Last month, Mary Oliver departed this life, after 83 years as a “bride married to amazement.” Or at least that was how she articulated the end-of-life hopes she held for herself in the poem “When Death Comes” in 1992. I find comfort in the belief that is exactly the state she found herself in at the time of her transition. Mary was an award-winning writer and poet from rural Ohio, best known for her unmatched ability to link observations of the natural world to our most basic human spiritual impulses. She is probably best known for the following excerpt from her poem “The Summer Day”:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
(Oliver, Mary, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, 1992)
Wait….go back, read that one again. It’s exciting, isn’t it? – To think of all the things you will do, all the people you will meet, all the beauty you will encounter in this lifetime. Yes!….What will come of your life? Or perhaps these words make you feel more nostalgic, looking back at your life, as in the case of a memoir. Whether causing a look forward or back, I can’t help but notice Ms. Oliver’s use of the word “plan” here. While it may be easy to jump into the recesses of our imaginations or our memories, in order to conjure up our mortal dreams and ambitions, I’m not sure that is what the author intended with her question. To plan is to create from intention, to design consciously, is it not? So how does this inquiry shift for you when you view it through a lens of intention? What is it you plan to do with your life? I think it is an excellent question to explore, on levels both personal and collective, at each and every turning point in the evolution of human history. It is also a perfect example of the way we receive tangible gifts of the human spirit via written word. Thank you Mary Oliver, from the depths of my heart.
Now, please allow me to play with this idea of shifting “lenses” or perspective a bit more. How do modern humans view their lives? What is the lens through which we view ourselves? One another? Nature? Prior to the excerpt quoted above, Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” seems to be all about making observations in nature through a lens of wonder. In essence, her words invoke some of the most central metaphysical questions of human debate: the “Who’s?” and the “Why’s” of our existence. And while her observations of the swan and the black bear and the grasshopper may not lead her to any hard conclusions, they do seem to lead her to a recognition of her own awareness. They allow her to settle into her afternoon with a profound sense of peace, which leads her to ask herself what could possibly be more important to do with those moments. We may never be able to truly know answers to our deepest philosophical questions in this life, but isn’t it true that we could spend our days in reverent observation? Isn’t it true that we can examine what is and feel blessed by it, simply because that is within our capacity? Can we see from Ms. Oliver’s examples that ultimately, we all share this planet, and that all of us, all of life, is ultimately subject to the same death? If we can view our lives through this lens, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on all the other layers of meaning and value we have assigned to aspects of our lives. Our connectedness to everything else may ultimately overcome our troublesome need for dominion, control, and exploitation. Perhaps then, our relationship to everything will inform our actions, rather than the inverse, where the impulse to define ourselves by our actions determines how we relate to everything, and everyone, else.
So, this all seems rather simple, doesn’t it? I mean, it sounds like Mary Oliver is literally suggesting that all we have to do is is “to be idle and blessed.” If laying in the grass and observing the grasshoppers is all it takes to be mindful, and ultimately happy, then sign me up! Right? Ah yes, but is it really so simple? This day and age, the voice of the Buddha (and other great spiritual leaders) echoes throughout our culture, showing up in ways even the original teachers were unlikely to have imagined. A person may find mindfulness training in the psychotherapy process, at the doctor’s office, at the gym, though job performance enhancement services, and even on the television and through mass marketing and media. This is an age where a person can download an app on their phone to learn how to be more conscious. Today, presence of mind is just as much a commodity, as it is an age-old philosophy, or a way of being. So, as we shift our focus to our own lives and the lens through which we are viewing the world, we must consider these forces at work on us. How do we reconcile our wish to be present with all of our other agendas? How do we balance all the hats we wear, and all the lenses we use? Take author Heidi Barr’s example from a cross-country ski she took across a lake near her home:
“I want so badly to document the beauty that I’m seeing and share it with someone – and more often than not these days, that happens on social media. I’d rather say I just stood there marveling at nature’s beauty, fully present and mindfully enjoying the view, but I’d be lying if I did. No, distraction from the allure of making an Instagram post out of what I was seeing dominated my mind. In that moment, I was trying to spark joy from the wrong place. Instead of living in the moment, I was imagining the next post.”
(Barr, Heidi, Spark Joy, www.heidibarr.com, 2019)
Heidi’s experience is something that I believe most, if not all, of us can relate to. And while I don’t doubt that technology and social media have their own ways of connecting us and creating feelings of joy and fulfillment, the fact remains that these are an alternative to the lens that Mary Oliver described in her poem. If we give priority to our many types of agenda (doing/owning/knowing/controlling), and allow ourselves to consistently view the world through the lens of our audience, real or perceived, we miss an opportunity for a pure human experience, the kind of experience that simply may not be reproduced, bought or sold. Again, this is not to say that I think we should ignore or resist technology and communication in their ever-evolving forms. That is simply not practical. Rather, I aspire to maintain the ability to choose my experience, to live life consciously as opposed to having everything happen “to me.” Or as Heidi so eloquently states, “to remember how to spark joy from the inside.”
This reminds me of a story my meditation teacher used to tell us, in which a student of his hiked to a Colorado mountaintop to view the sunset. Basking in the beauty of the twilight hour, the student had a powerful and moving experience, which they deemed nothing less than spiritual. The next day, they returned to the same location at the same time for yet another beautiful sunset. This time, however, the depth of the experience was disappointing to say the least – no spiritual awakenings or epiphanies to be found. Soon thereafter, the student approached the teacher to ask what they had done wrong. Why had they been unable to experience the bliss of the sunset two nights in a row, with all the external circumstances re-created so perfectly? I still remember his deep belly laughter as my teacher playfully recounted this part of the story for us. He explained that the student’s initial experience had been an internal one – she had accessed a state of bliss inside of herself the first time on the mountain. Her experience was soured the next day because she had attributed everything to the sunset itself. My teacher suggested (still laughing) that she could have saved herself a hike, because our external stimulus is not what makes us happy, after all, at least not in the long-term. The idea that divinity is something that resides inside of us is pervasive throughout much of Eastern spiritual philosophy. And while external things, like a sunset, may help us connect to these inner aspects of ourselves, it is through regular practices like meditation that we may attain consistent access to this divinity. If we learn to discipline the mind, we may access the same inner bliss in a rainstorm that we do in the twilight of a setting sun.
If your winter is going at all like mine, you probably have not spent much time hiking in the mountains lately, or sitting outside to enjoy beautiful sunsets. For thousands of people in the Midwest, we just navigated our way through the Polar Vortex storms, in which authorities literally discouraged anyone from going outside unless absolutely necessary for multiple consecutive days. And while extreme weather like that can be especially hard to appreciate, there is really no point in wishing for the weather to be different than it is. Such efforts may prove as futile as trying to recreate a spiritual experience on a mountaintop during a sunset! Instead, we can choose to observe our environment, and simply lean into the insights it may offer us. We can set down our “Doing” role for a moment and allow the grasshopper to show us exactly what potential that moment holds. February, in general, is a time of darkness and cold, a time that pushes us indoors for more stillness and contemplation. Why not use this time to evaluate what matters most right now? Just as the farmers cozy up next to their wood stoves to peruse the latest seed catalogs and dream of the fruits of the coming season, we too can pour ourselves into what this moment offers. We may use this quiet time to notice which inner seeds beg for our affection and nourishment now. And my wish for you, for all of us, is that we might just nurture the seeds that bring us the greatest peace, and in ways most contagious and far-reaching. Yes! Let these seeds be the ones that spring forth in the coming season of growth, and let this be the time to plan what “to do with your one wild and precious life.”
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” ~Thich Nat Hahn