A friend of mine, whom I count as being very wise, asked me the other day, quite authentically, what the difference was between knowledge and wisdom. Because of my general regard for her, I thought it was a trick question! But no, she really wanted to know if my definitions of the two were the same as hers. So after a brief conversation about how knowledge is just a collection of facts, and wisdom is the experience of putting knowledge into action (to which we pretty much agreed), I had to think about it. Do we really have to experience something in order to be wise? I would say, usually, because we're all pretty much like lemmings when it comes to learning the hard stuff. "Yep, walked right off that cliff, better not do THAT again!" Hard-headed beings we are. So is the lemming who finally gets it, after walking off the cliff, wise? Or is the wise person the one who watches all the other lemmings walk off the edge and dips out of the line? Or maybe, the really wise person is the one who sees the first lemming walk off the edge, and then holds a "Danger, Falling Lemmings" sign up for all the others. So I guess there are degrees of wisdom, and no one is perfect at "getting it," even though, hopefully, the older we get, the better we are at avoiding cliffs and such.
Stillness and Creativity
I recently had a conversation with a friend about multi-tasking. Guilty to the core of having "so many projects," as Thich Nhat Hanh discourages frequently in his tender voice, I have the tendency to want to boast about how much I do when the opportunity arises! It's so much fun to be so excited about so many things. How important it is for me, then, to remember that when I take a moment of stillness--or many moments--I am really saying to myself, "Shhh, now, and look around you. Please touch in to these moments that are occurring at warp speed, while you finish #79 on today's to-do list!" As I get older, I become more and more aware of my challenge with restlessness (not unlike the challenge of boredom, though restlessness is more of a hot state and boredom a cool one). And as much as I can throw myself into a project and essentially, sweat my mind out, my work is always better--and feels fuller--when my days are riddled with stillness. When we hold our minds empty, aren't we touching the same substance, the same field, from which creation, itself, occurs? This photo I took on the way down from Mt. Mitchell of the owl is a perfect example. I was totally in the moment, and totally aware, totally empty, having just stood on a mountain and taken in vastness. Had I been otherwise, I would have passed the owl up.
Responsible for Our Stories
Telling the sacred stories of our life is important, regardless of whether we have them well-rehearsed or are still living in the middle of them. Recognizing their value and tracing the line they have woven in our lives enables us to understand ourselves better, get in touch with the disparities between self and Self, and make necessary changes. In order to do this though, we have to own our stories. It doesn’t do us any good to keep up a story line that maintains our victim-hood. How do we distinguish which of our stories do this? If our stories—our sacred stories—point the finger and blame others, or our need to tell them derives from a need for sympathy/empathy, then we’re not quite finished with them, nor are they finished with us. We have to be careful: through our stories, we can grow into our stuck-ness, our self-loathing, our ignorance, passion and aggression; or, we can release the old patterns inherent in our stories and transform them into powerful reminders and teachers—both for ourselves and others. These are the sacred stories—those that begin in confusion, scarcity, anger, regret or sadness and end in revelation, transformation and inspiration. What a great difference and power there is in reclaiming our old victim stories and turning them into opportunities for new growth! All we have to do is be willing to be responsible to ourselves, our lives, our processes and our maturity. I was once asked why I was still afraid of situations like some of the ones from my childhood. I thought it was a dumb question. I think I may have shouted, “Because I feel vulnerable!” My wise friend reminded me that I was grown now, and that it was my responsibility to drop the effort it took to maintain the fears that my child-self experienced. We don’t live in a vacuum, it’s true, and people and situations can and do hurt us. However, we have sole control over our actions and reactions. At some point in the telling and re-telling of our stories, we have to let other people and situations off the hook and reclaim our own power. Not aggressively, just with a sense of humor. Like the chuckle at the end of a joke we finally get.
Open Space of Gratitude
Exercising our gratitude can create immediate--eye-poppingly fast--openness within. But how do we "exercise" our gratitude? Isn't it just going through a laundry list of "things" and "people" we're grateful for, as if remembering our multiplication tables? Well, sure, we can approach any practice this way, half-heartedly or on auto-pilot. And in the beginning, it may very difficult to do anything else but hope that there's something on the other end of just quietly naming the things we're grateful for. There is a transition though, where an actual buoyancy and lightness of being gets created through the practice and exercise of gratitude. This occurs because when we finally experience deep gratitude, it effectually ENDS the notion that we're separated. Separated from the Divine. Separated from "other" in various forms. It is truly impossible to be immersed in gratitude and still feel separated, because to acknowledge that we've been given something is to fundamentally acknowledge that we are not alone. Someone, or something, has provided for you. Gratitude and awe have a lot in common this way. When we take a moment to run in the open fields of this beautiful and awe-some life we have, in all its ups and downs, joys and challenges, we connect to the very deepest root of our being. We can feel small and big at the same time, let go of our need to know it all and rest in the great mystery, grateful for the ability to witness it.
