Spiders and Eucharist, Together at Last

If you want to convince yourself of the incarnational quality of this existence, I suggest the Nature Channel, especially when it’s live at your house. A big spider has been hanging out in my front window, and this week I watched her spin her web. (OK Australians, not as big as your spiders but bigger than your average household arachnid. And yes, clearly it’s a she because Charlotte’s Web.)

How differently would we conceive of everything if we used the bottom of our abdomens not to expel waste products but to craft a tool that sustained our lives? If we had eight dexterous extremities that bent in all sorts of creepy ways? Nothing would be the same, beginning with the non-creepiness of the leg bending.

Our bodies determine how we experience this world. At church, some people are not well enough to walk to the front to receive Communion, and so we bring it to them. I don’t always respond with compassion to others’ infirmities and had to remind myself to see beyond one woman’s failing body to the divinity within her.

Then my perception shifted, and I realized that God isn’t separate from her aging. We don’t share in divinity despite our physical state but rather through our physical state, whatever it happens to be.

God is very much in our physical nature. How could it be otherwise when that nature shapes our relationship to reality? It’s not the only thing affecting that relationship, but it’s always part of the equation. We can change our attitudes and attachments, but if you’re six feet tall, life will always look different than if you’re five foot two—or if you happen to spin webs for a living.

And it is in this life, shaped by this physical reality, shared with these spiders, that we encounter the holy. God is at our fingertips and in our fingertips. We don’t have to go anywhere or change anything to find what we’re seeking. We can recognize its presence as our own.

Being Resilient

A resilient ecosystem, I learned in a podcast this week, will remain productive despite a disturbance, such as a big storm or a heat wave. It will either decline and then bounce back or simply not change during the disturbance. (Full disclosure: the podcast is an interview with a professor in the college for which I do marketing, and she has no idea I’m taking an idea from her work off in this unscientific direction.)

I wonder about the resilience of our internal and collective spiritual and social ecosystems.

In the interview, the scientists talk about ecosystems “maintaining their function.” Our function is to be a conduit of divine love, to take part in the evolution of matter and spirit—perhaps to be the evolution—to become conscious of our interdependence and unity. How do we maintain our ability to do that?

A teacher I know said that a resilient human system requires that people have free time and free attention. Free time is pretty great because we can do things like

  • Skip
  • Sing or play music
  • Play
  • Be silly
  • Create
  • Wonder at the beauty of the world around us or a piece of art

And these actions free our attention, help us step off the hamster wheel spinning in our brains and be present.

When we begin to slow down and look around, we see the goodness in and around us. In The Homing Spirit, John Dunne says that “Violence comes of spirit against spirit…, when the human spirit is moved against its own inclination.” By this definition, I do violence to myself quite a lot of the time. Our spirits incline toward God, toward love, toward “the eternal in us,” as Dunne says.

Most of us were taught something very different about the natural direction of our souls (as brilliantly demonstrated in this hilarious video about the first day of Catholic school). We need to learn our own divinity so we can stop producing storms in our internal ecosystems. Then we can play our role in cosmic evolution, in that larger ecosystem we all belong to.

Douse yourself with beauty. Do what brings you joy. Not to deny disturbances or hide from them—and there are plenty right now—but to remain resilient, to maintain our natural inclination toward love.

How to Cultivate Pervasive Unsatisfactoriness

This week, my life kindly provided a perfect demonstration of what Buddhist teaching calls “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.” Sometimes this idea is translated as “suffering,” but not being satisfied better describes my habitual state of mind so much of the time. The Buddha does not recommend this state, in case you’re wondering.

But if you want to try it out and your unsatisfactoriness is not pervasive enough, if you feel enlightenment creeping up on you, here’s a quick way to fix that. Start by getting attached to an outcome, say, catching the van to work. Any outcome will do, but if you want to try the advanced track, choose an additional outcome that makes the first one difficult to achieve, say, sending a particular email before leaving the house. Now—and this is the tricky part—base your happiness on attaining both of these outcomes. Finally, sit back and watch as your peace of mind evaporates.

I had front row seats at this show while driving to the van stop at the last possible minute. For one block, the SUV in front of me drove at a glacial twenty-eight miles per hour, and my life was ruined. Then he turned, leaving the road empty before me. The sun burst from behind a cloud. The bluebirds lined up to sing a chorus in the magnolia trees. Life was looking up. Then I checked the clock and returned to panic.

The lightning quick change in my outlook showed me that we really are making it all up. In the space of a few seconds, I went from crushed to rejoicing and back again. Our states of mind and emotion are often no more lasting, no more substantial than that, yet they’re so convincing that we mistake them for reality.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotions or that we shouldn’t recognize the emotions we have, but we might not always want to take them so seriously. Sometimes they indicate a deeper reality, and sometimes, like this time, we use them to keep ourselves dissatisfied.

“Right now, it’s like this,”—as an unattributed quote I saw recently said—is the only road toward satisfactoriness. We need to remember both parts: “right now,” not forever; “like this,” not the way we wish it were. From that place, we can act effectively and—here’s the tricky part again—leave the outcome to God.

