Compassion All Around

This week, noticing the convolutions of my interior life, I thought to myself, God, what a mess. Happily, the thought didn’t carry its usual load of self-judgment. Instead, it came with a smile and a good deal of compassion for myself.

The next day I saw how people who cause untold suffering for other people must have incredibly messy interiors. Living inside their skin must be excruciating. This isn’t news, but after experiencing compassion for myself, I was able to feel the same toward those I usually condemn. Paradoxically, at the same time, the tragedies caused by their actions came into sharper focus.

In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama tells the story of a monk in a Chinese prison camp in which many Tibetans died. After the monk escapes to India and is telling his story he says, “I was in real danger.” The Dalai Lama thinks he means he was in danger of losing his life. The monk says, “I was in danger of losing my compassion for my Chinese guards.”

I think the first step in cultivating this kind of compassion is to extend it to ourselves. In my interior landscape, I often approach myself as if I weren’t trustworthy, as if I’m just waiting for the rules holding me in check to let down their guard so that I can do something truly terrible. Like what? I have no idea, but the inner messages make out as if it’s along the lines of clubbing baby seals.

There may be better ways to approach one’s own humanity with loving kindness. We will make a lot of mistakes, but everyone reading this blog stepped out into the world with the intention of doing good today and is likely succeeding at least eighty percent of the time.

Richard Rohr says suffering that is not redeemed is passed on. Jim Finley says when you touch suffering with love, it dissolves. We will not end suffering in the world by staying at home and loving those who cause it. At the same time, we cannot cause lasting change if we act without compassion toward ourselves and all the world.

Digging with Doubt

It’s not complicated. We’re here to learn to love ourselves, each other, the animals, the plants, and the Earth. I often get confused and think I’m here to be right.

Being right is complicated. There are so many details to figure out. Right according to whom? What evidence shows that I’m right? How can I guarantee that I remain right as circumstances shift? How can I convince others that I’m right?

Loving is an action, something we do in communion with others. Being right is a state that we try to attain or achieve. We can’t offer or share it; we can only claim and grasp it for ourselves. We can step into love at any moment. We can chase being right all of our lives, but we will never catch that illusion.

In his poem “The Place Where We Are Right,” Yehuda Amichai writes,

“From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.”

Being right isn’t life-giving. If there’s anything that’s clearly, biologically designed into all of us who share this creation, it’s that we are here to give life.

“…doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.”

This might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said about doubt, who tends to get a bad rap in our certainty-obsessed culture. Amichai isn’t referring to doubt about our sacredness, our indwelling divinity, but rather to that moment when we reconsider something we had always thought to be true, when we see the humanity in someone we had judged harshly.

That is the moment we wake up to our nature as love, which is the flow of life through our world and through the universe. We need to dig up our worlds. We need to turn over the soil of our lives and see that just under the surface they are teeming with love.


Note: The blog will be on vacation next week. Wishing you a lively flow of love during that time.

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.

 

 

Listening to the News in Spring

Spring broke through all my inattentiveness with a riot of color this week. The poppies and lupine trumpeted orange and purple, a row of plum trees displayed their delicate pink, and a tall, loose-limbed tree reminded the world, this is yellow. At the same time, the news was playing on the radio.

It’s difficult to reconcile the beauty of a spring day with war, racism, climate change, corruption—all of the hurt we humans in our woundedness do to each other and to the Earth. I often want it to be one way or the other, but we are not one way or the other. Life is not one way or the other.

To reconcile is not to choose one thing over another nor to consider one true and the other false, one more important and the other less so. Instead we must see and hold both, recognize the truth of suffering and of love.

This is the good news, the presence of love in the midst of suffering, not separate from it. We don’t know how to tell this story in our newscasts. We hear only of killing, cruelty, and destruction in certain areas of the world. We do not hear at the same time that people in that country are laughing, falling in love, marveling at a skill they learned for the first time.

Richard Rohr recommends saying, “Yes, and.” Yes, the rich oppress the poor and think it’s justified. Yes, in the town where each of us lives, today, a girl will be the victim of incest and a person of color will be discriminated against.

