There Will Be an End

The reality of being finite entered me this week in a much more intimate way than it usually does.

A friend’s daughter has been in the hospital for more than two weeks and is not improving. A woman who works where I do stopped to help the victim of a traffic accident and was killed when another car hit the debris from the accident and spun out of control. The same day we learned about the death, paramedics’ questions echoed down the hall from me called 911 because he wasn’t feeling well (He turned out to be OK).

We read about more tragic events than these every day, but proximity affects how we are able to respond. I had seen the woman who was killed around campus, and I’m sure she thought she would get up and go to work the next morning exactly as I do each day. But we never know.

There’s a true heartbreak in this uncertainty. No amount of preparedness guarantees that we will get up in the morning. We will lose everyone we love, whether we leave first or they do, and it may happen unexpectedly. As much as we imagine and operate as if it were otherwise, life is largely out of our control.

Letting this reality break our hearts opens us to the beauty of what is. Living in an illusion of control separates us from life’s fullness.

We must learn to treasure the temporary. This doesn’t mean continually thinking we might die tomorrow, but rather heightening our awareness of the sweetness of breathing, of loving and being loved, of sensing the world around us in various ways.

What life will hold is unknown and unknowable. This is our heartbreak. This is our joy. This is our call to savor with gratitude the miracle of each moment, to live consciously in the presence of this unfolding existence during our brief and precious sojourn here.

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?

Being Sacred

If you want to be filled up and cleared out by the power and beauty of orange-ness, I highly recommend a trip to the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve. I had never seen such a dense carpet of flowers.

My mom and I visited last weekend along with thousands of people wending their way along the paths. “They’ve all come to receive a blessing, whether they know it or not,” Mom said. The wind was whipping the poppies about, and I thought, perhaps they’re prayer flags. Maybe each petal sends a message to the Divine every time it flutters back and forth.

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A few days later an interior knowing arrived: we are not here to improve—not ourselves, not the world. Along with this thought came a feeling of a layer lifting and beneath it a joyful thrumming of life was released.

The Tao Te Ching says, “The universe is sacred./ You cannot improve it.”

How can this be given climate change, racism, poverty? What are we to make of the reality that some people appear to live into their full potential and others are destroyed by life? Don’t we need to work toward changing these conditions?

Of course we do, and yet some years the hills are blanketed with poppies, and some years the rain doesn’t fall. Some days everything we touch turns to gold, and some days it all ends up in the trash can. “Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily.”

Far more important than improvement is to allow ourselves to be the blessing that we are, to allow the wind to blow through us and spread our beauty and love to those around us. We can live in that joyful thrumming on the easy days and the hard.

This sacred universe is evolving. We participate in that process, but we don’t make it happen. We are the doors through which evolution passes, but we don’t initiate the transformation. “If you try to change [the universe], you will ruin it.”

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.

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.

The Simplicity of Reverence

Upon arriving at New Camaldoli Hermitage for my annual retreat, my way of moving in the world changes. While unpacking, I ease open the drawer of the little dresser and gently place my clothes inside. At home, I have probably never paid that kind of attention to my dresser or my clothes.

Being at New Camaldoli reminds me to be reverent. Suddenly everything matters—how the door closes, how I set my cup down. Though in daily life I spend a lot of time worrying about whether I’m doing it right, whatever “it” happens to be, staying at the hermitage invites me instead to move through the day with loving attention and gratitude for the gift of the fork, the bed, the moment in time.

The dictionary defines reverence as “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe.” That might seem like a stretch for a fork, but the silverware is part of an awe-inspiring whole: the natural beauty of Big Sur; the silence and solitude; the monks who hold the space, invite visitors, and provide everything each retreatant needs and nothing more. Without the fork, the whole is incomplete, not to mention how helpful it is with eating.

The atmosphere and substance of our lives is no different from those of a weekend retreat, though we often forget. We are in this sacred place—this Earth, this universe—comprising and encountering a holy and whole existence within this sacred flow of time. What if we approached our lives mainly with reverence rather than a desire to succeed and impress accompanied by the fear that we would do neither?

David Whyte describes this way of living in the poem “Fire in the Earth”:

And we know, when Moses was told,
in the way he was told,
“Take off your shoes!” He grew pale from that simple

reminder of fire in the dusty earth.
He never recovered
his complicated way of loving again….

Every step he took
from there was carefully placed.

Everything he said mattered….

If everything is sacred, we no longer need to spend our energy separating the worthy from the unworthy, the important from the unimportant. We could be, like Moses in the poem, “free to love in the same way/ he felt the fire licking at his heels loved him.”