Cracking Ourselves Up
Here in Asheville, we get pretty used to hearing a lot of Zen-like statements made about everything. Everywhere we look and listen, it can seem like the best answer or response to a difficult situation is to throw up a peace-sign and say, "Love you, Dude!" It's a wonderful environment that can cultivate such compassionate and loving intent; however, this kind of response and attitude is not always realistic, or even sound, from a practice standpoint. To get real, we have to admit that we are real, and that means accepting the nerdier, dirtier, not-so-pleasant-person (especially in traffic) sides of ourselves, that are often nowhere near peace-signs and love statements. Being genuine does not mean being enlightened. And we have to learn how to be genuine first. There's a phenomenon in any spiritual practice that is essentially materialism. Chogyam Trungpa talks about this, as do other Buddhist teachers, especially. We want so badly to earn brownie points for the things we do and learn. We want badges to prove our worth, to remind us and the rest of the world that we're really getting somewhere. I know for myself when I'm doing this backward thinking, that I'm so tense, so grasping, so attached to how things look--I wouldn't want to talk to me at all! It's when we get SO blasted serious that we need to laugh at ourselves the most. Crack ourselves up, literally, and let a little air in to the stuffiness. There's a great cosmic joke out there, and our egos are the punchline.
What would happen if we decided to do an about-face regarding all the things we are currently avoiding looking at? What if in the middle of our day, we suddenly turned and looked at the thing we did four years ago or twenty years ago and have been putting off fully accepting? What if we stopped running from things and stepped out of our patterns of avoidance through addiction (anything that let's us "check-out" for a while)? We would (choose the best answer for you):
1. Hate ourselves.
2. Feel horrible.
3. Lose our friends.
4. Go crazy.
5. Prove that we're not lovable.
6. Realize our parents were right.
7. Realize our kids were right.
8. Realize our ex('s) were right.
9. Be in a lot of trouble.
10. Be bored.
11. All of the above.
Okay, next add the phrase "then die," to the answer you picked. Silly, isn't it? Absurd, really. We can think something awful will happen, but okay, so it wouldn't really be that bad, and then what? What's the worst thing that could happen? Well, we'd die. But we're not going to die if we finally admit to our neuroses. Doing an about-face may be shocking, like a polar plunge, but it's not going to be ultimately morbid (that will happen all on its own). In fact, we'd probably end up with a list more like the following:
1. Love ourselves more.
2. Feel a lot of relief.
3. Be a better friend.
4. Get sane.
5. Know our inherent worth.
6. Be more humble.
7. Be way more humble.
8. Keep our relationships.
9. Be free.
10. Be more alive than ever.
11. All of the above.
Yah? Yah. The only thing in our way of turning around is the fear of what we'll see. But we already know what we'll see, don't we?
I took this photograph back in 2011 near a beach in Florida. It's of a channel with a deceptively fierce current that swings out from a small lake to the Gulf of Mexico, but in this photograph, it could well be a quickly-drying watering hole in the middle of a hot, windy desert. A real bonafide waste place. It made me think of all the times (and there have been more than a few) when I've thought that life held nothing even remotely nourishing for me, let along sustainable and bountiful! Those are the times when I have longed for something to change, righten or resolve. And yet those are the times that usually linger the longest, at least in my short-term memory. After a little time goes by though, I always end up realizing that those waste places in my life were actually rich with food, and out of them has eventually come creativity, patience and wisdom. This picture reminds me to always step back and observe my situation, and judge my slow, waste-place times a little less harshly.
View from the Top
There's nothing like being perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon for a sunset. No fences, no guardrails, no signs warning of sudden and precipitous drops. Just wind and rock and the last vestiges of sun. On this particular May day, I was with my mom, and we had spent the entire day cruising the South Rim vistas: Moran, Lipan and Navajo. Even though she had lived in Arizona when she was younger, she'd never visited before, so it was new for both of us. I played the flute up top here, until the sun was way past the canyon's edge and the stars were a thick quilt all the way to the horizon. Then mom and I reclined on the hood of my car, where it was still warm, and watched the dense Milky Way glitter and swirl. There's something so lovely and precious about being in the presence of vastness. It's comforting to be so small and full of wonderment. The connection to everything is perfect in those moments, and I have to wonder is the ultimate trip to the top of the mountain not rewarded with the same?
