Flat Stanley

Leave a comment


Don’t Go Breaking Your Own Heart

Leave a comment

On July 6, 2014, my wife Lee Vibhusha Ilan led the summer worship service at First Unitarian Congregational Society, the Unitarian Universalist church we attend in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. I agreed to deliver my first-ever sermon. It’s about some ways that we harm ourselves emotionally.


Back in early June, Reverend Ana asked us to do an interesting exercise. If you were here, I’m sure you remember it. If you weren’t, it represented the best spirit of community, fellowship, acceptance and sharing that defines UU.

Each of us was asked to write down our own personal mission statement on dharma flags, which are these streamers of paper. The congregation then put them up on the gates outside the church.

It really was a beautiful sight. Judging by the positive reaction, I’m sure that for most of you who were there and participated, it was something of a Kumbaya moment.

But I’ll let you in on something. For me, those moments felt like misery. I just could not bring myself to participate. I felt clammy and claustrophobic as anxiety swept over me. And then, inside my head, I went from fear to outright hostility. My internal reaction was something like Joe Pesci in a Scorcese movie. “Nah, I’m not gonna do dat. Dat’s stoopid!”

Those were difficult moments of resistance. I can trace it right back to a childhood where we just didn’t do such things. Yet children were also my salvation that day.
I volunteer in the Nursery twice a month. When others were moving to the front of the chapel to write on the dharma paper to write, I went downstairs to the nursery. I checked on Elizabeth with my daughter and the other children in our care.

I wasn’t needed though. Things were going just fine without me. So I went back upstairs, went outside on the steps for a few moments. I took in some sunshine, fresh air and deep breaths. I calmed down and felt the sweat on my forehead dry off.

I felt better. When I went back into the chapel, it didn’t seem as stifling. I still couldn’t write my mission statement but at least I could be there without feeling torn apart.

I was also able to witness reality versus the one I had created. No one was watching, judging or keeping count.

So why did I react this way? The simple answer is that I felt unworthy. That there was no honest answer I could provide about a personal mission statement. That anything I came up with was at best, words of good intentions, and at worst, lies.

I know what I want to be good at, and am capable of being good at. Great kindness and compassion? Yes. Wonderful with children? Absolutely. A good communicator? Sure, why not. A sincere and open human being? I can be. Open-hearted about my spiritual exploration? Well, I really want to be.

Yet all I could think about are my weaknesses and shortfalls. I’m inconsistent. I don’t keep my word on the things I promise to others and myself. After years of ambition and striving, I feel unformed professionally and too content as a part/time stay at home parent. Shouldn’t I want and need more?

Those were the rationalizations I gave myself for why I couldn’t put my mission statement on paper. It reminded me that despite all the wonder and joy in my life, I often feel in a perpetual state of restless anticipation.

Too often I find myself forgetting how to prioritize my time, my energies, or even recognize the things that I do accomplish. I frequently make the mistake of comparing myself with the accomplishments of others. And then I punish myself for it.

A few years ago, I was in a men’s group. We did some great work and formed a special bond that I think will always last. One of the guys is especially wise, an experienced practitioner in the game of Life. One day after describing how worthless I felt for the umpteenth time, he delivered this astute observation:

“Peter, you could get arrested for how much you beat yourself up.”

Funny, right? Yeah, I like it too. It certainly helped me, and it’s great for breaking through the clutter with others when discussing matters of hurt, anger or depression.

Most people fear public speaking more than anything, yet somehow I feel OK speaking to you from the heart. Maybe that’s because I know everyone carries some level of dread and anxiety.

Think about what that looks like to you. Fear of failure? Ridicule? Putting yourself out there? Not feeling in control of your life. Whatever it is, there’s one commonality that I think the human race can trace its roots to. We break our own hearts.

The theme of today’s service is Don’t Go Breaking Your Own Heart. It’s not based on an Elton John song from the Seventies. It’s rooted in yogic spiritual practices that come from the teachings of Swami Kripalu, whom devotees call the Beloved Bapuji. My own beloved, Lee Vibhusha Ilan, has studied this for many years. It’s part of what makes her such an extraordinary human being.

Bapuji was silent for most of his life. His writings did most of his speaking. They expand on his vision of Yoga – an oneness with spirit, focused on being in tune with what is called Prana; energy, life force, higher intelligence.

In Bapuji’s teachings, the ways to evolve to this consciousness are Yogic practices that go beyond the postures. It’s a calming of the mind aimed at developing more awareness of our various levels of experience –physical, energetic, emotional, and spiritual. We all have the monkey mind. But yogic practices can shut that down and get us back to ourselves.

I don’t feel or understand Bapuji’s teachings as much as I like to. I simply haven’t given it enough time. But when I’m feeling uncertainty, doubt, pain or outright depression, these words from Bapuji have given me great solace:

My Beloved Child, Break your heart no longer.

Each time you Judge yourself, You break your own heart

You stop feeding on the love, Which is the wellspring of your vitality.

The time has come – Your time – To live- To celebrate –

To see the goodness that you are

You my child, are divine. You are pure. You are sublimely free.

You are God in disguise. And you are always perfectly safe.

Do not fight the dark. Just turn on the light.

Let go. And breathe into the goodness that you are.


THINK ABOUT THOSE WORDS. You are sublimely free. Do not fight the dark. Just turn on the light. They sound like words to a child and they are. Whether you believe in God or not, we are all children throughout life. Children have difficulty with strong emotions, and so do adults.

The big one I am focusing on is anger, because it’s the hardest to control. Certainly anger is within each of us and everyone around us. We know that harsh, ugly words – and certainly actions like violence – are wrong and should have consequences. But we don’t have the ability to retreat into Swami Kripalu’s beautiful words or impart sage wisdom when we’re out on the streets or in tricky situations.

I’ll give you an example: I get angry when I see parents who scream or curse at a young child. I’m told that legally or practically it’s not my place to interfere, yet I feel like a coward for not doing so.

So what do we do when we see disrespect or hostility that doesn’t directly impact us or those we love and protect?

Have an open heart. Really, think about what’s driving that person to be so awful. It’s hard to remember at times like these that human beings have value. Think about how broken and sad that person is inside. This is someone who may have hopes, dreams and ambitions that aren’t realized.

Being able to see this is a blessing and a privilege most people can’t give themselves. Rage is easy. This is harder, but we have the opportunity to be different.

I think we can apply the same thinking to our social and political landscape. Think about how much wasted energy is put into anger. When the Supreme Court ruled for Hobby Lobby last week, did you post rants on blog sites and social media? Did you call people harsh names? And if you didn’t, please tell me what your secret is because I could use it.

Yes, by all means we should fight the good fight for the things we believe in. Organize. Petition. Study up.

But please remember – let us never lose sight of keeping our minds clear and our hearts open. Part of loving ourselves means finding ways to diffuse anger. Otherwise, its corrosion will rust away at the inner light that each of us has as divine children.

Since we started coming here two years ago, I’ve really come to love this congregation. I didn’t realize it until we got here, but it’s the kind of spiritual community I’ve looked for all along. There are no easy answers here, nor should there be, but there is compassion and trust.

That’s why I hope that what I’ve said today has given you some fresh perspective on the world we live in, and that we can all approach it with the courage and conviction we all have within us.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak. Jai Bhagwan, I honor the light within you. Now please stand in body or spirit for our closing hymn No. 100 “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.”