When we were children, summer lasted forever. The days stretched out. The light lengthened. The world was playful, carefree, dream-like, endless. We were alive—with playmates real and imagined. And, at moments, we felt we could talk to the trees and the birds and all the other creatures above and below and around us. All were our kin. And this included all the elements: Wind in trees and in the tall grass. Waters of creek or stream, river or ocean. Rocks in gardens or on cliffs. The fiery sun. The languid clouds. The night sky too. Everything companioned us
in a time out of time, where the heart ruled.
From this summer lyric, let us
pick three images to dwell with: the sun, the
heart, and relational life.
First, the sun with its
light and warmth. Shining on all of us. Suggesting, in
summer, fullness, fulfillment, completion. Nothing left out.
Second, the heart,
calling us to care for the community from friendships to
family to larger communities. Wholeheartedly, to invite each
of those communions to be heart whole.
A morning poem (gatha) from the
community of Thich Nhat Hanh says:
Waking up this morning, I smile
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.1
The first line sounds the note of the
heart—“waking up . . . I smile.” Wakefulness and joy. The
last line reminds us that the heart is in service of our
life with others. In fact, the heart promises partnership—
whether in the midst of joys or sorrows.
Third, our relational life
extends the resonances of the sun and the heart. We might
say, “In the beginning is relationship.” We enter the world
in the care of others and we learn to become, in our turn,
caregivers. Again and again, we are reminded of how
intertwined with others we are. We occupy a unique place in
the great web of all life. Unique, yes. In the great web,
yes. Holding both aspects simultaneously. As an ancient text
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother
and even such a small creature as I
find an intimate place in its midst.
All people are my brothers and sisters
And all things are my companions.2
So it was in the days of summer when
we were children. Might it not be so again?
In this essay, I wish to explore
three themes: (a) summer sun with its sense of fulfillment,
(b) the heart with its care for the community and (c) the
primacy of relationship throughout. I wish to explore them
as they are manifest in all the stages of our lives, but
especially in the later years. So let us return to the four
stages of life as articulated in ancient India: Student,
Householder, Forest Dweller, and Sage.
What might fulfillment mean
for the Student-in-us?
What might fulfillment mean
for the Householder-in-us?
What might fulfillment mean
for the Forest Dweller-in-us?
What might fulfillment
mean for the Sage-in-us?
Put differently, what is maturity or
completion at each stage? What is the quality of heart at
each stage? What is the quality of relational understanding
and love at each stage?
As prelude, notice that our life can
be seen in two arcs: the Arc of Ascent and the Arc of
Descent. In a calendar year, spring and summer mark
ascending or rising energy; autumn and winter signal
descending or falling energy. We are more familiar with
thinking of fulfillment in the rising energy of a life
(stages of Student and Householder); we are less practiced
at understanding fulfillment in the falling energy of life
(stages of Forest Dweller and Sage).
The Arc of Ascent — when life energy is
Summer Fulfillment for the Student-in-us
When I taught university students I
held out the ideal of a lifelong love of learning. Of
course, both the love and the learning must be present, and
this implies that the type of study must be such that it
touches and enlarges the heart. I am pointing toward the
“feeling intellect” or the “educated heart.”3 Dante speaks of an “intellectual
light, light filled with love, love of true good, love
filled with joy, joy surpassing every sweetness.”4
Rumi also speaks of this type of
knowing when he writes:
There is a kind of Knowing that is a love.
Not a scholarly knowing. That minutiae-collecting
Doesn’t open you.
It inflates you, like a beard or a fancy
It announces you, saying,
There are certain plusses and minuses
which we must carefully consider.
This other Knowing-Love is a rising light,5
a happiness in both worlds.
Perhaps we could say that this love of
learning is also a learning to love. Such study has a long
history. In the monastic tradition, it was called lectio
divina—a reflective and heart-felt tasting of the text
for the sake of expanding and deepening our loves. So we
begin with a type of reading—a type of study—that can
nourish our soul and renew our spirit. Call it spiritual
reading, yet the reality is much more. What
we read must refresh the spirit and hence will usually
come from the wisdom traditions. Here we are keeping company
with the true, the good, and the beautiful in thought and
art. And keeping company with the great-souled ones among
us. How we read is equally important. The
monastics spoke of tasting the words as if walking in the
vineyard of the text.6
Sapere = to taste. Sapientia = wisdom. All this echoes Psalm
34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” When we read in
this fashion, it becomes a spiritual practice. Thus, this
sort of learning to love is complete with every enlargement
of our capacity to receive our life. Fulfilled and complete
in each moment, ever-open to increase our longing.
Summer Fulfillment for the Householder-in-us
Summer shows up most intensely in the
Householder. In other words, the sun, the heart, and
life-in-relationship are at full strength in the
Householder. Think first of the sun with its light and
warmth. In one sense, the student comes to completion in the
The student takes his or her place in the world, learns to
care for a circle larger than him or herself. This is most
often seen as a couple expands their love to include
children. The space of family. The sense of
intergenerational time. I come to see myself in the midst of
—my parents and their parents and their
parents, my children and their children and their children.
