Lightening up about the Enlightenment

July 15, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I prefer organic metaphors to machine metaphors. The economy is not so much stalled as it is starving for nutrients. The progressive church is not so much out of gas as it is something that runs on a fuel that is not oil based. Judson is not so much either growing or stagnating so much as it is circling its energies, infusing, as Holly Bean has put it so well, an artistic sensibility in all that we do, from coffee hour to Christmas decorations to weddings to Bail out and the gym. The Enlightenment is not so much our savior or our enemy. It is our history. It may have run down as it trickled down into our textbooks and our parenting methods and the only way we could get an advanced degree – by proving something rationally – but its demise is more about its season having passed and conditions having changed, than it is about it rusting out. Ideas have cycles, the same way apple trees do. Lightening up about the enlightenment will help us think organically. I propose three examples today.

One is how we think about this text about the body being our temple. In a post temple age, in a time when sacred spaces remove their pews and enjoy multiple uses, in a church and synagogue which live increasingly on line, in virtuality and its community, in a time when bricks and mortar are simply less interesting, not just temples reimagine themselves. Bodies reimagine themselves. We increasingly know how sacred they are, and we increasingly refuse to contain them in gender or mind-body splits or medical practices that are not integrative. The body is bursting out of its metaphor as a temple, just as temples have burst out of being the only sacred spaces we know. The spiritual but not religious types are correct here: they can indeed find God in Nature as well as formal worship of a Sunday morning, in a stained glassed place. What does it mean to reimagine our bodies? We let them flow. We let them breathe. We imagine them as alive, not in need of pills or pokes, so much as in need of energy flows, which can’t be blocked by what our head keeps saying to us about our bodies. You know the litany: too fat, too old, too angular, too much nose. This analytical approach to flowing protoplasm is enlightenment thinking. When we lighten up about the body as a temple, we are most interested in the flow of energy through and beyond us. We know we have a cycle. We know we begin and we know we end. We are not interested in permanence, or immortality, or a constant survey of our cholesterol numbers. We understand that our breath is a miracle, not a machine at work. We do not see ourselves as machines at work. We see ourselves as breaths, breathing.

Enter yoga, as a second frame for lightening up about the enlightenment. Yoga represents a global reach into the American psyche as much as anything. It rivals the availability of Sushi in delicatessens citywide. It represents the refusal by westerners to be just western. I’m not going to assign its meteoric rise in popularity to that of China or go near the shift in global wealth. That would be enlightenment thinking, the kind that explains the Reformation away with the printing press or the current great stagnation away as some form of tinkering with the free market that went wrong. The enlightenment explains things; lightening up experiences things. Yoga is so simple that we who went to Enlightenment school rarely get it. It is conscious breathing. It is breathing consciously. It is knowing that we breathe. It is the entrance into the miracle of breath, which breath then is held and released.

I love those words hold and release. They are my favorite yoga words. Now we hold, then we release. They are a circle and cycle frame for the experience of breathing, in and out, not up and down. The very act of breathing like that, consciously, puts progress and its mechanical machinations on guard. We are not necessarily getting better with our breath. Nor is the economy getting better with every presidential comment on it. Something different is happening. We are becoming more conscious of our breathing. That consciousness is not anti- progressive so much as progressive plus. That consciousness doesn’t have to be progressive. It does not follow the thinking orders of the Enlightenment.

Finally, regarding yoga and postures and holding and releasing, and the Eastern reach into the Western mind/body, it is important to note that yoga is a practice. It is not a concert, it is a practice. It is not an achievement it is a rehearsal. It is something that can be done regularly or irregularly, every day or every few days. Whenever we practice, we practice. I can’t tell you the number of people who equate wellness in their own lives with a regular practice of something. These are the same people who enjoy and lead fairly episodic lives. We are, many of us, very hungry for a ritual to our days. A regularity. A seasonality, a dusk and dawn, a morning and evening. I am surely not going to blame email on the enlightenment – and want to acknowledge with joy how much we have enjoyed by its gifts to us. Instead, let me say that turning yoga into an obligation and a must and a regularity, at which you can succeed or fail, is just bad theology. It is like punishing yourself for breathing in the miracle of life. It is like turning a present into a punishment. The theology that the enlightenment spawned, work hard, do good, fulfill your obligations, always be on time, that obliged theology, is about as dead as the enlightenment, especially in the way it has malled and maimed miracles.

People like to say that Judson is a community center or that it is the center of their lives. I prefer to think of us as the off centers of each other’s lives, the place where a little enchantment and consciousness about our breathing can happen. I also prefer to practice yoga irregularly, not regularly. I don’t like the control impulses of the enlightenment and I fear they have a way of creeping into even the wonderful practices of yoga.

Those of you who read Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer are the authors of “The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.” A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 11, 2012, “ The Machine and the Garden” will recognize their ideas in my lightening up of the enlightenment. They describe garden brain as one kind of brain and machine brain as another kind. In garden brain we are not perfectly efficient, nor rational, nor regular, nor in control. In machine brain, we make believe that we are perfectly efficient, rational, regular and in control. One is a myth; the other is a marvelous picture of conscious breathing in of reality. When we understand our bodies as sacred, as temples, we seed positive activity and weed out negative activity. We self-tend.

We don’t need to make the enlightenment our enemy so much as we need to nourish it with other ideas and practices. Nor do we need to make our bodies some kind of rigid temple that turns into a museum. Instead we need living, breathing temples, in which living-breathing people appreciate the miracle of the scriptures and our times. 


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