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Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred

Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred by Mark Nepo

 A few of my favourite excerpts…

The Universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers. —STANLEY KUNITZ

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The question under all of this is: how do we listen to and stay in conversation with all that is beyond our awareness?

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What kind of listening are we asked to engage in order to sense what is calling and whether we should follow? Even now, as I try to speak of this, I am stalled if I try “to think of what to say next.” What is out of view only opens into something knowable if I wait and try “to listen to what is there.” If it takes a while, it’s because some aspects of truth are shy like owls who don’t like to be seen during the day. It seems that intuitive listening requires us to still our minds until the beauty of things older than our minds can find us.

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THE APPOINTMENT What if, on the first sunny day, on your way to work, a colorful bird sweeps in front of you down a street you’ve never heard of. You might pause and smile, a sweet beginning to your day. Or you might step into that street and realize there are many ways to work. You might sense the bird knows something you don’t and wander after. You might hesitate when the bird turns down an alley. For now there is a tension: Is what the bird knows worth being late? You might go another block or two, thinking you can have it both ways. But soon you arrive at the edge of all your plans. The bird circles back for you and you must decide which appointment you were born to keep.

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It means loosening our fist-like hold on how we see the world, so that other views can reach us, expand us, deepen us, and rearrange us.

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I believe the humble approach to a greater life of listening begins with the acceptance that we hear more together.

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A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION Close your eyes and inhale slowly, feeling the path you are about to enter. Exhale slowly and know that many hidden angels will call to you before you make your way home. Inhale slowly and realize that your life will unfold between the appointments you know of and the appointments you will discover along the way. Open your eyes and exhale slowly, saying yes as you begin. JOURNAL QUESTIONS Describe a learning you were born with and how you came to discover this. Where does this learning live in you now? Describe your center point of listening. Where is the optimal stance for you from which you can hear both: yourself and eternity, and your loved ones and the world? How has this center point changed over the years? TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Consider how experience has excavated a depth in you. What has been opened in you? What is that depth asking of you beyond enduring the pain of having been opened? What is waiting there that might help you live? Tell the story of a time when you were slow to listen to a change that was unfolding in your life. In retrospect, describe the signs you were given that change was happening and how not listening impacted you. Begin to tell the story of your history with yes: your first experience of saying yes and where it led you, your first disappointment with saying yes, your greatest reward for saying yes, and your understanding now of what it means to say yes to life.

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U Thant defined Spirituality as “the tuning of the inner person with the great mysteries and secrets that are around us.”

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By being what we are . . . by attuning our own yearning to the lonely holiness in this world, we will aid humanity more than by any particular service we may render.

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A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION Close your eyes, breathe slowly, and imagine the lineage of great listeners throughout time. Inhale deeply and feel their living presence. Exhale deeply and feel how such listening connects us all. Open your eyes and inhale slowly, honoring what you know to be true about your life. Exhale slowly, honoring what you know to be true about those you love. Enter your day committed to keeping all you are aware of in view. JOURNAL QUESTIONS Tell the story of a moment that surprised you with an unexpected flood of feeling and how this affected you. Tell the story of one thing you know to be true and your history of keeping that truth in your awareness. What does living below “the sheer fact of things” mean to you? TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: U Thant’s description of Spirituality as “the tuning of the inner person with the great mysteries and secrets that are around us” gives us an image of the individual in relationship to the whole of life. Describe your own image for this relationship. Are we each a rung on an infinite ladder? A star in a constellation? A bird in a tree? A root growing in the Earth? Share and inquire into each other’s images of the person and the whole. Do not argue or compare them, just listen to them all. Describe one aspect of your inner tuning that seems to be working well and one inner aspect that needs more of your attention.

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A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION Center yourself, and, as you breathe, feel your being rise and recede like an ocean within you. As you inhale, welcome whatever is near. Receive it in the water of your being, knowing you can’t lose who you are for taking it in. As you exhale, let the water of your being touch whatever is near. Without any intent to influence or change what is before you, let your being soften the world. Enter your day, ready to take in the world and, in exchange, let your being make the world shine. JOURNAL QUESTIONS In the privacy of your own truth, describe a time you took something and how that came about. Describe as well a time you took something in and how that came about. Where are these things now? Which stayed with you longer? How would you describe the act of receiving to a child? TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Tell the story of a moment when giving and receiving seemed indistinguishable and what this moment has taught you. Who taught you how to receive? How have you received their teaching?

