Nature, Gratitude, and Boredom: A Homily for September 18, 2019

National Cathedral School

Justin C. Maaia

My name is Justin Maaia and I teach religious studies in the upper school here.  Rev. Cavaleri asked if I might give a homily or a meditation on gratitude today.  I am going to try and do a little of both.  I’m going to say a few words about gratitude, and then hopefully have time for some meditation at the end.

One of the classes I teach is called Good and Evil.  In that class I have asked my students two questions so far: “What is Happiness?”  And “Why do we suffer?”

In the wake of those questions, my students proceeded to unleash a barrage of thinking and questioning that overwhelmed me with thoughts.  First of all, how wise you all are.  Second, that these are questions that don’t have any one single answer.  Third, how important it is to ask these questions, even if they don’t have an answer.

What is happiness?  Why do we suffer?

Speaking of suffering: I am forty years old now.  That’s middle age.  I hope it’s not quite the middle, but it’s close.  As I look back over my life so far, one thing I see is that my life has been an experiment in happiness and suffering.  I know I can only speak from the I-perspective, but I think this must be true for most of us, given the fervor with which my students grappled with these questions.

So, what have I learned from my life so far, from my experiments with happiness and suffering?  In the interest of time, I will just share with you the three things that loom largest in my mind at this point in my journey.

Number One: I am happy in proportion to the amount of time I get to spend in nature.  Yes, being outside can be annoying sometimes.  There are bugs.  There are UV rays.  There is precipitation.  But despite all these annoyances, I have noticed that my sense of wellbeing increases the more time I spend outside.  Some of you will immediately identify with this and others will not.  I know I should only speak from the I perspective, but I do think there is a universal truth at work here.  Whether you believe human beings have been on the earth for 5000 years or for 5 million years, the fact is that we have spent nearly all of our time here in close contact with nature.  We are nature!  And we have evolved in relationship to sun and water and wind and rain and rocks and trees and dirt and sand.  Because we have evolved with these elements, with their shapes and rhythms, our bodies and minds feel at home with them.  Try and spend a little more time in this relationship, and see what happens.  It has been transformative for me.

Number Two: Gratitude increases happiness.  A couple of years ago in my classes, we kept a gratitude journal for three weeks.  Each day we would write down three different things we were grateful for.  I do not exaggerate when I say: This transformed my life.  You see, our minds work in patterns.  We recognize patterns in the outside world.  We think in patterns of thought.  And so keeping a gratitude journal is really just a way of creating a new pattern of thought.  You create a new habit, a new skill, of scanning the world for things for which you are grateful.  I realize now in hindsight that I created a fast-track to this new habit, because not only did I write down three new thank-you’s per day like my students did, but I was teaching four classes per day, which means I was writing twelve gratitudes a day.  You don’t realize how much you have to be thankful for until you start down this path.  Even during the worst of times.  I remember writing with tremendous gratitude toward my friends and colleagues here who covered my classes so that I could visit my dad when he almost passed away last year.  And my gratitude for the fact that he did not die.  Luckily my gratitude is usually for things less dire, as it is for the ten minutes I get to spend with my daughters when I walk them to school.  Sometimes my gratitude is for the simplest and yet most welcoming game-changer in a stressful day: a cup of tea warming my hands and unfurling its aroma in front of me.  And almost every day I have gratitude for my students who bring their whole selves to class and sit with each other to grapple with life’s big questions.  Several recent psychological experiments have shown that this practice of gratitude changes one’s perception of reality.  I disagree.  Gratitude doesn’t just change one’s perception of reality.  It changes reality itself.  (There is a quantum physics connection to be made there for anyone interested.)

Number Three: Lastly, I have learned that happiness lies on the other side of boredom.  Yes, we are happy when we are doing something that makes us happy, or when we are spending time with people who make us happy.  But there is also a happiness to be experienced in ourselves.  The challenge is that the only way to get there is through boredom.  If I ask us to lie down outside and just look at the sky for twenty minutes—as I did with my Living Religions of the World class this week—most of us, me included, will say that that is boring and that we would rather be playing a sport or an instrument, watching Netflix or Tic Tok, or checking our snapchat or our Instagram feed.  And this will be true for a few minutes.  But if we can be still for long enough – usually about 20 minutes – we will settle down into the vibrations of what is around us, we will begin to resonate at a different frequency, and we will find something there.  Happiness, or at least peace, is just on the other side of boredom.  At least, this is what most of my students found there, and which I find there each day.

This being bored becomes a looking, and listening, and accepting the reality of the present moment, the reality of our body, our earth, our existence at this very moment.  Our body-mind, as I like to call it, is very good at this by nature, but it takes time for us to remember how to do it.  We have conditioned ourselves to never be bored and so it takes time to acclimate ourselves to it, to see what is on the other side of that boredom.

We are so lucky to have these jazz musicians with us today.  For one thing, they are fantastic.  For another, they help illustrate this point about listening, because listening and being present is so integral to Jazz.  For those of you who don’t know, Jazz is not a music that is defined by a certain sound, or a certain type of instrumentation or rhythm or anything like that.  Jazz is defined primarily by the fact that it is created by musicians who are all composing at the same time.[1]  You may not know this, but these musicians are not playing the same notes today that they played last Sunday or that they played in rehearsal.  They are making it up, brand new, every time.  How is this possible?  How can all these musicians be making up music on the spot at the same time and still have it sound amazing?  A big part of the answer is through listening to each other and being present.

I would like to end this homily today with a moment of listening, and the band is going to take it from there.  I invite you to stand up.  Now close your eyes for a moment—just a bit, maybe half-closed, your eyelids gently resting.  Now just listen.  Hear the human-made music that is itself a part of nature.  Hear the insects vibrating in the trees.  Hear the rustle of the leaves.  Hear the breeze as it fills the hollows of your ears.  Feel the gentle sunlight on your eyelids.  Sense the green glow from the lush foliage that surrounds us.  Feel your body gently sway in concert with the sturdy and flexible trees that mark this sacred space.  See if you can be aware of your in-breath as it touches the inside of your nose.  See if you can be completely and totally aware of your out-breath as it tickles the edges of your nostrils.  Can you feel the drum beat?  Can you feel your heart beating?  Can you sense your life force pulsing throughout every cell?  Listen to your nature.  It is terribly, wonderfully boring.  Let us be grateful for it.

Thank you for allowing me to address you all in this way.  Amen.

[1] The organist and composer Tom Frost made this observation to me once while we were discussing Jazz.  “In Jazz, all the musicians are composing simultaneously.”

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