The Gift of Loving Kindness

December 7, 2014

Reading: The spirit of this season is loving Kindness. Waldemar Argow tells this story:

An old Buddhist said: ‘Tell me, what is this day you cherish so, that you call Christmas?’
And the stranger from the West said: ‘Christmas is not a day, really. It is light, I think. It comes when days are shortest and darkest and hearts despair, and it reminds us that winter death is a temporary thing and that light and life are eternal.
And it is hope. For it demonstrates how kind and generous and self-forgetting human beings can be. And we know that what people can be sometimes, they can, if they will, be most times.
And, assuredly, it is love. Its symbol is a newborn babe, warm and safe in its mother’s arms. To be sure, he was born a long, long, time ago. Yet through the ages his influence as he became a man and the truths he taught and the love he incarnated have proven stronger and dearer in matters that matter more than all the kings and armies and governments in history. Oh, whatever else it may be, Christmas is love.’
‘I think I understand,’ the old Buddhist said. ‘Christmas is like a lotus blossom. When it blooms, it holds, as in a chalice, the beauty of the world.’
‘Yes, you do understand,’ said the Stranger from the West.
‘When it comes, Christmas brings the light that redeems us from the darkness, the hope that casts out fear and the loved that overcomes the world. ‘It is Christmas. We rejoice. And, suddenly, the lotus blooms…’

Sermon: The Gift of Loving Kindness December 7, 2014 Rev. Nancy O. Arnold UU Congregation of the South Fork

We are in that time of year when, in addition to our usual responsibilities, we prepare for the holidays. To our already over-scheduled lives, we may add more shopping, more socializing, and more doing. With all the activity associated with this season, we may lose touch with the deeper meaning of this time for our lives.

There is no shortage of religious and secular significance from which to draw for inspiration. Religiously, we are in the Christian season of Advent, the time of anticipation before the “birthday” of Jesus.

There are other markers on the liturgical calendar. This week alone includes the feast for honoring the feminine divine spirit celebrated by Hindus, Sufis, and Christians. Zen Buddhists mark this time with Mindfulness Day – a day for “mindfully seeing and acting with compassion for the poor and oppressed.” (from The Mystic’s Wheel of the Year 2014) Several members of the Zendo, which now makes its home with us, will be sitting through the night in preparation for Rohatsu, the celebration of the Buddha’s awakening tomorrow. It is said that while deep in meditation under a Bodhi tree, Buddha attained enlightenment upon seeing the morning star just

at dawn.

In the secular world, we remember events in the world that changed us forever. On this day 73 years ago, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, precipitating our entrance into World War II, the most widespread war in history. Many families lost loved ones in this war that involved the vast

Most of us were touched by it in some way. At the end of the war, we witnessed the formation of the United Nations. It was hoped that in the future, nations would use that forum to negotiate – rather than to fight. On December 10, 1948, the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, and fundamental rights were recognized world-wide.

These fundamental rights are consistent with our own Principles and Purposes in their recognition of the “inherent dignity and of the equal inalienable rights of all members of the human family…”

These significant events speak of the deep contrasts that mark our lives. Anniversaries – whether religious or secular – provide an opportunity for us to remember what was, and to prepare for what yet might be.

Not an easy task, given today’s climate. It is difficult to hold fast to hope in the wake of cruel reminders of the racism that continues to permeate our country. There are many things not in our control. But within our grasp is the potential to live and to speak with loving kindness.

For many, gearing up for Christmas Day is the secular part of this season. But there is a sacred dimension to this time of preparation as well.

The spirit of this season can be viewed as promise, preparation, hope, and anticipation. The late Fr. Thomas Berry characterized it as a time of “intimate communion with the larger human community and with the universe itself.” (from Dream of the Earth) This opening of the heart comes about with the practice of loving kindness.