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A Reflective Pause JOURNAL QUESTIONS Describe your own sense of what it means to listen. Try to recall your first significant experience of listening. Who or what were you listening to? What did you hear and how did it impact you?

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In central Alaska, there is a river that begins on the northwest slopes of the Alaska Range, and flows over 650 miles to the Bering Sea. The shores of the river are mostly thick with trees and uninhabited. These chilling waters are known as the Kuskokwim River. John Larson, a Dateline NBC correspondent, was in Alaska covering a news story when he learned of an Inuit custom in which elders take their sons once a year to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. Here the largest salmon return from the Bering Sea. The elders teach their sons that, if you watch closely enough, you’ll see the biggest fish barely break surface, leaving an almost imperceptible wake. When the big fish break surface in this way, the Inuit say they are making eyebrows in the water. The slight break of surface is known as the wake of an unseen teacher. When father and son alike see this wake, the harvest begins. This is a powerful metaphor for how we fish for what matters in our lives. We are always looking for the teachers that swim just below the surface, like the face of God skimming below the surface of our days. The Inuit believe that, wherever the large salmon break surface, they leave traces of everything they’ve carried from the mountains to the sea and back. If a son can swim to the spot and drink, he will have the strength of salmon wisdom growing in his belly. This Inuit ritual is another indigenous instruction for the great care and attention needed to see through to the essential realm of spirit that underlies everything. Though even when sighting what matters briefly, there is no guarantee that the deeper reality will surface in the same place twice. Still, it is the art of sighting the wake of an unseen teacher that begins the harvest. This way of listening below the surface of things opens a kind of education that is not really teachable, though we can bring each other to its threshold through love.

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A Reflective Pause JOURNAL QUESTIONS Like the ripple of a fish breaking surface, tell the story of something subtle that proved to be an unseen teacher.

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As your full view of a river would require you to walk its length, think of your understanding of the river of truth, and describe two or three views you’ve had along the way and what these views together say to you now about the nature of truth.

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A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION With your eyes closed, inhale slowly and picture a cherry tree flowering in early spring. With your eyes open, exhale slowly and picture your own unmitigated possibility beginning to flower like a cherry blossom. With your mind open, hear the blossom within you say—neither the fullness nor the bareness lasts, but we return. With your heart open, inhale and exhale slowly, saying yes.

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TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Speak of a time when you sensed the presence of life and death in the same moment. Speak of a time when you were able to be more fully yourself in the presence of a friend or loved one. The cherry blossom appears to say, “Neither the fullness nor the bareness lasts, but we return.” Discuss what you think this means.

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A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION Center yourself and look at your hands. As you inhale and exhale, open and close your hands slowly. Think freely of all the things your hands have touched in your life. Inhale deeply and receive the life of touch your hands carry that can’t be put into words. As you enter your day, try to emanate what your hands carry without saying a word. JOURNAL QUESTIONS Tell the story of a silent moment that keeps speaking to you. What do you think it’s saying? What keeps bringing you back to it? Identify a time in the past you would like to know more about. When you can, find photographs or drawings of this time and look through them as you would a series of windows. Describe the life you find there and your relationship to it. TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Given the scene in Santa Monica where the well-dressed man steps over the homeless person, describe a time when you were the one who for the moment ignored the life around you and a time when you were the one ignored. Tell the story of a recent conversation in which all that was unsaid was greater than what was said. Was this conversation deceptive or revealing?

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WHEN WE LOSE our map, our real knowledge of the path begins.

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The moment we awaken to know that we are lost—to realize, as Jung says, that the ego is not master in the house—then we have begun the journey. —HELEN LUKE

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This is how being lost can be a prelude to a deeper way, because once we admit that we’re not sure where life is taking us, then we are ripe for transformation. Then we are shapeable. When losing our way, we frequently retreat and withhold or take what we think is a safer path. This often complicates our confusion. An old woodsman told me that the reason most people get lost is because they don’t go far enough. They doubt where they are and change direction too soon. Somehow we are called to lean forward by what little light we are given. The great Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides said, “We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes again and again.” Life does seem to dilate and constrict in this way. There are sudden comprehensive moments—lightning flashes—by which we can navigate for a while, sometimes for years. And the moods of confusion in between—those very dark nights—are where we need to practice patience.

