When Rev. Forrest Church died in 2009, the New York Times wrote:
“The Rev. Forrest Church, a longtime pastor at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side who spent the last three years of his life, after being told he had terminal cancer, articulating a philosophy of death and dying and a complete expression of his liberal theology in two books, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 61.
“As the senior minister to the liberal and affluent All Souls congregation since 1978, Mr. Church preached a message of love, compassion and social service in stirring fashion, inviting his listeners on a shared quest.”
Here is one of his articles. I’ve chosen it for today, August 14, 2011, a Summer’s Day.
Let me share with you 10 simple hints on beginning—on how to re-boot your spiritual life, if it has become automatic or stale. Getting your soul in shape may lead to awe-inspiring mystical encounters some day. Yet how to begin (or begin anew) isn’t the least bit mystifying. Here are 10 simple thoughts to launch you on your way.
1) Begin here. How deeply you would long for all the things you take for granted, if suddenly you lost them. So much of what we want we have already, so want what you have. Begin here.
2) Begin now. You have everything you need. Everything. Plus the bonus of today, one day more than you will have if you wait until tomorrow. Begin now.
3) Begin as you are. At your fingertips is a treasure trove of memories and dreams. Put one good memory together with one good dream and you are ready to begin. (Good memories are memories that make you feel good about yourself. Good dreams are the stuff of which tomorrow’s good memories are made.) Begin as you are.
4) Begin by doing what you can. No more, but also no less. Don’t throw yourself against the wall. Walk around it. You can’t do the impossible, but so much is possible. So many of the things you haven’t tried you still can do. To get around the wall, you can set out in either direction—the wall has two ends. The important thing is to start walking. Begin by doing what you can.
5) Begin with those who are closest to you. They can cheer you on only if you let them. Invite them to give you a hand—bow. And to lend you a hand—ask. And to take your hand—no one can take your hand, if you bury it in your pocket. You say they won’t cheer you on, help you out, or take your hand? Maybe not, but how will you know without asking? Begin by asking.
6) Begin by turning the page. Today you can open a new chapter of your life. If you are trapped in your story (stuck in place, botching the same old lines), revise the script. Practice a new line or two. When reading a book, we sometimes reach the bottom of a page only to realize we have been glossing its words without registering their meaning. We haven’t been paying attention. We don’t have the faintest idea what we’ve just read. So we go back to the top of the page and try to concentrate. It happens again. Sentences dissolve into words. Words into sounds. The books of our lives are no different. Resist the temptation to wallow over some dark passage until you know exactly what went wrong. You never will. Besides, perfection is not life’s goal. Neither is unnecessary pain. If you are stuck, open a new chapter. Turn the page.
7) Begin by cleaning up your slate. Don’t erase the past. File it by experience, to keep it handy should you need it. But don’t obsess over it. Ticking off a growing list of grievances gets you nothing from life’s store. As for the things on your “To Do” list that you’ll probably never do, place them under a statute of limitations. When they serve no longer to inspire but only to haunt you, x them off. Not only is there no reason to carry over unnecessary indictments from one day to the next, but you’ll also never reform the things you can about yourself, until you stop trying to reform the things you can’t. Begin by cleaning up your slate.
8) Begin by looking for new questions, not old answers. Answers close doors. Questions open them. Answers lock us in place. Questions lead us on adventures. Socrates boasted himself the most ignorant man in Athens. Each new insight raised a dozen questions, extending the compass of his ignorance. Yet beyond every ridge he climbed there lay a wider vista. The more questions we have, the farther we can see.
9) Begin with little regard for where your path may lead. Destinations are overrated. And never what we imagine. Even should we somehow manage to get where we are heading, we won’t end up there. Until life ends, no destination is final. In fact, the best destinations are those we look back upon as new beginnings. Good journeys always continue. So don’t be driven by desire (that empty place within you), never to rest until you reach your goal. Invest your joy in the journey.
10) Begin in the middle. Our lives will end mid-story, so why not begin there? Don’t wait around for the perfect starting pistol. Or until you are ready. You may never be ready. No reason to wait in the grandstand for some official to guide you to the gate. Jump the fence. Enter the race in the middle. Here. Now. As you are. By doing what you can. With those who are closest to you. By turning the page. Cleaning up your slate. Looking for new questions, not old answers. And with little regard for where your path will lead.
Finally, before you begin, a bonus suggestion—Begin small. Dream possible dreams. Set out to climb a single hill, not every mountain. Soul work needn’t be strenuous to be high impact. You can begin transforming your life with a single phone call. Or by writing a kind letter. Or by opening your blinds to let the sun flood in. Don’t say it’s nothing. It’s everything. For you have now begun.
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(Tomorrow: Sri Aurobindo)