Letting Go of Certainty

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” — Tony Schwartz

On a bitterly cold morning this week, I saw a woman walking toward the large garden at my workplace. I couldn’t believe that a volunteer was actually planning to work in the garden in that cold, despite clearly being bundled in many warm layers. So I watched her and, sure enough, she went right up to the garden gate. As she was lifting the bar that holds the gate shut, a sudden blur of movement rushed past: a deer at full gallop ran behind the woman, not more than a foot or so behind her. A second deer, also at a full run, followed. My heart skipped a beat – they passed so close to the woman that, had she stepped backward while opening the gate at the same moment the deer ran by, they would have collided. Luckily, the deer ran so swiftly that they were out of sight by the time she swung the gate open.

My cry of warning died in my throat. It had all happened so fast I hadn’t even managed to shout. What struck me most powerfully in that moment was that the woman’s bearing and demeanor gave no sign that she had any idea what had just taken place. She had missed both the beauty and the danger of the running deer.

Later, when she came inside to warm up, I told the woman about the galloping deer. She was astounded. She said, “I didn’t hear anything, or even feel any vibrations! Must have been all these layers.” She was torn between disappointment and a kind of retroactive fear.

This incident with the deer seems an apt metaphor for a phenomenon many have been experiencing lately. In our increasingly polarized world, we move bundled-up against the cold world in the certainty of our opinions and beliefs. Certainty feels protective; it offers us a group identity among like-minded people; it gives us a sense that we’re standing strong and prepared against any swiftly moving forces that might seek to knock us down.

Our certainty also has a negative side, though. It prevents outside stimuli from reaching us. We don’t hear the approach of other ideas, other ways of knowing; we remain untouched by perspectives that might increase the keenness of our perceptions or the compassion in our hearts.

Certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable. When we are certain, we feel protected from having our hearts broken by the world and events beyond our control. Parker Palmer suggests that, being human, our hearts will break regardless of the false layers of protection we attempt to wrap them in. However, he believes that the heart can break in two ways: one is into the hurtful shards of brokenness we typically think of, while the other way is that of the heart breaking open in order to take in new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. To illustrate, Palmer tells these stories:

“A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” (from The Broken Open
Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap)

If we hang on to our certainty at all costs, whatever else we’re holding must remain near our hearts at best, unable to enter inside. Our hearts remain closed: unbroken, therefore, unopened.

“A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing.” — Bret Harte

 

 

 

 

 

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outward thrust of joy

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

–from Jenion, August 2, 2012

A few weeks ago, I led a cycling retreat with a colleague. In preparation for the retreat, I reread several of my blog entries related to cycling, bikes and RAGBRAI. I came across the post I published after a grueling ride from Mt. Vernon to Anamosa, Iowa. That morning, I saw more riders quit than on any other day of RAGBRAI I’ve ridden, a vicious head-wind making forward momentum – and even breathing – extremely difficult. Riders flagged down the sag wagons in record numbers, some in tears. Those of us who persevered were required to dig deep for any intrinsic motivation we could find that would keep us cranking the pedals. Finally, words of encouragement began to filter back from those ahead of us. “Take heart! In half a mile the road turns 90 degrees and you won’t be facing directly into the wind!” We held on, moving forward slowly and with grim determination.

Re-reading what I wrote about that ride took me back into the moment. I easily recalled the incendiary joy I experienced when we made that right angle turn and (shortly thereafter) arrived at the mid-day stop in Springville. It all came rushing back to me: the sights, the sounds, the crowd of jubilant dancers in the street. Rumi says that when you do things from your soul, you “feel a river moving in you, a joy”. That July afternoon, thousands of us suddenly found ourselves floating in that river of joy together.

Remembering, I wondered – why is the experience of joy always such a surprise?

By joy, I don’t mean happiness – and I don’t mean to put happiness down, either; just to make a distinction. What I mean when I talk about joy is that more rare emotional experience that begins in your very core. It pushes upward, through your gut and your heart; up from your chest into your head – radiating through your skin, shooting out of your fingertips.

