Returning to Yourself

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Posted August 25, 2016 by Marg Herder

The following is the text of a sermon I gave on Sunday, August 21, 2016 at Sacred Path UU, in Indianapolis.

Person on a Pier

“Returning to yourself.” What do I mean by that?

Of course, the presupposition in the title is that, somehow, we have gone away from ourselves. That is certainly true for me, and it seems to be true for many people I know.

When I look around, I see us all getting so caught up. We go from one task to the next. We compulsively consume media offerings like our lives depend on knowing the latest information about everyone we’ve ever known. We have to take care of our kids and take care of our parents and take care of our jobs and our cars and yards and pets and all of the million things, just things, that litter our lives. We have to sleep and eat and go to work and do the laundry and go to the store and clean the house and even go to church.

In the midst of all this, I think, we lose ourselves.

How often do you check in to find out how you are feeling about what is going on in your life?

How often do you check in to see if you are tired or stressed and give yourself enough space to figure out how to make that better?

How often do you think you don’t have time to take care of yourself the way you should?

How often do you savor the food you eat?

How often do you pull your attention in from scanning everything and everyone else in your life to scanning what is happening inside you?

How often do you step back and try to figure out what preconceptions are fueling your thoughts, words, and actions?

How often do you reflect on your satisfaction with the life you live, the life that only you know, the life that you can never really explain to anyone else?

Do you ever return to the you that is both three years old and your current age at the same time? Do you ever meet up with yourself, smack dab in the middle of now?

Do you ever step back and reflect on everything you are?

Do you ever ask yourself what you really want?

If not, why not?

So, okay. That’s a lot of questions. But all those questions would get answered if we could decide we are important enough to be an object of study, important enough to spend time with, important enough to get to know.

It’s rare that we ask these questions of ourselves. Quite the contrary. Because of what we are taught, making an intentional effort to answer questions like these might feel kind of silly; it might feel like a waste of time. It might feel impossible, it might feel stupid or selfish, even feel shameful or dangerous to spend time learning about yourself, doing this thing I’m calling “returning to yourself.”

And I think I might know a little about why.

I read an interesting passage in a psychology book some time in the last few months. I wish I could remember which book it was, but I can’t.

The author was explaining how conscience is developed in children.

Now, I guess I always just thought that our conscience kind of emerged from some abstract presence of goodness. There was right, compassion, kindness, and love that all existed as a kind of objective force. And when we acted in harmony with that force, we experienced some tangible sense of embracing or being a part of it. But when we acted out of harmony with that force, we experienced a type of distancing or separation, and that’s how we got clear on what was right and what was wrong. Conscience. Feeling embraced by the force means we are doing good. Feeling alienated from the force means we are doing bad.

I thought conscience just came into being inside of us when we were children, through trial and error. When we feel oneness, we are doing right; when we feel distance, we are doing wrong.

Seems that my whole idea was kind of right, but I had something really important wrong. See, it’s not some force of love and compassion and goodness that is at the core. It’s our parents, our society. The feelings we develop about what is right and what is wrong don’t come from some objective force; they come from what our parents and our society want us to learn.

This is really important to realize.

If you were a little kid who was lying a lot or hitting other people all the time, your parents would do all they could to get you to stop, and that might have involved teaching you that only bad people lie and hit other people. Your conscience would develop in such a way that you feel shame when you lie or hit someone.

Now let’s say you keep telling your parents you feel more like a boy than a girl, and your parents think that is a bad thing, and it embarrasses them for you to say things like that to them. They are going to do all they can to get you to stop talking about it. And, one way or another, they are going use shame to accomplish that. So your conscience develops in such a way that you feel as bad about your gender identity as you do about lying or hurting people.

Let’s say your parents valued achievement more than anything else in life. They taught you that good people achieve a lot and lazy people achieve little. They used praise to push you to keep racking up successes and shame to keep you from falling idle. This carries into adulthood. You actually feel shameful when you are not in motion, when you are not achieving. And it’s as hard to stop feeling this way as it is to start feeling okay about cheating people out of something that’s theirs.

There are so many other examples of this.

If you have caregivers who exist deep in a socio-religious context that teaches them and, thus, you, that women are here to serve other people first and are most valuable if that is the prime focus of their lives, then that is going to become as deeply ingrained in you as is the concept that you should not walk into someone’s store and steal something.

Imagine the feelings you would have to confront and work through if, for some reason, say a desperate need to feed your children, you had to start stealing.

In the same way, if a woman is raised in a socio-religious culture that teaches her to sacrifice her life to help others, if she tries to make it a priority to take care of herself even when there are loved ones around her who “need” her, she will constantly have to push through feelings like guilt and shame.

If, as in my case, your caregivers teach you that it is selfish to want to be someone other than the person they want you to be, then you are going to feel almost debilitating resistance when you decide to stop trying to be who you think people want you to be and start trying to figure out who and what you might actually want to be.