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A Reflective Pause JOURNAL QUESTIONS Describe a situation or aspect of your life for which the map you’ve trusted is no longer working. How might you honor it as you would an old guide who has brought you this far? How might you begin to explore and map the new land before you?

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Describe your personal history regarding uncertainty and your response to it. How would you like your response to uncertainty to evolve?

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If we can see our way through the uncertainty of feeling lost, unexpected callings often present themselves. One stirring example is the story of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954–2006), who began her career as an accomplished viola player. While on tour in Europe, her viola was stolen. Though she could have just replaced it, the theft threw her into a state of feeling lost and uncertain. She stopped playing for a while and then began to work with the only instrument she had left, her voice. Though she had sung before, she devoted herself to the instrument within her and, in two years, became the luminous mezzo-soprano she was meant to be.

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A Reflective Pause A MEDITATION Center yourself until you feel a sense of safety in the moment. Breathe slowly and let yourself look at one old definition you carry. It might be how you view your own worth or how you inventory your likes and dislikes based on old experiences. Write this old definition down on a piece of paper and say it out loud for the last time. Breathe deeply, set the old definition in a dish, and light it with a match, watching it disappear into the brief light that returns you to the undefined now.

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And yet, losing our context, losing our self-created map of where we’re supposed to go, can allow us the grace of remembering that all we need is in the moment we find ourselves in.

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The larger intention is to stay in relationship with everything that comes along, at least long enough to taste what is living.

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Chinese. I saw a large bird gliding over the highway and it occurred to me that while a bird starts out with a direction in mind, it simply rides the currents. As human beings, though, we somehow overreach the currents, imagining routes and timetables that we have no control over. We call these routes and timetables goals. If large enough, they become ambitions or aspirations. Then we adhere to them as if they came from God.

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A Reflective Pause JOURNAL QUESTIONS Describe a moment in which you briefly lost your context and what this did to you. What if anything was disturbing about this and what if anything was beneficial and growthful? How would you explain this experience to a friend? TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Tell two current stories about being lost in your life: first, in the outer sense of not knowing where you are or where you’re headed, and, second, in the inner sense of being divided or cut apart from yourself. Invite those listening to help you examine if and how these two ways of being lost inform each other. Invite someone who has listened to imagine and tell the next chapter in your story from here. Share one plan you made which turned into a goal that then had to be fulfilled. How did this goal grow in weight and take up more space in your life? Share one unexpected unfolding that brought you closer to your own sense of aliveness. How did this lighten what you carry and take up more space in your life?

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One reliable way to listen is to keep what is true before us. We can’t do this all the time because we’re human. So the practice of being human centers on the courage to return to what is life-giving. Returning to what matters involves setting aside our preconceptions and opinions so we can listen to life directly. When we can meet life with an open heart, receiving becomes indistinguishable from giving and we become conduits of grace.

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This is a good time to ask: Are you holding your breath anywhere in your life? What will it take for you to breathe more deeply again? How goes your practice of emptying and opening, your practice of staying a beginner?

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Can you endure your uncertainty until it shows you another, deeper way?

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What old definition or plan can you put down that will return you to the freshness of now?

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There are four types among those who sit in the presence of sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. “The sponge,” who soaks up everything. “The funnel,” who takes in at this end and lets out at the other. “The strainer,” who lets out the wine and retains the dregs. “The sieve,” who removes the coarse meal and collects the fine flour. —from the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (5:18)

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Now sage begins to refer to someone who has tasted, who has internalized the world and its many paradoxes. While we can certainly learn from such individuals, a significant change takes place that alters how we understand learning when the focus becomes the one who has tasted and not the practice of tasting itself.

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Now there is the misguided belief that we can shortcut the process of saging and receive wisdom through one already wise.

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A Reflective Pause JOURNAL QUESTION Describe your own significant experience of saging, of tasting life directly, beyond the instruction or teaching of anyone else.

