Sunday, May 4, 2008

Where are we?

It's a heartrendingly beautiful spring afternoon. My wife and I took the canoe across the street and plopped it into the Sparkill pond to paddle around a bit. The lily pads are up; we came across a few painted turtles, a green heron, and swirls of mud in the water, marking the locations that basking grass carp had just departed from.

About 15 minutes into our excursion, we came across a friend who lives on the banks of the pond.

Her mother is dying.

She's been caring for her elderly mother for so many years that, as she herself put it to us, that has become her identity. She's very panicky, almost desperate, at this point; not only is she losing the person who gave birth to her, and who has now become her child, in a sense; who she is and what she does is about to come to an end, and she doesn't know what's going to come next. Her agitation was palpable. All I could do, it was obvious, was quietly listen and be there for her. So I heard what she said and suffered with her.

I meet so many people in life at this age who don't know where they are, or what they are doing. When we are young, and we are driven by urges like sex, money, and the quest for power in society, everything seems clear. There always seems to be an aim, a goal, and a reward. We either get them or we don't; we measure what we are worth by whether we have the stuff or we don't.

It's only with the perspective of age that we begin to see how hollow all of this is. You get into your 50s, and all of a sudden it becomes apparent that the game is not as long as you thought it was; the things that glittered are not as bright as you thought they were, and there seem to be nothing but more questions, no matter what direction you look in.

We wake up in the middle of the night. The moonlight is shining in on the bed and there are parts of us that cannot rest.

We roll over on to one side, then another, then back again, breathing, feeling the pulse of blood as it courses through us. Hearing the eerie call of a nightjar somewhere back in the woods.

The tough questions--the ones we don't ask ourselves in the cold light of day, where things seems safe and normal-- begin to surface.

Where are we?

The traditional way of dealing with this moment in life is to have a midlife crisis. But that is the external way of dealing with it. It does not--cannot-- answer the real questions of why we live within time, what time is, why it passes. It doesn't explain why things fall down and break apart. It doesn't explain why a life is so filled with joy, struggles, sorrow.

Most of us enter spiritual works because we sense that these questions are more important than the ones people usually ask of themselves, and we believe that spiritual effort will give us the answers that are missing. But that isn't necessarily the case. We begin by asking ourselves about the mysteries of life, and as we progress along the path, we find ourselves immersed in mysteries and surrounded by mysteries. We begin to feel like we are peeling an onion with an infinite number of layers.

We want to know who we are, and where we are. The most difficult thing about aging may be that all of those things seem less and less obvious, the more experienced we get.

Lately, I see more and more for myself that I am just within this life. Things are constantly happening; there are a lot of big events taking place in my life right now, things that could cost money, things that are going to cause heartbreak, people who are struggling with dysfunctions. In short, my life is very much like everyone else's; there is a great deal happening, and all of it is challenging and impossible to predict.

More and more I see that this is just where it is, and I am just what I am. I live within these conditions; all of the conditions are mysterious. I try to make up pretty good stories about them; I do what I can to create a form that organizes this experience. But maybe the form isn't real; maybe I don't need the stories; maybe the existence of what is, is in its self a form that needs no explanation from me.

Maybe there is something much more magical and magnificent about just taking everything exactly as it is, inside and outside, than in trying to explain it.

That doesn't mean to stop trying to explain it. Trying to explain it is part of what is as well. It all goes together in one whole; knowing, not knowing, understanding, not understanding. There is just this one thing, this life.

I am in it.

Taking things in this way requires a certain kind of emptiness inside. A place where there isn't anything. Sometimes people refer to this empty place as silence, but even that is a name for it, and it doesn't have a name. It is just open, and prepared to receive life. I have to live in it. I have to inhabit it, that is, dwell within the immediacy of what it is.

I don't know how to do this very well. The challenges and sufferings of discovery leave me uncertain. And it takes a lot more courage to not know that it takes to be certain.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, the one thing that I can rely on is a relationship with my inner self and with the organic sense of my own being. That's real. I may not be able to figure out anything else, or know what anything means, but I can know when I am here and I can know when I am in my body.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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