Each Life, A Journey
Each Journey, A Way to Deepen Life
I see my life as a journey. I pass from stage to stage on my way from birth to death. In the ancient pattern of India, I go from Spring Student to Summer Householder on the arc of ascent, and from Autumn Forest Dweller to Winter
Sage on the arc of descent. (1)
And I see the importance of how I relate to whatever comes. Whatever arrives at my doorway — whether appearing as gift or wound — still can be treated as a guest. (2) Yet, to do so means I must be prepared, again and again, to let go of — to die to — one way of being and rise to another way of being. The choice I have is how to release from old stories, old emotional patterns, old expectations, and to choose afresh in each moment. Releasing and responding — that is the rhythm of the spiritual path. Receiving and giving — that is the rhythm of the spiritual path. Stillness and silence encourage receiving; awareness of our shared life opens the way to giving — from sufficiency — with a cheerful heart.
Attentiveness takes root as conscious, committed practice. Practice combines doing and deepening, service and stillness. I am drawn to this way of living; I see each day as itself a journey (embedded in a larger journey). I see each journey as a way to deepen my life. What can the spiritual path bring to my life and the larger life in which I dwell? I suggest four qualities: love, compassion, joy, and peace. (3) When I frame it thus and commit to such a way of living, I am already choosing to live a spiritual life.
The religions of the book — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — all include the notion of pilgrimage. Next year in Jerusalem. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Or, closer to home for Europeans, pilgrimages to Canterbury in England, to St. James of Compostela in Spain, to Lourdes in France, or to Rome itself. In Islam, the key pilgrimage is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, recommended to all who can do so at least once in a lifetime.
To speak of pilgrimage in these traditions is already to evoke a worldview where God is present, where life is seen as holy. Life, it is said, is a journey, not a destination. Yet I believe it is both journey and destination. The destination is somehow to merge into the greater Wholeness. Saint Iraneaus tells us that God became human so we could become God. Eastern Orthodox Christianity names the goal as theosis, becoming divine by participation in the life of the Holy One. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi speaks of our life as theotropic. As the sunflower seeks the sun and is called heliotropic, so Reb Zalman sees humans as designed to seek God (Theos), thus being theotropic. (4)
But suppose that the trip is not explicitly a pilgrimage, but simply a trip we take. Can that also become a journey open to the great mystery and attentive to the uniqueness that is all
around and about us? Having been asked to reflect on such matters, I decided to make an upcoming trip a kind of experiment. My wife Gregg and I had decided to take a coach tour of the New England states in early October of 2012, an autumn tour with emphasis on the turning leaves. Could such a “secular” adventure also be a way of nourishing the soul? How might I bring to it such an added dimension?
As prelude, I must reveal that, like my mother and father, I was born and grew up in Newport, Rhode Island. I count myself a Newporter. My attachment to place is strong. And so it was that I had visited the six New England states before — often multiple times over the years. (5) This trip would be a homecoming of sorts and that — on a deeper level — is what pilgrimages are.
In preparing, I brought a journal, a book with poems of the spirit, and a few other books for spiritual readings. (6) I was not sure whether I would have much occasion for spiritual reading, but because such reading is part of my regular daily practice, I could not leave home without it.
Each morning I would begin with a prayerful intention: “May I rise with and in the Great Life. May I increase my love and compassion, my gratitude and deep joy. May I return often to stillness, to meditative mind where equanimity can flourish. May I welcome whatever arrives this day with patience and a cheerful heart.”
Each evening, in my journaling, I would note some things that had touched me. More precisely, I would notice people, places, or events that became a prompt to choose life, increase my love, deepen my compassion, awaken my gratitude, and increase my joy. I also wished in a contentious time of presidential campaigns to go beyond labels and see my fellow travelers as unique humans, deeper than any labels, worthy of full respect and usually in need of a little help from their friends.
I remembered a quote from a spiritual teacher in North Carolina, Bo Lozoff:
Love people [and other creatures] and love your own life.
Take it easy on God’s creation and help out whenever you can. (7)
Good words to travel with!
Boston and its environs — the city plus Lexington and Concord (8)
Old North Church in Boston
A history-drenched city, Boston reminds us of the beginnings of our Republic, of our Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. Leaving the city itself, we travel to nearby Lexington and Concord. We are still in the spirit of 1776. In Concord we are reminded of early authors — Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts. Nature and art dwell here, as well as the love of freedom with its courage, suffering, and sacrifices.
Cape Cod — Plymouth, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard
Replica of the
Mayflower in Plymouth
|To arrive in Plymouth on Cape Cod Bay is to recall a still earlier time. Plymouth Rock bears the date 1620, the landing of the Mayflower. I think of Pilgrims and later the colony at Boston with a Puritan stamp. Religious freedom was often sought for one’s own but not for others. I remember how long it has taken to see tolerance as rooted in freedom of conscience and thus, as a true good, whoever may be in power.
