Half Full, Half Empty, or…?

Most of us are familiar with the saying “Is the glass half full or half empty?”, which points out how perspective affects our experience of life. In other words, do you count your blessings or tally up your grievances? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you feel life is a gift or a burden, joy or tragedy? On any given day, you may feel one of these extremes and then extrapolate to a world view that sets you up for future experiences. You may keep an inner tally sheet of the “good” and “bad.” It seems to be a human tendency to divide up life events in this way. Yet life is made up of many emotions, many experiences. None of them permanent. What if the greater wisdom is to be inclusive of it all?

I grew up seeing the “half empty, half full” view played out in aspects of my parents’ personalities. My dad noticed poison ivy and quickly acted to get rid of it. My mother noticed lilacs in bloom and picked a bouquet for the house. Still, neither one of them embodied only one of these behaviors or life views. They both were so much more. So are we all. What if either/or options like full/empty limit us and keep us from seeing the complete spectrum of possible experiences in our lives? What if the glass of life is always full, and it is only human perception that polarizes it into half and half? Or what if is always empty, in a receptive state, just waiting for our visions and potential to fill it?

More and more, these days I remind myself of this wisdom. It is very easy to fall into gloom and doom if I focus too much on world events. Even the weather extremes that are now occurring with climate change can trigger fears about the future. Where is the human race headed? Apocalypse or utopia? Heaven or hell? But once again these are polarized views, each one excluding the other. The longer I live, the more I learn to shift into neutral as much as possible, which is the soul’s vision of life. The soul has no opinions; it is just experiencing. We incarnated in human form to experience, to see and feel all of life’s variations and wonders without limitation. Judgment about good or bad stalls us in one viewpoint, which translates to one experience. Is it possible to let go of those opposites and live in neutrality, which includes everything?

Neutrality doesn’t mean boring sameness. It means an open heart and mind. It means inclusivity—of events and people and every single detail of daily life. Nature gives us the best example of this. There is an overall harmony to the natural world: trees, plants, birds, animals, plants, insects, stones, soil, fungi all living intertwined and connected lives. Of course, birth and death take place, but in the natural flow of life on Earth, not artificially imposed or manipulated. Perhaps this is our greatest lesson, we humans: to flow, not try to control. Because in truth, we can’t control, anything. At a deeper level, all is unfolding as part of a greater universal tapestry of being and light.

So if we are meant to flow and not control, why not relax into accepting all of life as a gift of infinite possibilities? Which is the soul’s view. The soul sees glasses stretched to the horizon, in a rainbow of colors, all of them both empty and full. All of them perfect as is. This is a bit like what Buddhists call “the middle way,” between attachment and aversion, form and emptiness. You walk life’s path inclusive of every experience that unfolds before you, without categorizing or judging. Just being fully present. In this is peace, which my life has continuously guided me towards. And it was within me all along.

Peaceful Spaciousness

How do you describe emptiness? How do I wrap words around the peaceful space I have been opening to since being diagnosed with breast cancer last August? Language seems inadequate to translate something so vast and limitless. My experience has been one of emptying out, sometimes called “dying unto yourself” in spiritual traditions. The dissolving of past identities, opinions, questions, expectations, fears, hopes, disappointments. All the parts of our selves that we accumulate over a lifetime and don’t even realize we carry around with us. Gradually, day by day, week by week, pieces fell away. No grief was involved; it was a lifting off, a lightening. Space opened up within me. I felt increasingly empty, but with no sense of loss or regret. In many ways, it was like opening the door to my soul, which was a room without walls filled with nothing but light. I observed all this without any particular emotional response. It was just happening, peacefully.

And it continued to happen, weeks past the end of my treatments. The emptiness endures, neither greater nor smaller, just present. I find I have stepped away from busyness—doing, thinking, trying. Being is my home now. I remain quietly in Presence much of the time, often alone in Nature, which is the part of my life that is most essential to me, perhaps because that is where Presence is strongest. The silence in the natural world aligns perfectly with the silence within me, that vast empty spaciousness that human language names God, or Spirit. But emptiness has no words; it just is.

There is an invisibility to this experience. No one sees this empty space within me; no one knows I am there unless I tell them. And resting silently, invisibly, in emptiness is a spiritual practice that brings me home effortlessly to my soul. In my breath, in the wind in the trees, in the song of a sparrow, I connect to consciousness itself, which holds everything and nothing at the same time. My soul embodies that consciousness, and when I live my life aligned with it, I am one with peaceful spaciousness. I am in a form but also beyond it.

