poetry, spirtuality

Standing Under Stones of Suffering and Wonder

Sentence

The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.

Jane Hirshfield

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A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?

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As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime. 

Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.

When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.

One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.

The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.

We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park  in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.

The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said,  “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.

 

poetry, Wonder

Falling Into Wonder

to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.

—Lucille Clifton, “Praise Song,”

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Aunt Blanche in Lucille Clifton’s “Praise Song” reminds me of the many times I’ve told myself I’m going to do (or not do) something, only to metaphorically fall off the lawn regarding commitments I had made to myself. Clifton’s poem presents the reader with Aunt Blanche standing in the yard with her family, experiencing the day together. It’s a Sunday, a day of relaxation, and a time to gather with family. Things seem to be going fine until, boom, down goes Aunt Blanche, slipping off the yard and into the street! Clifton explains that Aunt Blanche had a basketball body, indicating her aunt likely hasn’t practiced the habit of healthy eating, or she probably wouldn’t be as round as a basketball. In spite of her love of food, or even perhaps because of it, Aunt Blanche is a resilient woman: basketballs bounce, and this is exactly what Aunt Blanche does; she bounces up from the street, and out of danger’s way.

It’s interesting to note that Aunt Blanche’s family doesn’t run into the street to rescue her. Clifton explains that as a ten year old observing her aunt’s fall, she “understood/ little or nothing of what it meant,” but she had faith in her aunt to get up from the humbling event. “Praise to the faith with which she rose,” writes Clifton, describing her belief in her Aunt’s ability to return to the family. Thankfully, Aunt Blanche has enough wits about her to recognize she was in danger, and works to get her self out of the possibility of further harm from oncoming cars. Drivers, too, see the situation Aunt Blanche is in, and respond by moving out of the way, so as to not harm her. Then, similar to the father who waited for the Prodigal Son to return home, Aunt Blanche’s family, too, waits for her with open arms as she climbs out of the street and rejoins them on the grass: an occasion for praise. The horror that might have happened didn’t. Aunt Blanche sighs a bit, showing her dismay at her own behavior, but doesn’t stay in the road carrying on about how silly she was. Neither does she blame anything or anyone in her situation. She simply gets herself out of danger’s way, and walks back to her family, a place she knows she is safe, a place she belongs. When we fall, rather than judging or blaming, we all want to know there’ll be open arms waiting for us when we rejoin others. As Clifton indicates, such an attitude of acceptance is “like God.”

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People are social beings who need to feel they belong and are respected by those in their group. What stories do we tell ourselves about those experiences where we fall that allows us to bounce back up like Aunt Blanche, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves, and walk back onto the lawn and continue conversation with others because we understand that in the bigger picture of things, falling is part of the learning process? How might societies as a whole create ways of reacting to those who have fallen so that they can be drawn into the arms of others?

Poet and physician Rafaelo Campo, describes one of those ways in his poem, “What I Would Give.” Many of us carry a fear of falling ill, and Campo’s poem describes the fear people carry when they come to see him for medical help. The poem specifically mentions fears regarding lungs and melanoma, but these are merely examples of the myriad fears we carry with us from day to day: fears that our bodies won’t hold up under the activities we plan to undertake, fears about appearance, fears we won’t complete our work on time or meet people’s expectations, fears about how a new change we are making will affect our family or relationships, so many fears. Campo describes in his poem that what he wants to offer people, though, is “not the usual prescription with/ its hubris of the power to restore,/ to cure.” Perhaps because Campo is not only a doctor but also a poet, he understands that wellness is more expansive than physical wellness alone. It’s also connected to our emotional and social wellbeing, and how these are intertwined with our relationship to the physical environment.

Not all illnesses, aches or pain lead to recovery. If a person has arthritis, for example, she doesn’t get better. The disease progresses. When I see a person walking with a cane, I think of how challenging it is for that person to live with pain and ongoing suffering. Campo’s vision of healing moves beyond the elimination of pain to a wider plane. Even if we can’t be cured, his poem infers, we can be well. How that is possible, Campo suggests, is by opening ourselves to wonder.

