Sunday, August 12, 2007

Loosing It, Finding It

Normally, during the course of each week I think about this column and I'm on the lookout for what I am going to write about. Because people are interested in what it's like to live in a monastery, I look for things that have happened and I investigate how those things have affected me, both interiorly and in the more external parts of my life. Almost always during the course of the week it becomes obvious that something that has happened is "it" for this week: this is what I'm going to write about.

That didn't happen this week. I arrived at this morning with no sense at all of what I was going to write. Nothing. What was going on that I wanted to look at? Nothing. What special thing has happened that would be interesting to explore? Nothing. What's going on spiritually that would be profitable to examine? Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And on the way up the stairs to my office, I thought: "Well, this is it. I have to write something. What's it going to be?" And I answered myself: "I don't know. Nothing has happened this week." Then I thought: "Oops! That must be it."

Is it true that nothing has happened this week? Of course not. Among the things that I think about just off the top of my head are:

  • The pace of life right now is very different from my usual pace. There are no guests for the whole month. It's quiet. We move in a more relaxed way. Our meals are longer because we have time to spend with each other in easy conversation. We catch each other in various places during the day and just have a few moments to spend. It's easier to find time to meditate, to read, to study.
  • The chef is on vacation while the guesthouse is closed so we're cooking for each other. It's quite wonderful what a dimension this adds to our life. Those of you with families may not think of this, but you get to know a person in a whole different way when they are cooking for you: their tastes, the care they take to make sure it's 'good', just the fact that they are caring for you in this way, deepens our experience of each other
  • With everything around the place quieter the local wild life has noticed and has come out to play. The field below the monastery has been full of deer, including two tiny fawns, still with their spots and all their timid curiosity. There has been a flock of about 3 dozen turkeys relishing the big empty field full of grasses and grains. The bald eagles that fly above the Hudson River come a little closer and a little bit more often. Mice, bats, snakes, stray dogs, insects: we live in the midst of a settlement of life that is much more hidden during most of the year.
  • We have made a temporary chapel in one of the guesthouse common rooms while the new heating system is installed in our church. At Mass this morning I was facing the river. The wind was blowing over the surface into wavelets and the sun was at exactly the right angle to create a thousand flashing gold and silver points as it reflected off the surface of the water. At the other end of the day, the evenings are long and lovely, and the first hints of fall can be seen in some subtle color changes, and the angle at which the sun is now setting. The long, slow evenings are exquisite.

Do I really think that nothing has been happening? Of course not. Life unfolds as it always does, in a thousand thousand different ways each day.

I mean, of course, that I haven't been paying attention. I've allowed my sense of the present moment to lapse. My openness to the wonder of what is around me, which is normally pretty good, has gone underground. I have been, in a word, oblivious.

This happens to us all, of course, on a regular basis. So it isn't grist for my guilt mill - or at least it needn't be. But it is important. It's important because it is just this state of oblivion that all of us get into that is the cause of those moments when we catch ourselves thinking: "Where has my life gone?. Where did those years disappear to? How has all this time passed?" Harry Belafonte sang of his children so poignantly many years ago: "I don't remember getting older. When did they?"

My life hasn't gone anywhere, of course. It has been here all along, every moment, all those years. I am the one who has been absent. This sense of missing life is an important tap on my shoulder. "Come back" it says. "Come back to me."

And it isn't going to happen without some work. Having a definite practice of meditation is central in keeping me in touch with my life. Taking a few minutes each evening to reflect on the day is important, too: what's been in this day? what do I feel real joy about? what do I wish had been different? Is there something that needs to be changed?

Most of all, I need to bring this practice of the present moment into each day as the time moves on. Notice where I am. Notice how it feels. Notice what I'm doing. When I discover that I've drifted away, bring myself back to this moment. And then, as one of my teachers said: "Repeat this process several billion times."

Is this important? Oh, yeah. What could there be that's more important than living my life? What is more crucial than the moments when I realize that I've drifted away from myself and make the effort to come back? Doing this leaves me with a sense of fullness rather than emptiness. It has a lot to say about why I'm here in this world and what the meaning of it is.

And so I've learned to value those moments when I feel that nothing has happened. I have a deepening sense of thankfulness for the times when I wonder where my life has gone. I don't have to take them as indications of failure. They are a call - God's call, if you will. They call me to come back to myself and to my life. I'm supposed to be here, where I am, with all of the joy and the pain and the satisfaction and the disappointment that being here holds. This moment is, in fact, all that I have. It's so important to actually have it.

(And if you've read this far, you'll probably want to know that I'm going to be gone for the next couple of weeks. I'm off to Minnesota for some vacation, and when I get back I go immediately to Cornell for several days. So it will be the end of the month before I appear in this space again. Hope you're some nice time, too.)

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