Beyond Wanting

Strolling around the local farmers’ market, I noticed my mind flitting off toward each bunch of lettuce or giant chocolate chip cookie saying, do I want that, do I want that, do I want that? It surprised me and showed me that we, perhaps especially we Americans, are taught wanting as a fundamental way of relating to life. (I did want the giant cookie, in case you’re wondering.)

We start this education at a young age. What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas? What do you want to be when you grow up? And then we become more sophisticated about it. What kind of kitchen cabinets do you want? What are your career goals?

In Buddhism, there is a practice of directing loving kindness, or Metta, toward oneself and others. In one guided Metta meditation I listen to, the leader reminds the listeners that deep down all beings want to be happy. The problem is, the giant cookie will not ultimately get us there.

There’s nothing wrong with selecting cabinets one enjoys, but if you’re like me, the amount of energy we put into these decisions and the expectations we attach to their results do not align with reality. In investing ourselves and our happiness in the particular outcome we chose, we might miss out on what life is calling us to.

We have settled for wanting when we are made for longing. We can’t find the depths for which we long in any exterior thing or accomplishment that we want or any solution that we can invent inside our own heads. Life is offering us more than we can know or even imagine.

To find the unimaginable, we must let life lead. We must allow what we encounter to open us to our own becoming. We must live in the midst of our longing as it calls us into being. Only there, in that ever-changing moment, will we truly come home to ourselves.

Only there will the words of the Metta meditation come to fruition: May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings find peace.

Being Cosmic

One morning, watching the sun’s rays light up a tree and considering a new day, I realized I was literally looking at new light. The photons hitting the leaves had never been seen on Earth before, had not existed before forming in the sun’s core. The two hydrogen atoms that fused into helium to create the packet of energy that travelled almost 93 million miles had been around since a few minutes after the Big Bang, and after 14 billion years suddenly found themselves transformed.

This is cause for hope. We are an intimate part of this cosmic becoming.

We tend to hope for small things—that a presentation will go well, that people will like us. Sometimes we hope for larger things, such as a loved one’s recovery from illness or greater justice in the world. And at times we lose hope because none of these things come about.

Perhaps the times we live in call us to a wider vision of hope. That is not to say that the stuff of our daily lives is unimportant but rather that it is inextricably connected to something unimaginably larger than we are. We can learn about ourselves by observing how the universe works because we are part of the universe. What the universe is capable of—constantly being made new—we also are capable of; what is happening in the universe—unending change and evolution—is our natural state, too.

Our lives—our collective life—is sustained by these brand new packets of energy arriving in Earth’s atmosphere. If the very stuff that fuels our existence is ancient stuff in endlessly new forms, why would the pattern of our lives be other than that?

We will experience joy and heartbreak, our internal supernovas and black holes. Though we’re learning how galaxies form, it’s harder to observe how our own lives contribute to Creation’s unfolding, but they surely do. “Behold, I make all things new,” the Creator says. That is what’s happening through us, with us, and in us.


Note: Though I have no direct citations, this post undoubtedly results from reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Beatrice Bruteau, Ilia Delio, and Cynthia Bourgeault, most recently in meditations by or quoting Delio and Bourgeault from the Center for Action and Contemplation.

Transformation Happens

I recently discovered another “cherished illusion,” as Jim Finley calls them, namely that I grow and change through my own initiative and on my own schedule. This is simply not true. We’re not so different from the rest of creation. We can no more decide to enter a new phase of life before we’re ready than a tree can decide to drop its leaves in spring.

If a six-year-old informed us that she was going to learn to drive or do calculus or carry a thirty-pound rock, we wouldn’t expect it to happen. Yet when we become adults, we think that we should be able to will ourselves to be whoever we want however and whenever we wish.

Just as shorter days mean less sunlight and therefore less green chlorophyll to hide the stunning reds and yellows always present but not visible in the trees’ leaves, we change in response to events in our lives, most of which are beyond our control. The big difference between us and the trees is that we often have different plans. Maybe we want to be green all the time or, come August, are impatient to display our more showy selves.

Though what’s happening doesn’t originate with us, we can choose whether to resist or participate. If you’re like me, there’s a fair amount of push back going on. At the heart of my resistance is a lack of trust in the cosmic becoming in which we all play a part.

Let’s be clear, there are a lot of reasons to mistrust: black holes, dying starts, war, famine. But let’s be equally clear that my cosmic plan doesn’t extend much past dinner, so just maybe the Creator of the universe has something going on that I don’t fully understand, something bigger than me and my preferences, and maybe, in ways we can live but not grasp, it is a “plan for [our] welfare, not for woe” (Jeremiah 29:11).

This transformation is happening, but it’s not being done to us. It is coming into being with, in, and through us. “The world becomes new, if one does not stand in the way,” my friend Bardwell says. Let’s practice not standing in the way.