The kingdom or “kindom”8
spreads out in space and time.
Freud defined maturity as the ability
to love and the ability to work. Such maturity is seen in
the image of the householder who takes on the care of a
community and is aware of doing so. We can also imagine the
householder whose household is an institution—perhaps a
college or corporation. We can imagine taking on
responsibility in varying ways for still larger units—one’s nation or one’s planet. Indeed the word “ecology”
derives from the Greek: “the study (logos) of one’s
oikos or home.”
What is the fulfillment of the
householder? In one sense, the householder is fulfilled in
the children leaving home and taking on their own lives. In
another sense, the family has simply changed form. As the
shape of family shifts, new habits of heart and mind are
called for to care for the whole and attend to its unique
To have children, someone has said, is
to live with your heart outside your body. Perhaps better,
to live with our collective, familial heart outside our
personal bodies. We have a new body and a new heart. Think
of a garden where two apple trees grow. The garden is
well-placed to take advantage of sun and water. The other
plants are well chosen to complement the two central trees.
Insects and birds, animals and people visit the garden.
Gardeners care for the whole. They know when the context of
the whole garden is healthy. They know when the individual
members of the garden are flourishing. Robert Irwin placed
this inscription on the garden he designed for the J. Paul
Getty Museum in Los Angeles:
Ever changing, never less than whole
Every present, never twice the same.
So it is with the garden of a
friendship or a family or a college or corporation. The sun
brings light and warmth. We who tend these gardens bring
qualities of understanding and loving kindness, wisdom and
compassion. The family then becomes a school of love
inviting us to cultivate ways of coming to life more fully
in all our relationships as they form and reform in
The Arc of Descent — when life energy is
Summer Fulfillment for the Forest Dweller-in-us
Consider the autumn phase of life—after retirement, let us say. The children are grown and one
form of tending is over. Perhaps parents move over to become
grandparents. They have entered the arc of descent; they
experience falling energy. Shall we regard it as positive
descent or negative decline? How shall we be with this
phase? Is there fulfillment in letting go and letting be?
How might we think about that?
For most of our lives, we have thought
of fulfillment in terms of achievement, success, fame, and
fortune. Upward and onward. Our culture reinforces this
pattern. Is there fulfillment in simplifying? In returning
to nature and to elemental things? Can one have less and less
of certain things and more and more of other things?
A famous Zen story tells of a Western
professor coming to Japan to study Zen. He meets with a Zen
master and the master pours tea. And continues to pour the
tea. As the cup overflows and runs over the table, the
professor exclaims: “Stop. Can’t you see it’s full?” The Zen
master smiles. “That’s how you are,” he responds. “So full
of your own beliefs and opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
With autumn comes acknowledging and
letting go. Acknowledging life exactly as it is in its
surface and depth. Acknowledging fundamental worth allows us
to let go of what no longer serves. Opinions and beliefs.
Ideas and identities. Roles and self-concepts. Acknowledging
deep value, we can let go of what is not essential to us
after all. In letting go and letting be, there is stillness
and a space to see. As the song from Godspell has it:
“to see Thee more clearly, to love Thee more dearly, to
follow Thee more nearly -- day by day.”9
“My barn having burned, I can now see
the moon.” So the Zen tradition puts it. Perhaps I realize I
am more than my costumes. I come to see myself as a unique
reflection of the great Mystery. Then I can become nothing—nothing special. And at the same time, everything. For I
identify with all beings and rest in peace. Between nothing
and everything, I am again something—one jewel in the
great web of Indra reflecting the whole from a particular,
Summer Fulfillment for the Sage-in-us
I want to introduce the sage through a
several weeks strange sounds had drifted over the mountains
from the neighboring valley. There was much talk in the
village about what these noises could be, but no one could
make sense of them. Even the village elders had never heard
anything like them. Finally one of the young men of the
village was chosen to cross the mountains and see what was
After two days of hiking he reached the mountaintop and saw
in the valley far below a hive of activity with dozens of
people working. As he drew closer, he saw a line of people,
each with a huge stone in front of them that they were
hammering and chiseling.
he finally reached the valley floor he approached a young
man at one end of the line and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Huh!” grunted the young man. “I’m killing time until I
get off work.”
Puzzled, the hiker turned to the second person in the line,
a young woman, and asked, “Excuse me, but what are you
“I’m earning a living to support my family,” she
Scratching his head, the hiker moved on to the third person
and asked again, “What are you doing?”
“I’m creating a beautiful statue,” came the reply.
Turning to the next person, the hiker repeated his question.
“I’m helping to build a cathedral,” came the answer.
“Ah!” said the hiker. “I think I’m beginning to understand.”
Approaching the woman who was next in line he asked, “And
what are you doing?
“I am helping the people in this town and
generations that follow them, by helping to build this
“Wonderful,” exclaimed the hiker. “And you, sir? He called
to the man beside her.