I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.

IMG_6938These lines show the wisdom of purposefully looking beyond disease and suffering to affirm the gifts abounding around us—to notice what is perhaps commonplace in life, yet amazing: rain falling gently on hair, or joy lighting the eyes of a loved one in the discovery of something new. Campo draws our attention to the idea that wholeness doesn’t have to mean a perfectly attuned body and mind. Healing is a part of a bigger dynamic of how we relate to both the natural world and to those around us. Seeing our connection to the physical world, and delighting in relationships with those around us can enable us to move beyond isolated suffering, and into seeing ourselves as part of the greater whole. It is this “seeing” that makes us whole again, even in our incompleteness. This is the larger healing Campo wants to give. Strength to deal with the pain (and the etymology of “comfort” is to intensify strengthening) comes from finding a way to stay in love with life even amidst struggle and pain. When we let ourselves reconnect to an awareness of life’s enormous gift, we lose ourselves into timelessness. In the process, we find a larger self. Even in the midst of danger, we feel safe, so that even “the night around our bed,” whether a bed of illness leading to death, or the bed of simple sleep, is a place of “comfort.” We can be at home with what is.

All illnesses, discomforts, failures, and “falls,” are opportunities to practice reframing suffering and pain within a wider perspective. Suffering and pain can engender compassion and gratitude, but we have to cultivate those qualities. Some people at an early age are faced with challenges or disabilities requiring them to grapple with how to live with great hardship. To be at home with whatever life gives us is extremely difficult. This is a journey that requires practice, likely years of practice, perhaps a lifetime. When you are ill, you recognize what a gift it is to be well, to be able to walk, to see, to breathe. I lived in a city with air quality so poor that it’s rare to see a cloud or blue sky, as I did for nine years in Delhi, taping the front door each night to reduce the smell of smoke. To see a blue sky filled with clouds large as mountains, for me, is truly a wonder, not a commonplace fact. Practicing gratitude in times of ongoing suffering or pain enables us to recognize we are connected to something bigger than our grief and our pain, and allows us the opportunity to identify with others around the world who suffer too.

Thoreau, in his experiment in living simply at Walden Pond, said he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to live deeply. When I work, I give myself to that work fully, but I must remind myself to guard my energy, and practice purposefully widening my view—attending my ear and heart to the possibilities that allow connections to the natural world to surface. I need to practice making room for both work and wonder. “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living,” writes the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and like Heschel, I want to walk in wonder.

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Uncategorized

Making Space for Wonder

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

In a few weeks my husband and I will be headed to Prague where we will be attending a workshop on creativity. To prepare for that workshop, we’ve been asked to go out in hunt for a variety of things we are to take photos of to bring to the conference– spirals in nature, human faces in man made objects, animals in clouds, inanimate objects that appear they are in love, living people who look like they belong to another century, and more. The past couple of weeks I’ve gone out for short walks around the area where I live, looking. Some things are just not easy to find. I thought human faces in man made objects, for instance, wouldn’t be so difficult. My husband’s family has a habit of looking for hidden objects in clouds, knots of wood, the trees. My father in law discovered the Virgin Mary in a whiskey bottle that he found in an abandon lot while out for a walk and had the neighborhood lined up to see it on his mantle. So, there’s a kind of family history in looking closely that we’ve practiced over the years. The results can be surprising.

I’ve had my students go on searches for things, given them a paint chip like ones you might find at the paint store and had them search for a week to see if they could match it with the exact color somewhere out in the world. Another thing I’ve asked them to find is something they think no one else would notice but that they think is interesting. A good part of a writer’s work is to notice things, I explain, things that are in plain sight but hidden because no one is taking time to notice them. A person can notice a lot of amazing things when paying attention. One of those things you might discover or rediscover is wonder. What you find is perhaps not really as important as the search. In the search you can find all kinds of wonders.

Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” but February can definitely be difficult too. For many who live in cold countries, it’s a snowy month–snow stacked so high you’re blinded by the white on white emptiness. With windows blocked by icicles, you know spring is coming–color will eventually return to the streets–but that time seems far off. How do you get through those bleak times? This is where a search cIMG_3931omes in. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Give yourself something to search for, and wonder might  turn the corner to greet you at an unexpected moment. The other afternoon, I was out walking the campus where I live, looking here and there at things I’ve seen a thousand times, hoping to find a hidden face in an object so I could take a photo to bring to the workshop I mentioned earlier, but I could find nothing. Over and over again, I scrutinized objects. Nothing. I was telling myself, “There are simply no faces anywhere.” I looked down. There on the sidewalk was a face smiling up at me with a grass strand for a lock of hair. I couldn’t believe it! It’s the only face I’ve found so far in various ventures.

February may be cruel in other parts of the world, but is actually the best month if the year in Delhi. Here, February has the least amount of smoke in the air, it’s not too hot or too cold, and there are no dengue carrying mosquitos. What Delhi has a lot of in February are flowers. As I went out hunting for spirals in nature to photograph, I enjoyed looking at the splendid variety of spirals flowers present. From fibonacci spirals to the mandalas of a dahlia, flowers can make your head spin.

It’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for, however. One thing I’ve learned from living in India is that the good and bad, the exquisitely beautiful and the horrible are often side by side, as if they are part of each other. You don’t often get the one with out the other near by. Living here in India also presents questions there are no easy answers for, as I’ve written about before in these blog posts. Suffering is visibly present here. All you have to do is leave your house and go out into the street and you will see it. How to respond to it is constantly challenging.

Today, as I walked through the INA market, I was on the lookout for images of people who look like they could be from another century, as that is one of the things we are to take photos of for our creativity workshop. I saw scenes there that could have been from a past time, but I also saw scenes that make a person very conscious of all the animals sacrificed to meet our hunger. Food is glorious, but it carries with it a great deal of blood,  guts, and stench. Yes there is the beauty of flowers, the fabulous flavors of curried meat, but there is also some horror behind it all. Men torch feathers off fowl, and fur off goat heads. Boys scrub the goat heads in a plastic tub of water. Thwack, the butcher hacks a haunch of meat against a wooden block. A hundred or so chicken feet sit on a tray. Blood runs down the alleyway between shops. It’s all there, along with that beautiful cut of fish you are going to take home and barbecue.

Donald Hall’s poem, “Eating the Pig” describes well the complexity of the horrors that can come alongside the wonders,

and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.

Then, there he is a few moments later, eating the pig and reveling in its flavor.

For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh,
moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet.
We forage like an army starving in winter

After the pig has been devoured and just the head remains, he can’t help but feel a friendly affection for it and finds himself reaching out to pet it behind the ear as if might purr. As he does so, he sees his connection to the pig. He leans into the pig and whispers,

I take into myself, and digest,
wheat that grew between
the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It’s not just this pig alone, it’s the way eating the pig connects him back to who we are before the time of empires–all the way back to prehistory. The poem ends by saying,

“Fire, brother and father,
twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger,
opened your skin together
and tore your body apart, and took it
into our bodies.”

There is a reverence for the pig, a recognition for how consuming the animal roasted in this ancient, barbaric ritual connects him to both the pig and to human kind. Life is both full of wonder and horror simultaneously, and this poem clearly demonstrates the paradox.

