I language the world for a living. And though I hate to admit it (because it’s bad for business) it really can’t be done. As a writer, lecturer, and singer-songwriter, my entire career has been a quixotic battle to achieve the impossible. I strive to express what cannot be expressed. I oversell and under-deliver every single day.
And yet I keep trying. Because you get close. Once in a while you pierce the fog with the bright shard of an idea, a fortunate turn of phrase, an apt metaphor. You get close to naming the mystery. You almost sing truth. But stepping off stage you know you missed it. Your old friend disappointment comes to visit. You didn’t get it, not really. But on the calendar a string of speaking events, concerts, and writing deadlines loom before you, like downstream towns on a river journey – chances to try again. You’ll do better next time.
I guess all work is like this. Raising children, starting a business, writing books, mastering any craft. You begin with the end in mind, or at least what you imagine the end to be, and you get busy. But you don’t really know what you’re doing, or where this is all going, or what value any of it will have. You have nothing to guide you but your gut sense that this is worthwhile, that it matters, that it will somehow help others meet their own nameless needs. Because that is one thing you do know – that all work is service, that we are all here to play our part in a symphony of infinite complexity and breathtaking beauty. Seen this way, life begins to shimmer with significance, and you begin to see your choices as instruments wielded not by your narrow self-interest but by the cosmos itself. It no longer feels like you alone are doing this. It’s more like you are being led or called or compelled by something not you. Maybe the way we show up and offer our gifts is how the universe shows up and offers its gifts. Everything in the foreground is the mouthpiece through which the background depths speak. When you get out of your own way your true voice emerges.
When you begin to understand this better, you begin to relax. You let go of the illusion of control and you renounce the need to be perfect. You know that who you are, how you are, and what you are is enough. And with a sense of play you go about improving your work in a thousand little ways, not because what you did last time was lousy – it wasn’t – but because something better is trying to emerge through you, as you. And who are you to interfere with that?
It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to have all the answers before you begin. It’s inspiring to know that your own nameless longing is the same nameless longing that courses through everything. And it’s empowering to know that our private suffering connects us to one another in a web of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” We are never alone. There is no such thing as alone.
As we deepen into the realization that our yearning is not a private pang of deficiency, but the cosmos longing to give birth to itself through us, we surrender, let go, smile, and shift into optimism and wonderment. Being a witness and a participant of this great unfolding is our highest bliss.
The 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way: “What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1,400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”
And 13th century Sufi poet Rumi put it this way in his poem Each Note:
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!
When we live authentically, answering the call and courageously trading security for the danger of self-realization, we honor ourselves and the universal source in one fell swoop. How can this not lead to rewards unimagined in more timid hours?
We do not breathe – we are breathed. We do not sing– we are sung. We do not make art – art makes us. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” And when you begin to experience life this way – not as a private event but as a wave in a boundless sea of waves – you slip into illumined stillness and from there everything is possible.
It is the role of the artist to bring forth these realizations in ever new forms relevant for their time and place, and to show us our oneness. Art connects us all in a binding ritual and reminds us of our common humanity. Art crosses all borders, no, annihilates all borders. The storytellers and film makers who reveal our secrets through the lives of their characters, the musicians who color our silence with sound, the poets who say the unsayable, the painters who show what cannot be seen, the sculptors who wrest shape from shapelessness – artists re-present the ineffable power of our own lives to us over and over again, and in this way affirm us in our limitlessness and infinite beauty.
As Meister Eckhart said, we are here to give birth to God – the formless source that takes form as our thoughts, our bodies, our words, our actions, and the majesty of the entire cosmos. “God is always needing to be born,” he wrote, and he was right. As we midwife one another’s birthing, and as we endure the sometimes agonizing process of our own birthing, we honor ourselves, each other, and the sacred source. Our lives are the instruments through which the universe sings. And as Rumi wrote, “Let your note be clear…be your note. I’ll show you how it’s enough.”