Take a Drink

We have so many beautiful ways to pay attention.

I heard an interview with David Barrie who wrote a book about animal navigation and all the different ways animals find their way—light, the pattern of waves, the Earth’s magnetic field, and many more. Animals know that their survival depends on paying attention. I’ve never seen a distracted, non-human animal.

We humans, on the other hand, tend to believe that what’s going on in our head is reality instead of attending to what exists around us so that we can discover reality.

My sister sent me an announcement about some paintings that are currently showing in a gallery nearby. I was in the same part of town as the gallery yesterday but didn’t even remember to look for, much less at, the paintings. My mind was occupied with the list of tasks I’d decided on for the evening.

One morning I poured myself a cup of assam tea but thought I had brewed some Earl Grey. For the first few sips I couldn’t figure out why the tea tasted bad. The tea tasted fine, but the flavor didn’t meet my expectations. We often ask the question, “What does such and such taste like?” wanting to fit it into a pre-existing category. Instead, we could take a drink wondering, “What is the taste of this tea?”

We have the capacity to plan for the future and remember and learn from the past, but we live in the present. Right now, the beauty of the world is yearning to relate to us. Right now we can hear the mockingbird showing off his repertoire. At this moment, we can walk through the dew on the grass, feel wetness, and look back to see the impression our miraculous feet made, dark against the startling green.

And maybe, if we’re still and silent enough, we’ll remember the pull of Earth’s magnetism.

Ready or Not

I’m not ready for Christmas this year. The gifts are purchased—OK, all but one—I gave up on cards long ago, and I have plenty of time to pack. But I spent more time the last few weeks focused on getting things done than on pondering the reality of God with us.

Here’s the thing, though—Christmas will happen anyway. The birth of love in our hearts is ongoing whether we’re paying attention or not.

Maybe we make it more complicated than it needs to be, maybe we needlessly separate—I certainly do—things that are and aren’t preparation for Christ, the presence of God, of the holy, in our midst. Every time we smile at someone in line at the store or let someone who’s exuding stress go ahead of us, we welcome love. Every time we wonder which gift would bring the most joy to a friend or bake cookies for our neighbors, we bring love to life.

Perhaps if we simply pay more attention to the things we are already doing, we will unfold into our own true love nature, as a flower unfurls from a bud. A rose doesn’t bloom from an oak tree—a flower can only come from the plant it already is. And so with love—we are already doing it; we already are it. In it we live and move and have our being.

That’s not to say that we don’t need times of quiet prayer or meditation—they help us open our eyes to what is already within and among us. It’s there in the grocery store and on the beach every bit as much as it is in church. It’s there when we forget or are distracted. It is love, divinity, or whatever you call that connection, that oneness for which you most long, and it is now and continually born in our souls. Now that is indeed reason to be merry.

Wishing everyone a joyful celebration of whichever holidays are closest to your hearts this time of year.


Note: I will be on vacation for the next two weeks as, most likely, will this blog.

Heart Homework

When I first learned about the Pure Land sect of Buddhism in college, I understood that the monks said the name of Amitābha Buddha over and over in hopes of saying it with perfectly attentive consciousness because then they would attain enlightenment. I thought, that’s stupid, what does saying the Buddha’s name over and over have to do with enlightenment?

Turns out I wasn’t listening very well. First, according to that master spiritual resource Wikipedia, this chanting is a mindfulness exercise that can lead to a high state of consciousness different from enlightenment. Second, what you say matters much less than whether you pay attention when you say it. If you can say Cheez-Its with perfectly attentive consciousness, enlightenment might be right around the corner.

I recently read an explanation of how our interactions with the same wisdom teachings change over time. The author (apologies for not remembering who it was) pointed out that the teachings remain the same but we become more “transparent” to them. The interior stuff blocking their entry gets removed over time.

God must have wiped off a tiny pin head of space on my interior window recently because I’ve been seeing myself trying to figure out with my mind teachings that can only be grasped by the heart. Up until now, I simply resisted them, concluded they were wrong, and complained to God that I couldn’t get to wherever it is I’m supposed to be going.

This approach is like trying to solve an algebra problem using arithmetic and, after failing, saying that algebra doesn’t work. It’s true—algebra doesn’t work when approached solely with the rules of arithmetic. But that doesn’t mean algebra isn’t true. You just need to learn an entirely different way of approaching mathematics in order to do algebra.

I never took this, if I can’t do it, it’s not true approach in school. I assumed it was true, paid attention in class, did the homework, and learned. In life, on the other hand, I often start with resistance, especially in matters of the heart.

I’m not recommending that we throw away our ability to approach things critically, but I might try setting aside that tool occasionally and doing the heart homework to see what I can learn.

What Gets Measured Gets Done

There are some really efficient people in this world, but I am not one of them. I am slow—at just about everything—and yet I want to be one of those people who gets a lot done.

I probably should not answer the “how am I doing at this life thing anyway?” question by counting tasks accomplished because the result will not be pretty. For other people, this approach might really work. Martha Stewart is probably a kick-ass list-item crosser-offer.

hummingbirdMy measurement system, on the other hand, needs to include such things as, did I notice the hummingbird hovering near the bottle brush tree? Did I taste my food rather than just gobble it down so I could go to the gym at lunch? Paying attention to these details makes me feel more alive and, as Howard Thurman says, “What the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Now you might say, doesn’t everyone want more hummingbirds in their life? If so, then the joy and peace quotient can only increase if people hang feeders and spend their evenings watching the little guys buzz each other.