One weekend morning a couple of weeks back, we opened the bedroom curtain and there sat a monkey eating the tomatoes off of our plant in the window box. (No wonder we’ve had so few tomatoes this year!) The other day a monkey got into our compost box that we have on our balcony and then smeared his hands across the kitchen window. Two days ago I looked out the window of my classroom to see two monkeys walking across the roof of the building opposite me, only to appear in the courtyard below a few minutes later. You can go along for years without barely a monkey surfacing anywhere. Things seem fine, and then suddenly, there they are, monkeys jumping on your roof, tramping through your garden, and getting into whatever they can. When a monkey is around you’ve got to be careful because you never know what they are up to.

It’s good to be aware of holding both the difficult things in balance–the days with the monkeys vs. the weeks and months without them, as well the truly wondrous moments that come along. Actually doing this takes practice. When things grow dull or difficult, when struggle or white snow is all that can be seen, we have to purposefully change our perspective so we don’t feel crushed under the weight. That’s hard. But we don’t have to wait until things become unbearable. For a few moments we can break the routine of work, we can lift ourselves out of a situation that feels full or sorrow or dread. There’s a variety of ways to do it. We can sing, walk out the door and notice the trees or birds, arrange some fruit in a bowl to give away, put on some music, dance around the room, push our hands in the garden soil, pull some weeds or pick some flowers. A paint chip or a spiral, a face in the cloud–it doesn’t have to be something big. It just needs to be something; something to take us out of ourselves and connect us to something bigger. Who knows what you will actually discover in the process. It might not be what you intended. Doing that something can help us nurture joy and wonder while at the same time continuing to recognize the realness of the struggle or sorrow that we continue to live alongside. Maybe it is this very sorrow and struggle we know so well that allows us to experience the depth of joy when we give ourselves to it, or when it comes along to surprise us like the smiling face in the cement. We know then how precious such joy truly is.

Beauty, pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Quiet Moments With Clouds

photo 2-3Frequently this summer I’ve been looking at clouds, the way they grow and contract before my eyes, sometimes so imperceptibly I wonder if it’s happening, other times so rapidly I wonder how they can do it. Gazing at the sky may seem like a mundane thing to do, but I recall many a time as a child lying back on the chairs outside my house and watching them glide by for hours, morphing forms as they paraded by as if on a slow moving carousel.

There was something soothing about those quiet afternoons. They carried me into a place, that looking back on it now, I can describe as a place of communion. Like staring at a campfire, the experience enabled me to enter a state where the world dropped away and I was absorbed into the moment, fully present in the simplicity of being. I call it a state of communion because even now, years later, while cloud gazing I find myself entering the same place in the mind and body, connecting with the environment where words aren’t needed, nevertheless communication is happening. I see the images, color, shapes–they are all showing themselves to me and something in myself is responding with more than a mere physical reaction. I hold and behold the forms, and in doing so, I am learning about the changing nature of the world and how I participate in beauty.

Though I gazed at clouds more often as a child, still today when I look up at the sky after waking up or as I walk home from work, something in me longs for the the open sky I experienced as a child, the vast, spacious world the mind can wander in. A hazy, flat sky flattens the mind. On days when the haze lifts, my heart feels freer, more content and at home. It’s refreshing to be reminded that shapes can also have forms with soft edges that float.

Our connections to the environment we grow up with influence who we become and leave an indelible mark. The house my father built and that I lived in as a child in San Diego county was perched high on a hill looking over a wide valley. We lived in a rural area with hills rimming the distant horizon, a geographical location that shaped my soul, so to speak: Living there nurtured a value of open space and encouraged in me the qualities of observation, reflection, and of taking the long view of things, values fundamental to my understanding of the world.

photo 3-2Earlier this summer I was recovering from a knee injury. Because moving around was slow and uncomfortable, all walking became a focused effort, each step a meditation. Immediately the world felt smaller and more challenging as a result. There seemed to be so much I couldn’t do, and I was surprised by how vulnerable and limited the injury made me feel. During that time, I was visiting my brother. I rested on his deck one morning, looking up into the enormous billowy clouds. Once again the world grew into itself, the largeness of it stretching out with the length of sky like an enormous blue sheet hung out across the universe, shifting in the solar breeze. Little had actually changed except my perception. I couldn’t move any faster than before, but staring at the passing clouds reminded me of the larger reality I was a part of, and brought me back to that place of wonder I participated in as a child. Just as clouds change forms, so does my life, and any suffering I might experience. Any suffering I might know, however small or big, is just a part of the larger suffering of the world. In the world there is pain, but there is also great beauty. Both coexist, and reality is a state of flow between them in different measures.

