A Fresh Look at the Navel

Audio File of Sermon

The term “navel-gazing’ is often uttered with disparagement, and I think I understand why.  Look at your navel for a moment – or if you’d rather not do that in public, at least close your eyes and imagine it for a moment.  What do you see?  An innie?  An outie?  A dead end?  The funny thing about a navel is that it doesn’t lead anywhere.

But once upon a time, it did.  Before your umbilical cord was severed, leaving you with a navel in your belly, the umbilical cord delivered all the nourishment you needed for about 40 weeks.  Then out you came, and someone cut that cord that tethered you to your mother and fed you.  The stump that was left sticking out of your belly dried out, shriveled up, and dropped off a few days later, leaving you with a navel.  What once was a life-line is now a dead end.  So if you spend all your time gazing at it, you’re likely to get nowhere.

You remember Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water?  In a way, an image of oneself is like a navel: it’s a dead end; it doesn’t lead beyond itself.

So perhaps we (as individuals and as a religious body) would rather not waste our lives away gazing at our own navels.

On the other hand, maybe there’s more to the navel than meets the eye.  Some of you may have glimpsed it a moment ago when I recalled the navel’s connection to the umbilical cord.  Maybe it takes a little imagination to see beyond what looks like a dead end.  Maybe it takes a little imagination to see beyond our images of ourselves to what lies behind them.

“The plumber was digging around / in the pipes,” (writes Brian Andreas in his wonderful collection of mostly true stories and drawings),

The plumber was digging around
in the pipes & he saw something
shine in the muck & it turned
out to be the soul of the last

He gave it to me & I said I
wonder how we can return it &
he shrugged & said he found
stuff like that all the time.

You’d be amazed what people
lose, he said.[i]

What kind of “imagination” is required?  Not the kind that makes things up, but the kind that calls into play a wide range of ways of knowing, broadening our perspective so that we perceive what lies beneath the surface, beyond the dead end.

There’s imagination in the word children use for “navel.”  If the navel is a button, a belly-button, perhaps what’s inside of us isn’t inaccessible.  Perhaps there might be a steady flow between the inner life and the outer life if we could simply imagine ourselves unbuttoning our bellies at will.  Perhaps we could move easily into that interior space where we really know who we are.

The hard truth is that the journey inward takes more than imagination.  It also takes courage to traverse the unknown, inner terrain.  If we’re even to begin, we need the courage to resist messages that equate the inner journey with Narcissus, wasting away beside a pool of water.  Inner work is not dead-end navel gazing; self-care is not self-indulgent, and self-love is not narcissistic.

How do we know the difference?  Inner work, self-care, and self-love take us deeper into ourselves, which in turn makes us available for deeper connections with others, and frees our energy for our outer work.

Dead-end navel-gazing keeps us separate from our true selves; self-indulgence keeps us from perceiving the cries of the true self; and narcissism keeps our attention and energy focused on images of ourselves that belie the depths of our selfhood and humanity.

There are myriad approaches to the deepest truths about ourselves, myriad ways of touching truth and tapping resources within and beyond ourselves.  The important thing is not how we do it, but that we do it.

We are not just hungry for it: we are starving for it.  And we are starving the world in the process.

In his marvelous book, A Hidden Wholeness, writer, lecturer, teacher and activist Parker J. Palmer names several of the costs of our unsatisfied spiritual hunger:

  • We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
  • We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.
  • The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness.
  • The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.
  • We project our inner darkness on others, making “enemies” of them and making the world a more dangerous place.
  • Our inauthenticity and projections make real relationships impossible, leading to loneliness.
  • Our contributions to the world – especially through the work we do – are tainted by duplicity and deprived of the life-giving energies of true self.[ii]

Do any of these fit?

This spiritual hunger is our longing for nourishment and sustenance for our whole selves.   But we’ve become conditioned to settle for half-measures that numb our hunger rather than feeding it.  We try to quiet the gnawing pain with food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, activities, and even with saving the rest of the world.  We’ve been taught that we’re not supposed to say anything when we’re in need.  In fact, most of us have been taught that, compared to others, we are not in need.  After all, most of us have a roof over our heads, safe drinking water, an adequate supply of food.  Our standard of living, compared to much of the world, is high.  We use the knowledge of our relative economic privilege to discount our own pain and suffering, which are equally real.