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.

Learning to Play

Last night my tai chi teacher made one of those cryptic remarks that should be reserved for mysterious elders who hang out on the top of inaccessible mountains and certainly don’t speak English. He said, “You follow the form until there is no form.”

He was describing how you progress as a student in tai chi—a much more serious student than I will ever be—from a prescribed set of movements to following your sparring partner’s energy wherever it leads. Though sparring with God may be ill advised, it struck me that this is a good metaphor for spiritual practice as well, or life in general.

We start life off with many sets of rules—at home, at school, in society in general. As kids, we need these guidelines to help us learn how to live together. Sometimes, though, we get too attached to them, especially the unwritten societal teachings about what indicates success. The problem is, at some point, following the rules ceases to satisfy. We start looking for something beyond the form, but we may not be ready to step outside the lines quite yet.

Though living by the rules ensures failure—we’re all going to give in to the temptation to eat bacon on the Sabbath some day—rules have an enviable certainty. I know the order of the movements in tai chi, and if I stick to that order, I’ve done it right.

Unfortunately, getting the moves right isn’t the point, but we can’t know that until we’ve learned the form so well it’s part of us. We can’t know there’s something more than the rules until we’ve followed them for a while.

It’s difficult to know when to leave the form behind. An English professor once told me that poets need to learn to write poems that follow prescribed rhyme and meter so that they know how to break the rules in a way that creates something new and different. But how do we know when the moment comes to make that break?

In Chinese, the verb for doing tai chi is dă, which in this context means “play.” When our footing is sure enough, when we’ve internalized the form to the extent that we can sense the intent behind it, then we can move beyond the form. When we’ve entered into life deeply enough that nothing but joy will do, when we don’t mind losing because we know it’s all part of a bigger game, then we can begin to play.

Our Direction and Our Destination

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to will myself to be a better person. A new year and a couple of inspirational movies can do this to you, but attempts to improve through sheer willpower always fail rather spectacularly for me.

I fell into this approach partially because I have practiced it for most of my life and partially because I forgot where I’m going and how to get there. In his book The Homing Spirit, John Dunne writes about “living in love as a direction” rather than searching for some experience that will once and for all make everything OK. If love is a direction, then it’s going toward something—we are going toward something.

That something is God. It’s easy to get confused about this, as I have over the last few weeks. It’s easy to think we’re heading toward retirement, a promotion, a new car, a massive failure, or just Friday. But none of these things will satisfy our heart’s longing (or, in the case of the massive failure, destroy life as we know it); none of them will provide a direction.

Only if we’re headed toward God are our direction and destination the same, and perhaps only when we recognize that they are inherently the same can we locate within ourselves that “peace which surpasses all understanding.” Just as the oak tree is inherent in the acorn and the cat in the kitten, so we are already what we are becoming.

When we get stuck in conscious thought or in willfulness, we forget this. As a friend reminded me this week, we cannot live spiritual truths from the outside in. We cannot go in the direction of God—which is always pulling us—by following a set of self-prescribed holiness standards or, as in my case, thinking we must need a longer set of standards since we don’t seem to be living up to the current list.

We can only live in love as a direction by being loving to ourselves and others, by spending time being in love with God and letting God be in love with us. The good news is, this is as easy to do as it is to forget. Every moment of silence, every time we admire the shape of a leaf, smile at someone we don’t know, offer a compliment, or count to ten to avoid yelling at our loved ones—all of these increase our capacity to love, all of them point us in the right direction and make us more who we are.

Now

This is not an easy world to live in. A glance at any of the “Top Stories of 2016” lists will tell you that, but smaller, everyday occurrences reminded me of this truth at the beginning of 2017.

A friend’s grandma died. I learned another friend will undergo five months of chemotherapy. A third friend wrote about caring for his wife who is losing her memory.

Why start a year this way? Because it is the way the year has started.

These are not simple stories. On one hand, they tell of physical suffering, loss, grief. On the other, my friend’s grandma lived a good life; the cancer is not fatal; husband and wife still connect in beautiful ways.

These events hold pain and grace, and though we think of them as out of the ordinary when they happen to us, many people share these experiences every day. Their regularity does not diminish them. They are not war or famine, but they are hard.

A few years ago, a similar coincidence of the sad and the difficult inspired me to write this poem:

My Friends

One runs machine gun-guarded laps
around Bagram.
Two looks through the locked
door of her dad’s descent
into Alzheimer’s.
Three waits with her husband
for the report that will
read leukemia.
Four searches for her mother
after Fukushima—
fifteen thousand missing.

Today I saw a kestrel dive. His
wings stopped the world before
breaking through
bright green grass. My friends,
I will hold those wings for you.

We can do small, important things, like bring food, but most of all we can be present to the time and place and circumstances we live in and the people and other beings we live with, not forever, but for now. And now is all we have to offer. If we give it unreservedly, it may not change anything, but it will be enough.

As I hung up the phone after speaking with my friend who has cancer, I heard the first drops of rain falling on our parched California earth, and I felt deep joy—the resonance of beauty in our souls. All this is happening now.