READING: The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outward to new and larger circles, and that without end.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Talk given by Rich Hayes
Aug. 31, 2014
Unitarian Universalist Gathering of South County
Housatonic, MA

Merriam Webster definition of "Odyssey"
  a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune
:  an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest

I use a daily reflections book to start my day. One of the readings says: “Life is an odyssey of awakening. Each of us is ever moving forward on an ascending course.”

And I thought this would be a good place to begin today’s talk.

Of course for most of us I would imagine at times the course feels anything but ascending. There have been times when I have felt as though I’ve gone backwards, slipped, fallen. Things didn’t work out as I’d planned; there were business failures-financial setbacks. And seen from the (limited) perspective I had at that time, it certainly did not seem to me that I was on my way “up”.

But appearances can be deceiving. And as is often said in many spiritual texts, the ways of Spirit are not the ways of the world-and they are often paradoxical. Sometimes you must descend before you ascend-and sometimes what seems down
is actually up.

As I have said here many times: some of my most valuable lessons have come from what I initially thought of as a failure or a mistake or having done "it" (whatever "it" was) wrong.

Often, it’s these very things that begin to “wake you up” BECAUSE they get your attention. And every life has them-some lives more than others. Everyone’s journey is unique – and it seems, based on my experiences as a hospice chaplain, everyone has certain “themes” or patterns that recur in different forms.

Think of it like a custom designed educational curriculum, whose purpose is to wake you up
because you’ve fallen asleep!
We all do. But it wasn't always this way! As young children everything is amazing! everything a miracle!!! Then, training and conditioning sets in. And off to sleep we go and we sleep walk more and more, living life on autopilot.

How can you tell you’re waking up? When you begin to see things differently
(you change, and the things you look at start to change too);

-When what has always been how you behaved or did things starts to “feel” not quite right;

-When you begin to questions things you’d never questioned before
( “Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers”.)
-When what once seemed “just the way things are” begins to look unreal or a bit crazy to you.

And for any of the above reasons you become willing to change and you start to reassess what matters to you.

When you find yourself feeling very uncomfortable, anxious, angry, sad, etc., rather then numbing this discomfort (through shopping, the internet or TV, drinking, drugs, finding fault with others or blaming someone for you pain, etc., etc.) you look deeper into the discomfort and you ask it what it’s trying to tell/show you.

When you squirm, there’s something to learn! Pain is often the touchstone for spiritual growth.

From my failures and struggles and screw-ups I’ve learned that it’s OK to say I don’t know; I’ve learned how to ask for help. Even more important, how to ask for forgiveness. I’ve learned gratitude for the kindness of people who showed up for me and listened when I struggled and was hurting.

I’ve even learned gratitude for the people who really pissed me off!
Not all at once! Not right away. Remember, this is a process. We all will feel stuck at times.

Karen Armstrong in her Autobiography, “The Spiral Staircase” uses said staircase to describe her own flash of insight as she thought about her life’s journey and the sense that she was stuck and going nowhere.

She says she was standing in the chapel at her school when she looked at the small spiral staircase to the loft and the thought came to her that climbing that staircase can give you a sense that you’re not making any progress and just going in circles-but that’s not true.

Although you might feel you’re standing in the same place again, you’re not. You’ve come around the circle and are now just a little bit higher up and you will see things from a slightly different perspective-an elevation that may reveal subtle differences, and these may make all the difference in your (eventual) understanding.

Isn’t that how it really is in life? Take a time in your own life when an event seemed to be the “be all and end all of everything” to you; how did it look a year or two later? I bet quite different.

Life is an odyssey of awakening on an ever-ascending course.
Pay attention!
Question! And most important, change your mind when new information is learned! Re-evaluate and question assumptions. Become willing to do this as best as you can, because it is vitally important to your journey.

Where did the idea that it’s a bad thing or a
weakness to change our mind ever come from??? We see it in the political arena all the time-they call someone a flip-flopper if someone changes their mind, as if the person lacks character and is weak rather than the other way around! Abe Lincoln wouldn’t have stood a chance with these folks.

Remember the bumper sticker that said
“if you’re not outraged your not paying attention”?

How will you know you’re waking up?
When you’re more inclined to feel compassion than outrage.

As a matter of fact the more compassionate you are, the more awake you will be.

Why? Because compassion will allow you to see the fear that so pervades peoples lives. When you begin to see the suffering of the people who you view as reactionary or on the "other side"(all those you think of as "them"), your heart softens. You glimpse the truth in the saying, "Be kind to all those you meet because everyone is fighting a great struggle within". We all wrestle with our stuff.

An important side-note here: compassion starts with you! You must practice this toward yourself first-you can NEVER give what you do not have! Recognize the fearful, screwed up, anxious, imperfect person you are and see the innocent child you once were, and let your heart embrace that child and compassion will come (that's my trick for doing this).

There is SO much fear – people don’t even know they’re in this state! They think they’re angry, or fed up or disgusted or depressed-and that may be true, but underneath it all is FEAR. It is the foundation of all these things.

There is a great awakening happening. We are each being called to wake up. And this gives me great hope. The pain of these times, coupled with our new found connectivity(the web, media,etc) is causing people to question things, and moving some on to the next rung of the ladder. It is our greatest responsibility at this time.

The reading I started with goes on to say:
With each new day, we take a further step on the ladder of our spiritual unfolding

That’s the key and it is vital to remember: each new day is an opportunity to go further in this spiritual unfolding, because that IS what this life is all about!

While the idea of ascension might be seen as something like scaling a mountain; anyone who knows about such things knows that those last 100 feet are often the hardest of the whole climb. But ask that same climber how it felt once they were at the summit!
Ask any elder who struggles with the losses that aging brings!

Let me invoke the words of Maya Angelou here:
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” 

Remember this: the caterpillar had to spin the cocoon, hang there and then let its body began to dissolve into a goopey, gloppy mess until at just the right point in the process the cells began to reassemble, one-by-one, and voila' a butterfly!

So it is with our own life. There is a great beauty and nobility in having made this odyssey through all the stages of our life, through the losses and heartaches and the doubts and fears, through the accomplishments and joys-through it all, until we arrive at the end, seemingly used up and withering away. But as I pointed out before, appearances are deceiving (and not very accurate). Remember the caterpillar!

We are in a constant state of becoming, and this process requires we let go of what we've been in order to become what we are to become-and nothing goes to waste. From our worst experiences to our most beautiful, all contribute to this ever expanding journey. Waking up allows us to see in new ways and when we do we are able to transcend the pain and transmute it into something positive, because the pain we don't transcend and transform we will transmit and the world already has far too much of that.

As Emerson reminds us: “On to ever larger circles, and
That without end…”