Why do we think there is more to it than seeing, hearing, understanding and re-sponding as needed to “the situation as it arises”? Why do we think there is more to it than offering behavior appropriate to the occasion?
In the church of our experience, people carefully toed the line, every line, all lines, because they were told that if someone saw them stepping over a line, by drinking alcohol, say, he or she might get the wrong idea and be led astray and not know that they were only drinking a little alcohol very infrequently, and take it as proof that it is okay for him, or her, to drink a lot of alcohol all of the time and be lost for all eternity, which would not bode well for us, the source of his, or her, temptation and fall. What the church of our ex-perience didn’t tell us is that wrong ideas might appear anywhere, at any time, and there is no way we can live such a narrowly defined and tightly structured life—that we can live so by the book—that no one will never get the wrong idea about us.
Wrong ideas are the easiest things to have and the hardest things to keep from hav-ing, certainly the hardest things to keep others from having about us. We have to trust all of us, ourselves, one another, and every other person on the planet, to wake up even though we are covered over by, and immersed in, our wrong ideas, with them dangling from our clothing and swinging from our appendages and birthing their children in our pockets and in their nests fashioned in our hair. We have to wake up in the midst of our wrong ideas.
We have to be able to wake up anywhere, even in the grip of wrong ideas. We do that by thinking about our thinking. “What are we thinking?” We have to ask ourselves that about everything we think. “What makes us think that?” “Why do we think what we think and not something else instead?” And, when we come upon someone who thinks dif-ferently than we do we have to examine what makes it easy for them to think the way they think and what makes it easy for us to think the way we think. And, we have to see every experience as an opportunity, an invitation, really, to think about our thinking and wonder about our ideas—to develop eyes that see, ears that hear, hearts that understand.
We have to see our experience as saying more about us than about the world of our experience. The world is a mirror reflecting our ideas and values and perceptions and per-spective back to us. The rule is simple: Look in the mirror! What mirror? All the mirrors! Every single thing that happens and our response to it. Everything is a mirror, reflecting us back to ourselves. We wake up by seeing ourselves everywhere we look, in everything we see.
It is as though we are living the dream, and have to interpret the dream in the act of dreaming it, in the moment of living it. Messages from the dream world are difficult to de-cipher and more difficult to remember. We have to be particularly attuned to the experi-ence of the dream to have a chance. The same thing goes for our lived experience. We really have to be particularly attuned to every experience. Our waking life is as alive and as likely to show us ourselves as our sleeping life, but we sleep through it, unseeing, un-knowing. So, we have to pay attention to everything to have a chance. What are our lives saying to us, about us? We can never take anything for granted, look past anything. The in-visible world is always breaking into, and through, the physical world to those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that understand.
In order to catch the invisible world in the act of breaking into the physical world of normal, apparent reality, we have to be awake to the truth of our own experience, to what is happening, and how we are responding to what is happening, and what we wish were happening instead. We have to observe ourselves in the act of living our lives, just as we would observe ourselves in the act of being a part of a dream experience. What do we understand about ourselves when we see ourselves responding as we do to our lives as we do?
What is being asked of us? What is being offered to us? In order to respond freely to the circumstances of our lives in receiving what is being offered and in offering what we have to give, we have to live out of a quiet center. A quiet center is essential for seeing, hearing, understanding and responding to “the situation as it arises” with behavior that is appropriate to the occasion. Listening for what needs to be said, for what needs to be done, is different from thinking we know what needs to be said and done. The purpose of “peace and serenity” is to live well in—to deal well with—the press of life. How to quieten the center is the question. Spiritual practice is the answer. We have to have a practice that connects us with the center and distances “the world,” that separates us just enough from “the world” to provide perspective and “working room.”
A spiritual practice is something we do without trying. It can be anything we do without trying. Sitting works unless we are trying to sit. Quilting works unless we are try-ing to quilt. Walking works unless we are trying to walk. In my tennis days, hitting balls against a backboard was a spiritual practice because I wasn’t trying to effect a particular outcome. I could lose myself in the rhythm of hitting the ball, distance myself from the noise in my life, and simply be present in the moment without trying to wrestle the mo-ment into submission to my will for the moment. Carrying the quiet over into the rest of our lives, allowing the practice to insulate us from the noise of our lives, is one of the bene-fits of a practice engaged in over time. When life gets loud, we can mentally shift to the backboard and the tennis ball, provide ourselves with listening room, and respond to the moment out of our distance from the moment. We have to separate in order to be con-nected.
The work of spiritual development is the work of maturity and grace. It is the work of growing up, and that is the work of awareness, the work of knowing what’s what, and what’s being asked of us, and what is called for—what constitutes behavior appropriate to the occasion. It is the work of seeing, hearing and understanding, which includes thinking and acting and being. Right seeing, right hearing, right understanding, right doing, right being. And it all hinges on our creating a quiet center from which to perceive and be aware of our lives and what we think needs to happen.
Our hunches guide us, our guesses, our sense of what needs to be, our intuition, our instinct. It’s how we know a bad place is a bad place before we know why we think that, or a good place is a good place. Cognition is felt before it is conscious. We have to know what we know before we know how we know it, or what makes us feel what we feel.
The work is to be as awake as we can be to the present experience of our lives. To wake up, we have to be conscious of our experience, of what is happening and what needs to happen, and what we have to offer to “the situation as it arises. That’s it. Our life’s work is waking up. Nobody can do it for us, or tell us how to do it.
How it ought to be done, how to live, what to do when—we do not know these things by learning the rules, or laws, or formulas, or recipes, or strategies for having it made. No one can tell us these things. We cannot be taught how to live. We learn to live by living with our eyes open to the impact of our experience, and listening beyond words to what is striving to come into being through us in the world. We have to listen into our life experience, as we might listen into a dream experience, in order to see more than meets the eye, and hear what is being said to us by our reactions to our lives.
Life is not handed to us. We have to go in search of it, we have to open ourselves to it, we have to get out of its way and allow it to come forth in us, and through us into the world. We can have our ideas for life which have nothing to do with being alive in the way that only we can be alive. The question is, “Whose side are we on?” Are we “with us,” with our lives, with the life that is trying to come forth in us, in our life, or “against us”? How do we know? The quiet center, the spiritual practice, and awareness, awareness, awareness. When we are aware, what are we aware of? What we need to be aware of is the life that is calling us, the life that is waiting to be born in us—and what is keeping us from hearing and heeding that call.
How do we experience our experience? What do we extrapolate from it, extract, em-phasize, glean? From everything that happens to us, we choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore. We emphasize one thing at the expense of all the others. We choose what disturbs us. We choose what to say about what happens to us. What governs our choices? In the course of living our lives, we adopt a certain posture in relation to the things that happen to us, and in relation to the people we live with. Why that posture and not some other posture instead?
What are the things that are always happening to us? What are we always doing in response to the things that are always happening? What are we always talking ourselves out of, or into? What themes keep running through our lives? What keeps the perspective in place that keeps seeing the same things over and over, that keeps the themes in place, and ignores other, equally valid, possibilities?
We make of it what we will, but what positions us, what makes it easy for us, to make of it what we do? What stimulates our thinking, our living? We have to find what calls us beyond where we have been, away from where we are, and invites us to consider our lives from different points of view. We cannot live as they live in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and in the Vatican, and on Capital Hill—unconscious and unaware. What are the forces and the counter-forces at work in our responding to life as we do? Who can listen to us as we talk about these things? Where do we go to carry out the work of waking up, growing up? Why don’t we mold ourselves into the kind of place this can happen? Is there a better idea of what to do with the rest of our lives?