“I am helping to build this cathedral in
order to serve all those who use it and to awaken myself in
the process. I am seeking my salvation through service to
Finally the hiker turned to the last stone worker, an old,
lively person whose eyes twinkled and whose mouth formed a
perpetual smile. “And what are you doing?” he inquired.
“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The elder roared with
laughter. “This ego dissolved into God many years ago. There
is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God works through this body
to help and awaken all people and draw them to Him.”10
The elder in this story holds the key to fulfillment in the
stage of becoming a sage. What has happened is that the
illusions of earlier years—the quest to be somebody and to
live in the eyes of others—drops away. Always you were
loved. Always I was loved. Always we were at one with the
source. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Or alternately
somewhere to go and something to do, yet not under illusion.11 Seeing clearly. Acting joyfully. In
alignment with the Great Work and the Great Love. So we
might say: “I do not do the work for myself. I do not do the
work by myself. I do not do the work with my own powers
A Jew, thinking of our true size,
might recall the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim
of Peshischa: “Everyone should
have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one
should be written: ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and on the
other: ‘For me, the world was created.’ From time to time we
must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of
living comes from knowing when to reach into each.”12
A Christian might say: “I live, now
not I, but the Christ lives in me.”13 Or think of Jesus’ daunting words to
the rich young man: “Sell all you have. Give to the poor. .
. . Come and follow me.”14
Indeed there is something terrifying in truly practicing the
presence of God. And something paradoxical as well. How
crazy. We have everything and keep looking for more!
A Muslim might remember Abu Sa’id
saying: “A true saint is one who walks amongst the people
and eats and dwells with them and buys and sells in the
market and marries and socializes yet never forgets God for
a single moment.”15
A Zen man or woman might say with Seng
Ts’an: “When the ten thousand things are viewed in their
oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have
Eckhart Tolle, in speaking of
surrender and finding God, puts all our themes together in
these beautiful words: “Suddenly, a great stillness arises
within you, an unfathomable sense of peace. And within that
peace, there is great joy. And within that joy, there is
love. And at the innermost core, there is the sacred, the
immeasurable, That which cannot be named.”16
A Taoist might smile or, with the sage
of the cathedral builders, laugh out loud.
So the sages listen deeply to what is
occurring within and around them. Not taking things
personally, they are ready to act from a center beyond
themselves, willing to reinforce movement where it is
flowing well. Where is fulfillment here? It is
paradoxically, Nowhere and Now Here.17 And there is a further paradox as
well. On the arc of descent, there is no one to take credit,
so all moves effortlessly. The sage can wear any costume and
even play the fool.
Coda: Summer’s Lessons
We began with three signs of summer—the sun with its fulfillment. The heart caring for the
whole. And everywhere seeing life as relationship,
First, we found that fulfillment was
far from a once-for-all phenomenon. No fulfillment is the
last word. We are:
never finished with learning.
never finished with caring for our sectors
of the Great Web of Life.
never finished with letting go and letting
be, simplifying and returning to nature.
never finished with practicing the presence
of God or, alternatively, getting out of our
own way so that the greater light and love
may shine through.
Second, each season has a fulfillment
on its own terms.
The “heart learning” of the student issues
again and again in insight. As insight
expands, so likewise does compassion. Each
act of insight–compassion
is cause for celebration.
The caring of the householder issues in the
well-being of the unit and those within its
enveloping field. Think of the task of
parenting. Think of the marker events of
achievements as the children grow in
understanding and love and the parents grow
as well. Each act of caring that reaches a
fulfillment—however temporary—is cause
The acknowledgement and letting go of the
Forest Dweller also has its fulfillment.
Suppose that the Forest Dweller practices
acknowledging and letting go of the three
poisons: clinging, condemning, and
identifying (with beliefs and roles, ideas,
Suppose we notice we are
clinging to a particular “story”—a
particular way of seeing and speaking—one
causes unnecessary suffering to ourselves
and others. We let it go. Each act of such
“letting go” brings clarity and freedom and
is cause for celebration.18
The sage practices the art of disappearing,
in a paradoxical way. As more of my agenda
falls away, there is more space for That
Which Matters to show itself. Each moment of
openness to the mystery is an instance of
grace and a cause for celebration.
Paradoxically, I become more of what I truly
am in thus opening to the universe.
Third, I can get better at each stage
through practice. And there is a sequence here.
The student drops a certain amount of
egocentricity to allow the learning to be
The householder drops a certain amount of
egocentricity to allow, say, the family to
be itself and flourish.
The Forest Dweller drops a certain amount of
egocentricity by gaining skill in
simplification and hence the natural world
becomes more itself.
The sage becomes more skillful at a deeper
allowing—allowing and listening. And “all
that is” flashes forth in glory.
“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The
elder roared with laughter. “This ego dissolved into God
many years ago. There is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God
works through this body to help and awaken all people and
draw them to Him.”
In such a summer day, all is complete
at every moment. And laughter rings out in celebration.