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In his remaining years he befriended a sponge diver and became fascinated by the simplicity of sponges to absorb without preference and to give without holding back. He thought, this is where I’ve been led. This is how I’ll live what years are left, accepting like a sponge and giving like a sponge. And so he spent his days being porous and cleansing.

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TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Give one example of how you filtered out an unwanted piece of life. What did filtering this experience do for you or to you? Give one example of pain or heartache that you have strained from your heart and let age like wine but which has still been hard to let go of. What do you think this pain or heartache wants from you? Tell the story of someone you consider wise and how they irrigated a path for you. Discuss the current state of your heart and how it functions mostly: as a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, or a sieve? Which comes naturally? Which is most challenging? Considering how your heart functions, in what ways would you like to grow?

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JOURNAL QUESTIONS In the same way that entering the ocean calls us first to wade, then submerge, then move through the rush of surf, and finally lets us drift in the deep, silence calls us in increasing degrees to enter it more fully. What is your experience of this? At what stage of silence are you most challenged? At what stage are you at home? What keeps you there? What keeps you from going there?

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TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Describe a time when you changed your mind, your opinion, and what led you to do so. How did you grow from this experience? Describe a time when you changed your mind more deeply, when the very way you perceive shifted, and what led you to this. How did you grow from this experience?

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TABLE QUESTION To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: The epigraph of this chapter speaks to the difficulty of wriggling through a tough place and the sense of clear simplicity that often waits on the other side. Tell the story of a tough place you had to make your way through, what that felt like, and what kind of clarity you earned on the other side. What did this experience teach you about how to approach tough places?

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Have you searched the vastness for something you have lost? —ROBERT SERVICE

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An ancillary paradox is at work in the kinship between light and dark. We yearn so hard and long to be rid of darkness. Yet without dark, there is no shadow. And without shadow, there is no depth perception. Without any depth perception, we have no sense of direction, no sense of what is near or far. In our need to find our way, we are asked not to bypass darkness but to work with it and through it.

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pianist Michael Jones says, “We have two glorious tasks: to be a good steward of the gift we are given and to wait upon that gift.”

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Deep listening requires letting go of our internal argument with the world. Before we can truly listen, we must exhaust ourselves of our assumptions. In truth, if we are to ever glimpse the world outside the stubborn certainty of our minds, we have to put down our ready answer to everything. This necessitates an inner discipline so that I don’t finish your sentence in my mind, or search my storehouse of opinions for a rebuttal or defense of the world as I see it. Letting go of my internal argument with the world means not pushing off of everything that comes my way. It requires my looking at you as a sudden fish that has surfaced from the deep. It requires bringing you water rather than my judgments.

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So the physics of deep listening is that we stumble beautifully into the spaces between our sufferings. This is why we dare to listen, so we might drop together into the truth that holds us all. In a spiritual sense, to synthesize means to discover the coherent whole of life that connects us by daring to mix our individual elements. The way blue and yellow mixed will make green visible, your heart and mine, mixed through true listening, will make visible the color of the Earth.

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suggests that deep silence, deep speech, and deep questioning lead us to a depth of heart that lives below illusion. Each of us has a deep listener or Buddha within, a deep speaker or Avalokiteshvara within, as well as a deep questioner or Shariputra within. And living below illusion in the wondrous and gritty nature of things-as-they-are becomes our daily practice, by listening, translating, and questioning our experience.

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JOURNAL QUESTION Which part of you—your deep listener, your deep experienced and which needs more of your attention? If each is a teacher, what has each taught you?

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Help me resist the urge to dispute whether things are true or false which is like arguing whether it is day or night. It is always one or the other somewhere in the world. Together, we can penetrate a higher truth which like the sun is always being conveyed.

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JOURNAL QUESTION Tell the story of how some aspect of who you are has fallen away and died and what new way of being has replaced it.

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Is it any wonder we need each other to make it through? So if you’re willing, I may turn to you when stuck or sputtering, to see if I’ve retreated into that stubborn belief that we’re the sole authors of what we need. If you’re willing, we can slap each other’s sandals till they become dogs that will retrieve the sweetness we’ve misplaced. If you’re willing, we can help each other put the sun back into the sky.

