Where I Am

I experienced a few moments of simply walking across the floor last week. You may not think that’s up there with, say, receiving an Oscar or eating a really good piece of chocolate cake—which for my money is more rare than an Oscar—but I was pretty excited.

Or more exactly, I wasn’t excited, as in, I was not in some self-inflicted state of heightened energy around one thing or the other. Here’s the play by play: I needed to close the curtains because it was dark. I was walking across the floor to close the curtains when all of a sudden, closing the curtains became unimportant.

This is why contemplation is not a spectator sport, not even with a good announcer. She’s walking across the floor, folks. It’s hard to tell whether she’s fully present in the moment or completely distracted by the task she thinks she needs to accomplish. Hold on to your seats. As soon as those windows are covered, we’ll be going courtside for an in-depth interview that will answer the question once and for all.

I spend almost my entire life focused on the thing that comes next—or several nexts down the road—and while I’ve become an expert anxiety creator, I have yet to succeed at being where I am not. Those few steps, on the other hand, were remarkably tranquil. I had no doubt I’d get to the curtains, and at the same time, it didn’t matter whether I made it or not—the moment was sufficient unto itself.

We’ve all had these times of waking up to discover now: new parents marveling over the perfection of their infant’s fingers, awe at the complexity of a flower or the particular electric orange of a sunset. It’s more difficult to see it in the everyday, so I’ve been reminding myself, “The purpose of driving to work is driving,” not getting there and finishing ten projects. “The purpose of washing this spoon is washing this spoon,” not finishing the dishes so I can go upstairs and write a blog and go to bed.

I forget this practice more often than I remember it, and that sense of presence hasn’t returned. But it might.

Seek and, Well, Just Seek

It is so easy to get distracted in this life, and let’s be honest, there are some fantastic distractions, like Agents of Shield or a European bakery window full of tasty delights. Most often for me, though, it’s the inside of my own head.

My brain has been obsessed with the doing end of things recently, and I don’t know about yours, but my brain can be very convincing. I’ve been walking around for several weeks acting as if the voice in my head were describing reality.

I was talking with a monk once who said that his focus for the year was to let God love him. He was probably in his mid fifties at the time—it’s hard to tell with monks—so he’d been doing this pretty intense God thing for at least twenty years and apparently still hadn’t mastered it.

That is reality. That is what doingness mind distracts me from with its promises of fulfillment if only I can cross all the items off the list on time. Never mind that new tasks continually pop onto the bottom of the list, appearing out of the ether with no effort on my part.

Perhaps it is not surprising that we approach life this way. Our educational system is more or less structured this way and so are our jobs. And to some extent so are we. Human beings seem to be internally propelled forward. We choose—or perhaps are attracted to—different directions, but most of us are seeking something most of the time.

While we are certainly capable of wandering off in the wrong direction, maybe the bigger problem arises when, unlike that monk, we become convinced that we can find whatever it is we’re looking for.

Foolish Offerings

Almost every story is about more than one thing. Some stories are about the same thing for years, and then all of a sudden, they’re about something different. That’s how I felt about the story of the loaves and the fishes this year. (If anyone knows why this is the only time we say “fishes” instead of “fish,” please let me know.)

The plot is familiar to most. Thousands and thousands of people to feed, boy offers five loaves and two fish to Jesus, presto chango, full bellies and twelve baskets of scraps left over—hopefully bread scraps. Fish scraps would either smell nasty or require a lot of salt and a serious and immediate group preservation effort.

There are a lot of ways to think about this story, and most of the ones that I’ve considered over the years focus on the multiplication of the food. But this year it occurred to me—or maybe someone else said it and I am stealing her idea—that before any multiplying occurred, the young boy had to offer the loaves and fishes, and he had to do so foolishly.

Why even bother to offer such a paltry amount of food when there are thousands who need to be fed? Why open a soup kitchen when there is chronic homelessness? Why offer a blanket to a refugee who’s just left her entire life behind? Why send a card when someone’s beloved partner or parent has died?

None of these offerings will fix what’s wrong. None of them are sufficient, yet they are what we have and so it is imperative that we offer them. Without the boy’s gift, Jesus is looking at one unhappy crowd. Without you and I sharing our gifts, we’re looking at an empty world.

The multiplying is not up to us. We need only to find the courage to show up in the face of the impossible and say, here, take what I have. That’s when the miracles start.

Allowing Mystery

Richard Rohr, among others, says we live our lives three steps forward and two steps back. One of my big do-si-dos is forward to allowing and back to control. As you may have guessed, the last week or two have not been forward steps.

Among other really clever and subtle methods of control—such as interrupting people to show them I’ve already figured out what they’re going to say—I returned to confusing my to-do list with my life, or perhaps more accurately my self. Because everyone knows that if you can figure out, keep track of, and do everything that needs to be done—and do it well of course—then you are a good, worthy, and fulfilled person. You might even be qualified to run the universe.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, recommends aimlessness instead of striving. “There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda….Your purpose is to be yourself.” It reminds me of the Tao Te Ching’s “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

I don’t think either of them is encouraging my reluctance to wash the dishes. Rather, they’re suggesting letting life unfold according to its plan rather than ours. My to-do list is my plan, and while it’s certainly useful, when I forget that it’s a tool and assign it self-worth-measuring-meaning-of-life status, things go downhill fast.