Joy has an outward impulse. It can be overwhelming, fierce, freeing – it makes you want to open your arms wide to encompass everyone – embrace everyone – in that energy flow. Perhaps that is partly why we are so often taken by surprise when we experience joy: we are surprised to find ourselves suddenly free of our “me-centeredness”. Whatever anxieties and fears have weighed us down disappear and are replaced with a higher-frequency vibration that lifts us. It’s natural expression is a desire to share, to lift others with us. (Such was the force behind the passage I wrote and quoted, above.)

If joy not only feels that amazing to us, but also finds its best expression in reaching out to others, how might our lives and our world change if we intentionally created the conditions that might lead to it? Every day can’t be a peak experience, like that day on RAGBRAI. But there are elements of it that can be incorporated into my days more frequently: challenging myself to attempt something that stretches my skills and abilities; engaging with others in reaching toward or building something that matters in our communities; being out in nature and experiencing my own self as creature, and as such, part of this great creation we call Earth.

Couldn’t we all use a little more joy? Wouldn’t our world flourish if we each radiated a bit more high-frequency energy? Here’s what Parker Palmer has to say about it, as he reflects upon a Mary Oliver poem:

For me, late one night, it was seeing a full moon through the latticework of winter-stripped trees. I don’t know what it will be today. But I do know that keeping my eyes and ears open for something that will “kill me with delight” is — to quote Mary Oliver again — “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” There’s always something, and it’s a good way to live.

It requires no special talent or effort to look at our world and point out the things that numb us, or dumb us down, or depress us. In fact, it’s a no-brainer! But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, beautiful, and life-giving around us and within us demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts. And we must keep them open.   — Parker Palmer, “To Instruct Myself Over and Over in Joy”

Perhaps if we manage, as Parker Palmer and Mary Oliver suggest, to instruct ourselves in joy, we will no longer find joy so surprising. Instead, perhaps we will begin to experience it as a welcome and frequent visitor – one that opens us up and makes us so much more available to others and the earth around us.

Finite Math

At 5:15 a.m. my neighbor begins making breakfast. A strange trick of acoustics in this building means that, in my upstairs bedroom, I hear every rattle and bang in their downstairs kitchen. I roll over and attempt a return to slumber.

Some days, that works. Some days I stretch my sleep-sore muscles and fall gracefully, gratefully back asleep. But not today. Today, I stretch and wonder about that heaviness in my leg – is it a sign? Should I see the doctor? From there, the worries and anxieties held at bay while I sleep come marching forward, a neurotic, necrotic parade.

Knowing sleep will not return at this point, I get up. In my kitchen, I begin the morning ritual of making my double shot Americano. Add hot water and the finely ground espresso becomes the rich loamy soil in which I will plant a new day. Whether it will be a good day, productive and interactive – or not- is often determined in this moment.

My friend Wendy has spent the last seventeen years telling her children that they have a choice – if you don’t like how you feel in this moment, choose to feel differently. Happiness isn’t a destination, its a choice you make in every moment of action or reaction. I watch her girls, all teenagers now, and see them apply this choice. It is like the sun emerging from clouds, that moment.

This morning, as I sip my coffee, it feels like a herculean task, that reframing of mindset. I’m not sure I’m up to it. I turn on my computer, and find Parker Palmer’s weekly “On Being” blog post, this week called “Poetry as Sacrament: Disentangling from the Darkness”, in which he meditates beautifully on Mary Oliver’s poem “Landscape”:

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive.

So far, I think (using the calculator function on my phone) that is 19,726 mornings. I google the question, “How many decisions per day?” and read:

According to multiple sources on the Internet, the average amount of remotely conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000.

690,410,000 decisions and counting. My first thought is “No wonder I don’t want to decide where to have dinner or what book to read for book club.” I think of texting my younger friends and letting them know they haven’t used theirs up yet, so from now on they must choose – my decider is worn out from overuse.