There's a commercial that comes on Hulu that always manages to give me the urge to throw something at the TV. It's just a woman, with a very direct face and a soft-spoken, but assured voice, appealing to us to vote against someone here in North Carolina (I bet you know the one). Now, I don't know this woman at all. I just know her as an actress--for an image she projects on my television right in the middle of old Survivor episodes. She doesn't drive me crazy, I don't even know her. The commercial drives me crazy, because it's trying to be so authentic and appealing and genuine, and it's so not. At least, not to me. She's just acting. So of course, in thinking about this, I realize how completely ingenuous and revolting I must come across as, when I'm only pretending to want something. Being honest with oneself is the first step. Here's an exercise: list 10 things that you want. Shouldn't be too hard. Now, close your eyes and visualize yourself having those things that you've listed, one by one. They don't have to be material things, they can be opportunities, moments you'd like to have, things you'd like to do. I'll bet that if you struggle with visualizing any of them, then there's a little hiccup in your honesty with yourself. We're told to want some things and not want others, but visualization--and how much we can taste, smell, hear, see and feel--what we want, is a pretty good indicator of how much we desire something. Now, whether what we want is really good for us or not, is an entirely different question!
Yesterday I journaled about the correlation between our wants and desires and the depth and ease of our ability (or not) to visualize having those things. But how to know what's really good for us? How do we pick and choose our way through life, when there are so many things to be, do and have? Every now and then I meet these wildly amazing people who were born (or seemingly so, anyway) knowing exactly what they were going to do, and then they do exactly that. To me, this seems nothing short of miraculous. Makes me want to scratch my head and say, "Really? How does that happen?" For me, life, and the myriad, never-ending choices it provides, is like a kaleidescope. It's so pretty and changing, that I could just look at it forever. What if I pick incorrectly? What if what I pick is stupid and wrong, and I hate it? If I take a minute to think about my own question, I find that at the bottom is a strong belief in two things which are entirely man-made and fictitious: perfection and failure. Neither of them exist. I'm realizing as I age that these are merely phantoms that I was taught to believe in, that developed into pretty solid beliefs. But they are just phantoms. I can't be perfect, but I can do my best. I can grow. I can thrive and love and realize that others have their right to thrive and love. Earlier on, in the tender days of new consciousness (from which there is no going back from, by the way, sorry), I felt like I needed stricture and to watch myself in case I did anything else hurtful or stupid. I didn't trust myself. That's okay, because I needed to learn how not to be afraid of who I am. Sometimes we get hung up in watching ourselves, like we're four and can't be trusted around breakable things. What if instead, we embraced our own goodness (not perfection) and decided to listen to and trust ourselves? What then?
I'm one of these people who does really well with routine, but I'm not so disciplined when it comes to creating one and sticking to it. Half spontaneous and half focused, I love the feeling of solidity that a routine gives me, but I don't want to be tied in, either. Over the years, I've realized that the perception of being "tied in" is totally something made-up in my head. How can my own choices be a prison? Good question! Maybe the results aren't exactly what I thought they would be. Great, I can make a new choice. I can make a choice to get up early every morning and have a wonderful, grounding routine. I can sit with the kitties in their Zen poses and adopt my pose too, or I can hit the coffee and the computer desk and skip that whole business. No judgment. I figure if I give myself the freedom to pick and don't lay a guilt trip on myself, I'll eventually follow my own intelligence and choose the more peaceful way to start my day. Yesterday, while sitting in meditation, by brain went and called up a memory, and even though I let it pass, I remembered to dig it up later and think on it. When I was eight and nine years old, I would stare at candles and the clouds for hours with barely a thought. I remember loving those moments. I think they finally dissipated when I became aware of how I didn't want them to go away. Funny that thirty years later, and having had a whole lot of thoughts, that I would really enjoy my time being quiet in my head. How long it takes sometimes, to remember the simplest things!
This photo was taken last year at the Nature Center here in Asheville. This little guy (or gal?) was perched on an overhang right above the wolf pen. Just a baby, or at least a toddler, he was struggling with his balance and had obviously not mastered running and jumping. His situation was precarious--and he knew it. He couldn't even leap up to a tree branch or down to something lower. The heights were to high and the lows too low. His little squeaks were audible not only to me, who had to look around to find him, but to the wolves, who knew exactly where he was. While they waited patiently below for him to fall, licking their chops, I lifted by hat to the edge of the overhang and spoke insistently to him to jump. I told him he didn't have a choice if he wanted out of there alive. Maybe it was my tone, which was borderline parental, or he was just really smart, but after about two minutes, the squirrel threw himself off the ledge into my hat. Imagine. For us, that would be like taking a hike on an alien spaceship because Earth was about to go up in flames. Every instinct in him was probably asking, "Really? I'm seriously considering this?" But in the end, this brave critter got up the gumption to choose uncertainty over the sheer doom of being eaten alive. Do you have a leaping opportunity to take? What are you waiting for?