In A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield describes “The quality of loving-kindness [as] the fertile soil out of which an integrated spiritual life can grow. With a loving heart as the background, all that we attempt, all that we encounter, will open and flow more easily. While loving-kindness can arise naturally in us in many circumstances, it can also be cultivated.” (Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart, p. 19)

Advent is a time of quiet gestation, a time to go inward. In this season of anticipation, we are given the opportunity to examine our lives and our world anew. We are invited to imagine the world – and ourselves – as sacred space. It is as if we are becoming that new-born child, each and every year. By going deeper within ourselves, we make room for the sacred in each person. And we are reminded that nothing of value comes into being without patient waiting – not a baby, or a loving relationship, reconciliation, a work of art, a new understanding, nor hope for the world. There is something about this season that can change us, if we accept it as a gift. The gift of loving kindness.

The gift is an opportunity to transform our own lives, and the tiny space in the universe we inhabit. It presents itself with each gift we prepare, and with each card we write. When we are fully present and intentional about what we do, we honor our connection with other people.

Advent is a wonderful opportunity for us to begin to live mindfully — with an intentional sense of expectancy and hope. “One dimension of our faith journey consists of waiting, watching, (and) patiently offering hospitality.” (Marilyn Brown Oden, Advent Devotions, p. 36)

Christians are guided by the belief that they are to treat each person as if she or he is Jesus Christ. (As UUs we would say that we honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”) Advent is a good time for us to look into our hearts. We can strive to replace hostility and fear with compassion and kindness.

If we accept the gift, and cultivate loving kindness, we become like the child born to love. Or the lotus blossom that holds the beauty of the world when it blooms.

I don’t think it is possible to live with loving kindness toward others if we do not cultivate it in ourselves first. The meditation on loving-kindness begins with the focus on ourselves.

May I be filled with Loving-kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.
(from A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield pp. 20-21)

Until we cultivate happiness and peace for ourselves, it is difficult – if not impossible – to offer it to others. Jack Kornfield recommends that this meditation be practiced repeatedly for a number of weeks until the sense of loving-kindness for ourselves grows.

The meditation itself “is a 2,500-year-old practice that uses repeated phrases, images, and feelings to evoke loving-kindness and friendliness toward oneself and others.” It’s “best to begin by repeating it over and over for fifteen or twenty minutes once or twice daily in a quiet place for several months.” (Kornfield, p. 19)

If it evokes feelings of irritation or anger, “it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. In its own time, even in the face of difficulties, loving-kindness will
develop.” (Kornfield, p. 19-20)

When you feel ready, in the same meditation period you can gradually expand the focus of your loving-kindness to include others. After yourself, choose a benefactor, someone in your life who has truly cared for you. Picture him or her and carefully recite the same phrases:

May s/he be filled with loving kindness, and so forth.
When loving-kindness for your benefactor has developed, begin to include other people you love in the meditation, picturing them and reciting the same phrases, evoking a sense of loving- kindness toward them.

After this you can gradually begin to include others: friends, community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, the whole earth, and all beings. Then you can even experiment with including the most difficult people in your life, wishing that they, too, be filled with loving-kindness and with peace. With some practice a steady sense of loving-kindness can develop and in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes you will be able to include many beings in your meditation, moving from yourself, to a benefactor and loved ones, to all beings everywhere.

Then you can learn to practice it anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses and airplanes, in doctors’ waiting rooms and in a thousand other circumstances. As you silently practice this loving-kindness meditation among people, you will immediately feel a wonderful connection with them – the power of loving-kindness. It will calm your life and keep you connected to your heart.

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that:
Once you have established yourself as a center of love and kindness radiating throughout your being, which amounts to a cradling of yourself in loving kindness and acceptance, you can dwell here indefinitely, drinking at this fountain, bathing in it, renewing yourself, nourishing yourself, enlivening yourself. This can be a profoundly healing practice for body and soul.

(Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, p. 165)

Through a spiritual practice, we take time to re-connect with a deeper part of ourselves. The key to this is creating the time and space in our lives. Jon Kabat-Zinn believes that
There is really no natural limit to the practice of loving kindness in meditation or in

one’s life. It is an ongoing, ever-expanding realization of interconnectedness. It is also its embodiment… Practicing in this way is not trying to change anything or get anywhere, although it might look like it on the surface. What it is really doing is uncovering (that which) is always present. Love and kindness are here all the time, somewhere, in fact, everywhere. Usually our ability to touch them and be touched by them lies buried below our own fears and hurts…below our desperate clinging to the illusion that we are truly separate and alone. (Kabat-Zinn, p. 167)

A spiritual practice creates greater awareness and connection. We cannot predict the outcome. We can only experience the process. To live with loving-kindness might be the goal. But it is also the process. We can only experience loving-kindness by living with loving- kindness. Fear and hurt often keep us from being aware of the loving-kindness that resides within ourselves. We feel unworthy. So we give ourselves to others who are more deserving or needy than we are.

At this time of year we have ample opportunity to give to others. There is a hope at work that casts out fear, and that cultivates love in the world. This same hope is available to us in our own lives. I don’t mean to compete with worthy causes. But I want to suggest that you are a worthy cause. You are worthy of being a recipient of loving-kindness. We must begin with ourselves, by thinking of our own good qualities. “May I be happy. May I be at peace. May I find my joy. May I be filled with Love. May I be happy. May I be at peace.”

It may be uncomfortable at first to focus attention on ourselves. It’s too self-serving, we think. I believe that we want to live with loving-kindness. But, normally we are too caught up in other things to take time with ourselves. The message of this season is to accept this opportunity to cultivate loving-kindness. Not just for right now, in this particular season. Advent simply opens the door to possibilities. When we allow ourselves to receive the gift of this season, we are filled with “the hope that casts out fear and the love that overcomes the world… And suddenly, the lotus blooms…” (Waldemar Argow)

What if we celebrated Christmas as if we really needed it?

I believe we do need Christmas. We need to be reminded of the possibility of peace on earth, good will to all people. We need to be reminded that in the birth of a child exists the potential hope for our world. And we need to be reminded of the hope and potential that resides within each of us.

That hope is born of our desire for communion with the larger human community, and with the universe itself. We have before us the opportunity to transform our lives, and the tiny space of the universe we touch. Let us honor the spirit of this season with gifts of the heart, and prepare ourselves for the new life within.

Let us begin now:

Meditation on Loving Kindness adapted from A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield (p. 20-21)

Sit in a comfortable fashion. Let your body relax and be at rest. As best you can, let your mind be quiet, letting go of plans and preoccupations. Then begin to recite inwardly the following phrases directed to yourself. You begin with yourself because without loving yourself it is almost impossible to love others.

  • May I be filled with loving-kindness.
  • May I be well.
    May I be peaceful and at ease.
  • May I be happy.

As you say the phrases, you may also wish to use the image from the Buddha’s instructions: picture yourself as a young and beloved child, or sense yourself as you are now, held in a heart of loving- kindness. Let the feelings arise with the words. Adjust the words and images so that you find the exact phrases that best open your heart of kindness. Repeat the phrases again and again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind…

If you feel ready, … expand the focus of your loving-kindness to include others. … choose a benefactor, someone in your life who has truly cared for you. Picture (him or her) and carefully recite the same

phrases:

  • May she or he be filled with loving kindness.
  • May she or he be well.
    May she or he be peaceful and at ease.
  • May she or he be happy.

If you feel ready, invite other people you love into the meditation, picturing them and reciting the same phrases, evoking a sense of loving-kindness for them.

  • May they be filled with loving kindness.
  • May they or he be well.
    May they be peaceful and at ease.
  • May they be happy.

If you wish, include others: friends, community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, the

whole earth, and all beings.

  • May they be filled with loving kindness.
  • May they or he be well.
    May they be peaceful and at ease.
  • May they be happy.

If you feel ready, include the most difficult people in your life. Picture them, and wish that they, too, be filled with loving-kindness and peace.

  • May they be filled with loving kindness. 
  • May they or he be well.
  • May they be peaceful and at ease.
  • May they be happy.
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