My next thought, “How many of those ‘remotely conscious decisions’ were good ones? How many were ‘the right’ ones?” No function on my smartphone could ever calculate that number. This I know: it falls somewhere between 1 and 690,410,000.

That’s as far as math will take me; there’s no point in attempting to calculate the incalculable. There’s no point in lingering over that parade of worries that began its march through my head while I was still in bed this morning. Of the approximately 35,000 decisions I will make today, some will be good ones. Some will not. Mistakes will happen. Anxiety in advance and obsessive second-guessing afterwards won’t change that reality.

Like Wendy’s girls, I have a choice. I can hold the doors of my heart open so that my choices can be made from the place of infinite things (like mission, like compassion, like gratitude). Or I can close those doors, out of worry or indecision or just plain inattention, and be “as good as dead”, rendering my choices lifeless as well.

When I think of it this way I say: let my inevitable mistakes be life-affirming ones; let my errors of judgment emerge from seeing the best in others; let me work to stay centered enough that my infinite humanity, rather than my finite ego, decides. Choose; then move on.

19,726 mornings. And every morning, so far, I am alive.

 

 

 

Breaking: Apart or Open?

Have you ever looked at the first card in the tarot deck, The Fool? In many decks, The Fool is setting forth on a journey. He has packed lightly, a small bundle slung over his shoulder. He looks ahead, not down at the path which, to onlookers, appears to be a precarious one. A dog nips at his heels (or in some drawings, his bum) but he appears unconcerned. In fact, he sets forth with a face full of joy and hope, blithely unaware of the dangers that await wherever he is headed. The Fool appears foolish, indeed.

What an apt image for us as we set out into our lives – especially as we set off into the uncharted lands of relationship. We rarely see what is before us, even when there are markers in place (I once dated someone who told me on our first date that his favorite song was “Love the One You’re With”. Perhaps I should have read that marker.) But often, there are no easy-to-read road signs. I don’t know about you, but I am cautious by nature, and it is rare for me to put my feet to a path I can’t see the end of. So, I have ventured out into the territory of love relationships timidly, afraid of the unknown future ahead and of the possibility of experiencing emotional pain.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: broken hearts. Despite my caution, my heart has indeed been broken a time or two. No one, I think, really experiences life without heartbreak. In the throes of real emotional pain, I have wondered, “What am I supposed to do with this? With this broken thing that was my heart, with these feelings that have nowhere to go now that they have no one to be invested in?”

In one such moment recently, I read the following paragraph, and it gave me some much-needed perspective:

“But there are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about — a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into new capacity — a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.” (Parker Palmer, from A Hidden Wholeness)

When I read this, it immediately reminded me that I have, in fact, experienced my heart being “broken open into new capacity”. One such experience was a trip I took to Ireland a few years ago. I had never travelled overseas, and had dreamed of visiting Ireland – then got the opportunity to travel with a group from the university. I fell in love with Ireland, and with the person I became on that trip — a person who lived as fully as possible in every minute, who didn’t leave a drop or a crumb behind. It was amazing. When we boarded the plane to return to the States, I put my jacket over my head and cried for two hours.  But the experience of leaving that perfect moment broke my heart open. A love of travel and an image of myself as fully alive were the new capacities born of that experience.

When our hearts break due to relationships not working, not going where we want them to, ending, it is difficult to accept. To then, on top of learning to live with the brokenness, expect or hope for something new and good to be born of it almost defies us. It feels beyond our reach, and yet…perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps we’re meant to learn that looking like a fool isn’t the end of the world. Perhaps we’re meant to discover that hearts are resilient muscles — and like all muscles, they get stronger the more you use them. And perhaps the capacity that will be born is the ability to love without reservation, because you begin to understand that the journey itself (rather than its end) is what makes it worthwhile to do so.

And so you, The Fool, journey on. You feel your feelings, especially the ones that hurt. You look for the good, for the things you may have learned or discovered in yourself. You flex your heart muscle and find that it still works. And eventually, as a Missy Higgins song puts it, “you’ll wake to find, you’re a little unbroken.”