“Learning to Manage Our Minds”
Scriptures: Psalm 27: 1, 4-9; I Corinthians 1: 10-18
Today’s epistle, from the letter to the Corinthians, is about conflict and quarreling in the church, which implies its inevitable related themes of gossip, posturing, manipulation and tearing of the communal, spiritual fabric. In one way, this text makes me shudder. It makes me shudder because no pastor likes to preach about conflict in the church, and I daresay most clergy do shudder when we see that the lectionary has served it up. But it also makes me smile because any time, over my now long years in ministry, when I have been called by the lectionary to preach on these texts, I almost always get told, “I know who you meant that sermon for,” the implication being, “it was certainly not for ME!” …and always, I have honestly answered that I NEVER preach to any specific individuals. Indeed, I go to great extents not to. But today, I’m going to answer slightly differently. And after thirty five years of dealing with the undercurrent of low grade conflict that is always buzzing under the surface of any, given church, after nearly a full ministry of being frankly sick to death of such issues that do nothing but drain a pastor’s energy and rob a congregation’s vitality, the truth is that I am preaching to you, and you, and you, and most definitely to myself.
So here we go: Today’s two scriptures stand in marked contrast to one another. The Psalm portrays a person of what I like to call “spiritual poise” or “spiritual maturity,” a person centered in God’s love, aware of God’s presence, free from fear and anger, and free from the need to quarrel. The psalmist says, “for God will hide me in shelter in the day of trouble; God will conceal me under cover of a tent and set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up! Of whom shall I be afraid?”
You’ll notice, it does not say that there won’t be trouble, that there won’t be enemies (be they from within or without.) What it does say is that this spiritually centered person only asks one thing: “to live in the house of the Lord all my days.” That’s really just a bible-y way of saying “to live in conscious awareness of God’s presence,” to live, that is, from the vast eternal Spirit that always undergirds and overarches us, but from which we get disconnected. God-consciousness. It’s like electricity. It is always there, flowing through those wires. We just forget to plug in. Then we bumble and stumble and trip and bang into one another for lack of light.
And that’s where the second of today’s lectionary texts comes in. In it Paul is writing to the quarrelsome, argumentative church of Corinth. Those Corinthians were a contentious lot and could be a thorn in Paul’s flesh. That’s why Paul says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that there be no division among you! For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you! I entreat you to be in agreement with one another.”
So the real question for us is how do we grow from being a contentious Corinthian, one of Chloe’s people, or Hamilton’s people or Mark’s people, to being one of Christ’s people: a person spiritually centered and free from fear and temperamentalness, like the Psalmist. Because to do so will not only mean that we have a happier life, but that those around us will as well, not the least of whom are the poor, sick, lonely and oppressed outside our doors. And if they come looking for love and we’re in here quarreling, they’re going to run away as fast as they can. And we will have shirked our whole purpose.
I think when it comes to this question of how we grow from grumpy Gus to Serene Sally, we can borrow a page from our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Some, and I think rightly, say that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a philosophy, and we might even say an art, namely the art of learning to manage one’s mind, one’s thoughts, that mental velcro that catches every piece of lint floating by until the mind is clogged with debris, taking everything personally and leading to miscommunication and dampening of the light until we are indeed, at those times, unplugged from the Spirit and as contentious as a Corinthian.
