Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Rock of Sisyphus

       Sisyphus led a treacherous, murderous life, and he was rightly punished for it. Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a rock up a hill – only it was an enchanted rock, and every time Sisyphus reached the summit it would roll away and tumble back down to the bottom.

       Sisyphus would begin again. But he never complained. He accepted his fate. In fact, he more than accepted it – he embraced it.

       In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus finds something heroic in Sisyphus’s resignation. No one would blame Sisyphus for giving up and muttering, “Why bother?” But he doesn’t. In spite of the apparent meaninglessness of his task, Sisyphus’s resilience imposes meaning. Life is absurd says Camus, yet we get up every day and do it again anyway. And it is from our struggle that meaning comes.

       We do the laundry even though our clothes will just get dirty again. We empty the trash knowing it will fill back up. We put gas in the car even though it will be soon be empty. We go to work and have the same conversations about the same subjects with the same people, drink the same coffee, tackle the same challenges, face the same absurdities, and watch helplessly as the inbox grows faster than the outbox no matter how hard we push.

       It’s never finished. We’re never done. There is no such thing as the end of the road.

       Sisyphus reminds us of the cyclical nature of our work. Life is not linear – it spirals into the future in a series of concentric arcs. Here it is Tuesday again, here it is lunch again, here I am washing my bowl again. Déjà vu is simply the recognition of this fact: we have been here before, many times.

       In the face of this repetition we might be forgiven for slipping into despair. “What’s the point,” we might mutter in our more melancholic moments. But despair isn’t inevitable. In fact, maudlin resistance to the apparent absurdity of life is, when you come right down to it, a pretty lousy read. In Camus’s final analysis, the world is neither absurd nor not-absurd – it is indeterminate. It is left for us to decide. Only we can carve the shape of our own meaning. That is why Sisyphus is such a hero to Camus. It doesn’t get any more meaningless than pushing a rock up a hill. The rock doesn’t do anything, it isn’t for anything, and it’s just as useless at the top of the hill as at the bottom. Yet we must see Sisyphus as triumphant.  

       Like Sisyphus, we have the power to turn our fate into a blessing. We cannot change the past, nor most of the conditions around us, but we can always choose new thoughts about those events and circumstances. In the boundlessness of consciousness, we are radically free to impose meaning onto the absurdity of life. It is only from our willful commitment and decisive action that meaning emerges. Life is not a fantasy – it’s an activity. When we come out of our head and into our body, life springs from every pore. When you throw your shoulder into the rock and push, the meaninglessness of the world disappears like a bad dream in the light of day. 

        When we perform our duty, says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, we participate in the divine play through which the whole universe comes into being. Of course we never accurately assess the value and scope of our work. How could we? We cannot see all the ripples that emanate from every intention, every gesture, every word, and every action. We must simply trust that we are enough. What else can we do? We are only one man, one woman. There is quiet heroism in facing every challenge nobly, and in playing our part in the great unfolding. Despite how it feels in our worst moments, everything matters. There are no small parts, only small actors.

[This piece was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the July/August 2016 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here by permission.]  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wild and Precious Life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
                                                                        ~ Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