Newport, Rhode Island
Old Colony House on Washington
Square in downtown Newport, RI
Rhode Island, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, would offer tolerance. Newport, founded three years later, boasts the second oldest Jewish congregation and the oldest standing synagogue, Touro Synagogue — with its prized letter on religious freedom from George Washington. Newport also has the oldest Quaker meeting house in Rhode Island as well as the magnificent Trinity Episcopal Church (after a design by Christopher Wren), with its stunning triple-level pulpit in the center aisle.
For me, the coastline and the sea draw me still. Only in the names are there echoes of what came before — the island of Aquidneck where Newport, Middletown, and Portsmouth lie, is an American Indian name, as is Narragansett Bay.
On this trip, the tour does not focus on colonial Newport but goes directly to Cornelius Vanderbilt’s so-called “summer cottage”! Here we are in the 1890s and reminded of the titans of industry with their taste for conspicuous consumption.
As we travel around the Twelve Mile Ocean Drive, I am filled with memories from many seasons of my life. All too soon, we leave Rhode Island behind to drive on into Connecticut.
Museum in MA
Connecticut and Western Massachusetts
We travel from Mystic seaport through western Massachusetts to the
Norman Rockwell Museum near lovely Stockbridge. Rockwell is pure
Americana, seeing us as we wished to be seen, and hoped we were. Through
World War II all the way to the struggle for civil rights, he shows both
the basic goodness in people while at the same time glimpsing the
darkness that also dwells therein.
Vermont and New Hampshire
In these states the fall foliage was king. History too. The Green Mountain boys. The home place of Calvin Coolidge. The lovely Vermont town of Woodstock. The famous Vermont Store. And just a touch of New Hampshire at the end of a long day.
Maine — Portland and Kennebunkport
In Portland, Maine, we are again on the coast. So too at Kennebunkport, the principal residence of President George H. W. Bush and his family. Indeed we are very close to York Harbor, Maine, where my best friend from high school lives. Alas, because of our schedule, I can only visit him in spirit.
Return to Carolina, and some lessons learned
We fly home again from Boston. After regaining some normalcy, I think of lessons learned. Here are a few:
We live our life in circles, as the poet Rilke says.
(10) I have circled the sun 75 times. And I have known these places (or many of them) at different ages. They change and I change. I reflect on what changes and what remains (to some extent) constant. Surely all my ages live in me still.
I am struck by how often, as I travel now, I practice
returning to stillness, to meditative mind. I also practice
reopening my senses and encountering the natural world with
gratefulness (great fullness). . .
I return — perhaps with a touch of Norman Rockwell — to a sense of our solidarity as human beings in the great family of life. I learn to see my fellow passengers in their unique humanity and refrain from political (or other kinds of) labeling. At moments unbidden, great compassion rises.
I think of spirituality as living mindfully and being open to mystery. The mystery is in the great beauty of nature — the tree-covered mountains, the vastness of the sea, the companionship of rivers. The mystery also resides in the beauty of things made by human hands. And, finally, in those movements of the human spirit that elevate, liberate, and inspire us all.
In the 1960s Simon and Garfunkel sang: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.” (11) Perhaps the words of the prophets are also written on the Edgartown Deli on Martha’s Vineyard, whose sign reads: “We wish you true joys — nature, the arts, and human love.”
As you make each day a journey and each journey a way of deepening, I echo that sentiment:
I wish you true joys — nature, the arts and human
May it be so for all of us and all our kin.
For more on the four stages of life in the ancient pattern of India, see my book, The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2009).
See Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” in The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A.J. Arberry, and Reynold Nicholson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 109.
For more on these virtues or modes of divine dwelling, see my The Fourfold Path to Wholeness: A Compass for the Heart — Cultivating Love, Compassion, Joy, and Peace for All Our Kin. (Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications, 2010.)
See Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel, Jewish With Feeling (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 30.
The only place I had not visited before was Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod.
Specifically, I brought along Roger Housden’s For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics (New York: Hay House, Inc., 2009), Father Thomas Keating’s Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation (New York: Continuum, 2002), plus a small copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and a small copy of the New Testament.
See Bo Lozoff, It’s a Meaningful Life — It Just Takes Practice (New York: Penguin Viking Arkana, 2000), p. 264. The addition of “and other creatures” is mine.
The tour ran from October 2, 2012 through October 9, 2012 and was offered by Caravan Tours. Our skilled driver was Gary Forcier, and our exemplary tour guide was Barbara Weis.
Since circumstances prevented our getting together, I want to acknowledge here my longtime friend, Don Russell.
I am thinking of Rilke’s poem:”I live my life in widening circles.” See Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 48.
See the song “The Sound of Silence” on the album: Sounds of Silence, released in 1966.