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JOURNAL QUESTION Tell the story of one painful experience you’ve turned into honey and how that sweetness, once eaten, led you to find more light.

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For many of us, our pain is real enough, but the fire is often a wound or fear that keeps burning us up. This is why we need a controlled fire to go back into without getting hurt. It is difficult to listen to life, each other, or the voice of Spirit, if everything is muffled and distorted through the constant flames of pain or fear.

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But How It is said that souls intent on living will reach deep into their wound and bring out the fire living there, which out in the open turns to light. It is said that those intent on making things better will reach deep into their minds and bring out the fire there, which out in the open turns to truth. It is said that those who love like rain soothe every fire.

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But if I can hold that stone with enough presence and attention to realize its journey over centuries, how it wasn’t always solid, how its minerals coalesced, how it felt the thud and press of every horse, car, and road placed above it, I might feel a deeper connection to the Earth that might broaden my perspective beyond the confines of my individual life. One of the purposes of listening is to break our self-reference.

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This wonderful question on a cool spring day on a well-worn path opened me to voice something I think I’ve always held quietly true: that being articulate is not a facility of language but a fidelity to vision. And so we are all articulate when finding the courage to say what we see.

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For one day, practice “saying what you see” to yourself; that is, take the time to write down and affirm your own direct experience of life and the feelings and thoughts that living generates.

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The mind is a spider that, if allowed, will tangle everything and then blame the things it clings to for the web it wants to be free of.

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All this made me realize that there’s a difference between the soul’s calling and the call of the soul. Both are needed. Both are invaluable. Both are ever-present and elusive. I know now that the difficult time I still find myself in is, in some ways, a shift from my soul’s calling to the call of my soul. Let me describe the difference. While the soul’s calling helps us discover our life’s work, the call of the soul is a continual call to aliveness. Both are important. Like being and doing, like giving and receiving, these two deep calls are inextricable aspects of the energy of Oneness, a spiritual form of wind and calm.

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This reaching for the light is at the heart of the soul’s calling. It’s how we wake to fulfill our purpose and find our place in the world. But once finding the light and growing in its presence, we are left with the call of the soul to simply live in that aliveness. Of course, these twin calls are happening continually and are constantly informing each other. One can lead to the other—within an hour, a day, or a lifetime.

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JOURNAL QUESTIONS If the soul’s calling is about the work we are drawn to in the world, and the call of the soul is about staying close to our sense of aliveness, describe one kind of work you are drawn to now, and one thing that brings you alive today. How do they inform each other? In order to stay close to our aliveness, we must keep inquiring into what is real and sacred. Speak in detail about your own history of inquiring into what is real and sacred.

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I suggest that we don’t achieve or arrive at these states, but that we keep enlivening the presence of our soul by staying in relationship with ourselves, each other, and the Whole.

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First, I try to stay visible. I don’t mean that I draw attention to myself, but that I try not to mute or withhold my presence and care. This involves a rigorous practice of self-honesty, for I can stand in a room full of loved ones or strangers and no one will know if I am present or not. We also think of being visible as being capable of being seen, but as important is the often neglected fact that, unless we are visible, out in the open, we can’t see. Being invisible limits our vision. So I try to live in the open and meet everything with the strength of vulnerability, the way salmon swim upstream belly first.

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Tell the story of a recent effort you made to stay visible with who you are. Describe a recent situation that had you get up, wipe the dirt from your eye, and keep going. Tell the story of a time when you chased after something, only to find that what you were looking for was close to you. Describe a connection to Source you need to clean. How will you do this? Describe a situation in which your anticipation and preparation became a rehearsed response. How did this benefit you? How did this hurt you?

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JOURNAL QUESTIONS Every life has its seasons. Describe the cycle of seasons you are in now and how these seasons are impacting you. In Chinese lore, the Fifth Season is late summer, when the glare is gone and only the color of things as they are can reach us. This Fifth Season is also known as the Heavenly Pivot, a turning point in life. Describe your own understanding and experience so far of the Fifth Season and the Heavenly Pivot. Describe the turning point you are approaching.

