Relating to the Depths

I recently heard the advice to give up understanding anything (apologies for not remembering the original source). After living with this idea for a little while, it occurred to me that understanding is insufficient to being alive.

Comprehension and figuring things out are essential for a certain level of life. It’s remarkably useful that science has identified human beings as the cause of climate change and can calculate the most effective solutions. We don’t want to give that up.

But the depths of life require entering into rather than figuring out; understanding is too shallow an approach for the deep waters. We cannot comprehend death or loss, love or joy, but we experience them. The preciousness of this life sometimes overwhelms us—an incredible sunset, a flock of birds descending, or children at play to use Jim Finley’s examples. These moments open us to existence in ways that have nothing to do with thought.

In a very real way, we cannot understand any other being. We cannot think our way into the experience of a tree, a cat, our siblings, or the person who sits next to us at work five days a week. To see things from another’s point of view is useful but limited and different from being present with that person, from allowing our spirits to recognize one another.

We share life with all of creation. We are in relationship with all that is, and the foundation of that relationship is love. The desire of love is not ultimately to be understood. It is to see and be seen, to know and be known, to experience and be experienced.

The “peace that surpasses all understanding” is exactly what it says it is. May we dwell there.

For a Blessing

Tonight I will attend a Sabbath service with the local Reform Jewish congregation for the first time. A friend of my mom’s who as a teenager survived Bergen-Belsen died last week, and her name will be on the list of those for whom the congregation will say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.

I met Bella and her husband Henry once, and I vividly remember Henry saying, “Who could have imagined all of this,” waving his hand around to indicate the Red Robin where we were eating, his and Bella’s entire life in the U.S., children, a home, “when we were in the camps?”

At a symposium on climate change this week, a communications professor said that if you want people to change their behavior, you need to communicate a sense of concern and also a sense of hope. If only the dire effects of climate change are presented, people will not act. They will feel powerless against what seems to be an inevitable and bleak future.

Hope and uncertainty are intimately related.

I wonder how or whether people maintained hope in the concentration camps, in that place where they didn’t have the ability to make choices that would change their situation, with uncertainty about whether they would wake up in the morning but absolute certainty about what they would wake up to.

The Kaddish makes no mention of those who have died. It is a hymn of praise to God and a request for God’s peace. It must have been spoken thousands of times a day during the Holocaust.

Bella returned to Bergen-Belsen once and gave a public talk while she was there. I cannot imagine the strength either journey demanded—the journey of survival or the journey of return, but the latter must have required a deep sense of possibility.

May Bella’s memory be for a blessing. May our lives be blessed with hope.

There Will Be an End

The reality of being finite entered me this week in a much more intimate way than it usually does.

A friend’s daughter has been in the hospital for more than two weeks and is not improving. A woman who works where I do stopped to help the victim of a traffic accident and was killed when another car hit the debris from the accident and spun out of control. The same day we learned about the death, paramedics’ questions echoed down the hall from me called 911 because he wasn’t feeling well (He turned out to be OK).

We read about more tragic events than these every day, but proximity affects how we are able to respond. I had seen the woman who was killed around campus, and I’m sure she thought she would get up and go to work the next morning exactly as I do each day. But we never know.

There’s a true heartbreak in this uncertainty. No amount of preparedness guarantees that we will get up in the morning. We will lose everyone we love, whether we leave first or they do, and it may happen unexpectedly. As much as we imagine and operate as if it were otherwise, life is largely out of our control.

Letting this reality break our hearts opens us to the beauty of what is. Living in an illusion of control separates us from life’s fullness.

We must learn to treasure the temporary. This doesn’t mean continually thinking we might die tomorrow, but rather heightening our awareness of the sweetness of breathing, of loving and being loved, of sensing the world around us in various ways.

What life will hold is unknown and unknowable. This is our heartbreak. This is our joy. This is our call to savor with gratitude the miracle of each moment, to live consciously in the presence of this unfolding existence during our brief and precious sojourn here.

Reality in Motion

The most solid material reality of our lives—the Earth—is constantly moving and changing.

On a recent trip to Oregon, my mom, sister, and I walked through part of a huge lava flow. Within these miles and miles of black rock that hardened thousands of years ago, we saw undulating lines in the rocks clearly showing that what we experienced as solid had once flowed as easily as it now remained still.

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While we were traveling, two earthquakes shook California. Even those of us who live here and know that the next tremblor is a question of when not if go about our days with the perception that the Earth is still, at least I do. We may have emergency preparedness kits, but we don’t walk around with the awareness that the tectonic plates beneath our feet are shifting. We don’t send our imaginations down beneath the solid soil to the liquid outer core of the Earth that is in constant motion.

It could be life-changing to perceive the Earth as it actually is, to inhabit our lives with an awareness of change as the fundamental nature of existence. The forces that pushed that lava field into its current form were massive, and forces such as those are still at work.

