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.”

The Simplicity of Reverence

Upon arriving at New Camaldoli Hermitage for my annual retreat, my way of moving in the world changes. While unpacking, I ease open the drawer of the little dresser and gently place my clothes inside. At home, I have probably never paid that kind of attention to my dresser or my clothes.

Being at New Camaldoli reminds me to be reverent. Suddenly everything matters—how the door closes, how I set my cup down. Though in daily life I spend a lot of time worrying about whether I’m doing it right, whatever “it” happens to be, staying at the hermitage invites me instead to move through the day with loving attention and gratitude for the gift of the fork, the bed, the moment in time.

The dictionary defines reverence as “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe.” That might seem like a stretch for a fork, but the silverware is part of an awe-inspiring whole: the natural beauty of Big Sur; the silence and solitude; the monks who hold the space, invite visitors, and provide everything each retreatant needs and nothing more. Without the fork, the whole is incomplete, not to mention how helpful it is with eating.

The atmosphere and substance of our lives is no different from those of a weekend retreat, though we often forget. We are in this sacred place—this Earth, this universe—comprising and encountering a holy and whole existence within this sacred flow of time. What if we approached our lives mainly with reverence rather than a desire to succeed and impress accompanied by the fear that we would do neither?

David Whyte describes this way of living in the poem “Fire in the Earth”:

And we know, when Moses was told,
in the way he was told,
“Take off your shoes!” He grew pale from that simple

reminder of fire in the dusty earth.
He never recovered
his complicated way of loving again….

Every step he took
from there was carefully placed.

Everything he said mattered….

If everything is sacred, we no longer need to spend our energy separating the worthy from the unworthy, the important from the unimportant. We could be, like Moses in the poem, “free to love in the same way/ he felt the fire licking at his heels loved him.”

Blue Light Special: a Better Life on Aisle Three

Though it’s a little early, I’ve decided what to give up for Lent this year: comparisons. I’ll still price check at the grocery store, but I’m going to stop comparison shopping for my life.

I do this all the time. I have an impressive mental list of things other people have, or more importantly are, that I don’t or am not. I like to check this list regularly to keep myself a little off balance because that is clearly the straightest path to self-improvement. Though of course I wouldn’t dream of assuming someone else’s life is perfect while simultaneously being hard on myself. That’s silly. I mean, who does that?

Life doesn’t come with a shopping cart. We can’t stroll down the aisle and pick unlimited good health off one shelf and a love of gardening off another. No one person’s cart is full of all joy and no suffering, all talent and no failings, no matter what their Facebook feed says.

That’s not to say our actions have no effect. We can eat healthy and exercise. But we arrived in this existence as a particular blessed, beautiful, and messy bundle, and life will happen to all of us fragile and imperfect human beings.

Aside from the unpleasant mental anguish that comes with comparing ourselves to others, the deeper problem arises in our relationship with God. Any time we spend trying to be someone else takes us farther from God dwelling in us and in the other person. God loves us and everyone else as we are, so if we want to encounter God, we need to inhabit ourselves rather than search for someone better to be.

We strive to categorize a world that longs to be celebrated. I watch my mind struggle to find some assurance that I’m better than others—or worry that I’m not—by counting my and their accomplishments and mistakes, strengths and weaknesses. It’s such a poverty-stricken way to relate to the manifestation of infinite love that I am, that everyone else is.

Instead, I plan to hold the mystery of the coexisting wholeness and brokenness of myself and others and let God reveal each moment’s celebration.

 

Still Life with Jello

I often ask my cat, Tux, questions he must be completely uninterested in, such as, what did I do with my keys? Others he may be tired of hearing, particularly, do you think I’ll ever get there?

“There” of course doesn’t mean to his food bowl; it means to that mythical place where I’ll have everything spiritually figured out. These days I ask it less often as I’m more and more aware that there doesn’t exist, but still, wouldn’t it be nice…

That question and I entered a new phase of our relationship this week. Intellectually I’ve understood for a little while that it’s not a useful question because “there’s no there there,” but in practice, I had just substituted “here” for “there.” Why not? Only one small letter apart.

I’ve been telling myself, if I could get really present, I would experience everything I associate with there—an uninterrupted state of peace, infinite reserves of compassion, an end to resistance, a better attitude toward the existence of jello. So being present came to mean being those ways. It became another there.

But that’s not it at all. There’s nowhere to go, period, and it doesn’t matter whether we get there, not even a tiny bit. On first blush, this sounds like a reason to eat a lot of jello, lime jello. Throw in the mini marshmallows and the pineapple bits. If it’s not getting any better than this, why not?

Considered in another way, though, it means that this moment is sacred, this one, right here, the one in which I am beating myself up or feeling annoyed or have just acted in a way that can’t quite be described as charitable. When the bathroom is dirty, when work isn’t going well, when failure or separation or despair threaten to engulf us.

That’s the miracle and mystery of it all. We are no further from God and God’s love at those times than when we are standing on the podium of life at our most shining and impressive. That’s the reason to be present—because our Life is here, right here.

The Other Me

I realized this week that the person I most often compare myself to doesn’t exist. More importantly, she never will—at least not in this universe.

This is one of those moments to pause and appreciate the depth and complexity of one’s own psychoses. Comparing product reviews on Amazon: good idea. Comparing oneself to other people: bad idea. Comparing oneself to a fictional character: priceless.

This imaginary version of me really has the whole life thing figured out. She always goes to bed on time. She enjoys reviewing HOA bylaws, and she has much better fashion sense than I do. Whatever I have just done, she did it better. I’ve never known her to make a mistake.

Where did she come from, this other me? On the one hand, it’s not mysterious. Our culture markets discontent with impressive frequency and pervasiveness. On the other hand, it’s interesting that a being woven of “should have” and “if only” has such substance that, until now, it never occurred to me that she’s not real.

I think she convinces me of her existence by appearing to be possible, but she’s not. It’s like wanting every blossom on a tree to be in full and perfect bloom at the same time (yes, I do this) all year round (thankfully, I don’t do this). Not gonna happen. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Sometimes things are ahead, and sometimes they are behind.”

The tricky part comes a couple lines before that, though: “The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it.” That means the real me is the sacred one, even on days when I only get six hours of sleep, binge watch superhero shows on Netflix, and eat too many store-bought cookies while wearing pants that don’t fit right. Somehow, that was my best for the day—“You cannot improve it.”

I’m not suggesting we don’t put effort into learning and growing, but as Richard Rohr says, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Of course, we are advised to love our enemies, so perhaps I should take my imaginary perfect self out for a hot fudge sundae and corrupt her a bit.