It is the sacred task of poets, songwriters, and artists of all stripes to awaken us to our own magnificence. They plumb our depths and announce the ugly impotence of our fear. They celebrate our breathtaking bravery in the face of certain annihilation. They illuminate the beauty of the world with light drawn from the funeral pyre of our grieving. They shadow us as we carry out our appointed tasks and pop up suddenly through the cracks of our inattention. They inspire us on the climb and balm our wounds. Artists use images normally consigned to dreams and bathe the waking world with their strangeness, eliciting melancholy, memory, hope, breathless longing, and wild aspiration. Were it not for the lifting power of art we would bog down in the minutiae of our pedestrian duties, little more than cogs in the machines we have made. Art saves. Art awakens the grandeur of our significance. Art gives us a reason to go on.        
 And it does it by asking all the right questions.
            Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
            Not everything is possible. We don’t have forever. Most of the elements of life are handed to us. We didn’t ask for most of this. We did not choose our race, ethnicity, or national origin. We did not choose our parents or brothers and sisters. We did not choose the century we were born in. We did not choose our gender or sexual orientation. We did not choose the shape or height of our bodies, nor our hair and eye color. We did not choose the economic class of our family of origin. We did not choose the city, state, neighborhood, or house we grew up in. We did not choose the other kids in our neighborhood and in our classrooms, the kids that would become the change agents in our lives, the kids that would spark our interest in music, or books, or baseball, or drugs, or surfing, or camping, or crime. We did not choose our genetic proclivities for introversion or extroversion or a hundred other traits. All of these choices were made for us. But within this rich tapestry of context we still had free will and an infinite array of options before us. We don’t control the weather, other people, or the past. But we’re radically free to choose our thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes. And now that many of us are all grown up, with fewer years ahead than behind us, we see as clear as glass that our own choices had a bigger impact on our life than all of the given conditions in which that freedom played out.
            The bracing and inspiring heroism of the human experience is the capacity to wrest freedom from the fate we are handed. To wallow in the tired and false dilemma – is life meaningless or meaningful? – is to miss the point entirely. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. It is we who impose meaning on the phenomenal realm by the heft of our choices. Like sea mist rising from a jagged shoreline, meaning arises from the vigor of our engagement with the travails of our lives.           
In another poem Mary Oliver asks a different question: “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” It is an accusation. It is a question meant to catch us unaware, and nearly shame us into real self-examination. It’s pretty in your face. Artists are like that.
            The good news is that there’s plenty of inspiration lying at our feet, at our fingertips, within earshot, and hidden in plain sight. The more we struggle with real questions, the clearer it becomes. The jewel of the world is polished by our suffering, burnished by our longing, and laid bare by our awkward flailing. All around us are clues to the infinite value of the nameless mystery. When we see with eyes made new by an open heart we see a world worthy of love. Confusion gives way to clarity. Woundedness gives way to healing. Paralysis and ennui give way to fluid fascination. We begin moving in the direction in which we are called, not sure of every step, but filled with an unearned conviction that all of this suddenly matters, and much more than we ever thought before. In our sleep everything was blanketed with the fog of unconsciousness. But as we awaken, the whole world awakens with us.
            Our boredom, our restlessness, our dissatisfaction – these are a call to action. They impel us to take risks we previously and studiously avoided. I don’t know what we were afraid of, or what we were protecting, but our suffering drives us onward. We don’t fully know the dangers that lay ahead, but they can’t be any worse than this sadness, this frustration, and this fear that we’re wasting our lives. Eventually the conviction arises that what lies ahead is worth the risk. Soon we viscerally and completely understand the words of Joseph Campbell when he wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” We learn to take risks and leap where prudence counsels us to wait and hold back. The darkness of the unknown, the fear of failure, and the threat of annihilation are no match for the joy that draws us forth. “Find the place inside you where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain,” wrote Campbell. And he’s right. Our joy is always brighter, stronger, surer, and more real than any so-called obstacle. Joy trumps fear and pain every time.
            Looking back we see that our blunders and weakest moments were signposts that showed us how to navigate the path ahead. As Campbell wrote, “Where you stumble, there lie your treasures.” Without our failures we would have utterly lost our way.
            Too many times we got it wrong. We misread our mistakes. We misread our fears. We ran from both ashamed, leaving unredeemed treasures scattered on the road behind us. It’s time to get it right. It’s time to let our loving show us the way toward our own best life. It’s time to stop crawling along on our bellies, apologizing for being alive, worrying about what other people will think. Let them go. They have their own roads, their own standards, their own struggles. Life is wild and precious, as Mary Oliver wrote, and a treasure too valuable to squander on fear and misgivings. There is a meadow or a field or a forest or a seashore right outside your door – go there and listen. Really listen. Sit on the ground and wait. Let the flight of birds and the paths of clouds point the way. Let the wind through the trees be a song of your unfolding. And in the stillness hear your own heart asking you to finally, firmly, and lovingly claim your place in the heartbreaking beauty of the world.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Our Sacred Longing

