Chaos and Flow

Chaos and Flow 
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
October 14, 2012

Readings can be found at these websites:

I’ve just returned from a week at Pokagan, Indiana with many Unitarian Universalist ministers from the Heartland District.  At one point during the somewhat chaotic meeting, and I don’t remember why, we began a wave.  20-30 of us, as if we were in a sports arena.  And I thought, let’s do that on Sunday! 
Unfortunately, I had a hard time figuring out what would come next in this sermon. 
That was fun, wasn’t it? 
OK, so for some of you it was probably quite annoying, and for some of you it was fun. 
On any given Sunday we enter this space with different attitudes, some carrying quite heavy burdens, others with joy and release.  Some enter this space in gratitude, and others in resentment.  Some of you may enter so busy you’re not even in touch with how you’re feeling at this very moment…. breathe.
Sometimes I am struck by what a funny species we are.  We move from deep, complicated, and confusing emotions to moments of extreme clarity and purpose.  And though we know there are things we can do to improve our emotional and spiritual lives, we are not in control.  It is this lack of control that often throws us. 
Or maybe I should speak for myself:  It is the lack of control that trips me up from time to time.
Just like the dog that comes and unravels the tapestry woven by the old woman.  Life happens.  What is amazing is how we well can recover from what happens.  With help from her friends, the old woman reweaves the tapestry – and it is even more beautiful.  In jazz, they say, a mistake can be justified by what follows it. 
Life is like that.
I love it when the jazz combo plays because I can always pull out the jazz metaphors articulated by UU theologian, Sharon Welch.  She didn’t originate them, but gathered and articulated them.  Though we often think of creation and creativity as being original, it is more often an old melody played in a new way.  So here is the quote I’ve used before from Sharon Welch’s Sweet Dreams in America.  It’s kind of dense because she’s intentionally giving credit to her sources – drawing our attention to the group process. 
Writes Welch,
(p. 23)  “Benny Green, in his tribute to the art of Billie Holiday, claimed that jazz operates at the ‘knife-edge of failure.’ Humphrey Littleton claimed that part of the power of Louis Armstrong’s work was his ability to overcome and glorify unimaginative backing and to recover from a bad mistake and continue on his way without the missing of a beat.  Bill Evans claimed that ‘in jazz, a mistake can be – in fact, must be – justified by what follows it.’  There are mistakes in jazz; mistakes that come from a failure of imagination, lack of skill, a failure to listen carefully to the other musicians, mistakes that come not from the energy of transgression, but from the energy of pushing the limit, what Sidney Bechet called ‘playing ahead of themselves’ and Miles Davis called getting musicians ‘to go beyond themselves.’”
Often when we are at our creative best, we are operating at that knife edge of failure..  That is, we risk failure when we try something new – but that risk is the only way we can grow.  Without taking that risk, we repeat only what we know best and do well.  and that can get old fast. There are a lot of uncomfortable feelings associated with failure, however.  We blame ourselves, sometimes, instead of the dog who actually came in to unravel the tapestry.  We can feel disappointed, angry and hurt –so desperate we need an angel to wrap her wings around us and rock.  Sometimes that feeling is so unpleasant, so uncomfortable, so unwelcome, that we seek to avoid it – and quit taking risks altogether and quit growing.
But Rilke advises us to “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart”.  Have patience with the discomfort and anger and disappointment – “and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.”
Our emotional lives are very much like locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  We feel things first, and understand them, if we ever do, later.  For many of us, emotions are in a language we have yet to learn. For so long in our culture we have favored intellect over emotion and not realized the intimate connections between the two.  We have overlooked the importance of emotion in favor of intellectual powers, failing to understand the relationship.

And this was happiness,
this little ball of interest
beating inside his chest,
this interestedness
beaming out from his face pleading.

Children, however, wear their emotions on their sleeves, and have not yet lost touch with the relationship between emotion and intellect.  The coconut is happiness in part because it’s fascinating:
hairy and brown,
hard as a rock,
and something swishing
around inside. 
And what on earth,
and where on earth?
When we are interested and challenged, we are more willing to play ahead of ourselves, or to risk failure.  Why?  Because it’s fun. 
Can I get a wave for that?  It’s fun.
You may well be aware of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “optimal experience,” that satisfying state of consciousness he calls flow.  During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.”  
Csikszentmihalyi studied thousands of individuals and concludes that we often get through our days unaware or out of touch with our emotional lives.  Our inattention makes us constantly bounce between two extremes:  during much of the day we live filled with the anxiety and pressures of our work and obligations, while during our leisure moments, we tend to live in passive boredom.  An alternative would be to challenge ourselves with tasks requiring a high degree of skill and commitment, and create that deep enjoyment, creativity, and total involvement with life.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is about capturing those moments that make life worth living. He believes, and I agree, that creativity needs to be cultivated and is necessary for the future of our country, if not the world. 
So let’s describe what flow is, so that we can learn to recognize it.  Csikszentmihalyi says it’s characterized by these seven things:

1.     Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
2.     A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality
3.     Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing
4.     Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task
5.     A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
6.     Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
7.     Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
Sounds like a spiritual experience to me…  (After the 9:15 service a yoga teacher told me this was all about yoga, and a preschool teacher told me it was the definition of play!)
Now that we’ve talked about flow a bit, I want to go back to chaos, and my minister’s meeting in Pokagan.  We were all tasked with letting our congregations know about some changes to the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUA is not in a state of chaos, but it is in a state of rapid change, which can sometimes feel a bit chaotic.  The Heartland, Central Midwest and Prairie Star districts – these are districts of the association – are working together more and sharing services.  This congregation currently belongs to the Heartland District with congregations in parts of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and all of Kentucky.  Here’s a map for you to see – we’re the deep red district.  Increasingly, our district staff are working together with the staff of the two districts to the west.  The UUA as a whole is considering regionalization, that is, consolidating these districts into larger regions. 
But it’s a messy process.  Partly because the UUA is a democratic organization – we have congregational polity and freedom, and therefore even if the president of the UUA and all the district staff thinks that regionalization is a good thing to do, they can’t implement it without complete buy-in from the congregations involved.   Congregations such as ours.  Our district staff is on the cutting edge – hmm, knife edge of failure? 
It is true that the staff teams of the Heartland, Central Midwest and Prairie Star districts are ahead of the rest of the country in terms of making this shift.  They already work closely together, and in fact, the congregational services director from the Central Midwest District joined us for this retreat – and the discussion. 
Here’s a map of the proposed new regions, just for your information.  We would be the yellow section extending from North Dakota to Kansas, Kentucky to Michigan and everything in between.   If you’re a church geek like me and are interested in the organizational structures, make sure you read about these proposals – you can find lots of information online at  Especially if you’re considering becoming a delegate to our district meeting when this will come to a vote, please get informed. I’m not going to talk about this regionalization project any more this morning, but I did want you to be made aware, and I do think it’s a good example of playing ahead of ourselves, or going beyond ourselves, operating on the knife edge of failure. 
We risk failure when we try something new – but that risk is the only way we can grow.  Without taking that risk, we repeat only what we know best and do well.  and that can get old fast.
I hope you saw the USA Today article about the growth of Unitarian Universalism.  I don’t know exactly where the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies got their figures, but they claim that between the year 2000 and 2010, our faith grew by 15.8% - the largest growth taking place in the American South.  I would be skeptical if at this meeting, our District Executive hadn’t told me that we – this congregation – has grown by 12% in the last 12 years.  That’s not huge growth, but given our building situation, I was frankly surprised.
But I’ve said before that I believe we’ve been operating ahead of ourselves.  We have certainly tried some new things. and it certainly feels chaotic at times, but like a good piece of jazz music, we have been relying on one another, listening hard, recovering from our mistakes, and pushing the limit.
Where in your life do you play ahead of yourself?  What vocation or avocation helps you achieve flow?  Who helps you recover from a mistake?  Who comes and helps you piece it back together, when your weaving has unraveled?
Flow comes when we are focused, concentrated, and completely involved in what we are doing.  You’ve seen some of that this morning with our musicians. 
It comes as a sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.  Those spiritual experiences that Linda Anderson spoke about last week – one of my favorites is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transparent eyeball, in his essay Nature, he writes:
"Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing;  I see all;  the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me;  I am part or parcel of God."

We feel flow when we have great inner clarity – it’s obvious what needs to be done, and how we are to do it.  When the next line of that poem presents itself, or notes to the song you’re composing, or the next line on the drawing is so clear it could not be otherwise.
We may be playing ahead of ourselves, but flow occurs when we know our skills are adequate to the task – we don’t worry about making mistakes, but move forward confidently – knowing that when we make a mistake, we will take advantage of that mistake to strive further, or we will involve someone else who knows how to take advantage of our mistake.
Flow happens when we are not self-occupied or aware – we grow beyond the boundaries of the ego.  Again, I think of Emerson:  “I am nothing, I see all.”
I remember this particular winter day when I was sitting in the warm sun reflecting off the snow outside and into my living room, in my favorite overstuffed and cozy green chair.  I was reading a book by a retired minister who was coming to stay in our house that night and speak at church the next day.  A new friend, who is a folk singer, sang in the background from my CD player.  Instead of the music and the words competing for my attention, they came together beautifully and created this feeling in me that I was glad to be alive and human and related to these two artists –
the one whom I was to meet later in the day, and the other whom I already considered friend. 
Rather than making me feel small in comparison, I felt larger to be in relation with this writer and that musician. 

Timelessness is an indication of flow – when you lose sense of time because you are so engrossed in the moment, hours seem to pass by in minutes.  You sit down to read one more chapter and before you know it, you’ve finished the entire book.
Finally, we know that whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.  Motivation is intrinsic.  It’s fun.  We are rewarded when our task is both meaningful and fun.
“Bear with me
I want to tell you
something about happiness. 
It’s hard to get at…
[but]when we got home
we put it in the middle of
the kitchen table and
sat on either side of it and
began to consider how to
get inside of it”

“If you will hold me until morning, I promise I will rise and light the fire and break the bread         and put back on my shoulder my corner of the world.  But for now I could use the shelter of a wing.”

“And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.”
May it be so.

* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.