Not all of us live continuously in a world with natural beauty. I know I don’t. Countless others are like me–those who live in smog choked cities, those without access to green space and parks or who spend most their time in rooms without windows working under fluorescent light. Though we may not have access to it, the world’s immense beauty continues on. When I am in a place with natural beauty, I want to really notice it, pausing to take it in, to be thankful, and to consider all the processes of nature it took to create what I am experiencing. I want to remember often how open skies and time spent beholding them can restore.

When I am in a place that lacks beauty, when I find myself living there, I can also look up at the sky and know that beauty’s absence I that place will help me to recognize how precious beauty is when and wherever it is found. I can let this awareness fill me with gratitude that I have seen beauty, have beheld it, and hopefully do so again in the future.

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath’s 1999 poem, and how it values the small, quiet moments, emphasizing the importance of noticing and learning to rest in them, moments like looking at clouds.

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VII

by Wendell Berry

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to its rest.

Within the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is
almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed
light, a few leaves fall
of their own weight.

The sky
is gray. It begins in mist
almost at the ground
and rises forever. The trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite.

What more did I
think I wanted? Here is
what has always been.
Here is what will always
be. Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.

Uncategorized

Educating the Heart

Many people today are thinking and writing about the way technology is changing our brain. At the same time, there is an explosion of research about the brain itself. One of the things that is becoming clear and clearer, at least for me, as I attempt to follow the understanding about the brain research that is coming out, is how connected the brain is to the heart. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, for example, explains the interaction between the heart and brain, and how emotions create hormones that effect our body’s well- being. When people learn to regulate their stress hormones, says Davidson, they experience better physical health, and have less working memory performance problems. Learning calm yourself, can help you improve your emotional well-being and cognition. The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education is one place that is working toward “integration of the mind, body, and spirit.” Their motto is “Educate the Heart”.  People can learn to embody and practice social and emotional skills to help make the world a more compassionate place, as well as one that is fair or that runs efficiently.

One of the books I’m currently reading, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, the Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain, explores the thought-provoking theory that the written alphabet dramatically changed the brain, and that as written literacy increased, so did people’s intolerance for those different from themselves. Laws and civic institutions can benefit us in many ways, but as Shlain describes, they can also “become the instrument of tyranny.” Writing is a wonderful thing. It allows us to carry knowledge from one generation to the next, it gives us the opportunity to explore our thoughts, and express our imagination.  On the other hand, Shlain describes the enormous value of the irrational, “Archaic people considered irrationality coequal with reason…Laughter is irrational. Faith is irrational. Watching a sunset is an irrational act. There is no demonstrable “purpose” involved. The appreciation  of both art and beauty are irrational: logic cannot completely explain why a work of art is compelling; the experience is essentially ineffable…All acts of altruism are inherently irrational. Yet who among us would want to eliminate…(these) from our lives? Like irrationality itself, they contribute to the sumptuous, verrigated texture of the human condition.”

I would say that there is a kind of rationality to altruistic acts in that they bind our hearts to others and create a sense of belonging and community, nevertheless, I believe Shlain has a point. Not everything in our life has to be measured in rational terms, and in fact, those things most meaningful to us in our lives–our relationships to others–are not something we want to go around measuring constantly. It could kill the relationship.

