Just back from four days of meditation, so if the following is less coherent than usual, blame it on enlightenment 🙂 Which is described in a beautiful poem by Charles Wright as “Some dead end — no one to tell it to, / nothing to say it with.” I’ll take his word on that!
I’ve been wanting for awhile to write about being a minister and some of the demons that get wrestled with…nothing as exciting as The Exorcist (so far), which might be a good thing.
Bear in mind that it’s only been three years since my ordination, so I’m still figuring this out. But one of the things I’ve noticed is the startling projections that arise. I consider these a kind of demon. As long as the projections stay external, where they belong, they’re limited in the harm they can cause. But I refuse to start believing them; that’s when weird ideas become dangerous.
After a lesson, one of my English students was confiding her romantic traumas. I said something like, “I just hate when that happens!” She looked shocked and said, “Being a priest, I thought you would have transcended all that.” I responded, “You mean, transcended being human? I don’t think that’s in the cards.”
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have transcended. Having emotions? Loving people? Sometimes being disappointed by them? Which part of living and being human was I expected to transcend, exactly? One answer I run into is that longtime spiritual practice should mean you don’t get upset or angry.
This is wrong. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, zen’s “goal” is not to make emotionless robots of people. Nina Hartley, daughter of two zen priests and former porn star, noted in an interview: “Buddhism says that to experience any of your feelings, you have to experience all of them.” This has remained one of my favorite statements of Buddhist practice since I read it several years ago.
Experiencing all one’s emotions is vital, as is experiencing all of life; this is the very definition of vitality. Psychologist Alice Miller wrote, “The opposite of depression isn’t gaiety; it’s vitality,” which she defined as the ability to experience the full range of human emotions. Feelings, even very painful ones, are not the problem; what we do with them can be.
One thing we often do with our painful emotions is pour gasoline on them in the form of our thoughts: replaying and magnifying and justifying the one-sided stories around our pain, thereby prolonging and intensifying the feeling, and preventing possible resolution of it. Another quote, from A General Theory of Love: “Humans are the only animal that responds to trauma by re-traumatizing itself.”
The natural thing for an emotion to do is run its course, like everything else in life: to transform. We tend to obstruct this process out of a misplaced assumption that life is safer if things stay the same, that even a deeply painful known is safer than an unknown. But the only things that stay the same (for awhile) are things that were never alive; they’re plastic. They aren’t even dead, because dead things also transform, which is one of the most eloquent proofs that death is actually part and parcel of life, rather than its opposite.
It seems obvious, but I need to say it: a minister isn’t holier-than-thou. I can’t do this job well if I fabricate artificial separation between myself and other human beings, or if I support them in doing so. I don’t like the word holy anyway; I think it’s meaningless. As Bodhidharma said, nothing’s sacred. Meaning nothing is more sacred than anything else. The minister narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead explains that the sabbath isn’t more sacred than other days; it’s simply the day we set aside to remind us of the sacredness of every day.
A minister isn’t more sacred than anyone else; they’re someone whose job it is to exercise as best they can a reverence for life in all its manifestations. Someone who has vowed to try to live by certain ideals, to manifest them in daily life as fully as possible in each moment. Not that you’re always doing good, but that you’re almost always trying. That means when angry or hurt, still trying.
Recently I overheard a neighbor yell at her boyfriend, “You’re supposed to fucking talk about it so we can make this better!” While this was a reminder that there are some very good things about being between romantic engagements (e.g., happily watering my plants instead of having a fight), I agree wholeheartedly with her sentiment: anger and hurt can be a path to making things better, depending what we do with them.
Helping people transmute the pain of living is one of the things ministers do. Although such help is more limited than one might wish, because the work of figuring out what matters most deeply to someone and then living accordingly has to be done by the person most intimate with a particular life. Hence the Buddha’s final words: “Be a lamp unto yourself.”
Which means there’s no excuse for abdicating responsibility to any religious institution, creed, or individual. I express myself with passion because that’s how I experience life. I hope people listen to me with openness and curiosity, measure what I say against their experiences, use what’s helpful, and let the rest go. My interest is never in telling people how to live, but in encouraging them to ask and answer that question for themselves, if it feels vital to them.