And love is the nature of existence. Love is the energy that moves the electrons comprising us in their orbits and continually gives itself away to make our universe anew every microsecond. Love is at the core of all of us in our most generous, most joyful, most selfish, and most destructive moments.

Here’s a poem from William Stafford about how to recognize this reality and what happens when we do.

Grace Abounding
by William Stafford

Air crowds into my cell so considerately
that the jailer forgets this kind of gift
and thinks I’m alone. Such unnoticed largesse
smuggled by day floods over me,
or here come grass, turns in the road,
a branch or stone significantly strewn
where it wouldn’t need to be.

Such times abide for a pilgrim, who all through
a story or a life may live in grace, that blind
benevolent side of even the fiercest world,
and might – even in oppression or neglect –
not care if it’s friend or enemy, caught up
in a dance where no one feels need or fear.

I’m saved in this big world by unforeseen
friends, or times when only a glance
from a passenger beside me, or just the tired
branch of a willow inclining toward earth,
may teach me how to join earth and sky.

 

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.

 

Choosing What Is

I spend a lot of time with the “should”s and the “have to”s. They’re not the most fun group to hang out with, but they’re very insistent.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “Trapped people have to do what they want to do. Free people want to do what they know they have to do.” I’m quite adept at turning activities I enjoy into tasks that carry some vague but ominous consequence if not completed. I have to go to farmers market. I have to email my friends. Or what? I’ll buy vegetables at the grocery store, God forbid, but I invest that event with such power to define me.

On the other hand, I have a few friends who are caring or cared for loved ones with various health problems with great good will. I’m sure they have their moments of frustration and despair, but they maintain and return to an underlying gratitude for the other person and for being able to care for him or her. Though they choose their actions, the deeper choice is in how they continue to live out these relationships in their hearts.

“You are only free when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend,” Rohr says. He is describing how to live in the present. Protecting, proving, and defending our ideas of who we are prevent us from showing up as ourselves. If we are trying to be someone or something else, we cannot enter into what’s actually happening.

What we are is freely given love, and what’s happening is a movement of love constantly creating all that is. The only true choice is to choose what is, a dialogue facilitator once said. When we choose the love that we are, we will see that all we have to do is love, and we will want nothing more.

None of us are capable of living this way all the time, or perhaps even much of the time, but we can practice, we can remember and return. “Admittedly, it takes a while to get there,” Rohr says. It’s a journey worth setting out on.

“Everything in the World is Waiting”

Astonishing freedom is available to us all the time. Really, I’m not making it up. As William Stafford writes in “A Message from the Wanderer,”

…Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

This week, the transformation of a simple question pointed toward one escape route: trust. Pulling into my garage one night, I thought to myself about some aspect of life, “What am I doing?” in a mental voice tinged with a Pig-Pen-like cloud of despair. Then I heard the question repeated in an excited, joyful tone, as if the asker couldn’t wait to discover what wonderful thing I was about to do.

Many of our social and religious constructs teach us to deeply mistrust ourselves. They subtly say that we must be hyper vigilant to prevent ourselves from running amuck, as if our failings were just waiting for that one relaxed moment to rise up and overpower us.

While healthy self-reflection is necessary for growth, we need to remember that we’re made in the image and likeness of God and to consider what that means. We have our weaknesses, but we are manifestations of God’s abundant love, of God’s abundant self, and though it feels risky, we can trust that Ground of our being.

God is not waiting to smite us. God is loving us into existence with every breath and heartbeat, as Jim Finley says. God’s love is our true nature, and it is infinitely trustworthy. The more we know this to be true, the more we will trust ourselves and the more we will embody that trustworthiness in all our relationships.

We are going to mess up. We will almost certainly hurt one another by acting unconsciously or from a place of fear, but those mistakes don’t define us. “Nothing less than love has the power to name who you are,” Finley says.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Everything in the world really is waiting. And it’s so excited to meet us.

