The Wave and the Water

Hokusai, The Great Wave

Hokusai, The Great Wave

I had dinner with my darling (birth) daughter Sarah last night. She is heading off to graduate school at LMU next month, on a full scholarship. She also just rented her first solo apartment in Manhattan Beach. She’s excited and terrified about beginning to build her life as an independent adult. We both brought a book to the bar, because what else would you do if you had to wait ten minutes? She brought crosswords; I brought The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. She looked at my book and laughed.

IMG_7012Sitting across the table from her, the beautiful difference in our age and stage was clear. “I’m looking forward to the day when I want to work on my spiritual progress,” she said, making some sort of flapping gesture with her hands over her heart, “That’s great. I’m really happy for you.”

And I think she meant it, but it’s always hard to tell with Millennials.

But I took the opportunity to share my favorite Buddhist metaphor with her – well, I think it’s Buddhist, but since Thich Nhat Hanh is pretty much the only Buddhist I’ve read, it might just be “Hanhist.” It’s a metaphor that works on me all the time, or at least when I remember it. I just wish I remembered it every day.

Imagine a wave in the ocean as it approaches the shore. That wave has existed for miles and miles. It began across the sea, perhaps even across the world, but as it finally becomes visible, it becomes conscious of itself and it begins to worry. How good am I? Am I the biggest? The prettiest? The strongest? Are they taking pictures of me? Am I surrounded by other waves? Will I always be alone? Am I useful to people? Do they find me fun? Terrifying? Are they mad at me for washing away their sandcastles? How much longer do I have to live? Can I be all the wave I was meant to be in these too brief moments of time? What will happen to me when I’m gone? I…must…hold…on. All of this chatter is the wave suffering, because it thinks it is separate from the water.

But if the wave could just recognize that it is water, that it came from water and will return to water and never stopped being water, then its suffering would cease. It will stop over-identifying with its wave-ness. It can simply enjoy its temporary form, knowing that all along, it is still the water.

“Okay…,” Sarah said, nodding her head, “I can see that…” And she moved on.

She totally could not see that, which is why she said, with great honesty, that spiritual growth was for someday, down the road for her. Like Keara, her younger half-sister, honesty is one of their strongest policies. But because the girls love me, they also do it kindly, which I deeply appreciate. Kind people are some of my favorites.

But the wave/water metaphor is something that is working on me deeply. As a writer and teacher, it is so easy to get caught up in how my “wave” is being received. It feels especially true in this time of social media-driven audiences. Each opportunity for a like, a share, a repost, a retweet, or a positive review is an affirmation of your “wave-ness.” It’s practically the only game in town for artists like me, but I think it’s true for everyone. From eight-year-olds to octogenarians, we all want to be affirmed. But we try so hard to be waves that we forget we are water.

I love writing this blog, but there are so many successful bloggers out there, so many writers and authors and vloggers, pastors and preachers, speakers and teachers that I admire and who seem to make a difference in the world that when I look at the scope of my work, I feel like the tiniest little toe-lapper on the banks of Mission Bay. Not only am I not even a real wave; I’m made of polluted water that most local residents won’t even touch. And I look at all the other waves and want to be like them and make a powerful, beautiful, and useful splash.

And so after another disappointment, I collapse into a puddle of tears, ironically still forgetting that I’m water.

I have my coping mechanisms, the first of which is to look for Tim, my husband, the surf-shop owner. As a life-long surfer, he’s good at judging the waves and he thinks the world of me, so his answer’s a sure thing. He builds me up, tells me what a good wave I am, how smart, how kind, how talented and loving, and how much my kids benefit from riding in my wake. He reminds me that even if my wave never gets any bigger, it’s okay. I’m the perfect wave for him and the people I love.

Okay, so he doesn’t actually talk in similes, but you get the picture. After several of these pep talks, I can begin to feel my wave-ness again and I am ready to hit the shore. But you’ve been to the beach. You know what happens.

I don’t need my Buddhist buddy to point out that this “I’m a wave” thing is unsustainable. The pattern repeats itself and I crash and disappear, over and over again, in a big frothy mess of self-doubt, snot and tears.

The reality is: I don’t need a coping mechanism. I need the truth.

I am water, not just a wave.

And as an ocean girl, I like the idea.

Practicing it, however, is awful.

Giving up finding my worth in my own self-identity is really difficult. If I really believe that the wave is always water then it involves disassembling a lifetime of culturally-constructed images and measurements of success.  It means gracefully accepting the disintegration of my physical self. I am not the tall, thin, blonde that was sitting across the table from me last night. I resemble her; I used to be her, but now there are wrinkles and sunspots and saggy bits when I wear a bikini. My body doesn’t work the way I want it to. I can’t swim, or play, or even throw a football without paying for it the next day and I know that’s just beginning. It means dissolving my standards for achievement, including being rewarded, financially or otherwise, for what I do. I always thought that I would do something important, but I can’t even figure out what I want to be when I grow up and I’m well past that point. My teenagers seem closer to figuring it out than I do! I find myself randomly searching Craigslist for a job that requires my strange grab bag of skills – well-read, conceptual organizer, multi-tasker, strong oral and written communication skills, no professional references. The Starbucks barista listing seems like the safest bet. Finally, it means allowing my own agenda to disappear as the driving force for my life in the world and interactions with others. I have to let the water take me where it will, and use me as it may. I used to think it was easy to “go with the flow,” but in this case, it entails the painful erosion of my ego and false self-confidence.

