Today’s sharing is a bit like a patchwork quilt, little bits of beauty that I think go together to make an interesting whole. These are the bits that have been going around in my heart recently, quilting themselves together in a way I have appreciated. So I want to offer them to you.
First, somewhere recently I heard about a research study looking at our natural inclination to feel good from feeling useful in the world. I don’t actually remember where I heard this, maybe the podcast Hidden Brain, which I like very much. Anyway, the researchers, whoever they were, looked at several ways that feeling useful, having a purpose feels good. The one that has stuck with me was about babies.
When babies are first born, they don’t actually perceive any boundaries between themselves and their world, a sense of self and other. Fairly young however, I think they said somewhere around 2 - 3 months, babies start by accident finding out about “self” and “other.” One of the first ways this happens is from waving their arms about enough that eventually their arm contacts an object and causing it to move.
Babies are naturally curious. We’re just born that way! So the baby sees the movement and then begins to pay attention. Inevitably the baby has this moment of understanding that they can purposely move their arm in a particular way and effect change on their world. What the researchers studied was— what was the emotional effect for the baby when understanding he/she could have impact on their world. The answer was across the board— joy.
The babies always smiled when they realized that could affect things in their world. It feels good to know we can affect things, and that is a good thing to know.
This is a natural joy mindfulness can bring as well. Mindfulness teaches us we can always affect things in our lives. This doesn’t mean we can make life happen the way we want it too, but rather we can impact what kind of experience we have with whatever life brings us, and knowing this sense of self-efficacy feels good.
I had an example of this for myself this week. I found a new lump under my right arm on the side that I had my breast cancer— so of course my mind goes to single mom of young adults who still need me and the possibility of metastatic breast cancer. So the first part of knowing I could affect my situation involved knowing how to allow room to acknowledge any emotions arising without proliferating an unnecessary worry story before knowing the facts. That’s really nice not to reactively go down that road with something like this!
Then, while obviously hoping the lump would turn out to be something else (it did— scar tissue), I also knew that I could find my footing with whatever the lump turned out to be. Not that that footing would necessary be neat, clean or easy, not that there wouldn’t be ups and downs, maybe even massive ups and downs, but rather that even with metastatic breast cancer, I knew I could again and again re-find my footing and the strongest path forward as needed. This is a good thing to know. It feels good in a strong grounding, to know we have this possibility of affecting how we are with things in our world.
Second bit in the quilt fits this perfectly. I read a recent blogpost written by Jody Green from the San Francisco Zen Center about life in the pandemic. I loved one part of it so much, I printed it out and put it on my desk where I could see it regularly. Here is what it says:
Jody Green https://blogs.sfzc.org/blog/2020/04/27/every-day-is-a-good-day-zen-and-the-art-of-sheltering-in-place/
A beloved Zen koan insists, “every day is a good day.” I worry that the aphorism rings somewhere between outrageous and obscene, in a time of so much suffering and loss, and yet it has been in my head a lot these days, a quiet pulse of words within the silence.
The teaching does not mean that every day is happy, easy, or pleasing to my personal preferences. It means, as I understand it, that when I am willing to be intimate with the circumstances arising right now, no matter how difficult or perilous, no matter how constrained, when I am willing not to turn away or to try to escape, at that moment I begin to live my life.
Wishing that this day were another or a “better” day is tantamount to wishing my life away. It is a way of refusing to take care of the life I have, which seems like a terrible response in a time when so many are dying. Every day is a good day because this day is the only day I have, and because having a day, no matter how grief-stricken, terror-filled, or dragon-faced, is a gift, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Learning how to feel into the goodness of a day even when I just found what might be a significant lump under my arm, that’s when I learn about and touch the sacredness of being alive. This koan, Every day is a good day, allows us to tap into something that is always bigger and stronger than the particulars of even the most painful circumstances. It’s beyond logic or the rational mind— which is what sacred is, a perception of a beauty and wholeness that is beyond what the logic or the rational mind can ever make sense of.
Third bit to share: I read a quote from Joanna Macy who, if you don’t know her is an environmental activist and a sort of grandmother to the Deep Ecology movement. She speaks directly to this.
To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe — to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words.
That’s kind of the center design of the quilt, the light that holds it all together. This quote is also sitting on my desk.
The last bit to share might seem at first like it doesn’t quite match. But this is the beauty of a patchwork quilt, those odd bits that make it really interesting. This is a poem from Kabir, a 15th century Indian poet, that I first heard in 2002 in my initial MBSR training. It has stuck with me all these years, but never enough to actually to share it out loud with others. For the first time I can ever remember, I actually went looking for this poem this week.
All that named goodness and sacredness and beauty and joy, that’s nice, but sometimes we still just get distracted and go down a rabbit hole in a different direction. Traveling down that rabbit hole myself this week in a way that didn’t feel good, this poem popped into my mind and I read it with a whole new understanding. For me, it fits:
I Said To The Wanting-Creature Inside Me
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
(Ooo that line! Isn’t it helpful? Do you know what he means?— this inside yearning for the imaginary other side of the river that, because it is imaginary, we can never quite get there no matter how hard we try!)
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it. There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford! And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don't go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
and stand firm in that which you are.
This poem brings me full circle back into remembering the baby’s joy at recognizing they can affect their world. I can too. We all can too. When we throw away imaginary thoughts of wanting things to be the way we think they should be, and stand in this body, breathe this breath, open these eyes, this heart and mind to what is here, we taste again the wonder beyond words that is the goodness of the day.