In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard tells a bit of the story of the English explorer, Sir John Franklin:
“In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men embarked from England to find the Northwest Passage across the high Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. They sailed in two three-masted barques. Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a twelve-day supply of coal for the entire projected two or three years’ voyage. Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200-volume library, ‘a hand-organ, playing fifty tunes,’ china place settings for officers and men, cut-glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware…The expedition carried no special clothing for the Arctic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Navy.”
Perhaps you can already see where this is going. Even if you don’t know the story, you can probably tell that it’s not going to end well. They did not succeed. They did not return home. They were ill-equipped, preferring to try to bring “home” with them into the arctic ice than to make themselves at home there. They were unable or unwilling to accept and adapt to conditions.
Sixty-five years later, another English explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, set out to discover the South Pole, only somewhat more successfully. Like Franklin, Scott and his crew were ill-prepared for the harsh conditions. He, too, insisted on doing things the way he thought they should be done, the way they’d always been done…in England, that is. He refused to master skis, preferring to trudge through the snow and ice on foot. He refused to master the skills involved in dog-sledding, preferring instead to rely on English ponies, which were entirely unsuited to travel in the Antarctic. And, when that didn’t work, he insisted on having his men pull their own supplies over the snow and ice by sledge, while wearing clothing and footwear unsuited to the extreme cold, and consuming a diet inadequate to meet their caloric and nutritional needs.
As one biographer, Roland Huntford, has written, Scott “came from a tradition which assumed that civilized man always knew best, “forced observed facts to fit preconceived ideas,” “expected the elements to be ordered for his benefit,” and believed “there was a virtue in doing things the hard way.”
As Huntford put it, Scott “believed that British guts would see him through. He thought that snow and ice could be overcome by brute force.” “He had declared war on Nature; and Nature, as he had yet to learn, will always win.”
In marked contrast to Scott, the great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, who had also set off for the South Pole in 1910, was willing to learn from others. He learned from the indigenous people of the arctic region how to dress and eat and travel with dogs and sleds in cold-weather conditions. He learned something from every one of his own mistakes and from every obstacle he encountered in nature. Unlike Scott, he adapted himself to conditions rather than expecting conditions to adapt themselves to him.
Scott, his journey filled with hardship multiplied upon hardship, did eventually make it to the South Pole, but only to find that Amundsen had already been there, having traveled in relative ease. And unlike Amundsen, Scott and his crew never did make it back alive.
In the Tao te Ching it is written,
At birth, humans are soft and supple
At death, they are hard and stiff
Plants and trees are soft and fragile while alive
They are dry and withered at death
The unyielding person is the companion of death
The yielding person is the companion of life
An army that is not flexible will be defeated
A tree that cannot bend is broken in two
The strong and unyielding will be laid low
The soft and yielding stand above them.
Amundsen learned to bend, to adjust, to adapt, to learn, and in so doing, he succeeded and stayed alive. Scott, like Sir John Franklin before him, was unyielding, inflexible in his ways, and was therefore a companion – or a disciple – of death.
If only he had read the Tao te Ching, which says elsewhere:
Of those who would try to take control of the world
And conform it according to their will,
They will never have success…
The world is constantly changing…
Have you ever tried to take control of the world and conform it to your will? Have you ever tried to resist circumstance, to continually attempt to gain entry through a metaphorical door that was closed tight to your passing, to shape or control some part of your life without success? Have you ever held fast to a plan, even when everything around you was screaming, “This isn’t working anymore!”
Of course you have. So have we all. The Tao te Ching says many understand this principle of yielding, but few put it into practice.
In his book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales acknowledges that in most wilderness or other risky situations, it’s certainly important to have a plan and even a backup plan. “But,” he says, “You must hold onto the plan with a gentle grip and be willing to let it go. Rigid people are dangerous people. If you plan all your moves beforehand in [a sword fight, he says], you will be cut in half by your opponent’s sword.” Instead, you have to learn to be responsive to what is actually happening around you.
Survivors are those who expect that the world around them is going to keep changing. So they pay close attention to what is happening. They look at the world through the lenses of attention and curiosity. They keep asking, “What’s up?” So they are able to continuously adapt to what is.
