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.”

Allow the Moment

Every now and then, it would be a good idea for me to listen to myself. I often repeat Jim Finley’s description of our lives as “infinite love infinitely giving itself away as every breath and heartbeat,” but I rarely pause to experience this contraction of the ventricles right now, this surge of oxygen into the air sacs as infinite love.

Every day I find a thousand reasons not to walk around in complete awe of that reality. How have I convinced myself that passing concerns, whatever they may be, are more real than the miracle of existence?

I had some help, of course. Our culture teaches us to buy more stuff instead of being blown away by the gift of our lives. It urges us to have everything figured out and be right rather than discover what each moment is teaching us.

I don’t mean a lesson about what we’ve been doing wrong or how we need to improve; I mean an entry way into ever deeper love. We have to let our lives do the teaching, though. We can only bring what we already know and the limited world that we can imagine. If we continually look within our own narrow vision for the horizons the universe is offering, we’ll miss seeing anything new.

There is so much that we cannot imagine, so much that’s eager to reveal itself to us. We need to allow our gaze to be directed. If we can let the moment open for us, like an iris unfurling, rather than wrapping it tightly within our own ideas, the genuine newness of all that is will enter our minds and hearts.

Infinite love by its very nature must always be giving itself away, must always be and be making new. If we can allow it to open us up, we will discover ourselves.

 

This Gift We Are Living

Thanksgiving is probably the wisest of our national holidays. President’s Day can’t quite transform our outlook or way of approaching the world the way gratitude does.

Perhaps gratitude sparks such a profound shift because it puts us in touch with the truth that every moment and every molecule of this life are freely and mysteriously given to us. Here are a few of the innumerable things for which my heart breathes a deep thank you:

The repetitive and enduring nature of patience—all the times we choose not to take a mistake too seriously, every time we remember that people are more important than outcomes, each hopeful beginning again, the infinite grounding of the world in Mercy.

The expanse of Reality—the Earth, the sun, the Milky Way traveling through space at 1.3 million miles per hour, the billions of other galaxies shaped like ours, the personal imperfections we will never overcome, our incalculable and inexplicable generosity toward other beings, the presence of God in all of it.

The daily amazements—the cat’s ability to jump onto the countertop, the whir of the hummingbird’s wings, the welcome from the giant sycamore tree near the University Union, the refreshing burst of a good laugh, the reliable supply of food in the grocery store coupled with the economic means to purchase it.

This graced and charged existence we share—this breathing, this intertwining of lives, this shaping one another, this distinct being here amid the myriad possibilities that could have arisen.

The people who bless my life—family, friends, coworkers, writers who died years ago and left their thoughts behind, restaurant servers, my mechanic, you reading this.

Happy Thanksgiving. May we all live in the wonder of this gift of existing.

A Wonder-Full Unfolding

In describing the transition to civilian life, a young man who recently switched from active duty to the navy reserves said he was taking the energy of being on high alert all the time and transferring it into being curious. This sounded to me like a brilliant idea for everyone.

I’m not claiming that in the day-to-day civilian world we maintain the same intensity as those who serve in the military—though people who have experienced trauma probably do—but that we often approach the present moment as a threat, a situation that could go wrong or needs to be controlled. If, instead, we approached our lives with wonder and curiosity, we could better participate in what’s actually happening, better recognize what’s coming into being.

Wonder and curiosity will remove our habitual defenses, and so practicing them requires a degree of trust. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that existence is trustworthy, even for those of us who have always had food to eat and a place to live. Perhaps this is because our definition of trustworthy means everything will come out the way we planned, or nothing will be painful.

Or maybe it’s because we believe that whatever has happened in our lives has its origin in something we’ve done, that we are the agents of our existence. This belief is just too small to take us very far. In a recent meditation Jim Finley writes, “Our freedom from the prison of our own illusions comes in realizing that in the end everything is a gift.”

Curiosity and wonder open us up to this realization; they are tools to recognize the true nature of reality as something we participate in and help co-create but don’t originate. As Finley might say, though we are not other than the Creator, we are not the Creator.

Finley would certainly say that God is loving us into existence breath by breath and heartbeat by heartbeat, and so we are invited to wonder at this love and at ourselves, who are the manifestation of it, with curiosity about how that love will unfold.

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.