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I asked my good friend the classical bassist and teacher Anders Dahlberg about The Tempest, and we went for a drive, listening to it in the middle of a snowstorm. Anders spoke with passion between the movements: “It’s as if he starts out trying to solve a dark internal question. Who knows what it might be. He tries to solve it by getting louder, then softer, going higher, then lower. . . . But the problem keeps returning. It’s a problem that won’t go away. Perhaps it’s his loss of hearing. Perhaps it’s the relentless fragility of life. . . . Whatever it is, it’s a problem to live with. For a time this seems possible, but the problem keeps returning. Though life is still possible. Yes, life goes on. We go on.” It is an anthem for us all. This thoroughly human and affirming piece ends with a quiet, snow-like return to the eternal silence that sees us through the storm. The Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, in the Kärntnertor Theater.

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The more we accept our very human frailties, the more we need to stay in conversation with all of life’s agents. We need our own conversation books to investigate and inhabit our very real relationship to life. Paradoxically, we need a space to talk things through, alone and together, while we search for the wordless still point within. More is at stake than we think. So I invite you to start your own conversation book of what you hear when you enter the unspoken, a journal of your seasons of listening, a journal of this conversational space that is yours and everyone’s. And in that private yet universal space, what was

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To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Tell the story of a time when you felt the tension between holding off the storm of the world and listening for the deeper music of life. How did you cope with this? What did this experience teach you? Tell the story of a time when you felt the tension between your grief and your gift, and the story of a time when your grief deepened your gift. Beethoven’s struggle to listen for and create music through his deafness illustrates the paradox of limitations, how a constraint in one direction can intensify a gift in another direction. Tell the story of a time when something limiting in your life actually opened you to a deeper form of listening. What did you hear? As moving as his music is, Beethoven’s courage in accepting both his gift and his humanness is equally inspiring. Tell the story of someone you admire who has demonstrated a similar courage of acceptance. Describe a place in your life where you are being challenged to invoke such an acceptance.

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The role of spiritual practice is basically to exhaust the seeker. If the practice does what it’s supposed to do, it exhausts our energy for seeking, and then reality has a chance to present itself. —ADYASHANTI

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We can grow by simply listening, the way the tree on that ridge listens its branches to the sky, the way blood listens its flow to the site of a wound, the way you listen like a basin when my head so full of grief can’t look you in the eye. We can listen our way out of howling, the way the heart can soften the wolf we keep inside. We can last by listening deeply, the way roots listen for the next inch of earth, the way the old turtle listens all he hears into the pattern of his shell.

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Always running counter to this deep listening is the noise of the modern world, where the tasks and passwords keep multiplying.

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As I get older, I fear these lists will keep me from what matters. I want my best energy to go to being alive, to staying alive.

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While there is much to do, we are not here to do. I keep forgetting this.

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So given that there are endless things to do, how do we hold this? Is life no more than the all too brief pause between the completion of one list and the beginning of the next?

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A MEDITATION In deep ways, practicing serenity is outwaiting the clouds. Let’s practice serenity. Whether inside or outside, sit where you can see the sky. Breathe slowly and center yourself. Watch the clouds drift as you breathe. Imagine the sun endlessly on the tops of those clouds. Imagine the truth of being endlessly on top of all your troubles. Inhale deeply and practice outwaiting the clouds. Exhale deeply and realize that you can outwait many of your troubles.

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The poem “Coming Out” contains the lines Under the want to problem-solve is the need to being-solve. What does this mean to you? Give a recent example where, in addressing a problem, a form of being would have served you better than an act of doing. What is your relationship with lists?

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In Hinduism, Maya is the goddess of illusion. The word maya means illusion. It is believed that anything added to reality, to the truth of things as they are, is illusion. This veiling power of illusion creates the differences known as “me” and “mine.”

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What do we do when we encounter illusion? Every spiritual path has tried to address this question. No one has solved it, but that doesn’t mean the human experiment has failed. Encountering illusion is part of the human journey, part of our spiritual geography, and what we do with illusion is instrumental in whether we are transformed in our time on Earth.

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Though the practices that speak to these questions go by many names, standing still until we can see is at the heart of all meditation and prayer. And discerning what we have to live with is at the heart of accepting things as they are. Based on the truth of things, we enter the practice of discerning right action: do we live with what is before us, try to change it, or live somewhere else?

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So I need to remind myself repeatedly that the goal of all practice is to help us live.