Gonzales tells a story – “an old Zen story about a young man who passionately wants to become a master swordsman.” I think we can assume that he wants to learn swordsmanship because he knows that the world is sometimes dangerous and threatening, and he wants to feel assured that he can handle anything, that he can defend himself against circumstance by meeting force with force. So…
“He goes to the Kundo master and begs to be taught, but the master puts him to work in the garden instead. Every time the student isn’t looking, the master sneaks up behind him and whacks him with a stick. The student is terribly frustrated, and this goes on for months, then years. No matter what the student does, he can’t seem to sense when the master is behind him, and he is constantly covered with bruises. But then one day, the student is in the garden, as usual, hoeing and weeding, and the master sneaks up behind him. He swings. The student ducks. The master misses. The student is overjoyed. He leaps up and shouts, “Now will you teach me swordsmanship?” “Now you don’t need swordsmanship,” the master says.
Why not? Because he finally learned to be present, to pay attention, and to respond to the reality of what was actually coming at him.
What is coming at you right now? What is going on in your own life? What obstacles are you facing?
Is there another way forward, a way around the obstacle that lies in your path? Or must you simply pause in your journey for a time and patiently wait for a new path to open up?
Is there anything that you are holding onto, like Sir John Franklin held onto his china and sterling silver flatware? Something that you have thought to be really important, but which may, now, be proving a hindrance?
What is weighing you down?
What is keeping you from moving forward, from getting where you want to be or from accomplishing what you most want to accomplish in your life?
What assumptions are you making about how things “ought to be done,” how they’ve “always been done,” that aren’t serving you well anymore?
The late Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Forrest Church, once wrote, “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.”
Last week we read together a responsive reading by Rabbi Jack Reimer that began…
Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the south.
As writer and life coach, Tris Thorp, has put it, “Each of the seasons has its own particular energy that represents where nature is in its recurring cycle of birth, transformation, and death.”
Autumn is a season of letting go, like the trees, and of journeying, like the geese.
Winter is a time for inward reflection, for quiet renewal, regeneration, and transformation.
Spring is the season for new life, for birth.
And summer is a season of growth and celebration.
“As a being who is closely connected to – and directly affected by – the rhythms of nature, you can capture and use the energy of the season by moving through your own seasonal process.”
She suggests imagining that you are about to set out on a journey toward your own spring. Begin, she says, by daring to dream of “the person you would like to be” or of what you want to accomplish. This, I would suggest in your goal, your own Northwest Passage, your own South pole. To get there, you must travel through winter, when the days will be shorter, the temperatures colder. “What do you want to let go of,” she asks? “It’s time to unload – drop a few thousand dead leaves and prune a couple hundred branches.”
Another writer and speaker, Barb Schmidt has said,
“Look at deciduous trees…. They are beginning to turn their attention inward, and the leaves that worked so hard to sustain them all spring and summer long make their magnificent exit in a wonderful burst of color. The leaves no longer benefit the tree, and so the tree freely releases them.”
And I would note that that process is one of the most beautiful processes in the natural world.
Inspired by their words and images, I want to invite you to join me in a ritual this morning.
You all have been offered some paper leaves
Place your feet firmly on the floor, close your eyes if you wish
Imagine yourself as a tree
Your roots reaching down deep into the soil
You pull nourishment from the soil, through your roots, up into your trunk
Imagine that energy traveling up and outward through your branches
Reaching up and outward to the sky
Feel the warmth of the sun on your outstretched branches, on your leaves
And pull nourishment from the air, through your leaves and branches, down into your trunk
And breath deeply and slowly, as a tree breathes deeply and slowly
Imagine a cool autumn breeze blowing gently through your branches
Imagine the birds who come and go, seeking rest among your leaves, your beautiful leaves, which have begun to turn from green to yellow or orange or red or brown
Now imagine it is time to begin to let go of those leaves, to turn your energy inward for the coming season
What is it that you no longer need? What is it that you wish to release?
What do you need to release so that you have energy for the growth and transformation and new life that will come next?
Now I invite you to open your eyes, and take a moment to write it down on your leaf
And, if you feel so moved, I invite you to come forward and release your leaves into this bowl of leaves…to bring it forward and to let it go…