What Is the Use of Worrying?

It’s amazing how right spiritual teachers and traditions can be even when I’ve spent years thinking they were wrong. Take for example this whole idea that we create much of our own suffering. My evolving relationship to this truth has gone from “Yeah right, did you miss war, famine, etc.?” to “Well maybe so” to “Well would you look at that.”

I did not have to look far this week. I was attempting to stuff my purse and my lunch bag into a drawer at work, but they didn’t fit. I wanted to make a cup of tea and get some items checked off the list. I pushed harder on the unyielding bags and thought, oh come on, I don’t need this. Then it dawned on me that I was creating the problem. The drawer was not getting any bigger no matter how much I wanted to put more stuff into it.

Whether or not I accepted it, reality wasn’t changing. The drawer’s solid, physical existence made it clear how silly we are to resist what is.

It was a small, insignificant event, but as Richard Rohr says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” My resistance to the limitations of three-dimensional space is mirrored in so many aspects of my life: trying to do too many things in a day, wanting other people to act a certain way, wishing I could do things the way other people do them. The list goes on.

In all of these situations, I tend to react with frustration, worry, or some other form of resistance rather than acceptance. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama cites the teaching of Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist scholar who said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”

We skip looking at what’s happening and go straight to worry, or at least I do. Until we accept the situation instead of fighting with it, we can’t even determine whether or not change is possible through some effort on our part.

Sometimes we can change our circumstances, and sometimes we can’t. Until we see what they are instead of what we want them to be, we’ll never know.

Seeing the “Endlessly Precious”

Sometimes amazing things happen. As I was getting ready to leave New Camaldoli Hermitage, a kind staff member recommended driving north a few miles before returning home because Big Sur is mostly empty right now.

After some hesitation I realized I would likely never have this stretch of coastline to myself in quite the same way as on this Monday afternoon with the main road, Highway 1, still closed to through traffic in both directions because of mudslides.

Heading toward a famous waterfall, I saw an incredibly large bird in the sky and pulled over, hoping it was a condor. As I walked toward a clearing, it came swooping by, soaring out over the ocean, and was soon joined by a second condor flying in those graceful circles over land and sea. A couple of times they came so close overhead that I could hear their wings and read the number on the tags biologists use to track all California condors.

When a bird with a ten-foot wingspan beats his wings as he—or she—passes overhead and you hear a sound you’ve never heard before and may never again, the magnificence of life makes itself felt. But if we choose to, we can live awestruck at life on a daily basis.

It’s easier to have our breath taken away when the beauty and ruggedness of the world are pressing in on us, and we need those encounters with wildness. At the same time, we can remember that something amazing is always happening.

As my friend said about her growing puppy, how does her paw know to make more paw? Though we can explain the molecular and cellular processes to answer that question, the explanation in no way diminishes the wonder that it happens, that RNA exists at all much less differentiates hair cells from muscle cells and puts them in the right place. And how astonishing that we can know these microscopic processes.

Living in wonder is a matter not only of taking the time to drive north and pull over to the side of the road but also of recognizing that every moment is as sacred as the ones spent with the condors. “There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious,” says Abraham Heschel in The Sabbath: its meaning for modern man.

It’s so, so easy to forget what we’ve been given, but every tick of the clock is another chance to remember and rejoice.

Trusting the Present

During a recent run, my mind decided it, too, needed a workout, but it preferred to travel the same loop over and over again. I spent a lot of time bringing myself back to the present, which was a mostly pleasant place to be. I felt my feet hitting the ground, the warm air, the presence of the oak trees around me. But now and then, after dragging myself off the hamster wheel, I sensed a moment of definite fear.

What was so scary? I was in a safe place—except perhaps for the mountain lions, but I had never actually seen them—on a trail through some beautiful country. I was healthy enough to be running. No one in my life had any particular or imminent problems.

Stopping underneath an oak to spend some time with the question, I realized that, with my mind in the present, I had no idea what came next. If we live here now, we have to live in the reality that we don’t control a moment of our existence. We can and need to prepare and plan to exist in this world, but not a single day entirely matches the picture in our heads.

To live this way requires an immense amount of trust, not that everything will go right—whatever that means—but that, as Jim Finley puts it, “God sustains us in all things while protecting us from nothing.” Life will happen whether we’re living in the present or not, but we choose how to respond. If we’re living from a place of trust in that which sustains us, we can respond in a way that is life-giving.

But this is really, really hard because there’s not much room for who we think we are or who we want to be in that kind of trust. It demands an openness to discovering ourselves rather than an attempt to dictate our identity. When we’re in discovery mode, we can see ourselves as God does, as divinity becoming creation, as process.

Our own vision is much more static and limited. It feels safer because it’s familiar, but it can’t take us where we’re going; it doesn’t bring us into being. That journey requires faith and trust—and I’m sure a little bit of pixie dust wouldn’t hurt.

The Best We Can Do

Sometimes, we have little alternative but to watch ourselves do stupid things, such as practice anxiety, to pick a random example that couldn’t possibly have happened to me this week. At these moments—or days, weeks, months—it’s helpful to remember that watching is so much better than turning our eyes away.

Tuesday morning I realized at 7:17 that I needed to give Tux, my cat, his new hairball medication. Catching the vanpool requires leaving the house by 7:18. Trying to hurry, I got the gel in his fur and on his whiskers and of course missed the van anyway. That evening, preparing to give him another dose, I read the label more carefully: administer ½ tsp. once daily, meaning the entire morning escapade had been unnecessary.