But maybe not everyone is interested in hummingbirds. Not everyone wants to write—some people really enjoy being accountants. I am not making this up, though it is as incomprehensible to me as my voluntarily choosing to write a blog is to them.

Is it cheating to pick the indicators that will reveal we’re all doing a great job? Maybe, but would you choose an architect based on what kind of omelet he makes? No, so if you’re a born omelet-maker, why judge yourself on the kind of blueprints you draw just because the society you happen to live in thinks blueprint drawing is really cool?

It’s often hard to discern whether we’re omelet-makers, lawyers, or musicians, but if we measure our accomplishments in units of liveliness, we will head in the right direction.

Roses Are More Than Red

When I need to escape at work, I go to the rose garden. It sits on the edge of an area where beautiful spots congregate. It seems a bit unfair that the spots don’t spread out, especially since they surround the College of Business, as if to show that money really can buy happiness.

Last time I was there, I saw a man with a hoe inspecting the flowers and thanked him for his work. Turns out he has been tending that part of campus for thirty years and created not only the rose garden but also the cactus garden across the lawn, not to mention a sheltered dirt path that always feels as if you’ve found a secret place none of the other 20,000 people on campus know about.

So did I ask this person who created one of my favorite spots what kind of connection he’d forged with the piece of earth he’d tended for thirty years? What it feels like to know a location so intimately? Why he decided to plant a rose garden? What his favorite flower is?

No. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it resembled “Sure is warm today, isn’t it?”

I used to hate small talk. My answer to the weather question was “Yes.” This approach did not help me at parties. Then I realized that small talk isn’t evil and vacuous; it’s useful and vacuous. It puts many people at ease, and in a world where so many of us spend so much time wondering what we’re doing wrong, providing a little mind balm is not necessarily a bad idea.

But it’s a shame to make such a habit of it that when you meet the man responsible for a particularly beautiful corner of earth, you can’t get beyond thank you. I hope I get to see him again and get another chance to learn something real about this place and the person who cares for it. In the meantime, I am going to assume that his favorite rose is the same as mine, the orange and yellow one that somehow manages to bloom in at least three shades at once.

Communing with Crabs

Nature often saves me. The trees outside my office building catch infinite shades of light; hummingbirds zip by improbably close; hawks redefine effortless. The non-human-created gets me out of myself in a way nothing else does.

Last weekend I found a new-to-me park with a trail that led past the “Hazard: Unsafe Bluffs” sign down to the collection of rocks that served as a beach. It was one of those glassy ocean days when it looks as if you could skim sunlight off the water’s surface. The sea was receding, leaving tide pools in its wake.

sea anemoneI squatted down to look at one of the pools, little more than a puddle really, and was initially unimpressed: some wavy pink plant, a lot of snail shells, a few closed up anemones. I stayed, though, and after a time previously inanimate objects began to move, first only a few and eventually most of what had been stationary.

Crabs ranging from small to borderline microscopic stood up underneath those supposed snail shells and started scuttling about with them. What I’d thought were pebbles encrusted on the outside of the anemones sprouted tiny legs and joined them. Some sort of mini lizard-fish made short, intermittent darts here and there. A many-legged creepy-crawly that resembled those you don’t enjoy finding in your bathtub appeared and moved in random, short bursts, miraculously never running into the lizard-fish. And finally some creature who resembled nothing more than a few grains of sand stuck together began bobbing about.

The tide pool couldn’t have held more than a few gallons of water, and yet it supported this exquisite and astonishing abundance of life. As I’ve said before, I sometimes worry we’re going to wipe out ourselves and the rest of the world through various forms of stupidity or inattention. I understand the scientific delicacy of ecosystems. But the sheer amount of life in this splash the ocean left behind gave me hope that creation is bigger than our stupidity and inattention and not likely, however improbable it seems, to be overcome by the likes of us.

Morning Matters

The other night I stayed up past my bedtime, which happens often and generally leads me to resent having to brush my teeth. Sometimes, though, when I’m too tired to be useful, small epiphanies arrive. On this particular night, a peaceful feeling bubbled up and with it a thought: maybe the little things we do in the morning are enough.

Morning isn’t really complicated. Many of you may have figured this out already. Tasks tend to repeat on a daily basis: shower, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast. Remarkable.

The thing is, I have a little reality problem. In the evening, I arrive home around six. My evening to-do list generally reads something like the following:

  • Exercise
  • Sell novel
  • Clean entire house
  • Cook dinner
  • Play with cat
  • Answer all emails
  • Go to bed by 9:30

This list produces mostly guilt and a doomed attempt to stuff the unfinished items into the following morning. My vanmates can attest to the success of this approach.

I did not invent the possibility that getting dressed and eating breakfast is enough. Wise people have been telling the rest of us that for a large chunk of human history (most notably for me Paula D’Arcy, Kathleen Norris, and William Stafford). But despite hearing them say it, I’ve practiced it precious little.

The word “enough” often connotes just the opposite for us Americans. “Enough” in this case means “holy,” not “only.” Which inevitably raises the specter of the G word: God.

About God: I do not claim to know how you should call that power or connection or love, how you should interact with it, or even whether you should believe in it. The previous admissions make clear my lack of qualifications for that judgment. I will write only about my sense of and experience with God. Please translate freely into any language or frame of reference that helps you.

In my way of relating to this existence, God gave me a tiny taste of what it would feel like to honor daily tasks, an enticement, a temptation. If I could welcome the morning instead of launching myself against it, that peaceful feeling might seep into the rest of the day and, one can hope, outward to those I meet.