What Do We See?

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who lied habitually. It took me a while to realize what was going on because I’d never met anyone with that habit.

One day she told me that a coworker would be out for a few days because he’d received a grand jury summons. She said, “I thought he was lying, but he brought in the jury summons.” I hope my jaw didn’t literally hang open in front of her. I understood all at once that she thought everyone else lied the way she did and that her life must be really isolated, difficult, and unhappy.

The priest giving our parish Lenten retreat put it this way: people who lie can’t see other people. I think we miss seeing each other in so many ways. I often assume other people are approaching me with the same small, fearful voices with which I’m approaching them.

A small example: I hate it when I’m driving in the left lane and someone zooms around me in the right lane and then cuts back in front of me, not because it’s unsafe but because I’m insulted that the person thinks I’m going too slow. As I was speeding to catch the van the other morning, I saw my impatience and frustration with the person in front of me who was going slightly under the speed limit and realized that the people on the freeway might be perfectly happy to zoom around me. I’m projecting my frustration onto them.

A larger example, I sometimes worry that my friends are mad at me or don’t want to be around me when there is zero evidence or history to support this concern. (If you need a good laugh, The Onion did a marvelous piece on this particular psychosis.) Which means I’m not seeing my friends, some of the people I love most in the world.

So in a very real way, whatever I’m doing to myself, I’m doing to others, and vice versa; however I’m judging myself, I’m judging others the same way, and vice versa. One more argument for loving kindness all around.

Two Steps Back

If I were a space capsule, my re-entry from last weekend’s silent retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur into the everyday would have included some layers being burned off in the atmosphere. This might have had something to do with my decision to give up protecting my heart as my Lenten practice.

On the last morning of the retreat, I was trying to be present as I ate breakfast, looking out at the fog that hid everything beyond my little garden, and worrying about this whole open heart thing. I looked down at the empty sugar packet I’d used for my tea and suddenly there was holy presence of sugar packet.

This was not an art deco sugar wrapper. This was your standard white with scrolly blue letters proclaiming, “Sugar, sugar, sugar.” It was a little rumpled and, in that moment, exactly as it ought to be, as if the essence of this particular sugar packet were shining through. This awareness lasted for a little while—holy presence of bowl, holy presence of plate. Then it faded, and we drove home.

I was determined to “keep faith with my newly awakened heart,” as Jim Finley says. Then I went to work Tuesday morning.

At my parish’s Advent retreat last year, Father Jim Clarke said that when you ask God for something, God rubs his/her hands together and says, “OK, let’s get down to this,” and shows you exactly how much you need to work on what you’ve requested. It was a normal Tuesday—I was late, work was busy, some things went according to plan, many did not. But by the end of the day, I was angry and impatient and had made snide comments about people I didn’t think were doing their job well, people who I had been practicing holding in my heart for months.

There are so many ways I protect my heart. Dwelling on others’ shortcomings and wrapping my own identity up in how well I do my job are only two. Worrying that people will like me and having imaginary conversations to convince people to see things my way also come to mind.

I don’t know how this is going to work. I never do at the beginning of Lent. But I still have the sugar packet and thirty-eight days—clearly enough time to complete a lifelong practice. Pray for me.

Thank You, Dear Friend

One time, in the midst of moving across country, I stopped at my friend Bardwell’s house with my Ford Escort packed to the gills, my toiletries unwisely buried behind one of the seats. I was in my mid-twenties. Bardwell must have been in his early seventies.

He took my face between his hands and looked at me with his twinkling blue eyes and transferred into me some knowing of my own preciousness, as Jim Finley would call it. I don’t recall the words he used, but I’m sure they included “love,” a word I sometimes have trouble using with even my closest friends, though never, since that visit, with him.

Bardwell taught me and many, many other college students Asian religions. He didn’t reduce religion to a system of ideas but rather offered us a way of being in the world, a way he practiced. I always thought that when the Tao Te Ching talked about a sage, it was talking about someone like Bardwell.

He marked our papers in green or purple felt-tip pen and reading his comments felt intimate, as if the ink held the attention and love with which he responded to our efforts. He taught us to be careful with words: childlike not childish, pacifist not passive. He encouraged us to take risks in our writing and thinking by rewarding the successes and not paying too much attention to the failures as long as there was some daring in the attempt.

Long after I had graduated, he was the first to tell me the concept that now shapes my seeking in this life—that there is no such thing as our individual identities, that we are all parts of a single whole. He may have been saying it all along, but when I finally heard it, it stuck, though I had no idea what he meant.

There are many wonderful facets to Bardwell—his gentle and quick sense of humor, his love of puns and baseball, the way his smile sometimes reveals the six-year-old inside—but as ever, when I want to capture the essence of something or someone, I’ll steal a few lines from William Stafford, this time from the poem “You Reading This, Be Ready”:

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?

That’s where Bardwell lives from—that breathing respect for all and for the reality of our interconnectedness held in the awareness that it is all gift. Should you ever be lucky enough to meet him, you’ll feel it.

How to Die Like a Tree

During a walk with a friend this week, we saw a huge, dead tree lying on the ground, all in one piece with its base exposed. It looked as if it had toppled over gently at the end of a full life. My friend said he had heard that if you eat organic food, you die simply, easily, and all in a moment, like the tree. I said, “That’s what I’m aiming for.”

Then the meaning of my words echoed in my mind, and I was surprised that they didn’t completely freak me out. I have been thinking more about this whole death thing, perhaps because my parents are getting older, perhaps because I am.

