Dwelling in Discomfort

I am generally not a big fan of mental/emotional/spiritual discomfort, to the extent that I usually do something to avoid it—make plans, eat chocolate, beat up on myself and promise to do better next time—before I even realize my motivation. But this week, I had a few moments of recognizing, oh, I’m uncomfortable and apparently it’s not going to kill me.

Ronald Rolheiser advises us not to resolve tensions too easily. Perhaps sitting with discomfort, with tension, allows different options to grow.

I’m reminded of getting to know loneliness during the year I spent teaching English in China. I lived in a small city and had only one other American to share the experience with. Everything from the language to the food to the social norms was unfamiliar; people stared at us wherever we went; and though I wouldn’t trade that year for the world, it was intensely isolating.

So I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, which at first also felt awful. Then I began to recognize loneliness. Then I realized that I was likely to survive it because, after all, it had happened before and I appeared to be OK. By the end of the year, loneliness and I established a familiarity, and when it came around, it was like opening the door to an old friend—oh, loneliness, hello, come on in, have a cup of tea.

Perhaps now I am beginning a familiarity the uncomfortable state of not knowing what comes next. Discernment—paying attention to where God or life is leading us—doesn’t generally happen on our timeline. Most things that come into being, from oak trees to humans to right action, seem to require some kind of gestation period, a process that this human is often impatient with.

But just as it’s much better for a baby to be carried to full term, so too with taking the next step. And just as it is not the most comfortable thing to carry that baby, so too with the next step.

Evil Queens and Open Hearts

This whole opening my heart thing has turned out to be really scary, so I’ve been avoiding it for the past few weeks. My favorite escape has been binge watching the TV show Once Upon a Time. Luckily, I’m almost done with the third and final season on Netflix, though finishing it will provide only temporary salvation—there’s a new season coming soon.

The show is nominally about fairy tale characters who get stuck in Maine because of a curse, but really it’s about abandonment, love, and forgiveness. What I’ve learned so far is that emotionally wounded fairy tale characters protect their hearts by not letting other fairy tale characters love them. Or by removing their hearts and sticking them in boxes. Though we non-magic types don’t have the latter option, I suspect we share the former trait.

What’s so risky about letting others love us? Clearly, when you let someone love you and love that person in return, the evil villain will have power over you because you don’t want to see that person hurt. Or, if you’re not being threatened by an evil villain, you might be terrified by—I might be terrified by—the transformative power of love.

Transformation is a tricky thing because we don’t control it. We don’t know where we’re going to end up when we start down the road. Two of the most evil characters in the show turn into heroes because of love. While that sounds like a good thing, that’s a pretty profound identity change to navigate. Who are you if you’re not who you’ve always told yourself you are?

So protecting one’s heart is, on the one hand, a completely rational thing to do. The problem is, at least on the show, the characters who do that end up miserable, lonely, and rather destructive toward those around them. I think that result probably occurs on Earth as well as in the Enchanted Forest.

But if we do choose to open our hearts, we might find ourselves happy, though more likely at a beginning than an ending.

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.