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.

Cultivating Wonder

Apparently Einstein didn’t say, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is,” but I’m grateful someone did, someone who understood the power of wonder.

There are so many reasons to allow existence to elicit wonder from us.

I recently came across an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in which she details the extraordinary complexity of a goldfish that she bought for twenty-five cents, his “completely transparent and all but invisible” ventral fins and his eyes that “can look before and behind himself.” Even a single-celled organism contains an entire, intricate world. As the psalmist says, “I will praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Marveling at the beauty in front of our eyes or beneath our fingertips is one of surest paths to joy. The Buddhist metta meditation recognizes our fundamental desire to be happy. Letting ourselves be amazed at a crab burrowing into the sand or the capabilities of the latest technology fulfills one of our deepest needs by increasing our capacity for joy.

Or consider the overwhelmingly small odds that each of us exists at all. The sperm that made you basically had to win the Powerball lottery to reach that particular egg, and that’s true for every generation on your mom and dad’s sides. Then there’s the almost impossible matter of life evolving, not to mention atoms forming. (See this nifty infographic if you want to know exactly how many zeroes we’re talking about.)

Wonder is a way of life, a means by which to relate to the rest of creation. To be is to be in relationship, Cyprian Consiglio and others have said. What kind of relationship do we want to be in?

To recognize all of existence for the miracle it is puts us in touch with the divinity of everything and everyone around us. To be awestruck by that with which we are relating affirms and expands the life of the other. It’s a way of saying, “May you be.” What could be more essential than to give life to our fellow miracles?

Evolving into Love

Some friends and I went camping in Yosemite valley recently. It’s one of those places the words “grandeur” and “majestic” were invented to describe.

The Yosemites of the world can remind us to attend to the world’s beauty wherever we are, whether in the form of an oak tree, a kind word, or an architectural feat. Yet we humans often destroy beauty in all its forms in intentional and unintentional ways, sometimes even as it fills our souls with wonder. We drove to Yosemite after all.

Half dome and the valleyse

Beauty evokes love, and love allows us to see the beauty in others and in the world. I believe that Love is the creative force in the universe. Yet sometimes we are exceptional lovers, and sometimes we miss the boat entirely. (Yes, that would make it the Love Boat. Sorry, couldn’t resist.) How can it be that we act contrary to the very fiber of our existence?

Perhaps we misunderstand the totality that love is. The nature of this universe is not to spring full-form into being but to develop, and we are creatures of this universe. Perhaps love is learning to be love, which is messy.

Learning involves being in tension between who we are and who we are becoming. It means making mistakes. It also makes possible the most beautiful transformation and the most profound change.

We might think that we must force ourselves to evolve the ability to better love one another, the animals, the Earth. It may be tempting to despair, to look at the devastation in the world and think it’s already too late. But if love is the nature of being, it will continue to evolve us. We cannot escape the direction in which we’re heading, and that direction is good.

Of Bees, Hummingbirds, and Us

Every day, the little hummingbird with the nest in the tree outside my house is sitting on her eggs when I pass by.

This week, a friend showed a few of us the bee hives he’s been keeping for three years without the bees making enough honey to harvest.

In both cases, I am amazed at the patience in these simple acts. My friend checks his hives once a week, each time suiting up, smoking the bees to confuse and settle them, and gently shifting and checking each rack. That’s 156 weeks so far, give or take.

Wildflowers, on the other hand, spring up with the first good dose of sunshine and warmth in a rainy year. Patience doesn’t seem to be their thing, yet this year’s crop must have lain dormant as seeds for years during the drought—the same drought that caused low honey production.

Inside each pound of honey is the nectar of two million wildflowers. I don’t know whether you can call the life of a worker bee a patient one as she gathers the nectar or whether she’s only doing what she knows how to do.

Maybe we know how to move through the world without rushing, to wait and give that which is coming into being our full attention, to allow ripeness to come in its own time. Maybe all we have to do is tune into that knowing.

There are times to do nothing but sit on the eggs and times to spring up and push through the earth, seasons to gather nectar and seasons to hang out in the hive eating honey. Nothing we do can hurry those along. Nothing can change periods best suited to waiting into moments that require action or vice versa.

The fullness of life comes in its own time. To participate in its coming and enjoy its fruits we need most of all to pay attention.

Just This Minute

Yesterday felt like altogether too much before I even got out of bed, and then a small voice inside said, “Just this minute.” As in, live only this minute that you are actually experiencing right now.

I often worry about whether I’ll have time to do everything in the evening as I’m packing my lunch at 7 a.m. Sometimes, to bring myself back to the present, I focus on why I’m here, but that doesn’t always work that well.

I’m not sure why is a useful question. It puts us directly into figuring-it-out mode, and no matter what answer we come up with, we can then evaluate ourselves on the basis of that answer. But evaluation is too limited to be our main tool in this life. Our existence is much richer than reason will allow.

It’s almost impossible to conclude we are an incredible success or a massive failure in a minute, regardless of what criteria we’ve chosen. Perhaps this is why wisdom traditions recommend staying present—it keeps us from thinking life is about something other than living.

“Being present” could answer the question, how do I live my life? Or how do I life my life most fully?

When making a decision, Jim Finley recommends asking the question, all things considered, what’s the most loving thing I can do right now—for myself, for the person I’m talking with, for anyone who will be affected by my decision? The “right now” part of that advice is important. Not in an ideal world, not if things were different, not if I had my act together, but right now.

Choosing to live in the minute we’re in may be one of the most loving things we can do at any time. It removes so much of what may motivate us other than love and reminds us that, no matter what else may be going on at the moment, we are alive. This is the gift from and through which all other gifts flow, and it is cause for great rejoicing.

We Are the Feast

How does one see a tiny hummingbird nest in a huge liquid amber tree? Only by grace.

Yesterday morning I was leaving for work preoccupied by my habitual failings and on the brink of descending into an internal slough remembered that self-compassion would be more helpful. That’s when I spotted the little beak near the tree’s trunk where it usually wouldn’t be and saw the hummingbird flit to a nearby branch. I later discovered the nest, so tiny it had been hidden from my original vantage point by a single leaf.

Last night we celebrated the Feast of the Supper of the Lord, one of my favorite days in the church year. This is the night Jesus said, “Take my body. Take my blood. Remember me.”

The disciples must have been mightily confused. That’s pretty far off script for a Passover Seder. Two thousand years later we’re still repeating those words, and I probably don’t understand them any better than the original disciples did. Yet there is something essential for me about Eucharist.

When I give Eucharist to others and say, “The body of Christ,” I hold a state of mind that they are receiving what they already are, that something about our communal consecration amplifies and reveals Christ already within each of us.

We need a lot of reminders of this reality of who we are, from the glory of the hummingbird’s nest to the weekly gathering at table. It’s so tempting to think we are just about anything else and are here for just about any other reason. But only participation in God’s love, in the evolutionary force of existence will do.

All creation is groaning to be born, St. Paul writes to the Romans, “even until now.” All creation is participating in this feast, in this being and becoming Christ, each of us in our own way. The hummingbird participates by building its tiny nest. If we pay attention, we’ll learn how to build ours.