What to do while the world is breaking

This feeling you have that you went to bed last night and, when you woke up this morning, someone had broken the whole world and everything in it you thought you had understood.

Do not ignore this feeling. Do not shrug it off.

More likely the world has been breaking all along and you just have not been paying good attention. Look around.

The world, like the heart, is constantly breaking, spilling out its despairs, its loneliness and its fear. And yet there is, inside that soft container, so much joy and purpose and resolve.

You have to work with all of it. You must make yourself see all the pieces scattered around you, each of them out of its habitual place. You must consider each piece carefully and begin to move them around. You must begin to rebuild this world or someone else will rebuild it for you.

Your world is always breaking. That is its nature. This does not mean this is the end. We are constantly rebuilding, reshaping, and remaking. That is our nature.

Find someone you trust. Take stock of all the pieces. Get yourself to work.

An Orange in a Tree

My six year old daughter heard somewhere that the Chinese have an ancient tradition of placing an orange in a tree as a way of making a wish. If the orange stays in the tree overnight, the wish will be granted. If the orange falls out from the tree, the wish will not come to pass.

I haven’t yet taken the time to research this to figure out what she’s talking about. I don’t want to know. I think the idea is perfectly beautiful and, of course, perfectly doomed to fail.

She has a stuffed dog she calls Mudge. My daughter, my wife, Mudge and I live in a house with four real, honest-to-gosh dogs. We feed them, groom them, pet them and generally love them. You probably know where this is going.

My daughter decided that she wanted Mudge to be a real dog so that Mudge could have real dog experiences. She wanted Mudge to eat when fed, to wag when groomed, and to bask in the pleasantness that comes with being generally loved.

Her plan was simple. She put an orange in a tree. This morning as we left for school, she locked Mudge in her room. “If Mudge becomes a real dog while we are gone, I don’t want him getting lost or getting scared by the other dogs.” Very practical. She is a planner like her mother.

After school, she was in a rush to get home and check on the orange. I explained that she might want to dial back her expectations a little bit and that I had never known or heard of a stuffed animal coming to life for any reason but particularly not from placing an orange in a tree.

“We’ll have to see,” she told me, which was not really fair. That’s usually my line.

When we pulled into the driveway, I could already see the outcome of her hopes. The orange had fallen out of the tree.

“Oh man,” she said, genuinely disappointed. There was such sweetness in that voice and a little bit of disbelief. “I thought it would work. Let’s go inside.”

We got inside, greeted by four enthusiastically happy dogs. “Come on. Let’s check,” she said. “Just to be sure.”

She strode down the hall, opened her bedroom door a bit and peered inside. “Mudge?”

She listened for an answer. Hearing none, she opened the door completely and walked to her bed where Mudge lay exactly as she had left him.

She shrugged. She nodded. “We’ll try again in the Spring,” she told me.

“Sure.” I nodded.

My daughter will have her heart broken a hundred thousand times. The world can be mean and petty. Sometimes there isn’t enough magic in it. I know how she feels.

And yet, there is something inside of us, all three of us, that does not die with the disappointment. We will try again in the spring. These are the words of someone who is relentlessly optimistic. My daughter, myself, my family. It is the way we choose to live our life.

Sometimes you hope for things that are never going to happen.

Sometimes you make plans for the impossible.

Sometimes you put an orange up in a tree because someone told you that the Chinese did the exact same thing thousands of years ago. Maybe they. Maybe they didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. If it doesn’t work, we can try again next spring.



January 1, 2014: This is Not the Post You Are Looking For

Today is New Year’s Day. You are probably expecting someone to post the secret recipe for life. This is not the post you are looking for.

I don’t have any answers. If anything, 2013 brought me more questions. Last year was a difficult year, and this year will be more difficult still. People I love are sick. I’m going to lose some of them this year.

I continue working with groundlessness and gratitude. Groundlessness has become my code-book for life. It is my faith, if you want to call it that. Some Buddhists call groundlessness “impermanence”. That is a good word for it, though the term tends to emphasize the impermanence of our lives. Most spiritual practice, it seems to me, overemphasizes the fact of our eventual deaths. In this focus, impermanence narrows to the unpleasant surprise of our own mortality. Most spiritual practice, it seems to me, makes too big a deal of death. By focusing too much on the ultimate unpleasantness, we miss a more important truth. Our daily lives are impermanent. Our minutes and hours are in constant change. Our understandings are always confounded. Our expectations dashed.

This is not a cause for sorrow or anxiety. Despair is the wrong response. When working with groundlessness, I remind myself, I must also work with gratitude. When you have given up expectation that things should be a certain way and you are working with gratitude, you are teaching yourself to pay attention. You are letting go of an invented narrative about The Way Things Should Be and are able to notice things as they really are. Gratitude is the habit of noticing the specifics. Gratitude is about paying attention.

I am not prepared to make any New Year’s resolutions. I intend to continue working with groundlessness and gratitude. I intend for my life to develop around this one theme: pay attention.

I’m not good at paying attention. It is, for me, very much a practice. Things always go wrong. They don’t go the way I intend for them to go. I am working to remind myself that the problem isn’t with Things, the problem is with my Plan for Things. Things don’t happen the way we expect or the way we believe we need them to happen. And still, we can be grateful.

And so, as I face another year of uncertainty and almost certain losses, my wish for myself is my wish for you as well. May you be faced with every obstacle and surprised by unexpected challenges and yet remain grounded in your acceptance of groundlessness and may you grow large with gratitude for things the way they really are rather than confused and frustrated with desire for things the way they ought to be.