New Year’s Sunday

Good morning to each of you and Happy New Year! I have always loved new beginnings and welcomed the possibility of change that new beginnings bring. Though the sense of a new beginning brought about by the beginning of a new school year or a new calendar year is somewhat arbitrary and varies among cultural and spiritual traditions, we may make use of these times nonetheless. This season of winter and of its long darkness—this season of the Holy Nights—is a prime time to be aware of what is trying to be born out of the darkness, and of the shining of the soul’s light even in the darkest of times.

The opportunity for a new beginning is truly found in the every day miracle of the rising of the sun and the every moment miracle of the intake of each breath. The possibility of a new beginning is perhaps most profoundly held in the moment of death, and today’s scripture points to this relationship between the endings and the beginnings of things—that through every death, whether it be symbolic or physical, we are born into new life.

The mystics of all traditions and certainly Buddhists on the whole seem to have an understanding of what it means to embrace our dying in every moment of our living. There has been much said in both secular and spiritual circles about the power of pain, loss and death to awaken us more fully to life. Every day millions of people face the reality of loss and death, and some are able to utilize their experience to wake up and become more enlivened.

What is it that makes this possible?—That in the darkest moments, when fear and devastation threaten to overcome us, we can rise up with hope and respond with goodness?

We know we live in a predominant culture that seeks to shelter people from death and dying and to keep death shut up in a small tidy box (literally and figuratively) with a limited amount of emotion attached. But it is not just the death of the physical body we seek to postpone until the last possible moment—it is the pain and the small deaths as well… we often protest and resist the changes and the losses that are a part of our every day. We resist the cold of winter, the passing of time, the approach of old age, the absence of a loved one. How do we learn to embrace the transitory nature of human life and to welcome the ever-changing face of what we perceive as reality? We tend to hold onto the past, to the familiar, to the routine, to the habitual—as if our lives depended on it—and often at the expense of our emotional or mental health, our spiritual development and even our physical well-being.

In an era that espouses some understanding of the development and evolution of consciousness, this relentless clinging to the familiar has always baffled me—as I’ve witnessed it in both myself and others. When we understand that the nature of life is change—that all livings things are in a constant state of change—and we bear witness to the seasonal cycles of birth, growth and death, over and over again—what is it that we find to fear and resist against? In the sea of life and its constant state of flux we strive to do the impossible—over and over again—to stand still, to remain unchanged, to hold on to the perspective or the point of view of yesterday. And why?

Well, even an understanding of why is not in itself enough to provide the incentive to change this pattern—but here are some thoughts….

Pema Chodron in her book When Things Fall Apart speaks perceptively and eloquently to this question.

She indicates that we hold an underlying belief that if we change, we may lose ourselves—that the self we know as “I” may die—and that that terrifies us! And that we would rather be miserable than nonexistent. This presupposes that our sense of our own existence is dependent on a set of static forms—that we do not allow ourselves the fluidity and grandness that we actually contain and embody (and that is more a part of the mystic’s reality). In one sense, you could say that there is a lack of imagination—our vision of the self is limited to a small set of realities and possibilities. What’s more, we have a story that we tell ourselves is true that accompanies each scenario of life.

For example, if I feel that my heart is broken then I resign myself to this reality and assign it a certain meaning—that it is broken and that it shall remain broken and that it is a terrible thing and that I will suffer indefinitely. As opposed to perhaps an image that my heart is being broken open—and that in this breaking open there is the probability that my heart will grow in compassion and openness and capacity and strength and power—and that contained in this challenge is wonderful gift. Perhaps we fear our own judgments about reality more than we do the realities themselves—it is never so much about what happens as it is about what we tell ourselves is true about what happens.

How can we choose, then, to embrace the possibilities that are contained in experiences of pain, death or dissolution or heartbreak in the darkness of winter—to see the beginnings in the endings. Often it is only when our backs are against the wall, when we are desperate for hope, when every avenue in front of us appears unbearable, that we are forced to consider a possibility beyond what we can see.

How do we train ourselves to see the gifts within the inevitable interplay of the forces of dissolution or destruction and creation and birth? How do we learn to ride the wave? To ride the wave—through approaching our lives with interest and curiosity, with openness and compassion and with the intent of expanding our capacities, broadening our consciousness and opening our hearts?

Obviously we cannot do this if we believe that our treasures are on earth—because protecting earthly treasures is a lot of work. Our real earthly treasures are most often our beliefs and our story of what is true about life—the beliefs and stories we have developed in the first 7 to 21 years of our life about ourselves and others and about the nature of the world and human life. All the life energy we put into protecting these beliefs and proving them to be true prevents us from having energy to try on new perspectives, from realizing new perceptions, and from developing consciousness. How do we find time and space to dwell in the realm of eternal truths, to experience ourselves as the Light of the World and to discern our life purpose when we are so busy maintaining our belief system, proving ourselves right and resisting change?

When we are willing to stand with courage and openness—when we are humble and curious and teachable—we give ourselves the chance to let go of our usual constraints—the very ones we have bound to ourselves —and to die to the old and embrace the new. We are able to envision that when we let go of the trapeze and swing into mid-air there will be another trapeze to grab hold of—or at least a trampoline if we decide to free fall. Most of the advice we need to follow is contained in Saint Francis’s famous prayer, which ends, “for it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life.”

Freedom from (or in) the material world comes from acknowledging and being born into spiritual reality. New life comes when we place our treasures—our hopes, our dreams, our faith not in what we see or in the story we have told—but in that which is unseen and yet to be grasped. As we enter this New Year, may we cultivate curiosity and the courage to let go; may we cultivate the habit of dying in each moment and greeting change in a spirit of welcome.

May we have those moments when we can experience ourselves as beings of fluid light—awash in a sea of love that is as real or more real than the things we fear. Let us not continue to place our trust in the familiar, the expected and the predictable—but let us place our trust in the unknown, in the great possibilities that exist and will unfold when we allow for the dying of the old to give way to the birth of the new. To be truly free, we must welcome the death of the self and the world as we know it—every night as we fall into sleep—and we must awaken each new day to the rising sun, to the new day, to an ever-new self and a new way. Blessings on your New Year.

Marti Stewart

January 2, 2005

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