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Enredo as a vision (for healing) begins and concludes with a focus on the relational context and quality of the collective whole. A fisherman does not “resolve” a tangle. He restores the connections and relationships, bringing back to life the very fabric and function of community.

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When we in the modern complex say we are in conflict, the focus is on the impasse. The emphasis is on the brokenness, not on the oneness that was broken. But if we can say, with the fishermen, that we are motherless and entangled, we are pointing to the state of Wholeness from which we’ve fallen. The emphasis is not on blaming the conflict on anyone. Nets left in the sea long enough will tangle. It’s part of what nets do. And being human, unraveling knots is what we do, once we get past the blame game.

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John Paul goes on to say that, in areas of conflict around the world, he often asks, “When did your conflict begin?” He usually encounters three levels of response. The first typically cites the start of violence or disruption. The second begins to describe the patterns that led to the violence or disruption. The third and deepest reply starts to examine the long history of who we are. He notes that it often takes as long to get out of a conflict as it did to get into it. For this reason, the deeper the inquiry into the question, the deeper the chance to transform the relationship.

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And deeper than any coping skills we might learn is our acceptance of the weave of tangle, which is closely tied to the rhythm of being whole-hearted and half-hearted. Like dilating and constricting and inhaling and exhaling, this opening and closing of our heart is necessary to stay alive. None of these states—being tangled or untangled, being wholehearted or half-hearted, being open or closed—is a place we can permanently stay. When we are half-hearted, we tangle the net. When we are whole-hearted, we untangle the net. But the weave of tangle never ends.

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Lyn Hartley, an independent educator who lives in the wilds of the Yukon, tells the story of two skiers crossing a frozen lake at night. Sliding through the snow with flashlights, they came upon a moose fallen through the ice. The enormous creature was stuck shoulder high. It was clear the moose couldn’t get out and they alone couldn’t pull it out. The temperature was dropping. So they stayed the night and, though the moose resisted, they covered it with their tent, settling in to shine their small lights on its face and on the edges of broken ice, to keep the ice from freezing into shards that would cut the moose. In the morning, when the sun reappeared, they went for help. Together they roped the moose and slowly pulled it to the edge till it could find its own way out. This is a powerful metaphor for how to listen to and be with those who have fallen through: stay close and keep them warm, resisting the urge to prematurely solve the situation. If nothing can be done, sit with them, and withstand the urge to abandon those who seem stuck. Offer your tent and stay till the way out presents itself, not forcing a rescue. How I need to hear this. For

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JOURNAL QUESTIONS We each have a bondage we struggle to be free of, and we each have a desert to cross. Give the history of your bondage and your desert. Where are you currently in relation to the two? As an act of loving yourself, identify one way that you injure yourself. How can you stop?

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TABLE QUESTIONS To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Tell the story of a situation you reframed and how that helped you. Tell the story of another situation you reframed and how that hurt you. Describe an unhealthy habit you are formidable in upholding. Now describe a healthy habit you are tentative in upholding. How might you reverse these efforts?

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JOURNAL QUESTION Tell the story of an important time when you weren’t seen or heard and what that took away from you. Now tell the story of an important time when you were clearly seen and heard for who you are and what that gave you.

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Who or what is a steadfast teacher for you, one you return to when you lose your way? How did you first come to realize this was such a teacher for you?

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into the tangle of the world. I’m learning, though, that the absence of agitation alone is not necessarily peace and that the presence of such difficult feelings does not mean we are necessarily off-center. Rather, the task of being fully alive challenges us to stay in the center while feeling the full range of life on Earth. This is quite a task, which I’m not sure how to do. Nonetheless, listening way inside to these two teachers—the truth of things as they are and the experience of being human—I find myself here.

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Breathe slowly and let its feeling return. Stay centered and think of a recent moment of agitation—of fear or confusion or pain. Breathe slowly and let its feeling return. Inhale deeply until your heart expands, and let both the peace and agitation mix there. Sit this way for several minutes and practice spaciousness.

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That this ounce of comfort could transfer between us in no way speaks to any insight on my part, but to the capacity of the mystical filament of heart that, if listened to, will lead us beyond what we know into the depth of our common humanity, into that place where none of us are strangers.

