The Spirituality of Sadness
Unitarian Church of Lawrence
August 14, 2016
Today is a significant day on the Jewish calendar. It is called Tisha B'av, the Ninth of Av, and it is a remembrance of basically every tragedy that ever occurred to the Jewish people. Originally it was designated as a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, and since then many other tragedies have also been ascribed to that day, such as the beginning of the first Crusade in 1095, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.
The traditional practice for this commemoration is a 25-hour fast and the reading of the Book of Lamentations and selections of mourning psalms called Kinot. Here are the first 3 verses of a new translation of Eikhah by Rabbi David Seidenberg
1 Eikhah! How can it be – that she sat alone, the city so great / so swelled with people? She was like a widow. The one great among the nations, ministering among the states, became a slave caste. 2 Crying, she will cry in the night, her tear upon her cheek There is none for her, no comforter, from all her lovers. All her companions played traitor with her. They became for her enemies. 3 She, Judah, was exiled, by poverty, and by (so) much hard labor She sat among the nations, not finding any rest; All her pursuers caught up with her between the confined places.
So the mood is one of sadness, of mourning, even of despair.
And it led me to think about how we deal with feelings of sadness in our own lives. I think it's pretty safe to say that we Americans, preternaturally cheerful creatures that we are, don't like to feel sad. I guess nobody likes to feel sad, but we tend to think there's something wrong with it, or with us for feeling it, so we do whatever we can to avoid it. We distract ourselves. We medicate ourselves. We anesthetize ourselves with drinking or shopping or television or Facebook.
Well my friends, I'm here to tell you that sadness is part of the human condition, and we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering by trying to avoid it. Perhaps that's obvious, but sometimes the obvious still needs to be said.
In the Buddhist tradition, the second of the three causes of dukkha/suffering is aversion, or trying to get rid of our avoid negative mind-states. So the problem isn't the negative mind-states themselves, it's in trying to avoid them, or suppress them, or distract or distance ourselves from them. Guaranteed, when we suppress or repress our negative mind-states, they will reappear somewhere else, often in ways that are uncontrolled or destructive. Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.”
So the first, best thing we can do is feel the feelings. Not to try to figure out the reasons, or to replay the story, or to figure out what to do about it, but just to feel it – in our bodies, in our souls. A quote from Jay Michaelson:
Equanimity is not the banishment of sadness. [Neither does it mean being blissed out, feeling our feelings less intensely.] It is the acceptance of sadness for what it is, and the letting go of the desire for it to end.
So let's do a little practice with this. I invite you, if you're comfortable, to close your eyes, and let's focus on our breath for a few moments. Now I invite you to call up an incident from your from your personal, emotional life that brings up feelings of grief or sorrow. (pause) Take a few moments to sense or visualize that situation, tuning into where you feel it in your body. (pause) Does your face feel flush, does it feel there a rock in the pit of your stomach? Now drop the story and just notice the feeling of sadness. Focus on your breath, and on your feeling. If images arise, let them, and then let them fall away.
Stay with that for a moment. It's okay. Now put your hand on your heart. Say to yourself, it's okay. Your feelings are okay, sadness is okay, grief is okay. Say to yourself, I love you, I'm here. Now open your eyes. Look at a person near you. Smile at them with your eyes. Say to them, it's okay. Say to them, I love you.
Feel your heart open a bit. You know that feeling when you look into your neighbor's eyes and you see what they're feeling - what that's called? It's called compassion. We'll return to that in a moment.
So the first thing is to feel the feelings. To be okay with feeling this way – not to be afraid of it, or averse to it, but to recognize it, even to welcome it, as part of our humanity. Then and only then can we start thinking about what to do about it, if indeed anything at all needs to be done.
Now let's turn our attention to another kind of sadness - sadness outside of ourselves, in the outer world, in the public square. We live in a very trying time politically. We have a man running for president who would be a figure of fun if he weren't so dangerous. We have a government in our own home state that thinks kicking children off of food stamps is an anti-poverty program, and that having guns anywhere and everywhere is security. We probably don't really understand what's happening with Brexit, or in Yemen, but we know can't be good. We live with the growing threat of climate change, which is an aversion we as a society definitely try to avoid. We have black citizens being killed by police at a rate of one per day. There's a lot to be sad about.
So as before, let's take a moment to follow our breath – and now call up one image of something that is bothering us in the world today. Feel what that brings up in your body, in your heart. Now drop the story and focus on the feeling, and on your breath. If thoughts arise, let them go, and stay in the feeling. Now send out feelings of lovingkindness to the people in your story. May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace.
I am often asked when I speak about how we can be sure that whatever activism we take part in will have a positive effect? I wouldn't say this in that setting, but the answer is – we don't.
We feel sad because there's what to feel sad about. Let's take a moment, before we try to solve our dilemma, to realize that we will never really solve our dilemma. If we were to miraculously fix one problem, we would immediately be overcome by all the other problems. The kind of eschatological, endtime thinking that represents in Judaism as the coming of the Messiah, in Buddhism as “enlightenment” and in communism as the Revolution, is a myth, and not in my opinion a helpful one. There's no magic bullet. Social change, like personal spirituality, is hard, slow, spade-work. What we have, all that we have, and all that we will ever have, is this moment, to feel fully and to do with what we will.