A Choice Called Love

Sometimes loving is hard. Perhaps that’s because love is a choice, not an emotion, as Richard Rohr says. He also says love is who you are.

I sometimes look at my own thoughtlessness, jealousy, contempt, or self-centeredness and wonder how this can be so, but maybe we miss the point when we confuse these tendencies for our selves. As Jim Finley puts it, there is an invincible preciousness at our center that nothing we or anyone else does can touch. “Nothing less than love has the power to name who you are,” according to Finley.

Even when we believe that Love is bringing us into being, accepting the reality that love is our being requires a terrifying leap. Our faults are knowable, measurable, and don’t change that much. This self is in control and controllable.

Love is infinite, eternal, ever constant and ever changing, ever evolving, ever giving itself away as new and different forms. It is unknowable, unpredictable, unexpected, mysterious.

It’s easier in this world to stick with what is known. Easier but deadly because what is not love is not real. I am that am, God says. Love is. So anything that is not love isn’t.

What does it mean to make the choice that is love? Nothing less than a conscious participation in our own becoming, which is an inextricable part of the universal becoming. Every smile, every kind word, every nanosecond of patience with an exasperating child—given or received—creates the world. Every act of forgiveness; every thrill at the beauty of a tree, a song, a painting—given and received—creates us.

Love is an ever-present invitation. The preciousness at the center of our being and of all being calls to us. Every moment offers another chance to choose to listen.

 

Fear Less

Sometimes there is nothing to be afraid of. Perhaps most of the time. I didn’t realize how often fear is my go-to approach until one night this week it switched off.

I was puzzling through some non-life-threatening problem that I had invested with a great deal of urgency when it suddenly became clear that there was nothing urgent about it. There are life-threatening situations in this world that may warrant fear—fires, hurricanes, bombs, abuse—but whether the kitchen gets clean or the work assignment gets finished or the person likes me are not among them. Yet I invest these moments with such fraught energy.

I carry around a mostly unconscious, baseline assumption that unless I’m a little afraid, I won’t perform well. As if fear makes everything better. As if life were a performance.

This approach assumes a certain untrustworthiness in oneself and the world. This worldview does not admit the value of failure, the freedom of making mistakes, or, perhaps most importantly, the beauty of one’s self.

We are always changing and evolving along with the rest of creation, and though we participate in that evolution, we’re not in control of it. I think we’re taught that anything out of our control is scary, and that includes our true selves, hidden with Christ in God.

Maybe we have good reason to be scared of our true selves. The more we get in touch with the Love at the center of our being, the harder it will be to continue living as we have been. Our habits of thinking and feeling, the rules we’ve made for ourselves, the criteria by which we’ve reassured ourselves that we’re OK will all begin to feel empty.

But we’ll exchange survival for joy, stasis for dynamism, fear for trust, and self-protection for love. Not a bad tradeoff, all in all.

Who You Are

A younger-than-me friend asked what words of wisdom I had to offer on my birthday last weekend. Dispensing advice at age forty-three may well lead to taking it all back at sixty, but I’ve been thinking about it and decided it’s worth the risk.

My sage advice is: love who you are. I can see the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, framed by a perfect smoke ring, asking, “Who are you?” We have so many selves, so many voices bumping around in our head, so many personas for so many situations. I would say this:

  • Love the person you are when you are overcome with joy.
  • Love the one whose soul sings looking at a baby’s smile or the ocean or a leaf you’ve seen a thousand times without, until this moment, noticing the pattern of its veins.
  • Love the human being whose heart breaks for a friend’s suffering or for the child half a world away whom no one wants.
  • Love the you who cannot seem to change that one fault—or, OK, many faults—no matter how many times you make the same mistake.

In other words, love the entire package that is actually you, not the person you think you should be. Because this love will lead you to yourself—the mystery of yourself, the divinity of yourself, the you that encompasses all the selves on that list but is other than their sum total.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We have that within us that both is and transcends all that we are, and when we love ourselves enough to get in touch with it, we’ll meet the rest of the world there.