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Sunday was a day of being reminded of things. Of getting messages from…whom? The Universe? Synchronicity? Coincidence? I don’t care, so long as the message was received, and it was. It was a (gentle, loving, metaphoric) ass-kicking from God, in the forms of poems, sermons, radio programs.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church that I attend, the call to prayer was Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day. It’s a well known poem, a profound prayer in and of itself, focused on the idea of just paying attention (and feeling) as meditation, connection to whatever-the-thing-is-we-call-spirit. It’s a favorite of mine, and I relate to the last two lines profoundly. After all, what I am going to do with this one wild and precious life? There are times it feels hopeful and gentle, and times it feels like a challenge. “Go do it!”, the poem says. “Get on it!”
Then, the sermon was on Coveting, you know from the whole Ten Commandment thing? Reverend Barnhouse spoke with eloquence and great humor about this feeling of wanting something that someone else has and how it tears at us, harms not just us, but everyone:
Coveting, wanting something that is someone else’s doesn’t only make you eat your heart out, It sets you up for wishing something bad to happen to your neighbor, or it makes you think about how you deserve that thing and they don’t, all encouraging an adversarial dynamic rather than a compassionate or cooperative one. It can create bad feeling between you, guilt and anger and sorrow. The community is damaged. In a coveting situation, you are damaged and/or the community is damaged.
It is a powerful feeling, that envy, that coveting. Often it creates a deep sense of anxiety and depression in me. I don’t know about you, but I compare myself all the time. I don’t get enough blog hits; or, I should be farther along in my career; or, my body should look like that body over there (only without the genetics or hard work of course). And down that road lies madness. My best friend tries to remind me of this, and she’s right of course, but often it takes a few interventions from a few arenas before this stubborn Aries gives in and gets it.
Reverend Barnhouse took the sermon into a direction that I needed. She quoted a teacher of hers who helped her reframe the feeling of coveting, into a feeling of connection:
One of my spiritual teachers, Martha Beck, would say “do you really want more comments? How would you feel if you got them? Warm, validated? What then? You would be empowered to keep going? Confident? What is it you’re really after?”
(Reverend Barnhouse says) …when you covet, when you are jealous, when you want something someone else has, write it down. Ask yourself why you want it. What do you imagine it bring to your life? What is the lack you are really feeling? What could you do to fill that lack? Coveting is an indicator of where you need to go. Use that energy for good. Use it to move yourself toward wholeness. Demons love a good fight. See if you can embrace them instead, turning their energy toward the good.
Now, look I get it. It’s probably a lot easier to let the amygdala go to town with all the powerful heavy emotions like envy. “BUT WHYYYYYYYYY????”, my brain wants to scream. While I foot stomp with frustration and fear, these so-called demons chase me, and I run into a house of mirrors. Inside each glass is distorted with images of me relaying the messages, “You just aren’t enough, you don’t work hard enough, it’s not your karma, you are too old, you didn’t start soon enough.”
I’d like to blame serotonin for my troubles. Or my parenting. Or our modern world with it’s emphasis on social media, metrics, and measuring impact. Or all of it. Maybe not the demon part, though that’s certainly dramatic and I like the imagery.
But I figure it’s a little bit like this for many of us. I sat thinking about her sermon all day.
Then, that night? I was on my way home from a show, and On Being was on the radio.
It was an interview with Mary Oliver.
So there I was, again, hearing the same poem, hearing Mary Oliver discuss attention, connection, the rich joy spirituality brings us, how she writes and learned to write-by walking through the woods and taking notes as she walked. Not at a desk, she just did it her way. She listened to the world, and allowed the creative to meet her. She set an appointment and joined with something…I don’t know what it is, but I do believe it’s real. And it was meaningful to me to hear her discuss these things, but also echo Reverend Barnhouse’s comments regarding comparing the self and judging one’s own wild and precious life against another.
Here is her poem, which I hope you enjoy.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, either. I do know that they are everywhere, or can be, and that they are different for everyone; That’s the trick that I may finally be learning.
It isn’t about sitting in a pew with head down and hands placed just so, with “Dear Jesus/God/Ishtar, please help me….” and it never has been for me. I always felt too linear, stiff, and inauthentic. Like I was just talking to myself with nothing reaching out or in, just words.
But a poem? A moment on stage? That moment when you look into someones eyes and feel the deepest, briefest hit of empathy from your mirror neurons firing off, sex? A pea-pod bursting up through the dirt into the sun?
Holding an 8 week old puppy? God, yes, there is God right there in the musky, wiggly, licking joy of life bursting out in fur and sheer pleasure.
All those things connect. Coveting what I think is experienced by others, disconnects. Messages from the Internet or the Universe come when you need them, but you (I) have to be willing to hear them.
So, Dear God/Spiritual Force/Great Ocean, help me not to covet and envy. Help me to listen to the world around me, the breath and the rain; the rock and roll and the thunder. Help me hold up the successes and skills of my friends and peers with joy, instead of wrestling with the want of what they have. Help me know what’s behind my desires so that I can love and connect so much more to the people in my life,
Except, the puppy. That desire is pretty simple. I just want a puppy.