Upon reflection, I can see why Sarah is putting off this spiritual journey. It sucks, but I can’t see any other way forward, only back.

Do you remember when Jesus gave the teaching in the Gospel of John that his followers had to eat of his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life and virtually everyone left and he looked at Peter and the twelve and said, What about you? Are you leaving too? And Peter looked back at him and said, “To whom shall we go?” What other options did they have? I can just picture Peter looking balefully at Jesus and shrugging. They weren’t looking forward to the feast, but when the Truth is before you, what can you do?

heart-of-the-buddhas-teaching-273x418I am reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching as part of my Living School curriculum. Though in different language, Hanh’s metaphor says virtually the same thing as every Christian mystic: We have to let go of our separate identity, and fall into the Love of God from which we came and to which we will return. In a dance of cosmic coincidence, I read these lines from John of the Cross just this morning during my meditative reading. He wrote “Beloved, please remind me again and again that I am nothing…Plunge me into the darkness where I cannot rely on any of my old tricks for maintaining my separation.”

The wave calls out to the water in the voice of a 16th century Spanish mystic.

I don’t know about you, but I am much more comfortable with the 21st century, natural language of wave and water. In fact, I think it’s only by understanding the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh that I can approach John of the Cross with an open heart and mind. Reading the great mystics of all the religious traditions has brought me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of those in my own spiritual home.

Tim and I have a date planned for tonight after work. We are going to the beach. We will surf with our bodies, and on our boards. We will play in the waves. I will ride down their faces and let them tumble me head over heels for the sheer joy of it. I will honor their beginnings as I float over their swells and their endings, as they dissolve one by one at my feet, becoming indistinguishable from that which they always were. I will mourn for them, like I mourn for myself, for clinging to all that I think I need to be worthy and worth noticing. And when we are done with the waves, we will swim past them and float in the expansive water. I will lie on my back, with my face to the setting sun and I will remember that I am both.

I am a wave and I can cherish and love the ride, but I’m not just a wave. I have always been and will always be part of the water, God’s creative, generative, and never-ending Love. And  I know the pattern is not over, that my waves of desire will never cease to rise and fall, sending me head over heels, back down to my knees. But tonight at least, I will try to remember I am water.

A line-up of waves, courtesty of www.theintertia.com

A line-up of waves, courtesty of http://www.theintertia.com

An Unrecognized Act of Violence

A great act of non-violence

A great act of non-violence

I woke early for a Saturday morning (6 a.m.) and though I longed to stay in bed, I got up and went right to work on the things I had left undone last night. I folded laundry, started a new load, did some dishes and organized a soccer uniform before I poured my first cup of coffee and sat down to read and meditate. I opened my daily tome, The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo, came across this passage and almost choked on my coffee.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace.” Thomas Merton

Nepe continues:

Merton wisely challenges us not just to slow down, but, at the heart of it, to accept our limitations. We are at best filled with the divine, but we have only two hands and one heart. In a deep and subtle way, the want to do it all is a want to be it all, and though it comes from a desire to do good, it often becomes frenzied because our egos seize our goodness as a way to be revered.

I have done this many times: not wanting to say no, not wanting to miss an opportunity, not wanting to be seen as anything less than totally compassionate (and I would add capable and competent). But whenever I cannot bring my entire being, I am not there. It is like offering to bring too many cups of coffee through a crowd. I always spill something hot on some innocent along the way.

It seems an old adage is a good place to start: Do one thing and do it well. Though I would offer it as: Do one thing at a time and do it entirely, and it will lead you to the next moment of love.

While I am not the peace activist Merton was referring to, I read this and thought of my actions and the many things I have scheduled for today, the way I already have my next eight hours plotted out in half hour increments, knowing where I must be and what I must be doing and who and what I am responsible for. I thought of tomorrow and the eight more things that are on my list of things to do. I thought of how any disruption of my plans could lead to violent thoughts: annoyance, disappointment, frustration. Though they may not lead to violent acts, those emotions certainly don’t promote peace in my heart, my life, or anywhere on the planet I can think of.

I had coffee with my friend T yesterday. She is one of the busiest women I know, on-the-go from 5 a.m. until I don’t know what time and up and at it again the next day. I asked her what her secret was, how she can seem to go non-stop without growing weary and she echoed Nepo’s words. She said, “I stay in the present moment. I don’t think about the past. I can’t worry about the future. If I just stay right where I am, I have enough. I am enough.”

One of my favorite things about her is that when I am with her, I never feel like I am  getting splashed with hot coffee. I love to spend time with people like that, people who know how to say, “Yes,” to just one thing at a time. I am pretty decent at it myself, except with my kids and Tim and you know, the people who actually matter the most. They see me too rarely face-to-face and eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand and heart-to- heart. They see me in profile, driving the car, doing the dishes, typing into the computer, reading a book, taking care of business. I am there, but my ego is in charge and my heart is dormant.

As I race to get these thoughts written down in the midst of making breakfast, finding shin guards and packing for a 24-hour trip out of town, I consider the thought that all this multi-tasking might just be the most common and unrecognized act of violence of all.