* Listening for the Murmuring Farmer
Last week I read Meg Barnhouse’s story about a goat being transported to an unknown destination in a pickup truck. If you remember that story, you’ll remember that the frightened goat was held in the back of the truck by a farmer. This farmer, sensing the goat’s fear, responded by murmuring in its ear until the goat finally relaxed into the farmer’s lap.
I love that image and I love that word, Murmuring. I hear a sound somewhere between a poem and a chant. It is the sound of reassurance: “there, there…everything’s going to be all right”. Or better, just “there, there…..”. Or best, simply being wordlessly held. Fortunate, indeed, are those of you who remember giving and/or receiving that sort of comfort. Let’s take a minute to close our eyes and remember how that felt. The memory may be as distant as early childhood or as close as visiting a newly-widowed friend. The words – what was said – aren’t as important as remembering that feeling of assurance. Let’s take a breath and remember together. (One minute silence)
Now that we’re all a little more relaxed, I want to talk about two things: the possible identity of the farmer and non-verbal communication. First, the farmer. This will be very short because, frankly, I’m not very interested who or what the farmer is. I don’t think naming our personal farmer is as important as having one. We get ourselves tied into knots over whether we’re going to call our farmer “Community” or “Science” or “God” or “Humanity” or “Source” or “Spirit of Life” or “the Holy” or whatever we call that which we turn to in our fear and uncertainty. What matters to me is that we all have a lap into which we can relax when the twists and turns of life become too overwhelming.
What I’m really interested is in communication, especially non-verbal communication. Do you remember the character R2D2 in the movie Star Wars? This little robot communicated via a series of clicks and whistles and rotating parts. It caused quite a stir at the time, and was the precursor of the movie Wall-E, a full-length, animated movie which explored a relationship between robots where there was almost no dialogue. Remember the clapping we did in our Word for All Ages? That’s a form of non-verbal communication. Its power was brought home recently by a drumming workshop I attended at one of our Florida congregations. The facilitator was a young, heavily tattooed man. The workshop attendees looked – well, they looked a lot like you with some young people sprinkled in the mix. There was a certain amount of resistance at first, but the facilitator kept at it and pretty soon people who hadn’t cracked a smile in the months I had known them were grinning from ear to ear as they whomped away at the facilitator’s directions. We did then with drums what we did today with clapping – a sort of call-and-response dialogue without a single word being spoken.
As a musician I have learned and experienced the power of evoking and expressing emotion through sound; through a system of rhythms and pitches. But as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I default to words. It’s something I’ve had to unlearn. One of the really important tools in the ministerial toolbelt is a personal spiritual practice. I didn’t have much of one. Praying had become a session of plea-bargaining for the insight and words to finish the next seminary paper or exam or sermon or newsletter column or report. I could feel myself getting a little snarly with my family and colleagues. And meditation was a joke. I sat down, said a sacred word, and fell asleep. I was talking, talking, talking ABOUT the Divine – ABOUT the murmuring farmer -- but doing not much talking TO it.
At some point it occurred to me that all this verbosity was getting me nowhere. That talking TO however-you-name-your farmer is not really necessary. The farmer is, after all, aware of the deepest yearning of our hearts and souls and minds, articulated or not. So instead of being guilty because I wasn’t making my point I decided to revert to my musical training and try listening. I was stunned to discover I wasn’t very good at it. I wasn’t good at it because, as the Persian poet, Rumi, intimated, I was scared to death of silence. Rumi wrote that “Silence is the root of everything. If you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear.” So in order to listen for the murmuring farmer, we need to learn to be at home in silence. This is a terrible ordeal for many of us. Not only are we plugged into our smart phones and the rest of our electronic devices, we are assaulted from the noise of ‘civilization’. It’s hard to find a place of silence, even in our homes. And when we do find external quiet, it’s very hard to still and quiet our brains. Our ‘monkey mind’ – as the Buddhists call it – continues to plan, feel, think, itch, and comment even though our eyes are closed and our mouths are still.
The mystic Kalil Gibran elaborated on the necessity of learning to be at home in silence. He wrote, “Silence is painful, but in silence things take form, and we must wait and watch. In us, in our secret depth, lies the knowing element which sees and hears that which we do not see nor hear. All our perceptions, all the things we have done, all that we are today, dwelt once in that knowing, silent depth, that treasure chamber in the soul. And we are more than we think. We are more than we know. That which is more than we think and know is always seeking and adding to itself while we are doing – or think we are doing – nothing. But to be conscious of what is going on in our depth is to help it along. When subconsciousness becomes consciousness, the seeds in our winter-clad selves turn to flowers, and the silent life in us sings with all its might.”
Now Gibran didn’t name that ‘knowing element which sees and hears that which we do not see or hear’, but I will be so bold at call it the Divine. The Holy. Or, to bring it back to our frightened goat in the pickup truck careening to an unknown destination – the Farmer. However you choose to name your farmer’s lap, I believe it is the yearning of every human soul to be in union with it. But how?