Yesterday, as I was walking across the street, I looked up into the sky and noticed there were what appeared to be thousands of dragonflies swarming the air. Above them enormous clouds billowed up in an Everest height. Dark underneath and whiter on top, the clouds opened in the center into wide vistas and canyons of space. Birds–kites, pigeons, crows, swirled in the sea of sky. The world seemed to be virtually swimming in tremendous pool of energy and life. This kind of experience is rare and raw beauty, given as a gift–unmeasurable, and nearly indescribable. I had merely to look up and absorb it, as it lifted me out of myself into a moment of awe, connecting me with the vastness of the universe. Author, Fredrich Beuchner, tells how “ . . some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen, laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks, waking up to the first snow, being in bed with somebody you love… whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.”

Moments of awe make me feel alive. Everything contains wonder, can become mysterious again–bigger, unknowable, if we have eyes to see it, if we allow ourselves to enter that place of being in our minds? The wide sky and swirling birds, your child sleeping in the room next door, your parents’ love touching you now–reaching from all the way back through the years of your childhood, your breath rhythmically persisting without ever having to be directed– all of these, and a thousand other experiences are examples tinged with wonder where we can allow ourselves to let go into an awareness of life’s great gift.

Encounters with death, too, can be moments to bring us back into an awareness of wonder. Steve Jobs explains in this short video, that knowing he was going to die was the best tool he encountered to enable him to realize what is truly important in life. “All external expectations–pride, fear of embarrassment and failure fall away in the face of death. There is no reason not to follow your heart,” says Jobs.

Dragonflies in many parts of the world are considered a symbol of change whose source is based in a deeper understanding and insight of life that comes from looking beyond the surface. All those dragonflies with their eyes that see 360 degrees swirling beneath the open window of sky, maybe it’s the universe’s way of saying, “Open your heart. Walk out a bit further into the unknown, the irrational, and dare to learn more of what it is you are here on earth for. Buechner in Now and Then, a Memoir of Vocation, says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” This week, I want to consciously take moments in my day to look for wonder, and to open my heart to the world.

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Experiencing Awe and Wonder

A couple of evenings ago, my husband and are were sitting in the hot tub in a clearing under the redwoods outside our back door talking, when out of the edge of the trees came a deer. She stood there, ears perked, staring straight at us. Immediately, we went silent, our eyes fixed on the deer, her form subtly outlined somewhere between visible and invisible. We have seen this deer maybe four times in the past week or so. She comes up into the clearing, pauses, looks at us, waits for her fawn to follow, or sends it on ahead, then bounds along the edge of the trees a bit, perhaps pausing to nibble at a branch or two, before disappearing down the embankment and deeper into the trees. When the deer appeared again last night however, she didn’t move on. She continued to look at us for what was probably 15 minutes while we sat very still observing her observing us. Occasionally she moved, looking to the sides of the clearing, and later lowering her head slightly, as if in a bow. Not knowing what this meant, we lowered our heads slight too, bowing in return. Later that night,  I read that deer lower their heads down as if to eat if it senses danger, and then jerk it back up again abruptly when in danger, hoping the predator will give away its position. We weren’t predators, though, so had nothing to give away.

As we continued staring in silence at each other, I couldn’t help but think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels” where Dillard describes looking into the weasel’s eyes and she is “stunned into stillness,” and this is how we, too, felt. Dillard describes how her eyes were locked with the weasel’s. In our case, it was too dark to see the deer’s eyes, but this kind of precise vision of each other wasn’t necessary. Our presence mesmerized each other. I don’t know what the deer was thinking, if she was simply curious about us, afraid, or some other thing. What is the mind of a deer like, I can’t understand. She was free to move on, but didn’t. Dillard explains how her encounter with the weasel helped her realize how she would like to learn how to live totally present in the act of living as a weasel does.  “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you,” she explains. Such encounters in nature as these throw us out of our humdrum expectations about life or about what will happen next, and enable us to become suddenly aware of our connection to the universe of being. We are in awe, aware of our senses, fully present in the moment, conscious we are alive. This, for me, is one of the important reasons I am alive–to experience the wonder of being!

