I recently returned from a remarkable and different kind of weekend. It was a weekend infused with poetry, ritual, music, beauty and kindness. Three days dedicated to bringing meaning to the surface of life, up from the hidden depths where it normally lives. We listened to the exquisite words of the poet David Whyte, resonated with stories of love, friendship, and loss, soaked in the music of the Celtic lands, bowed with intention to the earth and heavens, and shared universal human experiences in the safety and camaraderie of spiritual community. It was a weekend of naming, marinating in, and honoring the meaning and profundity of being human. If there were a way to touch the soul itself, this would be it.
And then I went home.
I love my family, my work, and so much about my life. I am so lucky and I know it. But as re-entries go, the instant I walked in the door on Sunday afternoon, I was immediately catapulted back into the “normal” world. Tasks, responsibilities, groceries, broken cell phones, dishes… all the usual stuff that is modern life, hit me like a major league pitch to the head. And with that too came the always present (blessed) need for my attention, from everyone. I needed to be caught up on what I had missed while away. The overpowering truth that I had lived over the past three days, on the other hand, was unsharable, at least in language. And certainly I could not expect those who had not experienced it to “get” it in any real way or, for that matter, be particularly interested in it. Life at home, regular as it is, needed my attention—now. In an instant, I had left the place for bathing in the ineffable profundity and meaning of existence, stoking awe for this human experience, and steeping in gratitude for getting to be alive. Back in everyday life, it was no longer about the meaning of life, it was about the doing of that life.
It was a painful re-entry, not because I wasn’t thrilled to be with those I love, but because it felt like a loss, like in order to re-enter life, I had to give up my beautiful connection with the Divine, as if I had to come back up and swim at the surface when I had been down deep in the beauty of the timeless.
The experience got me thinking a lot about whether it’s indeed possible to feel awe and gratitude for being alive—all the time? Can we stay connected to the profound when living the mundane? Can we hold onto the sacred in the midst of the regular, stressful world of living—stay tethered to what really matters when doing what needs to be done?
It turns out that there’s good news and bad news. The bad news first: it is not possible (unless perhaps you’re enlightened and I’m not so I can’t vouch for it) to feel wonder and awe all the time. While self-help gurus tell us that we should be in a continual state of astonishment that we can walk, or bliss because we can experience the color blue, in truth, if we have always walked and always seen blue, it isn’t always possible to see these experiences as mind-blowing or particularly fabulous. There is nothing wrong with you if the activities of normal life do not evoke a sense of great reverence. Sometimes, after someone has died or we have lived through a trauma of some kind, we, for a time, crack through the window of the sacred. We get what it means to be alive, and to have this gift of incarnation. And then, usually, that sense of awe at being alive closes and we return to the everyday with perhaps just a slight scent of the sacred left behind. The truth is, we have only ever known ourselves to be alive, and so the fact that we are alive doesn’t always feel like the incredible coup it’s supposed to feel like. And really, how could it?
The good news: we need contrast to feel what we feel. We need to live without a sense of the unbelievable-ness of life so that when it does appear, we can really experience it. If it were here all the time, we wouldn’t recognize it as something remarkable. More good news: gratitude does show up when we stop demanding that it appear; grace does present itself when we stop expecting it to be present all the time.
While our connection with the sacred is not something that must be or can be be front and center all the time, and not something that we can control, nonetheless, there are certain things that we can do to encourage it to appear—to invite awe into our everyday life. And, since most of us want to feel a sense of wonder at being alive and gratitude for the opportunity to have experiences at all, to “get” to live, it is worth laying the internal groundwork from which awe can grow.
In order to feel gratitude, we need, first and foremost, to be in our life, that is, to be present now. The surest way to feel gratitude is to pay attention to how we are and where we are at this moment, so that when gratitude does appear, we are here to notice and feel it. While some experiences contain a beauty that can render irrelevant any tangle of thoughts in which we are lost, for the most part, noticing grace when it arises relies on our being awake and aware to what we are living inside and out.
As we cultivate our own presence, we can also, consciously, move our attention and point of reference from the contents of our life, the thoughts feelings and sensations that are appearing, to the presence that notices the contents. That is, we can make it a practice to not just focus on what is happening in the relative world, the dishes we are washing, as the determinate of wonder, but rather on who or what is aware that it is all happening, who or what is inside the lens we call awareness. This slight but enormous paradigm shift, from what is perceived to what is perceiving, can instantly put us in touch with a sense of the miraculous.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that all experiences appear and disappear without exception. While it is human nature to grasp onto those experiences we enjoy, like awe and gratitude, to try and make them stay, these too are subject to unending change. Imagining that awe could or should be permanent is like imagining that we ourselves could be permanent. And to remember, as a final paradox, that it is precisely in its impermanence that its grace exists. One without the other could not be.
Copyright 2015 Nancy Colier