Holding Reality

My water heater went out this week—in the middle of the day on a Sunday when I was home. It couldn’t have picked a better time. I was without hot water for less than 48 hours.

Sometime during that stretch, I listened to a news report on Venezuela, where it must feel as if the street might disintegrate between one step and the next as the country’s systems and infrastructure stop working.

I read a powerful poem, “Will You?” by Carrie Fountain, this week about the edges of our lives when the daily moments are just a little too beautiful or a little too difficult. One stunning line says,

…My children
are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in.

Boys taken as child soldiers in Somalia cannot imagine the world of making valentines described in the poem.

We cannot choose one of these realities over the other. The suffering, the cruelty, the misery are no more nor less real than the safety, the love, the connection.

We cannot put all of our attention on one side of the coin. To enter the depths of our lives, we must hold within ourselves the suffering of the world and the joy of existence. To love we must be present to what is.

The poem is not about a perfect moment. The mother gets impatient, she relents, she is overcome by the beauty of her children.

In one line she asks her daughter, “How can there be three Henrys in one class?” and the daughter responds “Because there are.”

How can there be such pain in the world? Because there is. How can there be such love and beauty in the world? Because there are. How can we be present to all that at once? Inconsistently, in fits and starts, with as much failure as success. And because we must.

Holy Experimenting

For Lent this year, I decided to give up needing to do it right, “it” being pretty much everything.

The need to do something right begins with the giant assumption that a right way exists. Then I invest substantial time and energy in locating that way and pause at each step to assess its accuracy. But life is not a math test. The imaginary line I so often try to walk simply doesn’t exist.

It’s easy for me to confuse doing things right with doing them well. Even when working toward a specific outcome, we can rarely fully imagine the end product at the beginning, and we certainly don’t know how we’ll get there.

Being right is so useful in creating our own identities rather than letting our God-given identities come pouring through us. It allows us to claim an idea, an outcome, a process, a way of thinking as our own and imbue it—and therefore ourselves—with importance.

When I get stuck in trying to make the perfect choice, my ego is in charge. It’s focused on being liked and blameless, not on serving others or contributing to whatever effort is taking place.

I work with scientists, and one of the things I admire about them is their dedication to experimenting. They aren’t looking for the right way; they’re trying to discover the way things are.

An experiment that doesn’t support a scientist’s hypothesis isn’t a failure. It answered a question, and she knows something she didn’t before.

This approach can free us to explore the truth and beauty of life. When we don’t need to be right, a wide array of possibilities opens up. We can travel in our intended direction and trust the twisting path rather than seeing that natural meandering as a series of wrong turns.

This holy experiment called life is inviting us into discovery every day. Let’s see what wonders it has to teach us.

Living into Love

It’s remarkably difficult to align our lives with what we believe to be true. For example, I believe in love and compassion, in approaching all beings with an open heart, in kindness to self and others, in the power and beauty of words, in the importance of creativity.

But I forget and spend a good amount of time—especially mental time—acting as if I believe in getting things done and receiving recognition for doing them well. Why don’t I more consistently practice what I believe?

Or to phrase the question in a more useful way, how can we live our most deeply held convictions ever more fully? After all, we are and always will be works in progress.

Jim Finely says we must find our identity and security in God alone. That’s a radical statement. He’s not talking about our 401ks and insurance policies. He’s talking about the place from which we move.

Finley also says God is loving us into being with every breath and heartbeat. He’s describing our fundamental nature, beyond protons and electrons, our identity as beings of Love.

When we know we are loved and are made of love, we become free to express that love without worrying that its lack of reception will define us or that we’ll run out of love and there won’t be enough left to sustain us. This freedom allows us to act in accord with the beauty in and around us and discover and reveal that same beauty in others.

Life will always be unpredictable and insecure, but the nature of our existence is utterly reliable. We are made by Love for love. By becoming ever wider conduits of love, we live into the fullness of ourselves, and it is glorious.

Choose a Mind, Not Any Mind

One of the wonderful things about Buddhists is that they can tell you exactly how to do something. A recent article in the magazine Lion’s Roar offered some steps to maintaining a beginner’s mind, that state of approaching the present moment wanting to learn from it rather than control it.

The article recommended noticing what’s happening now physically, emotionally, and in our thoughts. The next step is to remember what the practice is for that state of being. For example, if we’re being hard on ourselves, the practice is loving kindness.

When my thoughts start running around on the hamster wheel of life, I’ve been asking myself, what mind is this that’s happening right now? And let me tell you, I have a lot of minds.

There’s “I’ll never get there” mind. There’s “compare myself unfavorably to others to make myself feel not good enough” mind, and there’s “compare myself to others to make myself feel better than them” mind, both of which result in fear and unhappiness.

