossoms from convincing myself God is always with me, and life is not random or chaotic or meaningless. Of course I'm going to have illness and harm and loss. I don't understand life and I don't understand what I need. I'm going to go about living in a positive way, but bad things and good things are both going to come, enjoyable things and suffering are going to come, and that's okay, because I'm in this world but I'm not of this world.
I'm of something that we reach in stillness, that frees us from feeling small without tempting us to feel big. Something that frees my mind and heart to wake up every morning and walk through the day, in a way, as a child. "I'm not on top of this game, but I have a chance today to see clearly and to move in truth. Hallelujah, got one more day to try, another day to give it a good go. I'm not the hottest thing that's ever come down the pike, I don't understand all that stuff but I know that the greatest people who have ever lived have also been the most loving people, so I'm going to move in that direction."
Real religion, combined with the tiniest bit of spiritual practice, will become true. That's really the way to use the "Law of Attraction," not for the things that we want materialistically, or that we want to shield ourselves from like illness. We're going to be cringing, cowering little creatures forever if we're trying to be safe in this temporal, mortal world. We will forever be free if we know what to render unto God and what we have to let go unto Caesar.
The abiding question that I leave you with-it seems to me the relevant question for every church service-is: are you willing to really, really take it deeply? Really, a year from now you could say "I don't even know who I'm becoming, kind of losing control and grasp of my heart, and it feels so good. It feels like I'm beginning to walk in trust on the side of the good."
Religion is not neutral or amoral, religion is always on the side of the good and loving. You and I are supposed to be in the world. We're not supposed to hide from the ugliness. We're supposed to be right there feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless and visiting the prisoner, but that isn't the world that we are of, it's just the world that we do the work in. Every time we wake up we're punching in, we go to work. But we live in a place that is above, beyond, within and around all of that. It is always still and always perfect and this is really the heart of religion, is how to gradually-you and me in a daily, practical way-touch our stillness and navigate our way.
God Bless You, Bo