What is giving me life?
What is saving my life?
What does it mean to be human?
This Is Your Life
I was in Europe leading a retreat in a lush vineyard on an Italian hillside. Each morning the men and women attending the retreat gathered outside on the grass in a circle and repeated the simple words that a young man was teaching:
This is the day that lies before me.
These are the hours.
This is my life.
When the days ahead of me are full I sometimes walk outside, wherever I am, and repeat the words: This is my life. This is the lifetime I am living. This is it. As the words sink in I see the singular gift of the human journey, and how everything we experience is able to guide us. It’s as if a love song is always being sung, and the song is intended to show us the way to our center.
Rumi teaches that there is a sun far more real than the physical sun in the sky, and that everything is born from this sun. The real sun draws us to our deepest heart until we remember that we are guardians of God’s own light.
It is an astonishing awareness.
This is the day that lies before you.
These are the hours.
This is your life.
Living the Questions
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… live everything. Live the question now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
— Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet
A New Resolution
I’m going to pass on making New Year’s resolutions this time around. Instead, I’ll take Rilke’s famous advice about “living the questions,” and carry into the New Year a few of the wonderings Hillman’s poem evokes in me:
- How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor of aliveness?
- What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
- How can I open myself to the beauty of nature and human nature?
- Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
- What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me?
Precious Human Birth
There is a Buddhist precept that asks us to be mindful of how rare it is to find ourselves in human form on earth. It is really a beautiful view of life that offers us the chance to feel enormous appreciation for the fact that we are here as individual spirits filled with consciousness, drinking water and chopping wood.
It asks us to look about at the ant and antelope, at the worm and the butterfly, at the dog and the castrated bull, at the hawk and the wild lonely tiger, at the hundred year old oak and the thousand year old patch of ocean. It asks us to understand that no other life form has the consciousness of being that we are privilege to. It asks us to recognize that, of all the endless species of plant and animal and mineral that make up the earth, a very small portion of life has the wakefulness of spirit that we call being human.
— Mark Nepo from The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have
Ten Questions That Have No Right to Go Away (Excerpt)
The thought-provoking poet David Whyte considers what we should be asking ourselves—especially when we least want to confront our own answers (abbreviated version).
The marvelous thing about a good question is that it shapes our identity as much by the asking as it does by the answering. Nine years ago, I wrote a poem called “Sometimes” in which I talked about the “questions that can make or unmake a life … questions that have no right to go away.”
I still work with this idea. Questions that have no right to go away are those that have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation. They almost always have something to do with how we might be more generous, more courageous, more present, more dedicated, and they also have something to do with timing: when we might step through the doorway into something bigger, better—both beyond ourselves and yet more of ourselves at the same time.
If we are sincere in asking, the eventual answer will give us both a sense of coming home to something we already know as well a sense of surprise—not unlike returning from a long journey to find an old friend sitting unexpectedly on the front step, as if she’d known, without ever being told, not only the exact time and date of your arrival but also your need to be welcomed back.
1) Do I know how to have real conversation?
A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want. To do this requires vulnerability. Now we tend to think that vulnerability is associated with weakness, but there’s a kind of robust vulnerability that can create a certain form of strength and presence too …
2) What can I be wholehearted about?
So many of us aren’t sure what we’re meant to do. We wonder if we’re simply doing what others are doing because we feel we don’t have enough ideas or even enough strength of our own.
What do I care most about—in my vocation, in my family life, in my heart and mind? This is a conversation that we all must have with ourselves at every stage of our lives, a conversation that we so often don’t want to have. We will get to it, we say, when the kids are grown, when there is enough money in the bank, when we are retired, perhaps when we are dead; it will be easier then. But we need to ask it now: What can I be wholehearted about now?
3) Am I harvesting from this year’s season of life?
“Youth is wasted on the young” is the old saying. But it might also be said that midlife is wasted on those in their 50s and eldership is very often wasted on the old.
Most people, I believe, are living four or five years behind the curve of their own transformation. I see it all the time, in my own life and others. The temptation is to stay in a place where we were previously comfortable, making it difficult to move to the frontier that we’re actually on now.
People usually only come to this frontier when they have had a terrible loss in their life or they’ve been fired or some other trauma breaks open their story. Then they can’t tell that story any more. But having spent so much time away from what is real, they hit present reality with such impact that they break apart on contact with the true circumstance. So the trick is to catch up with the conversation and stay with it —where am I now?—and not let ourselves become abstracted from what is actually occurring around us.
4) Where is the temple of my adult aloneness?
In 1996, I wrote a poem called “The House of Belonging.” In it, I spoke about the small, beautifully old house I came to live in after the end of my first marriage. In the poem, I wrote:
This is the temple of my adult aloneness
and I belong to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.
