Don’t Whack, Wander

Last week, I had a vision of my life as a giant whack-a-mole game about the size of Texas. I lay splayed flat over the fake gopher holes trying with all my limbs to keep the little critters underground, but of course there was a slight problem of scale.

In other words, as always happens about halfway through Lent, I found myself thoroughly embroiled in exactly what I was attempting to give up: effort, which arises from attempting to control a situation, any situation.

Then I went on vacation and began to wonder whether our lives might be easier, more effortless, if we lived every day as if we were tourists. Wandering around downtown Minneapolis with no particular destination, I walked over a bridge and saw a train passing underneath. A flat car held what looked like giant, metal spools of thread. Another held what might be girders for a bridge somewhere down the line.

I can’t remember ever watching a cargo train pass from above before. It would never have occurred to me to schedule in this experience, and had that been an ordinary day, I probably would have walked right by, focused on making life match my expectations of it.

Not one of us can look back on our lives and say, yes, that all went exactly according to plan. I knew that if I whacked that gopher first, I could easily get the next three that were obviously going to pop up over there. So why do we insist on approaching our current and future lives as if we can clearly chart the path forward?

On my monitor at work, I have a blue sticky note with the poem “Fluent” by John O’Donohue:

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

Though it is often really, really hard, we can trust our own unfolding. Every river flows toward the sea. Our own destination—emptying into divinity—is just as certain.

Giving Up the Effort

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog (which continues below) to bring you an actual emergency broadcast, not merely a system test. New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur has been clobbered by winter storms this year, as have all the inhabitants of Big Sur. The monks are currently cut off from any deliveries or travel, with Highway 1 closed north and south of them. The road has been closed much of this year, making it impossible for them to host retreats and visitors, their main source of income.big-creek-768x447

They’ve set up a gofundme page, and if you feel so inclined, I encourage you to contribute to their relief fund. Due to the closures, a friend and I missed our annual retreat there, which reminded me what a rare gift of silence and contemplative solitude New Camaldoli offers. As my friend said, it is a place where we can more easily access the holiness that suffuses all of creation, and we all need those spots.

That concludes our emergency broadcast. We now return you to your originally scheduled programming.


Lent has arrived. Giving things up, ashes, penance, alms, the whole nine yards—ready or not, here it is. As this essay by Mags Blackie reminded me, it helps during all this to remember that the end game is resurrection—a rebirth in love.

In A Homing Spirit John Dunne writes, “My pilgrimage of heart was not a fathoming of hearts so much as a being fathomed in my own heart….It is being known that leads to knowing, being loved that leads to loving. I had to give up the effort to know, the effort to love, and instead let myself be known and loved, be given the gift of knowledge and love.”

Fathom means not only to understand but also to measure the depths of. As long as we come to love through our own efforts, the depths to which we can go will be limited. God’s depths, on the other hand, are infinite. Allowing God to explore our hearts and reveal the mystery that we are—that life is—will uncover and expand our capacity to love.

So for Lent I’m giving up the effort to know and the effort to love—once I figure out how to do that.

Dunne says, “I had to go from striving to prayer.” I do a lot of striving through inner admonishment—I will go to bed earlier, I will do an evening meditation, I will respond kindly instead of with irritation. The effectiveness of this method is either zero or it is short-lived. It does not lead to resurrection.

A prayer is a request for God to act, not a reproach to ourselves to act better. In prayer, God gets to do everything and take all the credit. It’s terribly unfair to our egos, but there’s no getting around it.

To start recognizing God’s action in my life—to practice seeing that I am known and loved already—I’m going to start with radical gratitude, paying more attention to the thousand things I take for granted every moment. I’ll let you know where it takes me—hopefully to resurrection.

Spiders and Eucharist, Together at Last

If you want to convince yourself of the incarnational quality of this existence, I suggest the Nature Channel, especially when it’s live at your house. A big spider has been hanging out in my front window, and this week I watched her spin her web. (OK Australians, not as big as your spiders but bigger than your average household arachnid. And yes, clearly it’s a she because Charlotte’s Web.)