And here is the thing, the capital T Truth that can change everything…So much of it, we do to ourselves. We think it’s somebody else, but the truth is that we get over identified with our own thoughts. Somebody looks at us strangely and we immediately assume they take issue with what we just said, or some other negative interpretation. So we respond to them defensively. And they feel that negative energy and respond to us in kind. And pretty soon we have ourselves a nice, little “to do,” an “atmosphere” of low grade suspicion or resentment. If we took time to autopsy the whole interaction, we might find out that the initial negativity we thought we perceived was, in fact, a little burst of indigestion on the part of the other, having nothing to do with us at all. But in our misperception we start a whole chain of negativity and then fill it with speculated content that isn’t even real. We take our own thoughts too seriously and create whole, little scenarios of escalating conflict, and pretty soon our whole sense of self is wrapped up in this basic misunderstanding. It is human nature, at least in our current phase of evolution, to be unconsciously stuck within the polarized confines of our own little, thought systems. And when we operate from there, from that contracted place, we do not listen to one another in order to understand, we listen in order to rebut, to win. You know that drill and so do I: not really listening but marking time while you think of what to say next. We don’t even realize we are doing it, but we do, because our own separate, little ego minds need to be right and they think that if they are proven wrong, somehow our figurative existence is on the line, and so it feels like we should go down to the death even in meaningless, little arguments. In those moments we are operating out of fear that the little false kingdom of our creation is collapsing. Fear. Not love. We’ve all known people who simply cannot admit it when they are wrong. Indeed, at times we’ve all been that person. You know that feeling, how it feels to be locked into that mentality. Its rigid and constricted and angry and full of adrenaline, but ultimately it’s lonely and deadening. And when we’re caught in that grip, it feels like we can’t let go. We’d rather be right than happy, to be proven victor than to be at peace. And so we defend and defend, try to prove ourselves with complicated mental gymnastics, watching the chasm between us, God, and each other widen further still.
The remedy, of course, is healthy, respectful communication. But even before that, so much of it comes down to just noticing when we are doing it. Learning to pay attention to that churning in the gut that is really there to alert us to the fact that we are taking our own thoughts too seriously and we need to breath, maybe meditate, or simply do something else for awhile until the contraction, the brain spasm, passes. We need to learn to see our thoughts as just thoughts, not necessarily objective reality, and learn to watch them float by like clouds, not getting overly attached to them. Then we can go back to the issue and have a conversation, if need be, but have it in a totally different way; a way that sincerely wants to find a solution as opposed to just wanting to prove ones self right.
One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle says it this way: “The greatest obstacle to experiencing the reality of your connectedness with Spirit is in over-identifying with your mind, which can cause all thought to become compulsive. Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness…It comes between you and your true self, between you and your fellow man and woman, between you and nature, between you and God…The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. The instrument takes you over.
The beginning of freedom is in opening to a conscious Presence, a deeper self, behind or underneath thought…the thought then loses its power over you and quickly subsides, because you are no longer over-identified with it…When a thought subsides, you experience a break in the incessant, mental stream, -a gap of “no-mind”. At first, the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will grow longer. And you begin to realize a certain stillness and peace. This is the beginning of your natural state of Oneness with Being, which is usually obscured by your thoughts. With practice, the sense of stillness and peace will deepen. In fact, there is no end to its depth. You will also feel a certain emanation of joy arising from deep within: the joy of Being”
And that’s where the person from the psalm comes in! Spiritual poise, maturity and freedom, coming from the fact that you are deeply rooted in spirit, lifted up above the fray of enemies, be they the enemies of your own thoughts or the perceived enemy of someone on a different side of an issue.
The anonymous writer of the marvelous daily devotional entitled “God Calling” says this,
“You do not realize that you would have broken down under the weight of your thoughts but for the renewing time with me. It is not what I say; it is I, Myself. It is not the hearing me so much as the being in My Presence. The strengthening and curative powers of this you cannot know. Such knowledge is beyond your human reckoning. This would cure the poor, sick world if, every day, each soul or group of souls, waited before me. Remember that you must never fail to seek this time apart with Me. Gradually, you will be transformed…All who see you, or have contact with you, will be, by this contact, be brought near to me, and gradually the influence will spread. You will be making one spot on earth a Holy Place (a place of Wholeness)…And though you must work and spend yourself…the greatest work you can do is in this time apart with me…”
That’s why we come to worship, and why Sunday worship is the most important, central thing that we do together in spiritual community! Because in it, we are reclaimed by God’s love, and our systems are rebooted such that we get free from our own agendas and thoughts and get rooted again in the vast and expansive Spirit of love.
So today, let us heed the scriptures’ reminder that we are not to be contentious Corinthians, who quarrel over church matters. Nor to be quarrelsome in our lives in general. That’s not to say we won’t have disagreements, because, as we all know, wherever two or more are gathered, there are politics. But it is to say we can have our disagreements respectfully rooted in the Spirit, free from over-identification with our own compulsive, adrenaline based thoughts, and sincerely looking for God’s will, not our own.
One thing I asked of the Lord,
this will I seek after:
to live in the conscious awareness of God’s Spirit
all the days of my life,
So teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path. Amen