Moments of awe are rare, which makes me curious if awe requires certain conditions for it to appear. Is awe rare because we are so concerned with our schedules and chores that we don’t notice world around us as alive with the potential to fill us with wonder? Is it because we aren’t often out in wild places where we might be more likely to experience the presence of nature’s raw or intense moments? Art, music, and experiences in nature can all be possible ways awe emerges. Though most of us don’t often do we have the opportunity to witness the kind of art that stops us short because of its power to make us see ourselves or life so precisely, maybe we want to do more to cultivate an open awareness of life where awe can surface naturally. Could we, for example, practice noticing things on a particular walk we take every day from and to a particular location and begin to ask questions about what is there?

A couple of examples of things in nature that have the potential to evoke awe are found as video links in Vicki Zakraewski article, “How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose”. Interestingly, Dacher Keltner from the Greater Good, has found in his recent research that experiences of awe have the potential to feel less self-centered and act more empathetically. Empathy could go a long way in helping people gain the insight into each other’s worlds in ways that could help us live together more cooperatively and meaningfully.

Unrelated to power and control, wonder and awe require a stance toward the world that is open and receptive. The deer I observed in hushed scintillated silence in my backyard turned away with a snort when she heard a rustle in the bushes, but those moments in her presence made me aware of the wonder it is to simply be alive. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

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Seeing Wonder

For those living in the US or other places in the world within the temperate zone, it is spring, a time of flowering and vibrant green leaves emerging from winter’s dormancy. For us living here in Delhi, spring happened back in February. The earth now is about as dry and dusty as it will be all  year. Temperatures rise to over 100’s F/4o C, the air fills with a powdery dust so light that it hangs in the air for days without settling. It is the kind of weather that scratches the eyes and lungs and makes you long for the monsoon rains to come.

But the dust and dry air are only one reality. There are other worlds to know, whole worlds inside of this world. We walk by them, unaware, every day. Some people like Louie Schwartzberg, make it their life’s work to help us notice, to really look at the world around us so we can see its wonder.View his TED Talk on the hidden beauty of pollination and you can discover for yourself. Even house flies are beautiful, I realized, as I watched them hovering over flowers here in his film where a hummingbirds pivot through the air chasing an insect, monarchs and bees fill the heavens as if moving inside a surrealist’s dream, and bats plunge their heads into the rich  liquid red center of a flower.

We need people with hearts to see the world with eyes like Mr. Schwartzberg’s to help remind us of what Fredrich Buechner speaks of in Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The world is full of beauty, even if I feel I can’t see it from my window. Do you, like me,  long to touch wonder? How will I make space in my life to look for beauty, for wonder today? That is a question I am asking myself this morning.

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The Other Birthdays

Recently, Adrian Juric of Inner Landscapes hiking retreats, suggested that we celebrate the other birthdays of our lives, not just the one where we entered the world on a particular day. I love that idea. 10 weeks ago I had one of those other birthdays–the day I began to take Sundays off, purposely choosing not to work. It is changing my life. I am growing more aware of the value of limitations, and more aware of how hungry I am for the part of myself where I feel most alive–when I am writing, or creating, when I am walking about,  bicycling out into the world, or when I am swimming. In the world we live in, what we do, how much we do, who we know, where we’ve been–all those external measurements, count. When I write, I go home to myself.  I get to explore the interior world and try and make sense out of the dissonant, the world’s disturbing and beautiful complexity in all its wonder. I get to focus on being. This is central thing that keeps me writing. It is a way to slow down and explore what this life is that I am living, to ask questions of it, to go inside it and poke around, to play. A writing practice can be a way to  make a commitment to ourselves to honor and nurture who we are, what we most value. Fredrich Buechner says, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Starting this blog is a writing birthday of sorts, but this blog is also a way to invite others along on this journey of writing as a spiritual practice and an exploration of the world. I look forward to the conversation.