All too readily our disappointment and sadness becomes anger and hatred. Anger at Republicans, anger at Israelis or Palestinians – depending on your point of view - anger at the “terrorists”, anger at the corporations, anger at Sam Brownback. Anger. Outer-directed, focused on the guilty other, the problem, the cause. I put it to you that this anger, as natural as it is, as normal as it is, in unhelpful in three ways – it is in fact a distraction from our real feelings – of sadness, of loss, of fear – in other words, it's just another drug to take us away from our aversions; it doesn't give us the strength we need to work on problems that seem overwhelming; and it doesn't produce the ends we want. It doesn't enable or promote effective action or produce the kind of world we're trying to reach. It's okay, obviously, to feel the feelings, because we're not to be afraid to face any of our feelings, as long as we don't act on the anger but can get beneath it to the sense of loss that produces it.
The Zen monk and peace activist Thich Naht Hahn is an amazing example of working with sadness on both the personal/spiritual and public/temporal levels. He came of age during the Vietnam War, during which, as a young monk, he started a social service organization called School of Youth for Social Service. He carefully and purposefully didn't take sides during the war, for which he, and his organization, was harassed by both sides. At the beginning of the war, members of his Buddhist order immolated themselves to protest what was going on; in the middle of the war, members of his organization were kidnapped and killed by the Viet Cong; and at the end of the war he was sent into exile by the new government. So, a lot of political unhappiness, a lot of personal unhappiness. And what does he do with it? For the rest of his life he builds sanghas – Buddhist communities – and travels the world teaching mindfulness and peace.
A quote from Thich Naht Hanh:
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
He felt his feelings deeply, and was able to find there the strength to walk peacefully but with purpose through the world.
What comes out of working with this sadness? What was the feeling when you looked into your neighbor's eyes earlier? Compassion. Now I'm going to offer you four things you can do with these feelings I'm forcing you to pay attention to. And the first tool is compassion. When you look around this room you realize that everyone is feeling the same feelings you are. And when you look out in the world, you realize that way people feel is the way you would feel if you were facing similar circumstances. Another aversion technique we seem to have perfected is judgmentalism. If this person is suffering, it's because of their stupid behaviors or beliefs. But we know, as the Buddha taught, that it's the conditions of peoples lives that lead them to their particular beliefs and behaviors, and that if we were in their situation we might do likewise. And when we realize that, when we really feel it – in our bodies, in our bones – then we feel, not hatred of them, not judgment of them, but compassion for them, and even love.
And the second tool we have is gratitude. Because we realize that for everything that we have gone through – and all of us have gone through a lot – we have a lot of advantages. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, we had decent educations, most of us have white skin, which in this country accounts for a lot. We have the ability to feed and clothe ourselves, we have friends and loved ones, you guys have an awesome fellowship, we have antibiotics, and farmers markets and recordings of like 3,000 Grateful Dead shows. That's a lot, right? Making a gratitude list is one of the most powerful spiritual techniques available to us.
And the third tool is connection. Connection to ourselves through this feeling of our feelings, connection to each other through spiritual community, connections to others working on issues that we're concerned about, connection to the earth. As EM Forster famously said, “Only connect.” I haven't spent much time talking about it today, but I believe that one of the key reasons for the the increase of depression and alienation in our society is our alienation from nature. Whenever someone asks me about increasing their spiritual connection (often framed as “connection to God”), I recommend spending time in nature. It is there we can often feel more connection with creation, and, if we are so inclined, to a creator, than in any other setting.
And the fourth tool to positively utilize our connection with our sadness, with our compassion is in service or action. Getting out of ourselves and helping another. Whether this be – on the service side - serving at LINK, or being a Big Brother/Big Sister, or mentoring a younger person in our profession, or – on the action side – organizing or just showing up at a Black Lives Matter event, or testifying at a City Commissioners meeting or in the state legislature, or – perhaps – getting involved with a great group like Kansas Interfaith Action, when we put our values and our feelings into action, when we get out of ourselves and help someone else, it helps to turn our difficult feelings into something that can change the world for the better.
A brief poem, by Gregory Orr:
Some say you're lucky
If nothing shatters it.
If nothing shatters it.
But then you wouldn't
Understand poems or songs
Understand poems or songs
You'd never know
Beauty comes from loss.
It's deep inside every person:
A tear tinier than a pearl or a thorn.
It's one of those places
Where the beloved is born.
I started by talking about Tisha B'av, the date that commemorates the destruction of the Temples. It is said that the messiah, the harbinger of a redeemed world, is to be born in the afternoon of Tisha B'av. It is thus that – to use a Thich Naht Hahn image and thereby mix spiritual metaphors - the lotus of redemption itself forms in the mud of destruction. I've already told you I'm not really into messianic imagery. But by accepting our sadness, by tending to it – not wallowing in it, but caring for it – we can use the tools it gives us – the tools of compassion, gratitude, connection and action – and turn thereby turn our sorrow into a force that can bring a little bit of redemption to the world.