“Monkey Mind” by Mark W. Harris

 September 23, 2012 –  First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship  –  from Edward Atkinson

 We meet together to celebrate who we are, to share the insights which give meaning and hope to our lives, to learn from the wisdom of others, that their truths may contribute to our understanding.  We meet, we share, we learn; we celebrate our coming together.


Readings– from Matthew 6: 25-34 –


“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet {God} feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O {ye} of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear? For the Gentiles seek all these things; and {God} knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

Camas Lilies by Lynn Ungar

                                                             Consider the lilies of the field,

the blue banks of camas

opening into acres of sky along the road.

Would the longing to lie down

and be washed by that beauty

abate if you knew their usefulness,

how the natives ground their bulbs

for flour, how the settlers’ hogs

uprooted them, grunting in gleeful

oblivion as the flowers fell?


And you — what of your rushed

and useful life? Imagine setting it all down —

papers, plans, appointments, everything —

leaving only a note: “Gone

to the fields to be lovely. Be back

when I’m through with blooming.”



Even now, unneeded and uneaten,

the camas lilies gaze out above the grass

from their tender blue eyes.

Even in sleep your life will shine.

Make no mistake. Of course

your work will always matter.


Yet Solomon in all his glory

was not arrayed like one of these.



Sermon –  “Monkey Mind”  by Mark W. Harris


I can invent a disaster anytime.  Take this morning’s service.  I like to choose hymns that go with the rest of the service thematically. I thought I had a perfect hymn for my service on anxiety with #33.  The third verse begins – “to the anxious soul impart, hope all other hopes above.”  These are hymn words I have sung frequently, but in older UU hymnals, the words are set to a different tune. With some trepidation I emailed Charlyn to ask her if it is singable in our book.  She wrote back to say, no, it simply won’t work.  Disaster #1. Another person might have concluded that they would choose another hymn.  No big deal.  Instead I began to invent alternative outcomes and plans of action.  The anxious soul began to percolate. My service won’t be as good.  I wanted it all to go together. What now? We could sing it anyway, but that could be awkward and sound terrible.  We could photocopy the other tune, but what if they don’t know it?  Plus I already have an insert with the teacher dedication. That is too much paper, plus it is wasteful. There is always green guilt.  In the end I chose another hymn, appropriately called “Calm Soul of All Things.”  Yet those who suffer from anxiety hardly know what a calm soul is. 

Take this past week.  I had an annoying case of poison ivy I had contracted from the hedge in front of our house. Why did I let this happen again?  I was itching and scratching and receiving advise from everyone as to how to treat it.  But my brain was working overtime, too.  This doesn’t seem to be going away. Why is it developing these giant bubbles?  We don’t really know what it is – poison ivy, poison oak, sumac, that invasive creeping vine.  Now it keeps creeping all over my skin.  What if it is some exotic thing that is never going to stop spreading? Is it some flesh eating virus? But low and behold –  Here we are on Sunday morning, and the church ceiling has not collapsed. We will have a coherent service. My skin has not fallen off, but has actually begun to heal.  The new day once again has shown me that there was no need to have been so anxiety ridden yesterday.  Did I learn anything?

 Maybe I have given away my cover. Ministers are taught in seminary that they must be the non-anxious presence when everyone and everything around them seems to be imploding. Carmen Emerson, a UU minister in Meadville, PA and former member here used to tell me she admired my sense of calm on Sunday morning while everything around me seemed to be frenzied and frantic. I fooled her.  Yet I don’t want you to get the impression that I am some pessimistic, hypochondriac perfectionist looking for your sympathy.  Instead I want to give you a little window into how we all suffer from anxiety in some way or another, and for many of us, it is severe.  I heard the other day that every single man over the age of 60 has some form of anxiety.   When we were putting together the newsletter I was telling Andrea my sermon topics.  After I enumerated the word anxiety, I added “the story of my life.”   It is the story of many of our lives.  How can we learn to consider the lilies?

I first became aware of severe anxiety as a child when my family visited the Statue of Liberty.  I think I was ten years old.  I might have been anxious prior to this before I took a school test, or publicly recited a poem or sang a song, or especially before I batted in baseball, where the difference between a hit and striking out fed my desire to be perfect, or at least very good.  But it was seeing my father’s anxiety after we had climbed to the top of the base of the statue that helped me understand how severe anxiety can be.  After I had gone to peer over the edge, I looked back to see my father clinging to the wall, imploring the family to walk back down to the bottom. He was afraid of heights. It struck me as irrational and impossible, but real.  And the comic irony is that for his first job, he trained to be a tree cutter.

