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

As most of you know, I love to find intersections between the head and the heart, the moment and the infinite, the spiritual and the secular. The sacred is everywhere if we allow the possibility and so today, I offer you “The Spirituality of Spin.”

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.”

These are words of wisdom a friend shared with me recently when I was in a lot of pain. At the time, I wanted to haul off and hit him, but he was just out of reach and I was locked into my pedals anyway. The pain was real and physical, but he also was the one putting me through it. His name is Rich and he is my spin instructor, but I secretly think he was a Zen master in a former life. You’ve got to love a guy who can seamlessly bring Buddhist philosophy, 50s doo-wop music and prodigious amounts of sweat into the same moment.

spin

For many years, I avoided the spin room at my local YMCA. People who “spun” were intense. Whenever I walked by, the lights were dim; the music was pumping; the instructor was yelling, and the cyclists were staring at a glowing LED-display, mounted between their handlebars. They appeared transfixed, as if on ecstasy in a techno-fueled nightclub. Not my scene, thank you very much. I also happened to cherish sitting normally after a work out. Spin will never win, I thought smugly.

But about a year ago, one of my good friends defected to the dark side of the gym. She didn’t become an addict exactly, but two days a week, I’d see her in there, huffing and puffing and pedaling away. She invited me to come with her; I demurred. She told me what a good work out it was; I scoffed. She promised me my butt would adapt; I doubted it. But I couldn’t completely dismiss her perspective; I trust her. She’s a fit, successful, serene, 50-year-old woman who would never tolerate bad music, or macho bullshit. If she chose to spend an hour in a spin class, there must be something to it after all.

So I gave it a try and after a couple misses with bad music (the dreaded techno music) and worse instructors (pompous donkeys who sat up on their bikes and played air guitar while talking about how high a gear they were pushing), I finally made it to Steph’s cherished, Friday morning class and found my “spin” home.

Like any new exercise routine, or spiritual practice, spinning felt a little awkward at first. It was Catholic calisthenics all over again. We sat; we stood; we did a strange hover over the seat for 20 seconds at a time. I was always looking at my neighbor to gauge my posture and proficiency. I couldn’t tell if I was trying too hard, or not hard enough. I couldn’t seem to find the rhythm, when everyone else moved like an old pro. But the instructor Rich began that first class, and every class since with a gentle reminder: For the next sixty minutes, we simply need to be present to ourselves, to acknowledge what we feel and do what we can do. For the next hour, there are no problems to solve, or people to fix, so we can focus on why we are there: to transform our bodies and our selves. His stated goal as our teacher is to push us beyond our comfort zones, which is where all genuine improvement lies.

Though my ego and body didn’t love my first spin class with Rich, my soul immediately responded to his coaching style: creative and engaging, humble, but tough. It took only a few classes for me to begin to see how I could take his words into my spiritual life. Can you imagine a priest, pastor, or rabbi beginning every service that way? Asking us to breathe deeply, to center ourselves and let go of outside concerns? To be fully present to the Presence within us and open to the (sometimes painful) transformation that can take place if we allow it? Though they don’t usually ask, since I began spinning, I try to do it anyway.

Rich reminds us that if we wanted easy, we would be on a treadmill next door and I often think of that as I walk, sometimes reluctantly, into church. If I wanted easy, I’d be back in bed, munching on a donut and sipping my latte. I’m at church for a reason. Walking through life at a comfortable pace isn’t going to change me.

When our lungs and legs are burning, Rich calls out, “This is the feeling of improvement!” In all my years, during the many times I have been on my knees in prayer, in frustration, in desperation for things to be different, I had never thought of it that way. Our hearts and souls are no different than our bodies. Positive change never comes easily. Each step is just beyond our reach and the only way to get there is to do the very thing we don’t think we can do. In those moments in the classroom, Rich reminds us, “Somewhere inside of you is the person who can do this hard thing.” I want to believe he’s right, so I keep pedaling and push on, whether I’m on a bike, or in the midst of my life.

Finishing up a tough hill, Rich asks us to imagine our 80-year-old selves, thanking us for what we are doing right now at the age of 30, 40, or 50 and as I hold Tim’s hand at night, apologize for an unkind word, or let go of a petty grudge, I imagine the same thing. I am doing it for us now, but I’m also doing it for our 80-year-old selves. We plan to be together for another forty years at least, but that’s not going to happen if I don’t take care of business today.

One day when the hills were extra long and the incline steep, it seemed like the hour would never end. No matter how good the music, or how fine the company, I just didn’t have it in me to finish hard. I wanted to back off and quit, but sensing the mood of the room, Rich tried another tactic. He made sure we knew we were in this together. “Every one is feeling what you are feeling,” he likes to say and you can tell by the effort in his voice that he is no exception. He reminded me that solidarity is the key to enduring any difficult experience. Knowing we are not alone in our pain allows us to transform it. Great leaders, spiritual or otherwise, embrace the trials of their people and the burdens of their community. A great Leader is with you on your journey, in your effort and pain. She isn’t standing in the Promised Land, waiting for you to hurry up and get there. He doesn’t pretend that the journey didn’t cost him something as well.

Great leaders aren’t impatient. They don’t shame and blame, judge, compare and compete. They meet people where they are. They care and then they cure. I don’t know if Rich does all that in two, sixty-minute spin classes each week, but I do know I leave there better prepared to face my day, more sound in body and mind.

Pain

The most Zen of Rich’s words are where I began. Though they were spoken in the sanctuary of the spin class, they have resonated with me every day since. When I encounter frustrations, big, or small, I am reminded that the choice is mine. The pain may be inevitable, but the suffering is not. I still choose to suffer more than I’d like, but because I signed up for improvement, I’m willing to work on it. I breathe deeply, relax my hands, and drop my shoulders. I feel what I am feeling and then I move on. I know I will be glad I did it today and perhaps even more grateful down the road. And ultimately and perhaps most importantly, I know I’m not alone. I have a great Leader.