“Nobody is coming to live my life for me. It is the one thing that is mine entirely.”
I crawled into bed the other night after reading a wonderful book about a young, female rabbi. She has such faith. I yearn for such faith. And then sometimes, she has such doubt. I know about such doubt. And I lay there in the bed, and I was overcome by this surge of longing.
“All I ever wanted,” I said to my husband (an agnostic of many years), “was to know what was true.”
He patted my head. I looked up at him. “Nobody is coming to tell me, are they?”
He shook his head gently from side to side. “No,” he said simply.
I sighed and got up again, sleep a victim of a late evening coffee and too much thinking.
Is is so much to ask? A nice coherent set of rules, consistent with my experience, and yet comforting, dealing with both the ubiquity of joy and the banality of evil… and oh, by the way, how should I make a living, and what should I feed my kids?
When the student is ready, the master appears. – Buddhist proverb
Nobody is coming. – The sampler above my therapist’s desk
Which of these is more true in your experience?
My life has been an endless series of encounters with teachers. Some of them arrived in traditional garb, some came as babies, some came in the form of books that fell at my feet when I cried out for guidance. But making sense of it all? That has fallen to me. I can go on retreat and follow the strictures, and see how the container of the abbey, the “forced choicelessness” (the words of one of the Buddhist nuns) allows space for silence.
Yet in the end, once I leave, I am back to chopping wood, carrying water, making dinner, paying the bills, getting the kids to their lessons on time, and yearning. Always yearning.
It is both/and. In the end, I am the one I have to lie down with. Wherever I go, there *I* am. The guru, the abbey, the family, the culture… each provides a container, not of forced choicelessness, but of limited options. They are petri dishes for growth. We don’t have to consider all the options. Some things are not valid choices. I do not leave my children to care for this yearning in my heart because the cost (to them, to me, to their fathers) would be too high. Nobody is coming to live my life for me. It is the one thing that is mine entirely.
Accepting this has been hard-won. “Please!” I said, “Please! Let me believe in something. Show me a sign.” And I’ve had the signs. But just enough to keep me guessing. Coincidence? Or synchronicity? Or that… psychology jargon… where once you become aware of something, you start seeing it everywhere?
Like… Mary Oliver poems. (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”) For the first 39 years of my life, I never even heard of her. Then, for about three weeks, her quotes and poems were everywhere I turned. And then they vanished again.
What do I do with that?
Lean into mystery. Be your own guru.
I can hear my teachers recoiling in horror. “No, no! Spiritual materialism!” they cry. “Read less. Meditate more!” (There is merit in that.)
AND. There is sacred text everywhere. But you need to learn how to read it. How to interpret it. What to do with it.
Why am I following this rule? Is it true? What evidence do I have? Does it benefit me? Does it benefit somebody else? At what cost? Am I willing to pay that, to use up this portion of my “one wild, precious life” for that purpose? Only you can answer those questions… but people are lining up to answer them for you.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen, Anthem
(I’m big on the poetry today. I had a Rumi also, but I’ll save it for another day.)
All our containers are failing. The answers that we have worked so hard to preserve for generations are all under scrutiny. There is a crack in everything. And that is how the light is going to get in. All those assumptions about what we are for, what life is about, the place of women, children, the disabled, and the poor… all cracked. We can see the desperate attempts by the people who want certainty to patch, plug, spackle, reinforce, codify in law, block those cracks where the light is coming in. “We don’t know what comes next. We don’t know what happens without this to lean on. We don’t know how to find our own ways. Please, please, leave us something to believe in. Don’t find a way outside these rules.” (This last is turned upon those of us who question.)
Your guru will not be making dinner tonight. Your guru does not need to live inside your head and heart with the sense you have made of the world. Your guru can take you to the river and show you the boat, but you need to cross over yourself.
This life is a petri dish. It is too small. It is not enough for us to have to follow rules because we have never learned to hear the deepest yearnings of our hearts. It is not enough that we have never learned to distinguish our highest callings from our deepest fears. It is not enough to do the right things for the wrong reasons.
These rules are to provide a container for growth, but we are pot-bound.