The more life-giving not-plan is to allow ourselves to be brought into existence, to allow the divine to express what it has in its heart as it continually loves us into being. When I focus all my energy on getting stuff done, it’s as if I’m hoping these things I do will create me, but there’s no room to become anything wider or deeper than I already am, no room for mystery.

Mystery is both what we are and what we are living, what we come from and what we are becoming. We need a good deal of aimlessness to stay in touch with that.

Not Quite Barn Raising

After a mere seven years, my house is now officially painted. OK, with the exception of the downstairs closet and one bathroom door that needs to be replaced anyway, but I’m calling it done.

The final two stages were completed in large part thanks to my mom and three cheerful and generous friends, two of whom, miraculously, actually like painting. Discovering this fact was a little like discovering that some people enjoy being accountants. Who knew such marvels existed?

It’s important to note that this wasn’t only rolling and brushing. In my usual impressively foresightful manner, I had prepped exactly one of three rooms, which means some people washed walls and others taped, definitely the least fun parts of the painting process, yet they did it, as previously noted, cheerfully.

Perhaps the reason communities used to have barn raisings is not only that it made it a lot easier to get your barn built but also that it made the process a lot more fun. I have a pretty clear vision of what painting by myself would have looked like, and it involves a good deal of self-pity, like in the comics when a character walks around with a rain cloud over her head all the time.

But this was enjoyable—maybe not as enjoyable as if we’d all gone out to dinner or the movies but maybe more so. We had a chance to catch up, chat about life possibilities, eat really good watermelon, listen to the Beatles, admire each others’ handiwork, and laugh over our mistakes.

It might not matter so much what we do as who we do it with. Thank you, painting crew, for your help, your good humor, and the reminder that so many things in life are better shared.

Getting Clingy

I received a number of lovely and kind emails this week, each of which I read and, ten minutes later, read again, not so much to enjoy them as to reassure myself that I am loved and appreciated. Because, you know, the pixels might have rearranged themselves to make different words

I think this is what Buddhists call clinging, something Thich Nhat Hanh does not recommend in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Instead he suggests getting up close and personal with the appreciation of impermanence. After all, think what would happen if some things were permanent, like mosquitoes. By now Earth would be so full of mosquitoes that we’d have figured out intergalactic travel.

There are other things that most of us do want to be permanent, though—a really chocolatey chocolate ice cream cone (or vanilla if you happen to be one of those people), our health, that feeling we get when someone expresses her love for us. Apparently we don’t get to pick—clearly a universal design flaw.

In looking into the source of my obsessive email re-checking—another of the Buddha’s suggestions relayed by Thich Nhat Hanh—I found a lack of trust in the abundance of the universe. We live in a remarkably abundant place, from the number of mosquitoes to the number of galaxies—there is a whole lot of stuff here. And a lot of love and nice emails. I’m not saying we’ve worked out the distribution system particularly well among us humans, but that may have to do with this clinging, which I think is related to greed.

The reason greed is called a mortal sin is not that we are extra bad people when we are greedy but that it will kill us and others. We harm ourselves by trying to provide what only God can truly give, whether food or fulfillment, and end up feeling empty. Then, because of that feeling, we start hacking into other people’s inboxes and stealing their best emails. Or simply having too much to eat when others have not enough.

Trust doesn’t mean sitting on the couch and expecting the bag of potato chips to fall into our laps; it means recognizing that we are not the source of our existence, which can be difficult because it’s not what we’re taught. Paradoxically, though, when we don’t worry about when the next kindness will arrive, we can enjoy the present one a lot more.

A Gathering

This is not what I planned to write this week. I planned to write it sometime in the very safe future when everything was prepared and under control. You know that future, the one where hot fudge sundaes are good for you and lemon drops grow on trees.

When I went to my Living School intensive in Albuquerque in June, I learned, among other things, that my writing can be a help in the world. This is probably not a news flash to anyone except me. I know and am grateful that some people find this blog useful, but I never thought of it as service, not like working in a soup kitchen or a prison.

So I decided to gather some of these posts into a book and put it out into the world in some as yet undecided format. I need to give a shout out to Delores, who has been telling me to do this for years and without whose encouragement I might never have considered it, and Bardwell, who suggested it more recently.

It’s interestingly terrifying to tell you I plan to write this book for two reasons: First, you might ask how it’s going at a time when it’s not going at all. Second, there is something revelatory—that is, self-revealing—about claiming to be the one who best knows my form of service in the world and that I know it’s this deep part of me. As David Whyte says in his poem “Revelation Must Be Terrible,”

…revelation must be terrible
knowing you can
never hide your voice again.

A teacher of mine once said that completely different intentions can look the same externally. I used to write to prove myself. Now I’m beginning to see that I can choose to write to be myself, and being our true selves—not our small, accomplishment-driven selves—is not only all that’s asked of us but also all that’s needed.

I would love to have your help in the collection process. If there’s a post you particularly like or a topic you think is important to include, leave a comment or email me at rachelrhenry@gmail.com. There’s a schnazzy new search box in the upper right to help with this endeavor.

Thank you for reading, for your support over the years, for knowing me better than I know myself, and for any suggestions you may have.