How differently would we conceive of everything if we used the bottom of our abdomens not to expel waste products but to craft a tool that sustained our lives? If we had eight dexterous extremities that bent in all sorts of creepy ways? Nothing would be the same, beginning with the non-creepiness of the leg bending.

Our bodies determine how we experience this world. At church, some people are not well enough to walk to the front to receive Communion, and so we bring it to them. I don’t always respond with compassion to others’ infirmities and had to remind myself to see beyond one woman’s failing body to the divinity within her.

Then my perception shifted, and I realized that God isn’t separate from her aging. We don’t share in divinity despite our physical state but rather through our physical state, whatever it happens to be.

God is very much in our physical nature. How could it be otherwise when that nature shapes our relationship to reality? It’s not the only thing affecting that relationship, but it’s always part of the equation. We can change our attitudes and attachments, but if you’re six feet tall, life will always look different than if you’re five foot two—or if you happen to spin webs for a living.

And it is in this life, shaped by this physical reality, shared with these spiders, that we encounter the holy. God is at our fingertips and in our fingertips. We don’t have to go anywhere or change anything to find what we’re seeking. We can recognize its presence as our own.

Being Resilient

A resilient ecosystem, I learned in a podcast this week, will remain productive despite a disturbance, such as a big storm or a heat wave. It will either decline and then bounce back or simply not change during the disturbance. (Full disclosure: the podcast is an interview with a professor in the college for which I do marketing, and she has no idea I’m taking an idea from her work off in this unscientific direction.)

I wonder about the resilience of our internal and collective spiritual and social ecosystems.

In the interview, the scientists talk about ecosystems “maintaining their function.” Our function is to be a conduit of divine love, to take part in the evolution of matter and spirit—perhaps to be the evolution—to become conscious of our interdependence and unity. How do we maintain our ability to do that?

A teacher I know said that a resilient human system requires that people have free time and free attention. Free time is pretty great because we can do things like

  • Skip
  • Sing or play music
  • Play
  • Be silly
  • Create
  • Wonder at the beauty of the world around us or a piece of art

And these actions free our attention, help us step off the hamster wheel spinning in our brains and be present.

When we begin to slow down and look around, we see the goodness in and around us. In The Homing Spirit, John Dunne says that “Violence comes of spirit against spirit…, when the human spirit is moved against its own inclination.” By this definition, I do violence to myself quite a lot of the time. Our spirits incline toward God, toward love, toward “the eternal in us,” as Dunne says.

Most of us were taught something very different about the natural direction of our souls (as brilliantly demonstrated in this hilarious video about the first day of Catholic school). We need to learn our own divinity so we can stop producing storms in our internal ecosystems. Then we can play our role in cosmic evolution, in that larger ecosystem we all belong to.

Douse yourself with beauty. Do what brings you joy. Not to deny disturbances or hide from them—and there are plenty right now—but to remain resilient, to maintain our natural inclination toward love.

How to Cultivate Pervasive Unsatisfactoriness

This week, my life kindly provided a perfect demonstration of what Buddhist teaching calls “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.” Sometimes this idea is translated as “suffering,” but not being satisfied better describes my habitual state of mind so much of the time. The Buddha does not recommend this state, in case you’re wondering.

But if you want to try it out and your unsatisfactoriness is not pervasive enough, if you feel enlightenment creeping up on you, here’s a quick way to fix that. Start by getting attached to an outcome, say, catching the van to work. Any outcome will do, but if you want to try the advanced track, choose an additional outcome that makes the first one difficult to achieve, say, sending a particular email before leaving the house. Now—and this is the tricky part—base your happiness on attaining both of these outcomes. Finally, sit back and watch as your peace of mind evaporates.

I had front row seats at this show while driving to the van stop at the last possible minute. For one block, the SUV in front of me drove at a glacial twenty-eight miles per hour, and my life was ruined. Then he turned, leaving the road empty before me. The sun burst from behind a cloud. The bluebirds lined up to sing a chorus in the magnolia trees. Life was looking up. Then I checked the clock and returned to panic.