This has been our human destiny, throughout the ages. We are born to a physical form but eventually return to formless being as we journey through our lives. Infinite consciousness, Presence, is the seed of all life. It incarnates to have the experience of becoming aware within physical form—and then returns to formlessness. There is an expansion and evolution of Spirit within all of this. We can’t know the meaning or the depth of it because it is unknowable by the human mind. This is the Great Mystery, the soul’s journey through bodily form and its return to a Oneness that encompasses all. You may come to this “empty” awareness through cancer (as I did), or through any life crisis or challenge. Or it may come to you at the last split-second of your life (“life review”). However or whenever, it is meant to fill you and empty you at the same time. It is the essence of all life, death, and eternity.

Why do I write about this if it is indescribable, unknowable? I don’t know (of course). The words arise within my soul. It seems that part of my life’s journey is to share through language what I am experiencing, even when it can’t be completely expressed. Each of us is here to express our unique beingness in the world—through words, through silence, through art, through music, through connection with others or Nature. However we live our lives is exactly what we’re meant to bring to the experience of life on Earth. We came here to embody both humanity and divinity in a vast array of colors and light. Our differences are perfect; our lives are perfect. Within the peaceful spaciousness at the core of All That Is exists a love that we each express in our own way. As you come to awareness of this, you recognize that soulful space in others, in yourself, and in the world.

Is Your Mind on Overdrive?

The mind can be a useful assistant, helping you to organize your life and complete tasks. It can also be a nag, constantly bothering you with worries and reminders. If not balanced with the calming energy of the heart or the breath, the mind can run amuck, always on high alert, looking for lists to make and problems to solve. Caffeine, in the form of coffee or tea, can exacerbate this. Meditation and deep slow breathing are helpful for slowing the mind down. This takes consistent practice, however. Meditators sometimes struggle to control their thinking instead of allowing thoughts to just pass through and disappear into emptiness. The mind can rebel by frantically running a commentary something like this: “What are you doing?! Stand up! Close the window. Take your vitamins. Make a grocery list. Do the laundry. Don’t just sit there!” Often lists will start forming in your head, and the mind will urge you to write them down immediately lest you forget. It requires an ongoing commitment to peace in order to relax your mind into accepting slow, quiet breathing and empty mental space. Being instead of doing.

Then there is the mind’s forte: problem-solving. Perhaps this skill is left over from our collective past when survival from dangers in the external world was of primary concern. Today, centuries later, the mental search for problematic issues to resolve is almost constant if not held in check. And if the resolution doesn’t come quickly enough, worry and agitation set in: “Why did I receive this incorrect billing? What does it mean? I have to call the billing office…but it’s closed now. What else can I do about it? What if the electricity is shut off?” The mental movement from concern to anxiety to outright distress can be rapid. The red warning lights go off, and the emotions and body are alerted. If this happens after dark, rest is impossible. You can be up worrying all night—because of one particular aspect of the mental process: night mind.

Night mind exaggerates every problem to the point of imminent danger and eventual disaster. It thrives on “what ifs.” Those inner questions can lead you down a path of increasing disquiet and finally alarm. Such questions also arise in the daytime, but at night they take on an amplified power. High drama prevails to the point that your body and emotions may feel like they are in a life-and-death situation. How to respond to this scenario? I’ve found that recognizing and naming it helps: “Oh, that’s night mind again.” If you can laugh about it, it breaks the spell. Remind yourself that everything will work out eventually; you just have to be patient. You can make your phone call (or other action) in the morning. Take deep breaths and envision a relaxing scene in Nature. Let go of trying to control your mind, and it eventually calms down enough for you to sleep.

In the daytime, recognizing the mind’s tendencies and determined work ethic helps. Thank it for its contribution. Reassure it that all will be resolved peacefully. Introducing peace into your life through meditation or quiet walks in Nature can be a tremendously effective way to calm the mind and allow it to function at a slower pace, with rest spots along the way. Thinking is an essential human attribute, but at times it can be a hindrance to your overall well-being. With each breath or each step on a quiet natural path, slow down and allow everything to be just as it is in that moment. Resting in the heart’s energy of loving-kindness is helpful too. Whatever solutions and actions that need to be implemented will come to be in their own time.

The key is to trust your life, to trust the unfolding of each moment, each day. In fact, time is irrelevant when you step into the spaciousness of a quiet mind. The heart and soul move to the forefront of your consciousness and reassure you that nothing is really a problem, that everything is part of the flow of life, perfectly orchestrated beyond your ability to understand or control it. If we each can surrender to this ancient truth, our minds begin to work harmoniously with us to bring balance and peace to our lives. So let go of trying so hard; remind your mind that something greater is in play and it can relax and be a quiet observer. All is well. Really.

