Wednesday, September 16, 2015
5776 High Holiday Sermon
The Spirituality of Imperfection
Once again, I thank Rabbi Hammerman for giving me this opportunity to share with you. He is generous to share his pulpit.
While many clergy who lead congregations have to write sermons on a weekly basis, this is my one big opportunity to offer a sermon each year. As such, it occupies a fair amount of my attention from about the beginning of the summer. First, I need to think about what subject I want to focus on, and then I start thinking about what I want to say about that subject. This year, I decided that I was going to write a sermon on prayer, and discuss how I prayed in my heart to a God that I didn’t believe in with my mind. Sounds like an interesting topic, right?
But I had a hard time with it. My first efforts felt very detached and intellectual, and I want to share with you from my heart and soul rather than being some kind of lecturer. But when I tried to make the sermon more personal, I got stuck because I couldn’t find a happy ending. My personal prayer and meditation practices seemed so inconsistent and sporadic that I felt embarrassed to offer a sermon about prayer. I had the ‘before’ part down; it was the ‘after’ part that was escaping me.
What to do? Not long ago my wife and I were coming back from the supermarket. It was a beautiful day, and we were discussing whether I would work on my sermon or possibly go to an art gallery with her. I was feeling mulish. I knew time was getting tight, but I didn’t feel at all inspired. I told her that this might be one of those sermons done late at night under pressure of a deadline, and she, having seen me go through this, asked, “Is this really what you want to happen?” Then she made a wonderful remark that opened the door of creativity for me. She said, “Are you sure that this is what you want to talk about? Just because you’ve been thinking about prayer for months doesn’t mean that this is the right subject for you. How about looking at where you are right now and what you want to talk about?”
And when I did think about this, including my concern that my prayer practice wasn’t ready for prime time, the subject that I wanted to discuss with you came to me almost instantly. That subject is the spirituality of imperfection – how do we, how do I reconcile my inability to be my best self on any kind of a consistent basis with my ideals and standards for myself? How do I tolerate the reality of my self-centeredness, desire to escape reality, avariciousness and especially my desire to look good and have people think well of me compared to what I think I would be if I could consistently live from my highest self?
As I looked back over my life, the answer to this question, which I reframed as “How have I lived with my own imperfections?” was “poorly.” Since childhood I have been someone who frequently got trapped in a tar pit of shame. I often got depressed, sometimes for weeks at a time, and during these periods I would have a profound feeling of worthlessness and struggle to find anything good in myself or in life, which sometimes seemed not worth living.
Fortunately, many years of psychotherapy, spiritual direction and appropriate medications (some of you know that I am a sober alcoholic, and I hasten to add that these are not the type of medications that would end my sobriety) have helped me and diminished the intensity of these patterns. But I remained an expert at self-criticism and self-denigration. I sometimes treated myself the way that a rider might treat a balky horse. To get the horse to move in the right direction the rider might yank on the bit, kick the horse’s side or even whip the horse. That was frequently how I managed myself, and I can tell you that it is painful, tiring and not very productive.
I have started to approach this question of living with my imperfections differently, and this is what I would like to share with you today. Over the past few months, I came to see a pattern that I acted out consistently with my spiritual director. A spiritual director is an individual that a seeker sees monthly, and the subject of the meetings is to examine the seeker’s relationship with, or perspective upon, or practices regarding the Holy – or God if you prefer. It is a very different relationship than most because its primary focus is the seeker’s experience of God and how that is manifesting in his/her life at this time.
What would happen when I met with my spiritual director was that I would invariably tell him about aspects of my spiritual practice that seemed to me to be unsatisfactory, such as my difficulty establishing a regular morning meditation practice or my failure to journal, etc. etc. At first I didn’t think I was bringing up these items so that he would reassure me that I was still a valid spiritual being and that they wouldn’t have to revoke my ordination as a Rabbinic Pastor. But I also realized that I was not looking for him to agree with my negative self-assessment of my spiritual practices.
So what was I trying to do and what was I looking for? I knew that when I kept doing this our sessions seemed “juice-less” and this pattern got really old and unsatisfying. As I look at it now I think I was keeping myself stuck and avoiding change, because change – particularly changing into a fuller, richer, deeper, more giving self – was very frightening. So if I stayed stuck in the negative, consistently recounting my shortcomings to him, I wouldn’t have to grow larger. At the same time his tacit reassurance that I was okay kept me from feeling so awful that I might have tried to change despite my fear.
So I pointed out this to him (he saw it too) and told him that I was going to make a new rule – I wasn’t allowed to put myself down when I talked to him. For someone as shame based as I was, this was a major change. He thought it was a terrific idea (I think he was also was tired of this pattern) and I instituted it. The difference in our sessions was immediately apparent. Instead of my lamenting about my recent past, we were able to talk about teachings of different Hasidic and other masters and how their wisdom might be applicable to my spiritual life now. So far, my sessions have been livelier, more fun and far richer.