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.

Last week at work we had a Big Event that I had been helping prepare for, a rather all-consuming task. The hour came, the people spoke, the balloons fell—lots of clapping—and then it was over. That’s what events do—they come and go. They end.

It occurred to me that our lives are something like that. We put a lot of energy into trying to make them go a certain way, and then they, too, end.

All I wanted for this event was for that one hour in front of the crowd to go well, and it did. But it wasn’t the whole story. Without a lot of people doing good work in the weeks before, that hour didn’t stand much of a chance.

Though it seemed as if everything was over when the theater crew was cleaning up the streamers, it’s not really. The philanthropic gift we celebrated will affect students for years to come. Attendees carry the memory of that day with them. Those of us working together forged relationships that may or may not grow but certainly affect who we are. A giant Erlenmeyer flask sits on my office chair waiting for a home.

Everything is part of a continuum. Our lives, though Big Events for us, result from billions of years of cosmic preparation and form the groundwork for the next billion years. We are both inconsequential and really important, like that hour on the stage last week.

Perhaps we need to redefine our lives as more than the time that passes between our birth and death. Our lives belong to the entirety of creation, that which exists now, existed before, and will exist after we are gone. We are formed of stardust and breathing the air Aristotle breathed. That connectedness defines us as much as our individuality and will continue after our particular form is gone.

If our lives are primarily part of a larger coming into being, we also need to redefine our selves. Cynthia Bourgeault says “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean “as much as yourself” but rather that “your neighbor is you….There are simply two cells of the one great Life.” How differently we might live if we thought of ourselves as one cell instead of the whole organism, one moment instead of the whole event.

Our Direction and Our Destination

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to will myself to be a better person. A new year and a couple of inspirational movies can do this to you, but attempts to improve through sheer willpower always fail rather spectacularly for me.

I fell into this approach partially because I have practiced it for most of my life and partially because I forgot where I’m going and how to get there. In his book The Homing Spirit, John Dunne writes about “living in love as a direction” rather than searching for some experience that will once and for all make everything OK. If love is a direction, then it’s going toward something—we are going toward something.

That something is God. It’s easy to get confused about this, as I have over the last few weeks. It’s easy to think we’re heading toward retirement, a promotion, a new car, a massive failure, or just Friday. But none of these things will satisfy our heart’s longing (or, in the case of the massive failure, destroy life as we know it); none of them will provide a direction.

Only if we’re headed toward God are our direction and destination the same, and perhaps only when we recognize that they are inherently the same can we locate within ourselves that “peace which surpasses all understanding.” Just as the oak tree is inherent in the acorn and the cat in the kitten, so we are already what we are becoming.

When we get stuck in conscious thought or in willfulness, we forget this. As a friend reminded me this week, we cannot live spiritual truths from the outside in. We cannot go in the direction of God—which is always pulling us—by following a set of self-prescribed holiness standards or, as in my case, thinking we must need a longer set of standards since we don’t seem to be living up to the current list.

We can only live in love as a direction by being loving to ourselves and others, by spending time being in love with God and letting God be in love with us. The good news is, this is as easy to do as it is to forget. Every moment of silence, every time we admire the shape of a leaf, smile at someone we don’t know, offer a compliment, or count to ten to avoid yelling at our loved ones—all of these increase our capacity to love, all of them point us in the right direction and make us more who we are.

Being Incomplete

A professor working on the effects of sunspots on Earth’s soil said something like this to me this week: “You know the sun is about halfway through its life [I didn’t], so in five billion years….” When I heard “halfway through its life” I thought, this whole end of the solar system thing is closer than I realized. Then came the five billion years.

Also this week a friend sent a prayer written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the first line of which I’d heard before: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” Fourteen billion years-ish so far—slow indeed. I worry about the way weeks and months speed up, seeming to contain less time every year. As they age, the stars say to each other, wow, a million years is just nothing anymore.

Teilhard’s advice is not surprising coming from a paleontologist and priest, nor is the end of the prayer:

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

“A new spirit gradually forming within you”—something that is not there now and has not been there before. That’s remarkable. The sun may apparently stop having sun spots right about now—give or take a few thousand or maybe million years—as this is something that can happen to stars halfway through their lives. Something new after five billion years, something gradually forming.

“Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Whatever this new spirit is, it will never be complete, will never come to a point of stasis. I don’t know whether the sun feels anxious, but its formation—its birth—involved an epic, fifty-million-year struggle between gravity and fusion energy. And now it exists by burning itself up. It will die, but it will never be complete.

We are not somehow separate from this existence we find ourselves in. We are part of a grand becoming that has little or nothing to do with the way we want things to be or think they should work.

Over the next billion years, the sun will heat up and Earth will become inhospitable to life as we know it long before the sun engulfs the planet. “Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you.”