 I was surprised because to my own anxious mind there was no actual danger, and yet he created one.  This is reflected in my own experience.  You have probably known people who can make any mole into skin cancer and any upset stomach into colon cancer.  Any abnormality or upset suddenly is a symptom of the worst possible disease.  Sometimes these fears and the resulting anxiety have a basis in reality.  In my case, you might think large ocean waves reminiscent of my terrible accident might produce anxiety.  Yet they don’t.  What does?  I have a child who has a poor sense of direction, but I also have an irrational fear of him being kidnapped or getting lost that has little basis in reality.  This is not to say that fears for safety are never justified, but a parent’s natural protective urge has always been magnified in me, and so it becomes difficult for me to let him grow up, experience the world, and be free of my control.  I have a difficult time letting go, and so everything gets exaggerated, and I create a scenario of what could happen, even though the likelihood of it occurring is extremely remote.  Another example of this anxiety occurred with the former house we owned in Maine. It had a very large roof that covered a wide span.  It was not sufficiently supported by beams, and thus had a slight dip in the middle.  My recurring dream was that that roof was going to collapse.  Even though a contractor swore it was not going anywhere, looking at that imperfect dip haunted me.  I would often lay in bed and wonder, will it hold?  Over time, we may see that these disasters don’t occur, and it helps.  Anxiety lessens.  I could see that the boy usually came home.  I could see that the roof didn’t collapse.  But more importantly, I could see that the energy I have spent worrying about tomorrow could have been used today to pay more attention to the people I am with in the moment, and the work that needs my focus today.  Too often things that are not going to occur feed our anxieties, when we could be focusing on the life that is occurring right now,

One of my little anxieties has always been the mailbox check.  When I pull down the metal handle, I place the letter inside, close it up, and THEN, pull it open again to make sure it has gone down.  I check to make sure it’s all under control. In the book Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith talks about his job as a fact checker for the Atlantic Monthly.  Being a fact checker reminds me of my former job with the UUA, where I edited the denominational directory.  It listed all the churches, all the ministers and countless other facts.  I had to check all these facts for accuracy, but furthermore it was the computer staff that made all the actual corrections in the system.  It was too much information for one person to proof read accurately, plus it was constantly changing.  In other words there was no way for it to be correct.  And so anxiety to have all the information be accurate was an absurd expectation. One would need a completely controlled environment that was not changing rapidly.  What became clear was that the fact checker magnified the reality that nothing is ever entirely right or correct, and we need to learn to live with anxiety as an everyday reality that comes with living.  Smith described his life as living in unceasing terror of failure.  What are you thinking when you feel this way? The fact checker might say: This directory has too many mistakes, and they are my entire fault.  They are going to fire me as a result. I am going to have no job, and will soon be out on the street, homeless and hopeless.  But what is the likelihood of any of this happening? Little or none. Even though my brain creates a chaotic, hopeless future, I need to remind myself this is not likely to happen.  You are okay.   

 And most of the time you are okay. To live is to be anxious.  Remember that. The philosopher Kierkegaard said, “To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self.” So we need anxiety to find our place in the world. Anything we do in life, any risk we take, any relationship we enter causes anxiety.  Will it work?  Am I good enough?  Human beings have lived with anxiety from the dawn of history.  Ever sense our ancestors saw a saber toothed tiger lurking over the next hill looking for dinner, we have been anxious about life and limb, where we would live, and where our next meal is coming from.  But we also came equipped with skills and smarts to deal with these anxious moments.  We learned to sweat so that we would be slippery in another’s grasp and get away, and often were fast enough to do so, or clever enough to hide. We found ways to survive and flourish. In fact we know that sometimes anxiety is good to help spur us on to action. Now that evolutionary sweat usually occurs in response to adolescent dates, job interviews, and for some preachers, on Sunday morning.

 I had preacher’s anxiety when I was a student. I had a foreboding dream the night before I first delivered a sermon.  I drove into the parking lot of the Unitarian Church of Davis, CA.  I was late.  Everyone was already seated.  The church was built like an auditorium with the pulpit at the bottom of a series of semicircular descending stairs and pews.  When I reached the last stair, I tripped and was catapulted across the front of the church, crashing head first into the pulpit.  Knocked unconscious the dream ended with a mass of giant, incredulous faces leering over me.  Needless to say, I did not crash before that first sermon. Some people even liked me, despite my then heavy Boston accent. Another sermon the next year in Oakland, CA was prefaced by yet another dream.  This time every single element in the service was happening at the same time – I was preaching, the choir was singing, the congregation was doing a responsive reading, and some loyal member was taking an offering.  I can tell you this is one way to have shorter services. That live service the next day went well, too. The good news is that after seminary I never had a performance anxiety dream again.  Maybe it was the person who once told me, “I have no idea what you said, but it sure sounded good.”  My smooth voice and enthusiasm could make up for sermons that made no sense.  Or maybe it was trust in forgiving congregations.  I have known of colleagues who vomited every single Sunday throughout their careers in dread or fearful anticipation of what they were about to do.  Generally these are colleagues who are a lot calmer than I am. Yet I conquered this one, while they did not. Why? I think it is because of the supportive community.  I got good feedback, disaster was averted, and usually we all leave on a Sunday noon feeling a little better.  But I am a preacher.  What about you?