When I can name a particular mind, I feel an immediate sense of relief, as if I’m no longer required to believe that what it’s telling me is reality.

A workshop leader recently said, “We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world around us.” We see children do this, but we forget that it’s an ongoing process, that the meaning making factories of our minds work 24/7 every day of our lives.

So how do we choose to look for meaning in the world? My comparing minds have only one way to interpret all of reality—better than/worse than.

Gratitude mind, on the other hand, opens us to the wonder and beauty of existence. It creates the possibility of trust, which allows us to recognize and enter into our relationship with the rest of creation. From that vantage point, the only way to make sense of the world is to love.

Here I Am

I was wondering about divinity this week, as can happen when eating homemade pizza in a quiet room (thanks, Mom!). It took two slices, but somewhere along the line divinity presented itself as completely other than our usual ideas about it.

We tend to think of divinity as better than wherever or whoever we are at the moment. We’ll get there—or at least get closer—when we stop falling short of perfection, when we’re more peaceful, more loving, more whole.

But this cannot be true because then we will never be good enough, and God sees us with the eyes of love, which do not see the beloved as flawed but as an absolute wonder. Not to mention that repeated proclamation that all creation is good.

I buy eggs from someone in a different office at work. Her coworkers have gotten used to me coming in and walking out with several dozen eggs. I don’t know their names, but we recognize each other and exchange greetings and smiles.

As I left this week, I felt a strong surge of gratitude for these friendly greetings. Divinity is no farther away nor more complicated than these exchanges, no farther away nor more complicated than pizza, than joy, than heartbreak.

We don’t attain divinity; we live in and into it. We come to recognize its presence within and around us at every moment.

When God calls to Moses from the burning bush, Moses answers exactly as Abraham did, “Here I am.” What an astonishing thing to say to a voice coming from a bush that happens to be on fire in the middle of nowhere.

We come to know the divinity that is always present to us not by becoming perfect but by becoming present to what already is, by saying “Here I am” no matter the circumstances.

Here I am, waiting to be found. Here I am, willing to love and be loved. Here I am, already part of the Divinity in which we live and move and have our being.

Thank You for Paying Attention

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at the age of eighty-three. As people share their gratitude for how she embraced the sacrament of existence, poetry is flooding the internet.

I got to know some of my friends from the inside out. Because of various circumstances, I learned about their interior lives—their emotions, their spiritual struggles and joys—before I knew their external details, such as where they worked or grew up.

Mary Oliver was an inside-out poet. She gave few interviews, but her poems generously offered her interior being to her readers in a way few do. I heard her read once, and she was delightfully human—both fallible, as she wondered out loud where she had put the next poem, and divine in her presence and her words.

She had the uncanny ability to marvel at nature and life in a way that revealed the beauty of it all but did not deny the harsh realities of the world. Her vision avoided getting tangled in how things should be and instead revealed the sacred nature of things as they are.

It’s hard to choose which of her poems to share, but here are a few that have meant a lot to me and so many others over the years.

May you rest in curiosity and continuing discovery, oh observer of and participant in the eternal. To whatever it is that happens after this life, you are surely now paying singular and exquisite attention.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

 

 

If We Only Knew

“Can you use a Roomba on wood floors?” That’s one deeply important topic I considered Googling tonight.

In the story “A Visit from the Buddha” by Theophane the Monk, the Buddha comes to visit a monastery and while the monks are sleeping he scrawls, “Trivia” all over the walls. When the monk narrating the story first sees the graffiti, he’s offended, but then he realizes it’s true.

This existence is difficult. We will all experience loss and mental, emotional, and physical suffering. The degree will differ, but no one is exempt from these realities. Yet when these times pass, we tend to return to Roombas, to the trivial.

There’s nothing wrong with robotic vacuum cleaners. We all need clean floors and great cat videos, both effective antidotes to suffering. But the daily details and decisions, important as they are, will never lead us to the depths of our lives where God waits, hoping to meet us, hoping to open up the fullness of our being.

“If people only knew the love and joy they hold in their hands,” a friend said to me this week, speaking about the often unrealized potential of relationships.

“To be is to be in relationship,” Fr. Cyprian Consiglio once said in a talk. Unless we recognize and live into our interconnectedness by loving one another, we are denying our very existence.

God is relationship, multiple spiritual teachers have said in various ways. For us to encounter the reality of ourselves, we must enter into relationship—with other people, with other beings, with the Earth.

May we choose, as the monk in the story finally does, the heart of Jesus, a path of radical self-giving with the power to transform the world. If we only knew the love and joy we hold in our hands.