I have another friend who I’m sure is going to leave this life exactly as that tree did—peacefully. He’s in his late eighties, recently had a stroke, and quickly made a full recovery. In an email he wrote afterward he said, “Mortality is real.”

I wonder how to live with a daily awareness of this fact. I don’t mean I want to cash in my retirement fund and travel to Iceland because tomorrow could be my last day, but rather how does one move in the world in a way that holds an awareness of our own transitory nature?

It might have something to do with not holding on so hard. To whatever—the way things are, the way we want them to be, the happy things, the sad things, the terrible, the wonderful. Not because they don’t matter but because they are passing.

Perhaps living with that awareness is like Buddhist monks building a mandala. They place each grain of sand with intent, attention, presence, and love until they’ve constructed an intricate, gorgeous piece of art and worship. They never hurry. Then they sweep it all away and pour the sand into a creek to be carried to the ocean.

The reason to construct the mandala is not the mandala’s future form because, ultimately, it doesn’t have one. The reason to construct the mandala is the act of constructing it. So the way to live today, given that one day we won’t be here, is with intent, attention, presence, and love toward what is happening today.

Gee, if it’s that simple, I should have it down by noon.

Camping with the Meister

What do leggings and a fourteenth century Dominican have to do with each other? Perhaps not much—unless you go camping with a Meister Eckhart sermon.

Those of you who follow the blog may have noticed I’m becoming an Eckhart fan. That’s because he says things like, “The everlasting and paternal wisdom saith, ‘Whoso heareth Me is not ashamed.’” Meaning, for me, that if you really hear the word of God—who may or may not be paternal for you—any sense of shame you have will evaporate because you hear your own divine nature.

It’s always fun when the universe gives you an immediate opportunity to practice what you think you learned. And by fun I mean deeply humiliating.

Later in the day, I went hiking and discovered I had not gotten the new deep woods fashion memo. With two or three exceptions, every other woman on the trail was wearing leggings. I was wearing bulky hiking pants that had sap on the butt to boot. So, yeah, instant shame.

But shame isn’t always easy to recognize. Especially when it presents itself as “Why are all these idiots wearing these stupid leggings? Don’t they know they’re in a state park not at yoga class?” That’s some pretty impressive and rapid externalization right there.

Luckily I was hiking really slowly, stopping to look at trees and ferns and such, so I heard myself thinking this a lot and realized that these were not happy thoughts. Don’t get me wrong—no instant enlightenment ensued. I internally commented on and hated, at least a little bit, every single pair of leggings, but I saw what I was doing most of the time and tried to let it go.

That recognizing and letting go often seems insufficient to me, but I’m gradually learning that it’s more than it seems. The next morning I woke up and actually saw the exact shape and color of the leaves on the trees in my campsite for the first time, the texture of their bark—what creation heard when God spoke those trees into existence.

Opening to Life

The beginning of the new quarter at work reminded me how fortunate I am to work with an exceptional bunch of student assistants. I’d say this is a shout-out to them, but they probably don’t even use that term anymore.

This group of young women and men help me remember that college students are exactly that—young women and men, not kids. They’re eager, excited, smart, talented, creative, responsible. They take ownership of their work, propose interesting ideas, and care about the results. They’re interested in a variety of topics—from video production to friendship to the inner workings of a watch—and have any number of projects going on all the time. They have lofty and fulfilling goals, like working at Pixar and developing their own brand of backpacks. And they are each utterly different from each other yet collaborate well as a team.

In trying to encapsulate what I appreciate about them, the best word I’ve found is alive-ness. In the work they do for me and the pieces of their lives they choose to share, there is an energy, an excitement that may be unique to their particular stage of life. It’s lovely to be around.

I wonder whether they are aware of their own enthusiasm. My mom once brought me a branch that had fallen off a plum tree just as the buds were beginning to open. I put it in a vase with water and set it on the kitchen table and it astonished me. The urgency of those buds to open was palpable—they were literally bursting with it. The new flowers strained toward life with a real force.

This may be the stage these students are in—an opening to the world. I am impressed that they are doing it with such joy, passion, and grace and am grateful for the opportunity to be present to it.

Heart Cleaning

My dad and sister are coming to visit for Christmas, and there is this small matter of getting the house ready. There’s also a larger matter of getting my heart ready.

Readying the house requires making room for their physical presence—clearing the papers off the table so they have a place to eat, putting hangers in the closet for their clothes. We welcome guests by making space for them, by setting a place at the table.

One day I caught myself wishing that my dad and sister were arriving a few days later to give me more time to prepare. In other words, the whole reason for these preparations was to welcome them, and here I was wishing they’d stay away. That’s when the whole heart thing came up.

I think heart preparation is similar to home preparation. We need to clear some space in our hearts to welcome others into it. We have to let go of the preoccupations of how we want our lives to be—sometimes even when we think those preoccupations are in the service of others, like cleaning the house for their arrival.

We also have to let go of who we want them to be. I don’t mean that we should tolerate cruelty, but to truly love someone or something means loving her as she is—both the perfect and the imperfect bits. I think this is hard, especially with family members because so much of who we think we are is wrapped up in our relationships with them.

But what better time to practice than Christmas when we celebrate, to paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the birth of Christ in the essence and ground of our souls? When we make room for others in our hearts—relatives, friends, those who are struggling—we make room for this birth, and vice versa.

According to Eckhart, it’s worth the effort: “If you just wait for this birth to take place in you, you will find all that is good, all consolation, all bliss, all being and all truth.”


Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. May whatever holy days you celebrate at this time of year bring you light, life, and love.