First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

The Still Point

March 11, 2018
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

A jam-packed schedule, a careless remark to a friend, or tragic news—and even a much, much smaller disruption—can throw me off course. This is when I need to make the wise effort to say, wait a minute, I need to breathe, regroup, regain my sense of direction. This is when I most need to reconnect with a mantra or a song or a spiritual practice. This is when I need to regain a sense of balance.

The hymn Find a Stillness does that for me.

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me
Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me
In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power,
I will find true harmony.[i]

When I sing that song, I experience a sense of stillness and peace. The song reminds me to find a stillness and let it carry me, let it hold me.

The wisdom words: Be still, and know that I am God!—also do that for me. That is one of my very favorite Bible verses. It comes from the Psalms:[ii]

Be still, and know that I am God!

I have found these words comforting, healing, and calming. They remind me to breathe. They remind me to reconnect to the still point, the center in myself and to know that the divine in me is connected with the divine that is outside me.

The idea of floating along through life on a cloud of equanimity sounds pretty appealing to me at times. If only I could just be in the calm Zen space all the time. That’s a lot to expect of myself. After all, life does not remain still. Nor do we. Life is dynamic. And actually even when we are seemingly still, even in tree pose, which we practiced a bit ago, there is still movement—breath, blood pumping through our veins, neurons transmitting information and sensations to the brain, and sometimes the body shifting.

The poet T.S. Eliot says there is only the dance. He writes:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, 
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.[iii]

Taoism describes this movement in life, these cycles, as yin and yang, the shifting energies that underlie all of existence. And, well, thank goodness. When you really think about it, when I really think about it, thank goodness the still point enables the dance. Thank goodness the still point is not still at all. Thank goodness for the cycles and the passions of being. Just consider the alternative and how stultifying that would be! Imagine there were no dance.

Sylvia Boorstein actually wisely says she does not “want to be constantly calm. The cultural context I grew up in and the relational life I live in both call for passionate, engaged response,” she says. “I laugh and I cry and I’m glad that I do.” For her the important thing is the ability to find balance in between. [iv] The important thing is to find that resting point from which to eventually pivot and re-engage.

Perhaps the still point, that sense of calm and balance, and of being at home in oneself and in the world is a touchstone, a launching pad, a place on which to pivot and return to when needed.

Another way to think about this is that balance does not mean remaining perpetually in the harbor. It has been famously said that “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”[v] I am not convinced that being in the harbor is even as safe as this quote might suggest. The pictures of ships in a harbor battered by storms suggest as much. But ships do need harbor, just as ships need to sail. Ships need to come into port to refuel, to replenish supplies, to pick up or drop off people, and to make repairs before carrying onward on the journey. When supplies get depleted, when injured, harbor is surely needed. When challenges arise, a place to refuel is needed--so that we can passionately, thoughtfully, ethically re-engage, so that we can laugh, cry, protest, and support one another.

An Ojibway story offers insight into what it means to have balance. The story tells of a young boy who died when disease spread among his people. The Great Spirit took pity on him and called for the Great Hare to take the boy back to the living along with a bundle of healing medicine. On their journey the Great Hare had a dream and when he awoke he knew he needed to search for an otter. The boy was almost a young man when they reached a lake where they saw an otter. They convinced Otter to travel with them. The boy was a mature man when they reached a vast body of water which contained an island of humans. That community was very weak and ill, appearing to be starving.

Otter dove into the water and called out to the people. “Look carefully at what I am doing,” she said. Otter swam to the east and then back to the center of the lake. Otter swam to the south and then back to the center. Otter swam to the west and then back to the center. Otter swam north and then back to the center. Otter showed the people how to always find the center and how to be aware of the four directions, so that they could always be in harmony with the space they lived in. Eventually Otter went home. The Great Hare took the man back to his people. They gave the people the healing bundle and showed them how to find the balance between their bodies and souls so they would fall ill less often.[vi]

Otter seems to hold some significant wisdom about how to re-center oneself, something that can be taught to others, shared with others. Finding the center has something to do with being in harmony with the space in which we live, which is our own bodies, certainly, and also our earthly home, the natural world around us.

Earth’s body is our own body, she teaches us. Connecting with one’s own still point is inextricably linked with connecting to the larger web of existence—to the natural world, to the divine, to each other. The soul of me and the soul of all are inextricably linked.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.[vii]

Those words likely sound familiar. They are Walt Whitman’s from “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The other day I was working at my desk and I looked out the window, spying a slate-colored junco on the branch. It was only a foot or so away from me. I swear that bird looked right at me. Well, it seemed that way. I know experiences like this can sound sentimental or goofy to some people. I prefer to call them mystical moments. There was that stillness when our gazes met before junco flew off and I returned to my typing. It felt like a visitation from another world. Actually it was—from the natural world. Junco was my Otter, teaching me, reconnecting me to the world of nature in which I live and breathe and move, without which I would have no being.

You may wonder what the wisdom was that was contained in that healing bundle the Great Hare brought back to the people. The bundle contained the healing power to help people rebalance themselves, their bodies and souls. Before I share the wise advice I want to note that in the story we are told that the bundle will help people fall ill less often. It does not say they will no longer fall ill. According to the story, the advice will help them fall ill less often. It’s not a panacea. But there is the possibility to heal, to return to the harbor, to find balance in between. According to the story the healing bundle contained this advice:

Cherish wisdom
Respect all life
Be courageous
Live moderately
Live peacefully
Honor your promises
Be honest
Share your gifts[viii]

This ancient wisdom resembles a blend of our seven principles and six sources. This wisdom is akin to our Unitarian Universalist affirmations of human worth, world wisdom, peace-seeking, justice-making, community-mindedness, earth spirituality, truth-telling, and spiritual growth. After receiving this wisdom, the people in the story are said to live in harmony with each other and their world for many years to come. That’s the kind of wisdom our world benefits from.

I hope this week and in the coming month as we explore what it means to be a people of balance, that you will reflect on the places and experiences, the songs and the stories, that you can return to in order to restore balance. In order to more fully engage in the glorious web of existence that is our birthright.

Amen. Blessed be.

[i]     “Find a Stillness,” 352, in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).
[ii]    Psalm 46:10 NRSV
[iii]    T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets.
[iv]    Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.
[v]     The quote is attributed to at least two different people. The background can be found here:
[vi]    “Finding the Center” in Earth Care: World Folktales to Talk About, ed. by Margaret Read Macdonald.
[vii]   Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass.
[viii] Earth Care.