Water Crashing on Stone: When Spiritual Growth Hurts

A sermon delivered by
Sheri Prud'homme
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 5 October 1997

There is a story from Tibet of Krisha Botami, a young woman who lived at the time of the Buddha. When her first born child was about a year old, it fell ill and died. Grief-stricken and clutching its little body, Krisha Gotami roamed the streets, begging anyone she met for a medicine that could restore her child to life. Some ignored her, some laughed at her, some thought she was mad, but finally she met a wise man who told her that the only person in the world who could perform the miracle she was looking for was the Buddha.

So she went to the Buddha, laid the body of her child at his feet, and told him her story. The Buddha listened with ... compassion. Then he said gently, "There is only one way to heal your affliction. Go down to the city and bring me back a mustard seed from any house in which there has never been a death." Krisha Gotami felt elated and set off at once for the city. She stopped at the first house she saw and said: "I have been told by the Buddha to fetch a mustard seed from a house that has never known death." "Many people have died in this house," she was told. She went on to the next house. "There have been countless deaths in our family," they said. And so to a third and a fourth house, until she had been all round the city and realized the Buddha's condition could not be fulfilled. She took the body of her child to the charnel ground and said goodbye to him for the last time, then returned to the Buddha. "Did you bring the mustard seed?" he asked. "No," she said. "I am beginning to understand the lesson you are trying to teach me. Grief made me blind and I thought that only I had suffered at the hands of death." "Why have you come back?" asked the Buddha. "To ask you to teach me the truth," she replied ... The Buddha began to teach her: "Because pain has now made you ready to learn and your heart is opening to the truth, I will show it to you." Krisha Gotami followed the Buddha and his teachings for the rest of her life. (This is Krisha Gotami's story as told by Sogyal Rinpoche in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying).

Each of us has a story, our own story of how we turned toward a path of spiritual growth, of how we came to be in this place. For some of us, this turning was a painful experience-- the death of a loved one, an illness, the end of a cherished relationship. For some of us, the change was less dramatic. Whatever the catalyst, things were no longer as they had been. Whatever awakening or realization grabbed hold of us, it changed the course of our life forever, the way the course of a river changes when it finds a rock in its path. The river may veer gently and swiftly to the side or it may crash into the stone. In either case, it can no longer stay on the path it had been on just a moment before. Spiritual growth can hurt, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little less.

In my experience, a path of spiritual growth is also a painful path. As we [The following attachment could not be decoded because line 1 was too long.] begin to pay attention, to notice what is happening in our relationships with ourselves, each other, our planet, and the ground of all relationship which some call God, our lives become more complex. We may be aware of suffering in the world in ways that we had been numb to before. We may notice habits of self-deprecation, or prejudice, or greed that are intrenched in our very beings. We may notice that we have cherished misperceptions about the way things really are. To open ourselves to this knowledge, is to open ourselves to the pain of knowing it. And, if we are able to acknowledge the pain, to feel it, to be present with it, we also open ourselves to a greater experience of joy.

Now, it's not that we usually go looking for the stone to crash into. Nor is it always some big event. I find that things just happen in my life all the time, small things, that offer significant opportunities for growth if I pay attention.

In my second year of seminary, I had a classmate who we'll call Nathan. From the very first days of class, we had a strained realtionship. Actually toxic would be a better word. He had a way of rolling his eyes and tilting his head after I spoke in class that caused all of my adolescent insecurities to gnash their ugly teeth. This went on for some time, before I began noticing what was happening. As I paid attention, I realized that I was giving Nathan the power to define me and to determine the worth of my contributions. A pattern painfully familiar to me from my experience in initimate relationships. Worse, a family history of avoiding confrontation and not acknowledging anger contributed to my fear of confronting him. Yuck! I was lucky to have a spiritual advisor whom I could go to when I crashed into something like this and couldn't go forward. She helped me compose a clear and direct statement of my feelings.

The next day, Nathan and I were both early to class. The only two in the room. My knees almost shook. My heart pounded. I asked Nathan if we could talk. I told him, "I feel belittled by the expression on your face after I speak in class." It was like a miracle. In that moment what had been toxic suddenly came perilously close to friendship. Nathan listened and apologized. Regardless of whether or not he had said anything, speaking the truth, as painful and vulnerable as it was, proved to be transformative. Not only for me but also for him. When I got home that night, Nathan had left a message on my answering machine. He apologized again. Told me I was an honored colleague. Thanked me for approaching him. He said he had been having a difficult month and he needed that kind of honest feedback. And he urged me to come to him in the future if I ever felt that way again. Let me tell you, that was not the response I had been imagining from my frozen place of fear!

It happens again and again. Paying attention. Sitting with the pain and refusing to push it away. And then learning. Spiritual growth. Unfortunatley, it's not like we crash into the rock once, learn our lesson, and never hit the rock again. Slowly, though, we do get it. We awaken to the presence of the rock before we crash into it. In her poem, "Autobiography in Five Chapters," Portia Nelson describes it this way.

1) I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost...I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in...it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

I suspect most of us find ourselves somewhere in Portia's poem. And we are not there alone. Krisha Gotami's first learning on her path toward spiritual growth was her realization that others too had suffered as she had suffered. In my experience with Nathan, my learning was greatly accelerated by friends who helped me interpret the experience and who asked good questions that helped me understand myself. We gather in religious communities because we believe the spiritual journey is not a solo trip. We help each other out along the way.

As many of you know, I live with Emily Larimer and Greg Ward. Emily gave me permission to tell you about a conversation we had recently. She came back to this congregation a little over a year ago, and now she is involved in starting the new congregation in the Beaches area. She hadn't really intended to become this involved in church, but here she is. With an exhasperated smile, she lamented that she can't get away anymore with the kinds of things she used to do. Like ignoring difficulties or leaving rather than dealing with them. But now too many people know what she is capable of and they have high expectations of her. They keep her accountable to her own best self, and they stay with her in the struggle.

When we commit to a spiritual journey in the context of a religious community, we commit to holding ourselves and each other accountable to our values and our highest aspirations. We ask each other to relate in ways which reflect our principles. We ask each other to seek and speak the truth. And we offer comfort when our neighbor's soul is bruised by the journey.

Even this act of connecting our lives with one another, of making ourselves vulnerable enough to let each other share in our journeys, even this opens us to the possibility of pain, of disappointment, betrayal, loss... just as it opens us to the possibility of great joy, happiness, and love.

May we honor Krisha Gotami's courage as she discovered the suffering of all the houses in the village and faced her own grief, opening her heart to truth and a path of spiritual growth. May we honor that same courage in ourselves and each other as we continue on our own spiritual journies and join in relgious community, allowing ourselves to be known and seen by others. And when the waters get rough may we remember to turn again toward each other and toward that which is most sacred within, among, and beyond all life.