This internalization we do as children, this process of developing a conscience, in all its forms, is how we get stuck with internalized homophobia, internalized racism, classism, transphobia, misogyny, and so much more.

All these things go as deep as our core values of right and wrong. Their tendrils coil out and into every nook and cranny of our words, thoughts, and actions. And no matter how hard we work on unwrapping those little tendrils, we never can quite get them all.

This process of developing a conscience is also how we end up valuing our own truthfulness, being thoughtful in how we interact with others, and accepting all those mandates that make a civil society civil and kind people kind. And that’s certainly important.

What I am talking about here are all those other things that get stored along with the good stuff. I’m talking about the preconceptions deep inside of ourselves that interfere with our ability to accurately reflect on and learn from our own adult experience of ourselves.

It’s important to know that these things, and there are probably many more things than we can even realize, are not really ours but they live in us; they were planted in us and nurtured until they grew into our beings, but they keep us from ourselves.

To return to ourselves, we have to make looking deeply into our words, thoughts, and actions a practice. We have to ask ourselves, “Where did that come from?” “Is that something I’ve learned from my experience, or is that something someone else created in me?”

Until we start examining the things that were created in us by our parents, by our culture, we are stuck acting within limited conceptions of what we are to do and be, what we are to think and feel.

But if we can step back from the chaos of our lives, if only for a few minutes here and there to start with, if we can intentionally stop and try to identify and root out everything that has been planted in our lives that is not ours, we can start to differentiate between all that crap and what remains.

And that’s where it starts, the returning to yourself. Making the space to get some perspective on what is yours and what isn’t.

And where does it go from there? When you are able to see what is really yours, and come back to that and nurture it and care for yourself, there’s no telling what can happen.

Look, we could be anything, for all we know. We could be anything, or nothing, or everything all at once. But we don’t know, and we won’t know until we start to understand that, on a deep level, the level of our conscience, there are so many impediments to mindfully gaining perspective on ourselves.

Returning to ourselves is not some huge, life changing decision or action. It’s not a one-off, or something that happens to you after some kind of crisis, though there’s nothing like a good crisis to shake us out of our complacency. Returning to ourselves is something that must happen over and over again. If we are brave enough, we make it a practice.

That practice might look like stopping everything and checking in with yourself several times a day. It might look like trying things you think you can’t do, and then contemplating what that was like for you and why. It might look like learning to listen when your body says it is tired or hungry or just needs to cry. It might look like being afraid and, instead of reacting, sitting with it. It might look like listening to the people around you who can see through your blind spots. But I think it always involves stillness and questioning and surrender.

If you are one of those people who, like me, believes at a foundational, fundamental level that we are more connected to each other than we realize, then I think really returning to yourself, your deepest and most real self, is actually the act of returning to All That Is, the collective soul of all life.

So let’s ask those questions again.

How often do you check in to find out how you are feeling about what is going on in your life?

How often do you check in to see if you are tired or stressed and give yourself enough space to figure out how to make that better?

How often do you think you don’t have time to take care of yourself the way you should?

How often do you savor the food you eat?

How often do you pull your attention in from scanning everything and everyone else in your life to scanning what is happening inside you?

How often do you step back and try to figure out what preconceptions are fueling your thoughts, words, and actions?

How often do you reflect on your satisfaction with the life you live, the life that only you know, the life that you can never really explain to anyone else?

Do you ever return to the you that is both three years old and your current age at the same time? Do you ever meet up with yourself, smack dab in the middle of now?

Do you ever step back and reflect on everything you are?

Do you ever ask yourself what you really want?

If not, why not?

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Marg Herder
Marg Herder is the Director of Public Information for EEWC-CFT, a Christian feminist organization working for gender (and LGBTQIA) justice in Christianity since 1974. She is the content manager and developer of the organization’s website, Christian Feminism Today. Marg identifies as a trans* lesbian writer, musician, and feminist spiritual seeker. She works to draws attention to the ongoing violence directed at women and LGBTQIA people in this “Christian” society, the desperate need for an understanding of God that includes the Divine Feminine, and Christ/Sophia’s desire that each of us move deeper into our own practice of non-violence.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Insightful sermon! Parenting, even under the best conditions and the best intentions, is so difficult. Parents often send messages of “you’re not good enough” without realizing they’re doing it. And sometimes they’re not sending those messages explicitly or implicitly, but the developing brain of the child interprets such a message. That’s the thing about communication, the meaning lies not in the sender or the receiver, but what happens between them. And then we get the parents who are NOT operating under the best conditions and the best intentions… You have given us introspective questions here to offer ourselves gentle parenting as adults.

  2. This is really good advice. I think that last question is the most important one to ask ourselves constantly. What do I want? I know that sounds self-centered and selfish when you say it that way, but in practice, stopping at each moment in your life to be sure you really want what’s happening to happen, is so important for basic happiness and well-being.

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