Hope, Love, and the Web of Life

“I don’t know about hope, but I know about love…. Our job is to learn to love.”
—Robin Wall Kimmerer

In this time of heartbreaking political tumult and ecological grief, where do we turn for wisdom or comfort? For a reason to continue, in spite of how the world looks? This past weekend, I had the great honor and blessing of attending a program with Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass. She is a botanist, professor, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and beyond all else, a wise and caring soul. Repeatedly, during those three days, she asked the question: What does Mother Earth ask of us? Not what can we get, but what can we give? We are living in a time of shifting focus: from taking to giving, from self to community. Earth herself teaches reciprocity and connection. This is our heritage and our guidepost, if we pay attention, if we drop the cloak of self-centeredness and don the cloth of humility.

We are One, we Earth beings. All of us, plant, animal, human, bird, insect, stone, soil. Our lives and our destiny are interconnected. The web of life that holds us can be torn, but it can also be mended. Mother Earth is a gentle and forgiving presence in our lives; she is also a fierce protector of all of life. We cannot continue to destroy the environment and our living connections to one another. So many of our hearts are filled with grief now, for the visible and invisible ways the planet appears to be falling apart. “Grief is the measure of our love,” Robin said. “We can be the rain on one another’s grief and dryness.”

Her words carried such poignancy and power because she has dedicated her life to Earth wisdom, and she is also a descendant of those who walked the Trail of Tears, which forced native nations to leave their homelands and walk endless miles to reservations (in her family’s case, from Wisconsin to Kansas to Oklahoma). All ties to their specific sacred place on Mother Earth were broken. The grief of that severance continues to this day as indigenous peoples work to regain their ancestral lands. Earth herself was violated by similar cruelty as colonists took what they wanted from the land. We inherit that terrible history and are living with the consequences, that lack of reciprocity between human and human, between humans and Earth.

Reciprocity arises from love, and in spite of the violence that has torn, and continues to tear, the world asunder, love persists. When all hope is lost, love persists. When grief breaks our hearts, love persists. Love and grief together can heal the brokenness. Whether or not we believe that healing is possible, our job is to love. We came here at this specific time, on this specific planet, to be the love that persists, in spite of everything. Injustice and inhumanity exist, but so do compassion and kindness.

We are at a choice point in our tattered past, unsettling present, and uncertain future. We can choose despair, or we can choose love. Ask yourself, “What does Mother Earth ask of me?” As I stood on a wooded hillside at dusk in Western Massachusetts this weekend, listening to the sweet song of the wood thrush, I heard the answer in my heart: Remember your place in the web of life; choose love.

The Watchmaker and the Mirror

The only thing I remember from a philosophy course I took in college is one philosopher’s reasoning with regard to the existence of God: “A watch implies a watchmaker.” In other words, such a complicated creation as our universe must have been designed by a greater intelligence. It made sense to me, in my beginning years of exploring the meaning of life and whether or not I believed in a God. Looking back, after a lifetime of spiritual exploration, it still seems like a very believable observation. Yet there are so many other frameworks within which to view the universe and its “creator.”

Today, some scientists theorize that the universe doesn’t really exist until we observe it. That is, consciousness precedes reality, not the other way around. This perception aligns with ancient Eastern wisdom going back thousands of years. The watchmaker God/dess, or the Divine Mother, then is consciousness itself, existing within us as our souls. The entire universe, divine presence, and we ourselves are One. We exist within an infinite hall of mirrors, all of them possibilities, which become “real” as we observe or experience them in the Now. As we look into the mirror before us, only the reflection of the present exists; there is no past, future, time or space. When wise spiritual elders tell us that the present moment is all that exists, this is what they mean.

How do we receive this expansive awareness that is flooding into the world as we know it now? What is real? What is God? And who are we in our seemingly transient and mysterious lives? Ultimately, are these questions, or any questions, relevant if everything is One? Oneness dissolves the polarity within which separation (me and other) exists. It seems to me that this is partially what the Great Shift, foretold for centuries, refers to: the end of time, the end of space, the end of “other.” In each moment, there is only the reflection before me—an orchid, an oak tree, a robin singing, the face of a beloved partner or friend. Each of these engenders love in my heart, which is the essence of divine consciousness, also part of that reflection of Now.

What of death and eternity? How do they figure into this “only consciousness exists” scenario? Does this question, and the fear that accompanies it, also fall away if I immerse myself in the infinite presence that is Now? More and more, I am able to answer “yes” if it’s my soul that is looking in the mirror and not my time-based identity. Deep within my awareness I sense that, for each human being, soul and identity will eventually merge, and we will see the life before us with peace and acceptance, not questions. And of course, this is not the future; it is happening now. Because there is nothing else.

So you and I are the watchmaker, the present moment, infinite consciousness. I am you, and vice versa. When we breathe, it is the universe breathing. When we look into the mirror of infinity in the Now, there is no “other,” there is no death. All is one vast limitless expanse of beingness that we have given names and explanations and pinned our fears and uncertainties on. But the truth of this moment is the one image of beauty before me and the love I feel for everything, seen and unseen. This is God or Goddess; this is All That Is.