Based on this, I changed my Elul practice this year. Often it is customary during the month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays for people to think about what they have not done well, any persons they may have harmed and to try to redress or make amends for anything hurtful they might have done. This is a wonderful practice; if we could be like that all the time perhaps we wouldn’t need to have the High Holidays at all – but that’s a different discussion.
But when Elul came around this year, based on my experience with my spiritual director, I decided that my Elul practice would be to refrain from voicing any negative self-talk aloud. You might think this is entirely at odds with the purpose of the month of Elul – namely to look at where one has done harm to others and practice t’shuvah (repentance or turning). But in fact you will see as I describe what this practice has been like for me, that it has been entirely consistent with Elul and the deep intentions of the High Holidays.
It’s been a very interesting month. I saw how frequently I think negative thoughts about myself. However, by not saying them aloud, I had to find new ways of talking about certain issues. Not putting myself down was empowering. It meant that I had to spend time talking about the solution rather than talking about the problem. It also encouraged me to utilize the energy that would have gone into negative self-judgment to actually try to change the situation I was engaging in self-judgment about. Often I found that it actually took less energy for me to change than I used to spend putting myself down and not changing. I needed to find ways of coping with my anxiety about change (without putting myself down for having the anxiety) but compared to being depressed and immobilized, this was a great problem to have.
A concern I’d had was that if I stopped putting myself down, I would become lazy, unmotivated and slothful and I would not be interested in change or constructive action. But this has not been the case. It was the dreary times I spent condemning myself that made me sluggish. It is actually easier and I am more available to look at my shortcomings and how I might have injured others when I am not judging myself.
Another benefit of this practice was that as I stopped saying self-judgmental thoughts aloud, I started to think them less frequently. Maybe they were less prone to speak to me if they knew I wasn’t listening.
I know that not everyone has the same issues with self-criticism that I do. But I also know from my work as a spiritual director and a teacher training chaplains that there are many people who are perfectionists and who consistently struggle with low self-esteem and/or self-hatred that manifests itself by negative self-judgments and a consistent internal stream of negative self-talk.
I can be very inventive in finding ways to criticize myself. Sometimes, even if I do something right, my mind will make judgments that I should have understood how to do it sooner, or quicker, or without having to ask for help or look at the instructions. For me, and for others like me, when we are caught in that conditioned brain pattern, we can’t win. The attempt to live up to our unrealistic and frankly impossible standards invariably fails. I know that I will never persuade my negative voice that I am different from what it suggests. Moreover, that voice is a liar – the things he says about me are just not true. If you are also someone who struggles with self-acceptance, that voice is lying to you as well.
This brings me back to the spirituality of imperfection – how do we live with ourselves when we are not our highest and best self? For me, part of the spirituality of imperfection involves not giving that voice credence – not repeating it aloud to others and not repeating it internally within myself. If I stop beating myself up about the times that I am not perfect, then I am more open to connecting to that which is good, affirming, healing or even joyful. And when I try to accept that I’m not being the ‘perfect’ self, it is easier to resume whatever behavior it is that I’ve been avoiding – whether it is emptying the dishwasher or avoiding a confrontation. Or, even if I continue to avoid that behavior, even if I continue to read my science fiction story, I can better enjoy it and eventually let go of it more easily when I’m not beating myself up.
This is not hiding from my problems and trying to avoid changing – this is t’shuvah to myself. I am healing the wrongs that the voice I inherited from a difficult childhood inflicted with its misguided attempts to keep me safe by keeping me small and isolated.
I invite you to have one of your new year’s resolutions be to stop speaking aloud or listening to your negative self-talk. To the best of your ability, don’t repeat those negative judgments to others as if they were true, and try not to give them an attentive audience in your head. Try it for one thought, one conversation or one day at a time. If you pray, ask for help in not listening to that negative voice and for help in finding ways to grow without beating yourself to a pulp.
I have no happy ending here in the sense of ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’ This is about starting and maintaining a process of healing. Healing within the context of a spirituality of imperfection takes place… imperfectly. That’s okay with me because I am moving in the direction of wholeness and receptivity to God and others.
Many mindfulness and spiritual teachers talk about the importance of accepting what is in this very moment. I don’t think it is only the reality outside of ourselves that we are being asked to accept; I think we are also asked to accept our inner reality, flawed as it may be.
Leonard Cohen sang ‘the crack is where the light gets in.’ Wendell Barry wrote ‘the impeded stream is the one that sings.’ My New Year’s resolution is not to become perfect, but to accept my imperfections with compassion and love, that I may have more compassion and love to give to you and everyone else I encounter. May each of you also be able to hold yourselves with caring and tenderness during 5776. If we are all b’tzelim elohim, in the image of God, may we exemplify the God of love and acceptance for ourselves as well as for others.