Sunday Sermon "Skillful Means"

This is not just another Sunday - this is the first Sunday of Spring Break!

The natural world renews itself at this time of year, and so we in college use this time for renewal as well. Many of us go to warmer climes to relax, unwind, and kill brain cells at a prodigous rate. Even here in Laramie, the weather cooperated and it was quite drunk out last night. I was planning on an early bed, but a friend called from the pool hall, where more than a few people were having a bit too much fun. I played some 8-ball, lost a game of chess (Yes, I lost. I hope you are all happy...), threatened a drunk who lifted up the back of my kilt, and sipped diet cokes while the rest of the room whirled around me.

As the evening was wrapping up, one of the regulars was chatting with me. The conversation was pretty scattered - never talk Russian Literature with a drunk man at 01:00 - but it eventually turned metaphysical. He looks me in the eye and asks, "Linus, do you believe in past lives?" Knowing that this is not the time to launch into my particular take on this topic, I try to think of something witty to say that will defuse this, and steer us back to one of the safe zones for bar chat; girls, cars, sports, etc... But nothing comes to mind, so I say, "Yeah, pretty much. Why?"

"I'm pretty sure I've been here before," he says. I figure this is going to be the standard, 'I was a famous/interesting person in a previous life' rant, but I see that there is genuine pain in his alcohol-clouded eyes.

"Some Buddhists believe that we have each had an infinifte number of lives before this one," I say, thinking to comfort him with the knowledge that he is perfectly normal. He nods, so I continue. "We return because we still have things to learn, or because we are here to help others." Trying to distill the concepts of Karma, Suffering, Clinging, Nirvana, and the Bodhisattva Vow into one sentence is tough, but he seemed to take it in pretty well.

He stared at his drink for a moment and said, "I don't know if I'm here to learn or to help, but I am really tired of it." I didn't know what to say, so I sipped my coke. He went on to say, "I'm ready for it to be over. I'm ready to just sleep."

What do you say to that? My cop training went on alert, but I sensed that going through the suicide assessment questions would not be helpful at this point. I sifted through my mental assortment of Zen proverbs and scraps of the Dhammapada that usually suffice for deep conversations like this, but nothing seemed relevant. Here was a real chance to say or do something truly compassionate, to one who was asking for my help, and I was blank.

"Skillful Means" is what Buddhists call saying the right thing at the right time. The idea is that if you are truly mindful and in touch with the moment, the correct words or actions will come forth for the person with whom you are dealing. Clearly, I was not mindful. I offered some lame suggestions about meditating, and the title of a book he might want to read. I was somewhat comforted by his departure with friends closer to him than I, but I felt defeated. I was not in touch with the moment, and I was not ready to offer him what he needed. Weak.

I pondered what I could have done, what I might have said. I was busily punishing myself this evening when the phone rang; another friend with pain in her voice. At that moment I realized that I was not fully present - I was back in the bar, reliving my failure. This time I was not going to screw up. I stopped what I was doing, and gave her my full attention.

I don't think I said anything profound to her. Her situation is complex - acutally "ornately Gothic" is a better way of putting it - so any advice is of minimal use, but I listened. I was mindful of her; I acknowledged her pain. She wasn't " all better" when she hung up, but at the very least, she wasn't alone in her suffering.

I realize now that the 'failure' in the bar, made the relative success of tonight's phone call possible. Being awake to the moment was the lesson - but isn't it always?

Go in Peace.


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