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.

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.