Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Smooth as Stone

I have a smooth palm-sized river stone on my desk, right beneath my computer monitor, a nice juxtaposition of high tech and no tech. I sometimes hold it in my hands when I don’t have anything to say. Silence is the language of stones.

It feels heavy and cool on my skin. I feel it pulling toward the ground, waiting for my wrist to twist or my fingers to part so it can slip from its perch and return to mother earth. I never let go. Stones teach patience.

No rock begins this way, smooth and round. Rocks begin jagged. Then sand and water and other rocks bash and scrape and grind away at the edges until only the smooth round middle remains. Everything unessential is gone. Songs and poems and people and ideas and nations and marriages begin the same way; messy, unfocused, complicated, overwrought, cluttered. Then along comes the scouring. Without the friction and the conflict and the constant, painful cutting away, the beauty of the final stage is never revealed, cloaked forever beneath peripheral layers of obfuscation and detritus. The secret of life is learning to love the cutting away.

As we strive to create our best lives, as we endeavor to hone our craft, fortify our fortunes and magnify our excellence, we learn the art of intention and practice the law of attraction, thinking that by drawing toward us everything we lack we will eventually be fulfilled. Manifesting situations, conditions and objects out of the field of pure potentiality is a worthy goal. But lost in this model is the simple truth that we already are everything we seek.

Maybe we have it backwards. Maybe instead of adding this skill and that quality and this new piece of equipment, we ought to be letting things fall away, jettisoning everything that isn’t genuinely, authentically real. When we let slip the limiting labels we use to define ourselves, our essence begins to emerge. 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart said that we become who we really are not by a process of addition, but by a process of subtraction.

In a famous anecdote about the sculptor Michelangelo, he was asked by an admiring patron how he managed to create the masterpiece “David”.

“When I approached the marble,” he replied, “I simply removed everything that was not David.”

Like most philosophical advice, this is easier said than done. How do we cooperate with the forces around us, the forces that will peel back the cocoons of our own becoming?

How did this river rock reach this stage of its own beauty? By bumping up against the messy world, by following the flow of larger currents, by letting itself be pulled away and dragged and dropped until it lost all sense of separateness. With each encounter it left its mark on others, at the same time feeling the shape of its own life change. People often try to change all by themselves. Rocks do it together.

We do not have to know what all the steps are. Nor do we have to choreograph them. We only have to willingly surrender to the yearnings of our own deeper nature, then step forward courageously, humbly and in the consciousness of service. Let the river do the rest. Life will meet us head on. Difficult people will scrape up against us. Circumstance will rip away all our carefully constructed comforts. Our own misguided instinctual drives will draw us into destructive decisions and actions that will take years to repair. Pain will shatter our façades and death will flag our every step. But throughout the rough and tumble of this watercourse, we grow smoother and smoother every year as the disingenuous artifice is ground away by the hardships of our lives. “The trials we endure,” wrote Epictetus, “introduce us to our strengths.” In our dawning maturity, we thank our enemies and honor our failures, for without them, this growing wisdom would have fallen stillborn to wither on the bright plains of our misspent youth.

“All first drafts are shit,” said Ernest Hemingway. Having the backbone to cull the garbage from your writing, your song, your poem, indeed your life is the mark of a great artist. The only thing worse than a half-baked song is a half-baked songwriter. If our lives are our masterworks, then everything is at stake. We have been given an opportunity in the march of these days to step to the beat of our own drum or follow the beat of another. From the copious bounty of our lives we draw the sustenance that will fuel our muscles for the march, knowing that there is always another meal and another cool drink of water around the bend. Letting go of thoughts and behaviors that no longer serve us, mindfully culling the clutter from our homes and to-do lists, leaving room for new growth to rise up, take root and bloom – these are the gifts we receive on the road toward our awakening, this joy is the fruit of our renunciation, this verdant emptiness is the silence out of which the music of our lives emerge.

“Pay attention to your enemies,” wrote Antisthenes in the 4th century B.C.E., “for they are the first to discover your mistakes.” As a devoted protégé of Socrates (and witness to that tragic ending), Antisthenes taught that misfortune and opposition ultimately serve us better than easy living and blind support. Unlike friends and lovers, enemies have no stake in our fortune – they’re success is utterly unhinged from ours. In this light, difficult and abrasive people are a profound gift; they are sandpaper to our soul leaving us lighter, smoother and more deeply beautiful.

Would we rather be rough-edged, difficult to warm up to, loud, caustic, inelegant, chaotic, bloated, overblown, ineffective, awkward and hard to love? Or would we rather be simple, smooth, graceful, centered, grounded, powerful, clean, elegant, quiet, concise, clarified and effective? Let life wear away your sharp edges. Thank your enemies. Honor your challenges. Know that when you lose, you win. Welcome the struggle. Let it bring your essential, authentic self to the surface. Learn to glide. Let everything that’s false fall away. Become who you really are. Become as smooth as stone.