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.”

Holding Reality

My water heater went out this week—in the middle of the day on a Sunday when I was home. It couldn’t have picked a better time. I was without hot water for less than 48 hours.

Sometime during that stretch, I listened to a news report on Venezuela, where it must feel as if the street might disintegrate between one step and the next as the country’s systems and infrastructure stop working.

I read a powerful poem, “Will You?” by Carrie Fountain, this week about the edges of our lives when the daily moments are just a little too beautiful or a little too difficult. One stunning line says,

…My children
are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in.

Boys taken as child soldiers in Somalia cannot imagine the world of making valentines described in the poem.

We cannot choose one of these realities over the other. The suffering, the cruelty, the misery are no more nor less real than the safety, the love, the connection.

We cannot put all of our attention on one side of the coin. To enter the depths of our lives, we must hold within ourselves the suffering of the world and the joy of existence. To love we must be present to what is.

The poem is not about a perfect moment. The mother gets impatient, she relents, she is overcome by the beauty of her children.

In one line she asks her daughter, “How can there be three Henrys in one class?” and the daughter responds “Because there are.”

How can there be such pain in the world? Because there is. How can there be such love and beauty in the world? Because there are. How can we be present to all that at once? Inconsistently, in fits and starts, with as much failure as success. And because we must.

The Joy of Presence

Instead of a license plate holder that says, “I’d rather be golfing” or “I’d rather be hiking.” I want one that says, “I’d rather be present.”

All the great spiritual traditions recommend dwelling in the here and now (or at least, as in the old Trident commercial, four out of five do). I tend to view being present as an accomplishment to attain, but maybe it’s simply a joyful place to be.

When we’re present, we can see that creation is one big current of love. Trees are manifesting love in tree form, grass in grass form.

Even we humans, confused as we are, walk around as electric charges of love. It seems improbable amidst all the horrors that we inflict on each other and on the Earth, but if it’s true of the hollyhock and the quail, it must be true of us. What else could we be when we are manifestations of God, of Infinite Love?

It’s easy to mythologize being present, seeing it as a state of perfection in which our mind is quiet and focused and our emotions are tranquil. While I’ll certainly take that when it comes, maybe presence is simpler than we think. Maybe all it requires is holding to a vision of life as it is, which is love.

Love does not make everything OK in the way we are accustomed to think of it. It doesn’t erase suffering or loss or insulate us from them, but as Jim Finley says, it offers “freedom from suffering in the midst of suffering.” It shows us the beauty of the bigger picture, the unchangeable nature of our and reality’s true identity regardless of the current circumstances.

Being present—being love to ourselves and others and recognizing love as the nature of all creation—is available to each of us every moment of every day, and it’s the most joyful choice we can make.

A Joyful Yes, an Ecstatic Yes

We have no idea what we’re doing in this life. On the one hand. On the other hand, we are deeply connected to this unfolding, called to play a role in creation’s coming into being, intimately integrated into the existence in which we find ourselves.

Every dawn we greet a moment in time that has never existed before. We appear to be doing the same things we did yesterday, but what folly if we expect one day to be like the next. From the large to the small, everything is different. One day our body functions perfectly, or we think it does, and the next the flu keeps us in bed all day. Overnight, a country goes to war. Every second our solar system, our galaxy is traveling to a new location in the universe.

That we are part of the great improvisation is cause for great joy. I’ve heard that the way to be successful in improvisational comedy is to always say yes to whatever your fellow comedians have just come up with. The yes we are called to is an embrace of the miracle of our own existence, an ecstatic yes.

Beatrice Bruteau says that ecstatic love is loving someone in such a way that you love what they love in the way that they love it, not because they love it. You enter into their reality so profoundly that you join in their outflowing love.

I have a friend who loves buckeye trees. I never thought much about buckeye trees before knowing this friend, but now I’m always happy to meet one of them and notice with affection the curve of their leaves, the profusion of their flowers, and of course the smooth nuttiness of the buckeye.

Bruteau goes on to say that the universe is God’s ecstasy, is God’s outflowing love. To fully embrace the miracle of our own existence is necessarily to embrace the miracle of all existence.  To give an ecstatic yes to the infinite Love being poured out as our lives, as Jim Finley would call it, is to wake up to the intimacy and joy in which we belong to all creation.

Free of any need to contain the infinite in our limited understanding, we can learn what it means to be alive.

 

 

Giving Light

Every time I looked around yesterday, really looked, joy was present—in the light on the pepper trees, in my home office, in the soccer game at lunch. But surely, at those same moments, many beings on Earth felt far from joyful.

Some family friends, Bella and Henry, were in the concentration camps during World War II. They met and married after the war. I met them for the first time for lunch at Red Robbins when they were in their eighties.

At one point, Henry said, “I couldn’t have imagined all this,” he waved his hand, indicating his entire life, the restaurant, grown children, a career, “when I was in Auschwitz.”

We wait, during this Advent season, for the birth of Light in the darkness, the light that “draws us outward into the world and inward into the depths of our hearts,” as Barb Kollenkark says. It draws us to these places because it is there. We and all creation are the light of the world. We are waiting for our own birth, our awakening to the reality that everything is Christ.

A friend recently reminded me that the only way we can be light in this world is by showing up where we are as who we are. All we can offer is the gift of our own becoming responding with love and joy to the reality in front of us at that moment.

“The world is shot through with poverty,” Jim Finley says. Any person we meet today may need a witness to joy. That doesn’t mean false cheer or telling someone in pain that they’re OK. It means embodying “I couldn’t have imagined all this” while being present to their suffering.

“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives,” Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts in Solitude. Our lives will contain darkness and light, and the darkness for some will be incomprehensibly deep. At the same time, “The people in darkness will see a great light.” May we be that light.

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.