slowing down.

17 Aug

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on August 15, 2010

Based on the song Yukon Sally by Peter Mayer.  Available at

Did you hear the blackbird this morning, singing it’s praises for the morning? Did you notice the dew on the grass? The sunlight streaming down? Did you stop to linger outside – noticing, perhaps, a bee caught in a spider’s web, struggling to escape, or a new ant-hill on the sidewalk in near your home?

Or, like me, did you get up, curse another day of heat and humidity, run from your air conditioned home to an air conditioned vehicle, pay little attention to the scenery that you passed by until you arrived here at church, whereupon you ran from your air conditioned vehicle to the air conditioned church. Perhaps it wasn’t until you saw your beloved friends that you slowed down a bit, relaxed, ready to celebrate life even as you had just rushed right through a small chunk of it?

Either way, you are not alone.

Are you a Yukon Sally? Or a Helicopter Joe? Or perhaps one, with yearnings to be more like the other? Or perhaps you have found a way to strike a healthy balance?

I definitely fall more on the Helicopter Joe side. It seems I am always rushing from one thing to another. This meeting to that appointment, take one kid here, the other there. My spouse and I have a brief meeting at the beginning of each week to figure out who does what, when and where. I’m one of those drivers who hates to wait behind someone turning left off Bardstown Road and will usually zoom by on the right if it is possible. Go, go go.

And most of the time, this is okay for me. I am a type A personality. I like to keep on the move. My children are young – something that won’t last forever – and being busy seems to come with the territory.

But it doesn’t take having young kids to be too busy. Wherever you are in life, our culture calls you to just do it. Just do that. And that. And that. This doctors appointment, that charitable work. Some of it is lots of fun: season tickets to the theater, or the Orchestra, this new exhibit, that recreational sports league. Fun, but still, the shear amount of things to do often keeps us too busy.

There are times when it gets to be absolutely exhausting. As we zoom from the mountain to the ocean, back again, round and round we go, using up copious amounts of fuel as one day runs into the next, into the next, into the next.

All sorts of time saving devices have arrived in the past 100 years, and yet we have less and less time to ourselves. In part, this is because the list of expectations of how we will spend our time gets bigger and bigger. And though we may act as though there is such a thing, the fact is there is no award for the busiest person or family. Well, no positive one anyway.

And it matters, too, how we handle rushing from one place to another. Most of us collapse at the end of the day, perhaps watch TV or sit on the computer to distract us from all the craziness. We are spent from all the rushing around and need some down time. For some of us, the electronic devices help connect us to loved ones far away, and thus they serve a positive purpose. For many of us, however, they serve to isolate us from our loved ones, as each of us copes with the pressure by withdrawing.

There is no positive award for being the busiest person in the neighborhood, but there are some big ole negatives that go with it. Being so busy that we are stressed is not healthy for us – physically or emotionally. When we are stressed, our body releases hormones that raise our heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. Too much stress, and we may find ourselves having a fight or flight response. Our bodies are physically not meant to handle the stressful lifestyle many of us lead.

And when all is said and done, what do we get out of it? Perhaps, if we are like the passengers that Helicopter Joe gives rides to, we might have photographs to verify our lofty claims. Snapshots of our life to verify what we were up to. But what types of stories come with those snapshots?

It took me a while before I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, Yukon Sally was onto something after-all. She tells Joe, No thanks, I think I’d rather climb. He doesn’t get it, because he is so tied to the rush-rush world. He looks at her quizzically when she shares that reaching the peak is really not the point. The journey is what matters, she is saying.

Hmmm. This sounds like something I hear in Unitarian Universalist circles all the time – its not the destination, but the journey. And though we are usually applying this wisdom to our theological journey, for the sake of our health, our families health, and the health of the planet, we might consider applying this wisdom for our physical lives as well – it is, indeed, the journey that matters more than the destination.

I am reminded of the quote by Henry David Thoreau. He wrote “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”

Which is a more fulfilling way to live? To cram in as much in as humanly possible? Or to accumulate the stories while being present each moment? Thoreau went to the woods, Yukon Sally dips her feet in the chilly mountain stream. What do you do that enables you to put to rout all the trappings of our culture that tell you to do more, to be more?

Slowing down is hard

Yukon Sally practices a form of mindfulness. She takes her time and is aware of her surroundings and of her body. When her feet are tired, she dips them in the cool mountain stream. She listens to her heartbeat and walks to it’s rhythm. When she does get to the peak, she stops and meditates.

Mindfulness is a spiritual practice that can lift us out of the rut of go here, do this, go there, do that. And it can happen anytime we pay attention – we don’t actually have to go on a mountain climb or nature walk. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (tick nyot han) shares this about how he does dishes:

“I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! … One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.”

When we become mindful, our breathing deepens, our heart rate slows – the exact opposite of being stressed out. When we are in this holy place, moments of grace reveal themselves – those hundred special things that Sally has seen, that she never would have seen in a helicopter rushing up to the peak.

Still writing about doing the dishes, Thich Nhat Hanh continues to share what happens when we are stuck on the helicopter:

“If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.”

Isn’t that the core difference between Yukon Sally and Helicopter Joe? She finds a way to live in the present moment. Meanwhile, there goes Joe on yet another trip, trying to get to the peak as quickly as possible so that he can then take his tourists to the ocean.

Mindfulness is not easy – spiritual practices rarely are (which is why they are called practices! They take intentional practice). But the rewards are worth it, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains.

“Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. That is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.”

I will confess, I am not very good at remembering to be mindful most of the time. But I have found that the more I practice it, the more it occurs to me to become mindful just when the stress is feeling like too much. And it is in those moments that I find moments of grace – poems that arise out of nowhere, a deep love of this world and this life – sometimes a feeling of connectedness, and often a feeling of deep joy.

Are you a Helicopter Joe, or a Yukon Sally? Or perhaps one, with yearnings to be more like the other? Or maybe you have already found that elusive balance so many of us strive for. For many of us, we live in a world that calls us to go here, do this, go there, do that. And much of the time, we need to oblige.

But what if we work for that balance – blend a bit of Yukon Sally mindfulness in with our Helicopter Joe lifestyles? This sound so much more healthy, and sustainable. To live fully in every moment, and gather a hundred stories to share with one another. May it be so. May we make it so.

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