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.

How My Cat Taught Me about Death and Christmas

One possible Advent practice is to take your cat to the vet to get six teeth extracted and then wait two and a half days for said cat to eat and drink again. After trying this myself, I recommend shopping instead.

During the cat not eating period, I decided to worry despite some pretty wise people—like, for example, the Son of God—advising against it. Occasionally I paused and told myself to relax; Tux, my cat, was not dying, and if he were, that would be OK.

I realize this whole “death is OK” thing is a bit of a jump, but I’d just come back from a retreat at which Jim Finley told this story:

Say you’re on a cruise ship and you fall overboard. You yell for help, but no one hears you and the ship sails away. There you are all alone in the water, and you realize that if you try to swim, you won’t last long. But if you float, you can last a lot longer (for those of you realists, it’s tropical water and you’re not wearing cotton), but you can only float if you relax. So you lie there relaxing really hard. After a while, you come to an internal place where, though you will continue to do your best to float, you know you’re probably going to die and you don’t have a problem with that anymore. Then the ship comes back and rescues you and you’re incredibly grateful, but you know you’ll never be the same again.

In his poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Dylan Thomas writes, “Though lovers be lost love shall not.” Perhaps that’s what we would realize if we were floating in the ocean, that we have a “deathless nature” within us, as Finley would put it, that the essence of us, the lovers, is a love without beginning or end.

In reality, we’re all already in that ocean. At the retreat, there was a woman in her seventies who radiated joy all weekend. When I thanked her for it, she said she was so grateful to have someone talk about dying because her friends and acquaintances never did.

It seems a bit out of season, perhaps, to write about death when we are preparing to celebrate a birth. But this particular birth happened to show us our “invincible preciousness,” as Finley says, the eternal at the center of and woven through this passing creation. We are all part of the love that will never be lost. May an awareness of that love be born in our hearts this Christmas.


Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Wishing everyone peace and joy during whichever holidays you celebrate.

A Time of Longing

I’ve often heard Advent described as a time of preparation and waiting, but my friend Barb Kollenkark recently described it as a period of longing.

I suppose that makes sense. We are, after all, waiting for the coming of a child, and I’m sure parents-to-be would confirm that those nine months contain a great deal of longing.

A woman who is pregnant is “expecting.” During Advent we expect the birth of Christ in our hearts. That’s a strong word, with a lot of faith and an element of demand to it. We’re not wishing, we’re expecting.

I so often consider the object of my desire to be a conclusion: the completion of a project, the settling of a decision, the ending of an uncomfortable emotion. But in that delivery room, all parents are hoping for a beginning, not an ending.

Life is a continuing unfolding, and that’s what parents want for their children. Not a straight path, not without difficulties, probably messy, but at every moment the potential for growth.

And so with us and Christ. The coming we are longing for is not a consummation, though we often get ourselves into trouble in big and small ways by searching for fulfillment in everything from alcoholism to the salvation that might arrive in the next email or Facebook post. Not that I’d know anything about that.

What arrives on Christmas, what we’re waiting for, is not an end to yearning but a deepening of it. We are finite beings with an infinite capacity for love, multiple teachers have said, and on Christmas we will receive at least two things, regardless of what is under the tree: a historical example of someone who will show us what our hearts are capable of and that ability itself, which is to live in the evolutionary moment we’re in, to live into our longing, into our true selves in God.

That’s something worth expecting.

From Cats to Poetry to Existence—Gratitude

It’s time for the annual gratitude edition of this blog, which begins with a big Thank You to all who read it. Here we go!

Warm things: clothes fresh out of the dryer, cookies fresh out of the over, tea, the moment of stepping out of a blustery or snowy day into a heated house.

Existing: The odds against it are—according to diligent internet research—1 in 102,685,000, and that’s just the human genetics bit, which doesn’t include the messiness of whether atoms would form at all, much less life.

Eating together: the way sharing a meal builds connective tissue between people, whether we know each other when we sit down or not.

Cooking: chopping vegetables, watching onions fry, the smell of baking bread—maybe I just really like food.

Farmers and ranchers: without whom the previous two items would be highly problematic.

Tranquility, serenity, peace, and joy, as Mark Nepo defines them in this quote I recently happened upon: “After all these years, I’m beginning to see that tranquility is the depth of being that holds what we think and feel, not the still point after we’ve silenced what we think and feel. Serenity is the depth of being that holds difficulty, not the resting point after we’ve ended difficulty. And peace is the depth of being that holds suffering and doubt, not the raft we climb on to avoid suffering and doubt. This leads us to joy, which is much deeper and larger than any one feeling.”

Poetry, because a poem can both break your heart and break it open and because something about forming one helps people recognize their own voice, even those whose voices are largely ignored.

The spectacular sycamore tree on the road into campus who has conspired with the morning sun to become a burst of yellowness this time of year.

Whatever it is about cats that makes us think it’s funny when they destroy things and gives us a “get out of required duties free” card when they’re on our laps.

People who work in industries that don’t stop during the holidays: ER nurses, doctors, and staff; garbage collectors; police officers; moms and dads; restaurant workers; EMTs; snowplow operators, and many more.

Family and friends: the true building blocks of life.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

God Loves You, Really

God always loves us just the way we are, and I often say, “No thanks.”

If you’re like me, when you read “just the way we are,” you hear “the way we ought to be.” God will love me when I maintain a peaceful mind, keep all my plants alive, and eat more vegetables. The thing is, God would rather not wait until we’re perfect because though God is infinite, we are not, and I may never become an expert plant tender.

This whole perfection thing, Cynthia Bourgeault says, has been misunderstood. We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for wholeness.

And wholeness includes those parts of ourselves we don’t much like, the parts we haven’t loved enough, to paraphrase David Whyte. The problem with not loving ourselves is that then we use our faults as a barrier between us and God. We point to them and say, no, I’m broken, I can’t let love in. God is ready to go outside and play, and we say, look at all the work I have to do first.

The French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing from the trenches of WWI, said that so few of the soldiers were willing to give their suffering to God. I used to think that because God wants our suffering, God wants us to suffer, but now I think it’s quite the opposite.

Jim Finley says that when you touch pain with love, it disappears. God wants to transform our suffering into love.

It often seems impossible to us that our failings can not only be lovable but also be and become love. It’s impossible for us to work this transformation ourselves, but God can handle it. Really.

So how do we offer our suffering to God, what does that mean? We can’t just wrap it up in a neat little gift box, stick a bow on it, and shyly hand it to God next time we run into each other. Or maybe we can. All that’s needed is a willingness to let love be more important than anything else, a lot of patience, and some attention to the ways God is pointing us toward the “dump your suffering here” drop off station.

Still, this may be a little harder than watering the plants.