Sometimes it’s a subtle nudge. Other times it’s an insistent desire. We can’t tell if we’re being pulled toward something or pushed away from something else, or both. All we know is, we can’t stay here.
            Frustrations mount. Powerful emotions like sadness and anger cloud our vision. We know we’re not happy, but we don’t know why. Things feel stale, old, and uninspiring. How do we break out, and when we do, where are we supposed to go, what are we supposed to do, and who are we supposed to be?
            This cosmic restlessness drives us like a lash. It impels us to sail oceans, cross continents, climb mountains, write symphonies, create solutions out of problems, draw healing out of woundedness, and forge justice out of suffering. Everything great every human being ever did came from this one source: our sacred longing.
            If we are a spark from the Divine Mind as the Stoics taught, or if we are a manifestation of Brahman as Vedanta teaches, or if we are a mixture of matter and spirit as the Bible teaches, or if we are all Buddhas waiting to awaken as Buddhism teaches, then the energies that move through us are not entirely our own. We are fountains through which the holy waters flow. Our only duty then is to stay open to what is trying to move through us, as us. Our lives are the way the universe heals itself.
            In his poem Each Note, the Persian Sufi poet Rumi (1207-1273) put it this way:

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing-pain.
                                                Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.
Go up on the roof at night
In this city of the soul.
Let everyone climb on their roofs
And sing their notes!
Sing loud!

            In Rumi’s image, the world is God’s flute, and each need coming through us is a note from that flute. Therefore, our yearning to grow, to create more, to have more, to be more, is a sacred longing born not from ego or fear, but from the divine flow that pours through everything around us. It’s the budding of the blossoms on the branches, it’s the powerful tail stroke of the humpback whale swimming thousands of miles home to its calving grounds, it’s the discipline of a young medical student pushing through the impossible conditions of residency, it’s the courage of the soldier running toward danger to save a wounded brother-in-arms. In this sense, our passions are not our own – they’re a message from the source. We are called to manifest our potential, keep our divine appointment, and honor our roots by daring to bloom boldly and humbly. Our own happiness is impossible without this alignment. If we fail to give way to what is trying to arise through us we not only dishonor our source, we also rob the world of whatever ripples our loving would have stirred in others. It is not for us to say no. We must always have the holy word upon our lips – yes.
            Another Persian Sufi poet, Hafiz (c. 1320-1389) put it this way:
Now is the time for the world to know that every thought and action is sacred.
This is the time for you to deeply compute the impossibility
that there is anything but Grace.
Now is the season to know that everything you do is sacred.

            If Grace is all there is, if all aspects of realty exist in a single, vast, interconnected web, then we can rest in the knowledge that we are supported. This means that our own best thoughts, intentions, convictions, passions, empathies, and actions are also woven into this same singularity. And if you learn how to be still through meditation, contemplation, yoga, prayer, sacred service, reverie in nature, or aesthetic rapture you soon feel for yourself this interweaving grace. No one has to tell you about it, explain it to you, or prove its existence. Your own unimpeachable experience confirms its existence, even, its primacy.
            And then finally you can dispense with this “I’m not good enough” business. That tired mantra is shown for the lie that it is. We wake up and realize that our imperfections are part of the process. Awkwardness is natural in any evolutionary transformation. The doe can hardly walk when it’s newly born. The wings of a just-hatched bird are good for nothing but wild gestures. So too our efforts often pale in comparison to a conceptual ideal. No matter. There is music and majesty in the simple effort to be good, to reach farther, to be more. The vision of flight comes before the flight, every time. Vision and intention have the power to arrange outer conditions until they align. You are good enough, because there is nothing but grace – and this truth is shown to us over and over again through the lens of our loving.
            In her poem Wild Geese, American poet Mary Oliver puts it this way:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
            It isn’t mysterious. Our love shows us where to turn. When we “follow our bliss,” as Joseph Campbell put it, we feel in our bones that we are finally, fully alive. Our sacred longing, our wordless loving, the unassailable convictions born only in the clarity of direct experience all lead us toward our own best life. We don’t have to wonder anymore. We know what to do. As Rumi put it, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”