Listening for the Murmuring Farmer

By Rev. Janet Onnie

If you’ll remember the story of the goat in the pickup truck from two weeks ago, you’ll remember that the goat responded to the farmer’s murmuring in its ear by relaxing into the farmer’s lap. Today we’re going to consider the murmuring that induces relaxation, particularly in times of change.

A couple of years ago a movie called Wall-E came out. I went to see it more motivated by a desire for popcorn than an interest in a relationship between robots, so I didn’t have very high expectations. But I was pleasantly surprised. What surprised me was not the storyline, although that was pretty good. What surprised me was that someone made a full-length, animated movie where there was almost no dialogue. The range of emotions conveyed in the tilt of a shape or the pitch of a mechanical sound were quite astonishing. I would’ve understood the point had the dialogue been in Japanese. Or Russian. Or Tagalog. This understanding was helped enormously by the background music -- you music and, especially, opera lovers will understand the emotional power of music. But to employ non-verbal communication in the twenty-first century visual medium of film is unusual.

This film appeared at a time I’d been thinking about non-verbal communication in the context of looking around for a way to give a little spark to my nearly non-existent spiritual practices. 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, but doing not much talking TO the Divine.

Not that talking TO the Divine is all that necessary. The Divine is, after all, aware of the deepest yearning of our hearts and souls and minds, articulated or not. It’s more fruitful to listen. And in order to listen, 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, including tvs and radios, we are assaulted from the noise of ‘civilization’. Think about our experience this morning. Most of us got into our cars to drive here, which subjected us to mechanical noise within and without. Upon our arrival we greeted people – more talking – and participated in the liturgy, which includes talking and singing. When we leave here we will talk more, get into our vehicles – possible turn on the radio/cd player – and join with others on the roads. We may stop at a store that has a loudspeaker system and piped-in- music. There’s certainly the chatter of other customers and the clang of carts and cash registers. But what there isn’t is silence. It’s hard to find a place of silence, even in our homes. And even 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 Persian poet, Rumi, believed we are afraid of silence. “Silence is the root of everything”, he wrote. “If you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear. Mystic Kalil Gibran elaborated: “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 higher power, I believe it is the yearning of every human soul to be in union with this power. 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. It is a method of opening the mind and heart to God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. And it’s grounded in silence.

There have been plenty of sages suggesting the idea that God is found in silence. “Be Still and Know that I am God,” writes the Psalmist. “Listen to me in silence, O coastland; let the peoples renew their strength,” says Isaiah (41.1). The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still”, promises Moses (Exordus 14:14). The tradition continues in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, when he told his followers, “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Mt 6:6). That wisdom saying is the basis for Centering Prayer. And it has inspired the Christian contemplative heritage for sixteen centuries.

Father Thomas Keating, who first re-articulated Centering Prayer in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart, 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. Centering prayer familiarizes us with God’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 union with the Divine, 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.
  © Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, 2015