In the book Monkey Mind, Smith reminds us that to be human is to be anxious, but of course the question is how do we discipline our anxiety, or how do we use it in productive ways to give us back to ourselves and to those we love.  He identifies two types of anxiety sufferers.  I am more the “stifler.”  I keep it inside or find other ways to divert it.  I think I mostly used to try to mollify it with clouds of cigarette smoke.  The other type is the “chaotic” who lets it out physically or verbally.  Perhaps I do some of that, too.  I especially remember being unable to hold back anger years ago when I used to drive across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, and a certain friend of mine would choose that moment to wonder aloud when the big earthquake would come.  I was not going to let anyone else induce greater anxiety than I already had.  In retrospect, I had to realize that by and large I am the architect, the maker of my own anxiety.  While there is much in life to be anxious about, I have mostly created the debilitating anxiety and let imagined or exaggerated threats withhold my acceptance of myself.  In his Memories Dreams and Reflections, Carl Jung says that sometimes it is we ourselves who are in need of our own kindness. He recalls Jesus counseling us to love the enemy, but we may be our own worst enemies who need to love and accept ourselves as imperfect, as full of doubt and fear. We are the enemy who must be loved.  Anxiety tends to be a raging against the self that we hide from the world. We shut ourselves off in these scenarios from living in the moment with those who need our love and attention, especially ourselves.

Religion has been a source of overwhelming anxiety for some. Am I good enough? Do I believe right? The assurance of God’s grace was suppose to relieve existential angst, but our ancestors never knew whether they were actually saved or not.  Calvinism posited that only a small number were among the elect, and the vast majority of people would be condemned to hell.  The first generation of Puritans here in New England believed they were among the elect, but this soon changed with later generations.  They didn’t feel God’s grace, and began to have terrible anxiety over whether they ever would.  This was the gnawing, traumatic psychological question of Puritan times. Am I saved?  And so they would spend hours fretting over this question, but still there was no way to definitively prove they were okay.  While Catholics had been able to buy indulgences and calm their anxiety about end of life by assuring salvation, all Puritans could do was feel unsure about themselves, and plunge themselves into their work.

Yet there were two things about Puritanism that actually help us cope with anxiety.  First, they said that humans had the will and desire to fight against doubt and despair. Any assurance of salvation only came after this period of profound anxiety and doubt.  In other words everybody who was going to be saved had this overwhelming fear, and if you didn’t, then you had no chance to be saved. I would characterize that as a realization that doubt and fears are endemic to life, and that if you don’t feel them you are not grasping that life is full of anxious striving. Second, they said the surest sign of assurance was continuing imperfection. In their view those who were the most confident, and had no doubts were not the ones who were saved.  It was better to be unsure.  This to me reflects a sense of humility. They had an almost modern sensibility that you can’t really know, just as we might say you cannot really know if there is a God or not, and so in your recognition of life’s limits you accept that definitive answers are not going to be yours.  It is liberating

 One huge gift of this way of looking at matters of faith is that it creates an entire community of people who share your doubts and fears and who also want to assure you, as you assure them. They show us that most anxiety is based in either things for which there is no answer or it is worry about things which your mind largely invents.  It is often anxiety or fear about something that is about to happen, but the great likelihood is that it won’t, or you have fabricated it. As a result it drains you of strength and love and power that you might extend or use in other ways.  We may worry about things that are not even remotely true or possible, and even if they are, we cannot know, until tomorrow. With anxiety, we should usually give it time by waiting and seeing.  More often than not it works out.  Plus our anxiety may be driving us to accomplish many things. Charles Darwin was once anxious that he was not getting enough writing done, but it turned out he was in the midst of writing his great scientific masterpiece.             

 If we can admit that we have no control over certain things, we can try to let go of those things, rather than letting them victimize or control us.  Just like we have no control over salvation, so too we often cannot control our environments, but we can make good intelligent choices and be present and helpful to those we love and care for. 

A monkey mind occurs when we are not at ease with ourselves, and everything inside our skulls is leaping around. Anxiety focuses on what we fear is going to happen this afternoon, tomorrow, or next week, and fails to be of service in helping us focus on being in the present now with those we love. What if we stopped all this thinking about disasters that will never be, but instead let ourselves and others see and feel how lovely we really can be. Focus on the day, Jesus says.  Be with the person in front of you.  Be aware of the trouble that confronts you today. See the truth. See the present.  Our poem reminds us to see the beauty in ourselves, and let it bloom. So we strive to gain the confidence to confront today’s problem with the love and skills we already possess.  Many of us have been in churches where we were made to feel anxious about believing the right way.  Or we grew up in family’s that made us fear the pressure of performance or success, or were part of a marriage where we could never quite measure up to what seemed to be wanted from us. We gather here to create a church that does not build greater anxiety, but instead affirms what is good in humanity, and capable and worthy in ourselves.  We know we are a community that lives in an anxious world of scarce resources, but our faith in our own abilities does not have to be scarce, and our ability to reach out with compassion to others does not have to be scarce either. Let us together realize how abundant and resilient our strength, our confidence and our trust in each other can be.


Closing Words – from Corrie Ten Boom


Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”