First, you start off with establishing a relationship. Most world religions would agree that this is called prayer or meditation. There are many ways to practice prayer or meditation but today I’m going to talk about the one I’m most familiar with – Centering Prayer. This method of opening the mind and heart to what I choose to call the Holy beyond thoughts, words, and emotions has inspired the Christian contemplative heritage for sixteen centuries. And it’s grounded in silence.
Now, because we’re Unitarian Universalists we need a book to get us started. Here it is: Open Mind, Open Heart by Franciscan Friar Thomas Keating. In his re-articulation of this ancient practice Keating explains that the point of centering prayer is to assume an attitude of consent. Consent to allow the Holy to work with your true self that is deep within you. Intention and consent are the heart and soul of centering prayer. It’s likened to a growing love relationship with the Divine: the engagement is the act of intent, the marriage is the act of consent. You state your intentions by following four simple guidelines: First, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to the Power’s presence and action within you. Next, sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to the Divine’s presence and action within. Third, when engaged with your thoughts – including body sensations, feelings, images, and reflections – return ever-so-gently to the sacred word. Fourth, at the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
The minimum time for this prayer is 20 minutes twice each day, one first thing in the morning and the other in the afternoon or early evening. During this prayer we avoid analyzing our experience, harboring expectations, or aiming at some specific goal such as repeating the sacred word continuously (it’s not a mantram), having no thoughts, making the mind a blank, feeling peaceful or consoled, or achieving a spiritual experience. The principal fruits of centering prayer are experienced in daily life and not during the prayer period. Let me say that again: The principal fruits of centering prayer are experienced in daily life and not during the prayer period. Centering prayer familiarizes us with the Farmer’s first language, which is silence.
“Slowly the goat folded its legs and sat down in the man’s lap. Lifting its head into the breeze, eyes closed, it finally relaxed.”
I learned about centering prayer at the workshop sponsored by the Center for Contemplation and Action, an organization founded by Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I signed up for the workshop I didn’t realize I would be learning this method of meditation in a hotel ballroom with 900 people. And I was dubious that I could sit still for 20 minutes, never mind quiet the mind. But it was quite wonderful once I accepted the idea that it was okay to have no goal. There’s tremendous relief in simply trusting that the Universe will do whatever the Universe will do – which the Universe will do anyway, so why fight it – if you follow me – and that it would ultimately be good. Apparently it was quite wonderful for the other 899 people in the room, because you could’ve heard a pin drop on the carpet for those 20 minutes.
I think you will like it, too. So let’s go over those four steps again: First, the sacred word. Use a word of one or two syllables such as Holy, Abba, Amen, Love, Listen, Peace, Let Go, Silence. Or instead of a word, noticing one’s breath may be more comfortable for you. The sacred word isn’t sacred because of it’s inherent meaning but because of the meaning we give it as the expression of our intention to consent.
The second step asks you to sit relatively comfortably so as not to encourage sleep during your time of silence. Keep your back straight and close your eyes. Introduce your sacred word inwardly and gently. If you do fall asleep, continue the prayer when you wake up.
Third, when engaged with your thoughts return every-so-gently to the sacred word. The word, “thoughts”, is an umbrella term for every perception, including body sensation, sense perceptions, feelings, images, memories, plans, reflections, concept, commentaries, and spiritual experiences. They are an inevitable, integral and normal part of centering prayer, so there’s no use trying to get rid of them. Nor it is helpful to use your sacred word as a club to beat them into submission. Instead, make friends with your thoughts. Acknowledge them, then ever-so-gently return to the sacred word with a minimum of effort. This is the only activity we initiate during the time of centering.
Finally, at the end of the prayer time remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. This enables us to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life. Why is this important? Because if you are silent you are more likely to listen – to other people, to your deepest self, and to the Divine Within. And if you listen, you will most likely hear your own longings, aspiration, and dreams reflected back at you. These form the basis for authentic relationship. And people who are busy forming authentic relationships are relaxed, faith-filled people willing to trust that the arc of the Universe bends not only toward justice, but also toward goodness.
Spiritual practice is part of our work in learning to deal with the uncertainty of change. We are going to take five minutes right now to try this out. For those of you who are practicing a different form of listening for the murmuring farmer, I ask you to be open to another experience for a few minutes. We’re going to start with sounding the bowl. Then I will ask you to breathe with me while you focus on your sacred word. We will continue to breathe together while I remind you to make sure you are comfortably seated with your back straight and your feet on the floor. I will gradually stop reminding you to breathe so we can sit together in the silence. At the end I will strike the bowl once, so you may come back out from your center. After a short time I will strike the bowl twice to indicate a continuation of our service.
Let us begin. (wait 3-5 minutes)
Amen and amen.