The lightning quick change in my outlook showed me that we really are making it all up. In the space of a few seconds, I went from crushed to rejoicing and back again. Our states of mind and emotion are often no more lasting, no more substantial than that, yet they’re so convincing that we mistake them for reality.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotions or that we shouldn’t recognize the emotions we have, but we might not always want to take them so seriously. Sometimes they indicate a deeper reality, and sometimes, like this time, we use them to keep ourselves dissatisfied.

“Right now, it’s like this,”—as an unattributed quote I saw recently said—is the only road toward satisfactoriness. We need to remember both parts: “right now,” not forever; “like this,” not the way we wish it were. From that place, we can act effectively and—here’s the tricky part again—leave the outcome to God.

Profound Gratitude and Deep Joy

Sometimes it is hard to get here. OK, it is almost always hard to get here. By here I mean mentally in the same place that our feet touch the Earth, where the oxygen that we’re breathing actually floats—or whatever oxygen does.

On my way to work yesterday, the interconnected miracle of it all announced itself. A day had passed, and everything that supported my life and made the ride to work beautiful still existed. Soil still anchored the trees. The grass still covered the hillsides (I know, I know, but it’s California—what can I say?). The ocean hadn’t moved and neither had the freeway. “The sky gathered again/And the sun grew round that very day,” as Dylan Thomas writes in “Fern Hill.”

When I checked my email, a friend had written, “Have a wonder-filled day of it!” Yes! Why not? Sounded like a good idea.

And then I forgot. I got caught up in doing things and didn’t do them with great focus or productivity. When I notice that not many items have been checked off the list, I tend to freak out a little. This is rarely a helpful response.

I used to not know I was freaking out. It appeared to me as trying to buckle down and concentrate. I’m beginning to think that we spend vast swaths of our lives being afraid and not knowing it.

There is more than enough fear to go around right now, but if we respond with joy and gratitude, we can help relieve some of that fear. True joy won’t come through ignoring the difficult things happening in every life. It can come when we pause and wonder at having oxygen to breathe, lungs that work, rain, and electric green hillsides.

I’m always tempted to think that these things are not enough, but they are literally life. If we can cultivate profound gratitude and deep joy for that life, our actions will be what’s needed. These actions may or may not have the desired outcome. Our exterior circumstances may become more difficult. But what we’re creating together now on this Earth is bigger than our individual circumstances, and when we can see it, we will know that it is exquisite.

Learning to Play

Last night my tai chi teacher made one of those cryptic remarks that should be reserved for mysterious elders who hang out on the top of inaccessible mountains and certainly don’t speak English. He said, “You follow the form until there is no form.”

He was describing how you progress as a student in tai chi—a much more serious student than I will ever be—from a prescribed set of movements to following your sparring partner’s energy wherever it leads. Though sparring with God may be ill advised, it struck me that this is a good metaphor for spiritual practice as well, or life in general.

We start life off with many sets of rules—at home, at school, in society in general. As kids, we need these guidelines to help us learn how to live together. Sometimes, though, we get too attached to them, especially the unwritten societal teachings about what indicates success. The problem is, at some point, following the rules ceases to satisfy. We start looking for something beyond the form, but we may not be ready to step outside the lines quite yet.

Though living by the rules ensures failure—we’re all going to give in to the temptation to eat bacon on the Sabbath some day—rules have an enviable certainty. I know the order of the movements in tai chi, and if I stick to that order, I’ve done it right.

Unfortunately, getting the moves right isn’t the point, but we can’t know that until we’ve learned the form so well it’s part of us. We can’t know there’s something more than the rules until we’ve followed them for a while.

It’s difficult to know when to leave the form behind. An English professor once told me that poets need to learn to write poems that follow prescribed rhyme and meter so that they know how to break the rules in a way that creates something new and different. But how do we know when the moment comes to make that break?

In Chinese, the verb for doing tai chi is dă, which in this context means “play.” When our footing is sure enough, when we’ve internalized the form to the extent that we can sense the intent behind it, then we can move beyond the form. When we’ve entered into life deeply enough that nothing but joy will do, when we don’t mind losing because we know it’s all part of a bigger game, then we can begin to play.