Poet Ruth Stone expresses it this way, in her poem “Advice:”


My hazard wouldn’t be yours, not ever;
But every doom, like a hazelnut, comes down
to its own worm.  So I am rocking here
Like any granny with her apron over her head
Saying, lordy me.  It’s my trouble.
There’s nothing to be learned this way.
If I heard a girl crying help
I would go to save her;
But you hardly ever hear those words.
Dear children, you must try to say
Something when you are in need.
Don’t confuse hunger with greed;
and don’t wait until you are dead.[iii]

If we can’t say anything when we’re in need, we are disconnected from our true selves.  If every doom, like a hazelnut, comes down to its own worm – if my pain isn’t yours, or yours mine, we are disconnected from one another.  If we confuse our very real spiritual hunger with greed, we deaden ourselves long before we are dead.

Eating disorders, alcoholism and other drug abuse, mindless consumption, depression, anxiety, and our inability to unplug, even for a short time, from our iphones, blackberries, televisions and computers: all of these are symptoms of our spiritual hunger; none of them is a solution.  Our spiritual hunger will only be satisfied by the recovery of our true selves.  To find them, we need to find ways to touch the deepest truths about ourselves.  We can’t do this if we’re numbed-out by food, alcohol or other drugs.  We can’t do it if we are distracted by too much activity, noise, entertainment and stimulation.  We can’t even think our way to it, no matter how positive or rational our thinking.

We have to find ways to slow down, unplug, be fully present.  We have to be willing to spend time with ourselves, instead of running away from ourselves.  These ways will be different for each of us, but our own lives can show us the way that is right for each of us: Listen for what calls out to you from the depths of your being.

Will You Follow?

Don’t confuse hunger with greed
though your life is full to brimming with things you do not need
Listen to the howling in the hollow!
It is calling!
It is calling you!
Will you follow?[iv]

The inner journey isn’t as simple as following what feels good; it means following the howling deep into ourselves.  It begins when we dismantle the illusions we’ve built and the images we’ve hidden behind, in spite of not knowing whether anything at all will remain.  Then, having walked directly into our fear, we hang in there with ourselves through the shame, through those moments when we want nothing more than to check our e-mail, grab a doughnut or focus on someone else’s problems.  But if we hang in there, we finally get to experience our grief.  It’s not easy, but when we get there, we will know we are fully alive.  Then slowly, in the midst of the grief, a feeling of peace gently grows inside us, right in the middle of our bellies, radiating outward.  In that space inside, that seemed both vast and empty, we feel the healing presence of love.

The journey is neither narcissistic nor self-indulgent, because that deep internal connection and love affects every aspect of a person’s life, including our desire and ability to act in the world.  In it is the cradle of compassion and the ability to connect with others and with life itself.  People who have access to this internal space are likely to engage the world – including working for justice – from a center of love, rather than prideful arrogance.  They’re likely to share the understanding that UU minister and author, Richard Gilbert, describes in his book The Prophetic Imperative:

“The deeper we delve into the innermost recesses of our souls, the more intensely we identify with other human beings.  The further inward we explore, the more we see our common humanity.”[v]  When we see our common humanity, we reach out to others as partners, rather than down to them as “giver” to “receiver.”

The hard-won benefits of becoming our true selves are many.  They affect not only our own lives, but our life together in community and our work in the world.

  • When we realize that nothing is missing, because we have found ourselves, we have the full measure of our energy available to us for the work we have to do in the world
  • As we stop numbing out and seeking distractions, we become more attuned to our place in the web of existence, and more committed to a fair distribution of resources and stewardship of the earth.
  • When we discover that we are indeed visible in the world, loved and accepted just as we are, we stop paying lip-service to the concept of the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.  Having discovered it in ourselves, we truly recognize its universality.
  • Our joy illuminates the world’s darkness, and when we find ourselves in inner darkness again, as we will from time to time, the world’s joy will still have the power to penetrate and illuminate that darkness.
  • Instead of seeing enemies, we see friends and potential friends.  We develop faith in the positive potential of others and the world, thereby making the world a safer place and increasing the likelihood of peace.
  • We are our authentic selves, which means that we are available for connection with other authentic selves in mutually nurturing relationships.  With gratitude we recognize the life-lines that nourish us and the tethers that connect us.
  • Everything that we are and everything that we do is infused with the life-giving energy of true self, which is love.

Audio File of Benediction

            [i]Brian Andreas, “The Plumber,” Mostly True (Decorah, Iowa: Story People, 1993), unnumbered.

            [ii]Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, (San   Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 16.

            [iii]Ruth Stone, “Advice,” in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 37.

            [iv]Emily Melcher, “Will You Follow?” Inspired by the words “Don’t confuse hunger with greed” from “Advice,” by Ruth Stone, in Cries of the Spirit, ed. Marilyn Sewell, 37

            [v]Richard S. Gilbert, The Prophetic Imperative 2d ed., (Boston: Skinner House, 2000), 26.