This is true in all aspects of our lives, not just the geological. It’s so easy to think that life ought to be steady and change come only when we plan or predict it, but that’s not what’s going on here.

As with the Earth from which we are quite literally made, we are beings in constant motion. Change is happening in so many ways—in our bodies, in our experiences, and—if we choose to enter into and participate in this powerful flow of life—in our hearts.

“The Heart Knows”

This week, the Library of Congress chose Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, as the twenty-third poet laureate of the U.S. A poet’s job, I once heard, is to pay attention, and hers seems to me exactly the kind of attentiveness we need right now, rooted as it is in Native American culture and awareness.

An excerpt from Harjo’s poem “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” shows us the key to this practice:

Don’t worry.
The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises,
interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and
those who will despise you because they despise themselves.

I love this idea that we cannot get lost if we stay in our hearts. Even that short list of only a few of the world’s troubles can send our minds reeling off into fear and fixing, but our hearts, Harjo reminds us, know that we’re aiming toward something larger than all that, larger than ourselves.

In “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,” she writes, “The door to the mind should only open from the heart.”

Both poems were published in the book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. So much of what we experience every day indicates that we’ve forgotten we are holy beings living in a holy creation, a holy universe.

What is holy is worthy of reverence and love by its very nature. Our hearts know that the oak tree is holy, that the finches are holy, that you are, that I am.

In an interview with NPR, Harjo said that “humanizing and healing will be her aims as poet laureate — ‘a healing of people speaking to each other, with each other.’”

Listening with our heads, we white people could choose either our usual oppressive stance or one in which we look at ourselves and our past actions with irony and cynicism that speak only of our inability to change.

Listening with our hearts, we can choose instead to be humble and learn from a wisdom that has survived our best attempts to wipe it out, a wisdom that we must now allow to lead if we hope to participate in the healing of ourselves, this Earth, and all our fellow beings.

Hold It Lightly

The happenings that remind us of the uncertainty of life are usually big and often unwelcome. I had the good fortune to experience a simple one over the past couple of weeks—being on call for jury duty for a court that was three hours away.

I had to check in one day to see whether I needed to serve the next, but if I was called, I would be sleeping in a hotel that night and possibly for the rest of the week. All the activities on my calendar would be cancelled, and no work would get done.

My approach the first week was to not plan or prepare. I didn’t buy groceries because I might not be home to eat them. I neither made new plans with friends nor cancelled existing ones.

The second week I made tiny plans, such as if I’m called, I’ll try to get together with friends in L.A.; if not, I’ll cook a pot of beans. And then for perhaps the first time in my life, I held the outcome lightly. I didn’t expect either the visit or the beans to happen, didn’t develop a preference for staying home or traveling to L.A.

A friend often recommends holding whatever we’re aiming toward lightly, but until last week I had no understanding of how to put that idea into practice. In losing my ability to pretend I knew what the next day would hold, I could see that my knowing was an illusion to begin with.

Every day our lives could be profoundly different when we wake up in the morning, but we live as if we know exactly what we’re going to do the next day. To some extent, this is necessary. We need to buy groceries after all, but there’s an openness that comes with remaining conscious of the uncertain nature of our existence.

It reminds me of how one would hold a small, injured bird—gently, with an open hand so as not to hurt or scare it. You might take the bird home and put it in a box. Perhaps it will recover, perhaps it will die. Or, as you’re carrying it, it might shake itself and fly right out of your hand, surprising you both.

Take a Drink

We have so many beautiful ways to pay attention.

I heard an interview with David Barrie who wrote a book about animal navigation and all the different ways animals find their way—light, the pattern of waves, the Earth’s magnetic field, and many more. Animals know that their survival depends on paying attention. I’ve never seen a distracted, non-human animal.

We humans, on the other hand, tend to believe that what’s going on in our head is reality instead of attending to what exists around us so that we can discover reality.

My sister sent me an announcement about some paintings that are currently showing in a gallery nearby. I was in the same part of town as the gallery yesterday but didn’t even remember to look for, much less at, the paintings. My mind was occupied with the list of tasks I’d decided on for the evening.

One morning I poured myself a cup of assam tea but thought I had brewed some Earl Grey. For the first few sips I couldn’t figure out why the tea tasted bad. The tea tasted fine, but the flavor didn’t meet my expectations. We often ask the question, “What does such and such taste like?” wanting to fit it into a pre-existing category. Instead, we could take a drink wondering, “What is the taste of this tea?”

We have the capacity to plan for the future and remember and learn from the past, but we live in the present. Right now, the beauty of the world is yearning to relate to us. Right now we can hear the mockingbird showing off his repertoire. At this moment, we can walk through the dew on the grass, feel wetness, and look back to see the impression our miraculous feet made, dark against the startling green.

And maybe, if we’re still and silent enough, we’ll remember the pull of Earth’s magnetism.