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To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Describe a time when the constriction of pain or fear diminished your sense of life and what was possible. How did this experience impact you? How did you see your way through this? Speak of a time when your unexpected empathy made you aware of the larger human struggle. Given this experience, how does empathy add to your life? If you haven’t experienced this, it is not a flaw but rather a story you have yet to meet. Given this, how might you better practice empathy in readiness for the stories that await you?

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THE HINDU SAGE Ramana Maharshi said, “There is no greater mystery than this, that we keep seeking reality though in fact we are reality.” Not accepting this paradox is the cause of much of our suffering, as we are forever chasing horizons, forever searching for some secret of life other than where we are.

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Still, the impulse to search is natural and human. We are born with a thirst for love and truth and meaning. But the deeper forms of search have no destination. At these deeper levels, we search more like fish who keep swimming because if they don’t keep water moving through their gills, they will die. It doesn’t matter where they go, just that they go. For creatures living in the deep, this endless search is a way of being.

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As spirits in bodies living on Earth, we swim through the rivers of time and experience, and the heart is our gill. If we don’t keep moving through the days, if we don’t keep taking in experience through the gill of our heart, we will die. So we must look more closely at fish and the miracle

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There is the search that chases life and the search that reveals life. Yet we often confuse the two. The search that reveals life is different than the search for gold, or an image of love, or an image of God. The storyteller Margo McLoughlin says, “I know my practice is slipping when I don’t feel wonder or awe.”

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To practice opening our mind and heart, the pianist and teacher Michael Jones offers three archetypal ways. First is the search for whole-mind thinking, which can re-establish our sense of the living Oneness we are a part of. This is often done through metaphor. Then there is the search for belonging, which can renew our bond to the living. This is often done through storytelling. Finally, there is the search for authenticity, which can reanimate our experience of beauty and truth. This is often done through poetry.

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This is also a journal question that leads to a table question. Invite a trusted friend or loved one to do this with you: This time, tell the story of a small kindness that helped you know your true self. As a way to begin, just be quiet and still for thirty seconds, to let that act of kindness find you. TABLE QUESTIONS After a time, discuss this story with your trusted friend or loved one, inviting them to share their own story of such a small kindness. If the person who showed you this kindness is still alive, consider letting them know how their kindness made a difference.

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Speak about the last two times you felt wonder or awe. What did those situations have in common? How might you look for more moments of wonder or awe? After everyone shares, discuss the nature of wonder and awe that your common experience points to.

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To be asked over dinner or coffee with friends and loved ones. Try listening to everyone’s response before discussing: Share an instance when you heard the loudness of something falling apart. Share an instance when you heard the subtlety of something coming together. If the stilling of our pain is a fierce blessing we resist, offer what this means to you.

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The point in life is to know what’s enough— With the happiness held in one inch-square heart you can fill the whole space between Heaven and Earth. —GENSEI

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One lesson of quantum physics is that if we go inside enough, nothing is solid or separate but fluid and unified, not particle but wave. This applies to the psycho-spiritual unit we call the self. Go inside and listen enough and the identity we call the self doesn’t fall apart but reveals the waves of life that hold everything together.

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JOURNAL QUESTION If you believe all things are connected, what part of you is so connected and what does that kinship feel like?

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This is a silent, meditative walk. Bring a journal: In Hindu, an Upaguru is the teacher that is next to you at any moment. This is not limited to a person. Set aside thirty minutes to an hour and walk in silence. It can be an urban or rural setting that you enter. As you walk, slow your pace and your breathing. Breathe deeply and follow what you are drawn to. It might be a branch, a tree, a smell, an expanse of water, a birdsong, a broken window, or a dirty brick.

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Welcome whatever draws your full attention. It is your Upaguru. Settle near it and listen, deeply listen. Sit quietly beside this small teacher of the moment and begin by writing down its details—what it looks like, smells like, how it moves. Sit quietly and imagine and journal its history. Inhale deeply, and in silence, without words or thoughts, ask it for its wisdom. Breathe before it in silence for several minutes. Now begin to journal your dialogue with this small teacher. Write down what you sense it has to say to you. After a time, close your journal and bow as you leave. Wait three days and read what you have recorded.

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Vaclav Havel’s understanding of hope: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

 

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