The Well Within

-R. Hayes

Talk given by Rich Hayes at The Unitarian Church, Pittsfield MA 4/6/08

In his book “The Kingdom Within” John Sanford, tells a story about a house he and his family used to summer in when he was a boy. The house was in New Hampshire and about 150 years old -it had never been modernized, so there was no indoor plumbing or electricity. John recounts that less than 20 feet from the front door was a well, and he absolutely loved the taste of the water from that well! No matter how hot the weather-how sticky and humid-the water was always cold.

And whether it rained a lot or was dry as a bone, that well always had water in it.

Eventually his father had the house modernized and the well was no longer needed, so it was boarded up.

Years later John was feeling nostalgic and wanted to taste that water again, so he went back to the house and uncovered the old well. When he did he found that the well was bone-dry. He wanted to know why a well that had been producing -no matter how often you went to get water - for over a 100 years, was now dry. Especially given the fact that it hadn’t even been used. But that was precisely the problem!

John learned that this particular type of well is fed by hundreds of underground rivulets. As water is drawn from the well, more water moves in along these rivulets, and this keeps them clear and open and able. If the water in the well is not drawn out, then no new water is needed, and the rivulets constrict and eventually close up. So, the well went dry because it had stopped being used.

There is also a well within each one of us -a well that has the capacity to supply us with an endless amount of patience, compassion, empathy, kindness, and of course love, which is really the source of this well and the thing that all these others-and so much more- flow from.

But, just like the well in front of that old house that supplied water for years, if we don’t bring these qualities forward and up and out of ourselves and into our world, our well will begin to go dry as the spiritual rivulets constrict.

As most of you know, I’m a hospice chaplain and most of the people I see are at the end of their lives. Sometimes when people find out I do this kind of work they get this kind of “soft” look in their eyes-like they’ve seen a little cute puppy or something, and they usually say something like “oooh you people do such wonderful work”.

And sometimes the implication in what these folks say is that somehow the dying are past all the “nasty-ness” of life-as if, because they are dying, they become “nicer, sweeter”- maybe more “holy”- like in the movies.

Well, I hate to shatter any myths here, but it ain’t necessarily so.

Don’t get me wrong-I have met remarkable people and seen them do amazing things. The end of life can be incredibly beautiful and sacred.

But if someone has been afraid or defensive, or angry at the world most of their life; or vindictive, or maybe just an unhappy, or unfulfilled person, they don’t suddenly have a change of heart or a transformation.

Not that it can’t happen. But sadly, in my experience, it usually doesn’t.

As we have lived, so will we die.

For me the hardest part of my job is seeing the kind of suffering that years of living life angry, bitter, or fearful, may cause. It closes people off- shrivels them up.

After these people pass away I often find myself thinking of them, and I wish I could have helped them more. So that’s what brought me to the idea of today’s talk. I can’t go back in time for these people, but I can tell all of you.

So, first off, I want to remind all of you that within you is something that is far greater than, as Emerson put it, what lies before you or behind you.

You have something within you that will give you all you need.
But you must use it.

You must tap into it everyday. Don’t wait until things are caving in on you. Don’t wait until there’s a health crisis, or a financial crisis, or personal tragedy. Or you’re in a nursing home or hospital bed. Start now.

It’s all about practice, it’s about making the effort everyday to be mindful as often as possible. It’s about being willing to look at yourself. Not in a judgmental or punishing way, but in a compassionate and kind way-and by allowing yourself to see the darker aspects of yourself with that compassion! Allow yourself to see the things that you don’t particularly feel proud of-like stinginess, or an inclination to gossip, or the fact that you always see the negative side of things, or maybe that you secretly judge everyone else and see yourself as a little bit better than someone else-or a little bit smarter.

Or maybe you finally admit to yourself that you really feel “less than” everyone else. Or maybe you’re angry because it seems life is so unfair.

But whatever it is, be willing to look at these things, because what we deny in ourselves does not go away-what we conceal does not heal.

And if we aren’t at least willing to see these things, we risk their continuation in our life.

Here’s the thing: there’s another aspect to the well. It will produce whatever you keep going to it for. Anger, judgment, fear.

Oh, fear is a big one!! The well will practically overflow with that one!
And just as Love is the source for all the good qualities, Fear is the root of almost all the bad ones.

Just as going to the well for compassion and kindness and love and patience and gratitude and forgiveness will keep the spiritual rivulets open and flowing with as much of these things as you need; so too will the other rivulets-the ones tapped into the toxic dump -deliver you all the anger and fear and hate, or any of the other poisons you call for.

Let me give you an example of how this can work.

The other morning I heard a man tell a story on NPR’s story corps. Let me read it to you:

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.
"He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, "like what's going on here?" Diaz says. "He asked me, 'Why are you doing this?'"

Diaz replied: "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.

"You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help," Diaz says.

Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.

"The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi," Diaz says. "The kid was like, 'You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'"

"No, I just eat here a lot," Diaz says he told the teen. "The Teen says, 'But you're even nice to the dishwasher.'"

Diaz replied, "Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?"

"Yea, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way," the teen said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. "He just had almost a sad face," Diaz says.
The teen couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, "Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you."

The teen "didn't even think about it" and returned the wallet, Diaz says. "I gave him $20 ... I figure maybe it'll help him. I don't know."

Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen's knife — "and he gave it to me."

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, "You were always the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch."
"I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world."

So as I said a moment ago, it’s about practice-as is everything that is worthwhile. Remember: Julios’ mom reminded him that he’d been exercising his compassionate and giving nature consistently since he was a small child-it had become ingrained in him and his natural way to respond. But most of us have to work at it. At least to start.

We must remind ourselves that the well is here within us. The hard part at first is the reminding. When someone hurts us, or aggravates us, rather than retaliation, remember the well. There’s kindness there. There’s forgiveness there. There’s understanding there. There is healing there.

We cannot change others-we can only change ourselves.

What comes from the well will do that for us.

And -again here’s the thing-we may find, with time that others around us do seem to change.

But no matter what, whether they do or not, we will.
And we will feel so much better for it.

I urge all of you to please, please allow yourself a special time everyday to simply sit quietly. Learn to meditate. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy-no secret chants or anything like that. Just sit for 10 minutes and breathe. Nothing more. If 10 minutes is too much, start with 5. But make a commitment to yourself- a promise- to do this thing. You are worth it!

It’s in the silence that you will connect to the deeper parts of your self, and that the well is fed. Feed your well.

What I’m telling you today is vitally important-terribly important!

And I urge you, if you are not already working to deepen your spiritual life-which includes these things I’m suggesting here, as well as whatever else brings deeper meaning to your experience of life-please start. Do it for yourself. Do it for those you love ....and those you’ve yet to love

When we remember to go to the well, we will be given what we need. Always, always, always. And the more we use it, the easier it will become.

In time it may even become our automatic response-our “default” setting. Like it was for Julio.

The more you choose compassion as a response, the more compassion you will have to give. The more you choose to be patient, the more patience you will have.
The more you remember to practice gratitude, the more things you will have to be grateful for.

You will discover that the more love you give, the more love you will have to give. And the more love will be given to you.

And the healing that is possible is miraculous.
And each one of us here has our own version of what needs to be healed.
And it is theeee work of a lifetime-
It is the work of our lifetime.

And then, when our time comes-and it surely will- to be at the end of this life, rather than being closed off and constricted, we will be able to open and let go, and say thank you.

Nothing in life-absolutely nothing-not even death -is to be feared if we do our work and live our life well.