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.

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.

 

 

The Marvel of Life’s Abundance

There is something tender and beautiful about pausing our sometimes relentless motion to give thanks. Of all the incalculable gifts in life, here is a selection that hints at the largesse of the whole.

I’m grateful…

For generosity of spirit—sharing what we have with strangers during times of gravest need or with coworkers who’ve run out of sugar, giving one another the benefit of the doubt while in traffic or strong disagreement.

For selflessness—driving fifty miles back to the gas station where the favorite teddy bear was left, letting someone in a rush go first at the grocery store, serving in the military.

For those people—or animals, plants, places—that shape our hearts simply by the quality of their presence in the world, especially for those who have passed on this year.

For conversations—the way they wind around and draw out our thoughts, make them elastic, give them new form and in the process give us new understanding.

For ideas—on one hand the most insubstantial of all things and on the other hand the foundation of all the realities we humans have created on this Earth.

For the Earth, this astonishing crucible of life.

For the “concrete immediacies” of our lives, as Jim Finley would call them—the couch that is comfy enough to fall asleep on, the cat who curls up in the crook of my legs and purrs as if he were in a purring contest while I’m nodding off.

For existence, for the completely gratuitous and freely given nature of that initial “Let it be.”

For love, the very warp and weft of our lives, the material of our being that opens us into relationship and makes us more whole the less we hold onto ourselves.

Happy Thanksgiving. May all your cups overflow.

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.

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.

In Memoriam

Looking back, it appears that sometimes in life, the Divine has picked me up and placed me where I needed to be without my having much to do with it. That’s how I feel about having landed my first full-time job in the office of one W. David Conn, vice provost for academic programs at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

At thirty-one, uncertain that I had any marketable skills but in need of a steadier income, I took an administrative assistant job in David’s office. Universities, I would learn, are very hierarchical places, and administrative assistants are near the bottom. I didn’t learn this from David, however.

Instead, when I’d been there only a few months, he asked me to take a crack at rewriting the university mission statement. He didn’t take my work to his meeting with the vice presidents—he took me and my work. I had no idea at the time how unusual this approach was.

David expanded my concept of generosity. When a decision needed to be made, he always focused on how it would affect the students rather than whether it meant more work for him. He championed causes like diversity and student advising when they had no home in the official university structure, not because it was his job but because he was passionate about doing the right thing. And he didn’t say a word the time I almost sent an important university report off without letting the president review it.

When we no longer worked in the same office, I saw him a few times a year to share a meal, and he always brought a tangible joy to the gathering. To be the kind of boss with whom it is easy to have a graceful transition into friendship is no small thing.

David recently passed over to whatever comes after this life, a far too early exit for such a wonderful human being. It’s hard to believe I knew him less than twelve years—his presence in my life and the beauty he brought to it seem larger than could have fit in that time.

Here are some other things I loved about David:

  • His eyes twinkled, never more so than when his grandchildren came to visit.
  • He laughed often.
  • He remained thoroughly British—at least to my American sensibilities—despite having spent most of his adult life in the U.S.
  • He never took himself too seriously. He always said, “The battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low,” even though he was a lifelong academic.
  • He worked hard but maintained a healthy perspective on life. Both for himself and for those he worked with, family always came first.

I’m a better person for having known David. As they say in the Jewish tradition to which he belonged, may his memory be for a blessing. It certainly is for me.

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.