Usually, I would have laughed at myself, but not this time. For unknown reasons, much of what I had done during the week had appeared in my mind doomed to failure—earth-shattering failure, not just any ol’ run of the mill failure—and this imagined imminent demise had buried my sense of humor.

I’ve been reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and so I tried during these days to take their advice on how to cultivate joy. Over and over, I expanded my perspective and tried to have compassion for others who, like me, thought it important to mess with their own minds, or people with more serious problems, such as hunger or war. Then I forgot. Then I practiced gratitude. Then I forgot.

Breathing exercises, energy exercises—nothing prevented me from jumping back onto the mental hamster wheel of fear. But by some grace, I saw my mental gymnastics and didn’t mistake them for reality.

The universe does come through if we wait long enough. This week, help arrived in the form of this email from my mom: “When I search boat toilets, I only get boat rentals. When I search portable toilets, I get large porta-potties. When I search bedside toilets, I can’t find any rentals. When I search sr. incontinence, I get Depends.”

And then, in the immortal words of Paul Simon, nothing was different but everything changed. I laughed. Out loud. By myself. In looking for a portable toilet to take camping, we’d discovered an entire world of waste products, all but the one we needed. Thank God for the dependability of bathroom humor amidst the impermanence of all things.

Who You Are

A younger-than-me friend asked what words of wisdom I had to offer on my birthday last weekend. Dispensing advice at age forty-three may well lead to taking it all back at sixty, but I’ve been thinking about it and decided it’s worth the risk.

My sage advice is: love who you are. I can see the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, framed by a perfect smoke ring, asking, “Who are you?” We have so many selves, so many voices bumping around in our head, so many personas for so many situations. I would say this:

  • Love the person you are when you are overcome with joy.
  • Love the one whose soul sings looking at a baby’s smile or the ocean or a leaf you’ve seen a thousand times without, until this moment, noticing the pattern of its veins.
  • Love the human being whose heart breaks for a friend’s suffering or for the child half a world away whom no one wants.
  • Love the you who cannot seem to change that one fault—or, OK, many faults—no matter how many times you make the same mistake.

In other words, love the entire package that is actually you, not the person you think you should be. Because this love will lead you to yourself—the mystery of yourself, the divinity of yourself, the you that encompasses all the selves on that list but is other than their sum total.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We have that within us that both is and transcends all that we are, and when we love ourselves enough to get in touch with it, we’ll meet the rest of the world there.

Seeing Clearly

I got my first pair of glasses about a week ago. So far, it’s not a love affair.

Perhaps it’s the anti-glare coating, but I’m always aware that there’s a layer between me and what I’m seeing. This is so often the case when I relate to other people as well. I automatically and instantaneously put the lens of my idea of who they are between us. This prescription does not improve my sight.

We’re invited into a very different gaze when viewing an icon. In that practice, as I understand it, the viewer looks at the icon until she somehow passes through it, until she is no longer looking solely at the painting but also at the spiritual reality that it represents, or perhaps more exactly embodies.

I looked up icon, and its root means “likeness, image.” So we are icons of God, made in God’s image and likeness. The reality that we embody is God. Which means this is true for our fellow human beings as well, even the ones we consider difficult.

My glasses are mild progressives, and I keep trying to figure out which part of the lens to look through for what distance. My boss told me that my eyes will find the right place automatically if I stop thinking about it.

Meditating on an icon is not a matter of thought. It must be a matter of connection, of recognition—God within us recognizing the divine that is present in every creation, whether God’s Creation or our works of art, our feats of engineering, our scientific discoveries.

If we could look at ourselves and each other the way we look at a sculpture that blows us away or a flowering jacaranda tree whose purple flowers stop us in our tracks, if we could pause and let that whatever-it-is within each of us connect, we might be astonished at our own beauty.

Love Everyone

Phil Bailey is a lot like Jesus—if Jesus had to have a rum and Coke and half a ham sandwich on white bread every day. I don’t know whether Phil, who has little interest in religion, will appreciate being compared to Jesus, but he’ll surely let me know if he doesn’t.

How can I explain that I thoroughly admire and respect a boss with whom my main mode of communication is an exchange of insults? Perhaps with another question—how many people in high ranking positions are secure enough with who they are to welcome such a relationship?

Phil more than lives up to his responsibilities as dean of the college without considering himself more important than anyone else. While working with him has sharpened my tongue, it has also taught me humility. Phil knows who he is and knows that both is and isn’t a big deal. Jesus knew he was the son of God and he washed the disciples’ feet.

Which brings us to the second way Phil is like Jesus—he is first and foremost a servant. Though in a position of power, he uses every ounce of his privilege on behalf of the powerless. He and his wife, Tina, have invited many students in dire financial need to live with them. He mentioned to the university’s top donors that some students can’t afford to eat, and now we have a meal voucher program and a food bank. Though I don’t know whether I’ll ever have the capacity to emulate what Phil and Tina do, simply knowing someone does it has enlarged my view of what is possible in this world.

Jesus came to show us the divinity of our humanity, our own incarnate nature. Though Phil will undoubtedly find that last sentence too high-falutin’ (he’s from Texas), he, too, delights in his humanity and the humanity of those around him. Whether playing penny ante poker, watching football, or reporting with glee on some particularly stupid comment he heard on the news, he enjoys this world and enters fully into life rather than trying to escape from it.

And finally, Phil loves everyone, without exception and with incomparable generosity, which is really all Jesus ever asked us to do. I would gladly follow both of these men, not—as Phil will be the first to tell you—in blind obedience but rather in hopes of learning to live as they do.