Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Practice of Being Grounded

Sermon for March 17, 2019 

This week, our spiritual practice is being grounded. Now there are a lot of ways to interpret this, and a lot of definitions for being grounded. But for today, for the purposes of this practice, being grounded means being in touch with and connected to your surroundings and standing on firm footing. It involves noticing the world around you in the moment you are in. 
How often do you go places on autopilot? The times when you walk or drive a path so familiar, that you honestly can’t remember the journey afterwards. You know you made it there safely, but you remember nothing of the trip because you were thinking about other things. Maybe you were worrying about what you had to do that day so you were making lists of all the things you needed to get done. Or maybe you had an argument with someone earlier, and you were reliving that moment and thinking about all of the things you should have said differently. Or maybe you are just thinking about your destination and how you don’t want to be late. But the one thing you definitely weren’t thinking about was that moment.  

In this text, Jesus is walking and ministering, but he is neither agitated by what has happened in the recent past (casting demons into pigs) nor consumed by the urgent future (confronting the desperate situation of Jairus’s daughter). He is so aware of the present moment and the various sensations that assail him in the midst of the crowd that he can discern precisely when a woman touches him and is healed.

Jesus has a destination and a purpose and more than enough to occupy his thoughts, and yet, he is paying attention to the world around him. This is not an easy thing to do, and many people train their whole lives to get into this mindset. For this week, I’m going to suggest going for a walk as a good starting place to being mindful. If that’s not an option for you, don’t worry, I have some alternatives as well. 

I love to walk. Living in town is a blessing to me because I get to walk most of the places I have to go. But I also just love to walk for the sake of walking. And I noticed how much more I notice when I am not preoccupied with getting somewhere. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time. Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are." 

When I lived in Florida, I was lucky enough to live in a house that was a block from the ocean. And the last year I lived there I made it a point to walk on the beach at sunrise almost every day. There wasn’t really a destination for me; I’d pick a direction and walk for awhile and then I’d walk back. But there was so much to notice. From the first rays of the sun peeking over the horizon to the sound of the waves rolling in, to the feel of the sand beneath my toes.  I didn’t have to force myself to be grounded in the world around me, the world around me did it all by itself. 

Walking as a spiritual practice is sometimes hard to describe as Taylor  explains "The beauty of physical practices like this one is that you do not have to know what you are doing in order to begin. You just begin, and the doing teaches you what you need to know." Grounding yourself in this way is not something you have to know what to do. There is no special trick to it. You just do it and see what happens. 

Now, we may not have miles of ocean shore to practice this discipline on, but we have something even better right here at the church. We have our labyrinth, a tool that has been used to help ground people for over a thousand years.  Walking the labyrinth is one a way to focus on the present and on God’s presence, because there is not destination. 

When you look at a labyrinth, you can see the end from the beginning. If the point was getting to the end you can just walk straight there; there aren’t walls in a labyrinth. But the point is the steps you take along the way. The journey is the point; paying attention to every step you take. The feel of the ground under your feet. The touch of the breeze blowing past. The smell of the earth waking up to spring. The sounds of the birds in the trees. The practice of walking in and walking back out can help to ground you, even if only for the time you are there. 

But, as with many of the spiritual practices we will discuss, this isn’t a guaranteed experience. There is no consistency in what will happen. Taylor explains: "The labyrinth may be a set path, but it does not offer a set experience. Instead, it offers a door that anyone may go through to discover realities that meet each person where each most needs to be met." Every time I have walked a labyrinth it has been a different experience, and no sunrise on the beach has ever been alike. Sometimes I have really powerful experiences walking the labyrinth, and sometimes I find myself impatient and frustrated with something else in life and have to sit in the center for a long time in order to be in the right frame of mind to go back out again.

For people who are type A, who want consistency in their lives, this is incredibly frustrating. Walking a labyrinth, and indeed, spiritual practices in general, are not like say, exercising, where if you do the same motion enough times, you will get better at it, and your muscle will grow. If I do pushups every day, I know I will get stronger. If I walk the labyrinth every day, for a month, I won’t somehow be better at walking it, because that’s not the point. Taylor says, "The only promise [spiritual practices] make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know - about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God. The great religious traditions of the world are so confident of this that they commend dozens of spiritual practices to their followers without telling those practitioners exactly what will happen when they do." I don’t know what will happen to you if you engage in these practices I recommend, other than knowing that it will teach your something about God and yourself. 

Now, thus far I’ve been talking about walking, but there are many ways to engage in this practice without walking if that is hard for you. The famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a monastic community in Southern france where he teaches walking meditation among other things. When someone who cannot walk comes to learn, he sets them up near the labyrinth and tells them to pick one of the walkers. Deepening her breathing, she is instructed to watch the movement of those feet. Notice the exact moment the foot leaves the ground, how far it lifts, the way the weight shits from the back foot to the front as it touches the ground again.  When the mind wanders, bring it back to the breath and the sight of the foot. Over and over again, practicers say they sometimes lose track of whose foot is in the air during the practice.   

But if you don’t have people to watch, that’s okay too. Find a place to sit outside, on the ground is good, but wherever you can reach works, and watch. Listen. Breathe in the air. Focus on the moment you are in. If you’re a fidgeter like I am, you can trace the pattern of a labyrinth with your finger, using the track of your finger on the journey just like others would use their feet. 

Practicing being grounded means when worry creeps up on you or distractions call to you, you focus on God’s presence in the here and now. You listen and attend, neither dwelling in the past or rushing headlong into the future. Like so many things, it takes practice, and the results aren’t always what you expect, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you grow. 

This week, try grounding yourself, whether it is walking without destination, following the labyrinth on foot or by finger, or even just sitting and being present to the world around you.