That temple was the house I moved into after the end of a chapter in my life. There I would live alone, but also with my son a good deal of the time. It was a new start. There was a great deal of grief in letting go of the old, but I was so very excited about my new home. I felt that even though it was such a small house and an old house, it had endless new horizons for me, as if the rest of my life was just beginning from that place. It is important to have the equivalent of this house at every crucial stage in our lives. Where do you have that feeling of home? Do you have it in your apartment? Do you have it when you walk along the lakeshore or the seashore? Where do you have that sense of spaciousness with the horizon and with your future?
5) Can I be quiet—even inside?
All of our great traditions, religious, contemplative and artistic, say that you must a learn how to be alone—and have a relationship with silence. It is difficult, but it can start with just the tiniest quiet moment.
Being quiet in the midst of a frenetic life is like picking up a new instrument. If you’ve never played the violin and you try to play it for the first time, every muscle in your body hurts. Your neck hurts, you don’t know how to hold that awkward wavy thing called a bow, you can’t get your knuckles round to touch the strings, you can’t even find where the notes are, you are just trying to get your stance right. Then you come back to it again, and again, and suddenly you can make a single buzzy note. The time after that, you can make a clearer note. No one, not even you, wants to listen to you at first. But one day, there is a beautiful succession of notes and, yes, you have played a brief, gifted, much appreciated passage of music.
This is also true for the silence inside you; you may not want to confront it at first. But a long way down the road, when you inhabit a space fully, you no longer feel awkward and lonely. Silence turns, in effect, into its opposite, so it becomes not only a place to be alone but also a place that’s an invitation to others to join you, to want to know who’s there, in the quiet.
6) Am I too inflexible in my relationship to time?
In Ireland, where I spend a great deal of time, they say, “The thing about the past is that it isn’t the past.” Sometimes we forget that we don’t have to choose between the past or the present or the future. We can live all of these levels at once. (In fact, we don’t have a choice about the matter.)
If you’ve got a wonderful memory of your childhood, it should live within you. If you’ve got a challenging relationship with a parent, that should be there as part of your identity now, both in your strengths and weaknesses. The way we anticipate the future forms our identity now. Time taken too literally can be a tyranny. We are never one thing; we are a conversation—everything we have been, everything we are now and every possibility we could be in the future.
7) How can I know what I am actually saying?
Poetry is often the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn’t know you knew. It is a learned skill to force yourself to articulate your life, your present world or your possibilities for the future. We need that same skill as an art of survival. We need to overhear the tiny but very consequential things we say that reveal ourselves to ourselves.
8) How can I drink from the deep well of things as they are?
In the West of Ireland, there are very old, very sacred wells everywhere. The locals call them “blessed wells” or “holy wells.” At them, you find notes to the dead, bits of ribbon, keepsakes that people have left when they’ve said a prayer for a child or someone who’s sick. Often a local church will have a Mass out there once a year. These holy wells are everywhere, and they’re part of the local imagination and have been for thousands of years.
9) Can I live a courageous life?
If you look at the root of the word “courage,” it doesn’t mean running under the machine-gun bullets of the enemy, wearing a Sylvester Stallone headband, with glistening biceps and bandoliers of ammunition around one’s neck. The word “courage” comes from the old French word coeur meaning “heart.” So “courage” is the measure of your heartfelt participation in the world.
Human beings are constantly trying to take courageous paths in their lives: in their marriages, in their relationships, in their work and with themselves. But the human way is to hope that there’s a way to take that courageous step—without having one’s heart broken. And it’s my contention that there is no sincere path a human being can take without breaking his or her heart.
10) Can I be the blessed saint that my future happiness will always remember?
Here’s the explanation for what sounds like a strange question. I have a poem called “Coleman’s Bed” about a place in the West of Ireland where the Irish saint Coleman lived. The last line of that poem calls on the reader to remember “the quiet, robust and blessed saint that your future happiness will always remember.”
We go to places of pilgrimage where saints have lived, or even to Graceland, where Elvis lived, because these people gave something to the rest of us—music or good works— that has carried on down the years and that was a generous gift to the future.
But that blessed saint could also be yourself—the person who, in this moment, makes a decision that can make a bold path into the years to come and whom your future happiness will always remember. What could you do now for yourself or others that your future self would look back on and congratulate you for—something it could view with real thankfulness because the decision you made opened up the life for which it is now eternally grateful?
- New Year’s Meditation: Every Moment Is A New Beginning
- A New Year’s Prayer
- I Hope That In This Year To Come, You Make Mistakes
- A New Beginning
- Blessing For The Longest Night