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2.13 The Gift of Surprise ~ The Exquisite Risk - Daring to Live an Authentic Life ~ Mark Nepo

Movement 2 - Steering Our Way to Center

The Gift of Surprise

"When everything you've put off is here, when every dream of love is on your lip, when everything you've saved becomes a rose, open your eyes, though they are busy seeing, open your mind, though it won't stop planning, open your heart, though it keeps remembering, open and focus on the first thing you see."

  1. Our capacity for surprise is often an unused blessing. Brother David Steindl-Rast has described surprise as another name for God. With each appearance, it prods us to ask, Beneath our problem-solving, what is life asking of us? Beneath our ideas of happiness or suffering, what does it really mean to live?
  2. So often, we seek to change things, only to find that our honest engagement with experience often changes us. In trying to make life fit our needs, our sense of need is often softened or broken until we fit life. Humbly, this inversion of intent is, in itself, a subtle wind of miracle. and surprise often announces that this miracle is near.
  3. Because of the very nature of surprise, our first challenge is to stay open to the unexpected, not to harden into the position of our initial reactions. For this sort of stubbornness makes change a monster and makes learning next to impossible. We can't learn to see if we can't keep our eyes open. In just this way, staying open to the unexpected expands the openness of our heart.

The Buffers of Perception

  1. If we can enter this far, there is another challenge that we are faced with which is difficult for Westerners to accept. It is the risk to honor all levels of reality as REAL. So much of life is invisible, intangible, elusive, and still, powerfully impacting. Yet we tend, out of habit, to root ourselves only in the physical realm. Of course, this is our daily home. But as a bird's nest is soaked by rain and dried by wind and light, we are affected by more than just the twigs of our days.
  2. So, yes, we live in the physical world, but it is constantly informed by the wind and rain and light of Spirit that we can't readily see. The Native American worldview is constructed to help its citizens remember this. One way it does this is to say, We do not believe in metaphor. For metaphor blocks our being touched directly by the many faces of the Great Spirit.
  3. As Westerners, we say the wind is LIKE God's voice. But the Native American says the wind IS God's voice. We say water is LIKE the earth's blood. But the Native American says water IS the earth's blood. While metaphor has always been intended as a way to grasp and be touched by what remains unseeable, we have somehow over time inserted it as a buffer from the mystical dimensions of life that we can't quite understand or get rid of.
  4. Through our will and self-control, we have buffered ourselves from other mysterious dimensions of Spirit as well. Consider how we often view memory. I had a memory of my grandmother the other day. She was laughing in her Brooklyn kitchen. It was so vivid. It was as if she had visited me. That's the catch. The buffer we create here is the "as if." As long as I assume that I call up the memory, I eliminate the powerful connection that she might have visited me.
  5. When we assume that we author everything we experience, we snuff the possibility for being touched by the more numinous dimensions of reality. My sweet memory has a different import and quality of feeling when I remove the "as if," when I allow Grandma's spirit to have a life of its own. The truth is that I was missing her terribly, and she might have actually answered my loneliness, which I then dismissed as a private memory conjured out of my sadness like an old photo pulled out of my wallet.
  6. Similarly, we dismiss dreams as things we make up, as fantastic exaggerations of our troubled days. Yet who knows? It is said that dreams are the language of God. So remove the "like," remove the "as if." They might just be X rays of our personal unconscious. Or glimpses of the spirit world. Or the shore where both meet. Dreams might be the trail of our unconscious connection to all beings - past, present, and even to those not yet born. When we dismiss them as only noise from our overworked minds, we go deaf to a subtle and sacred wind that is trying to steer us through our days.
  7. Recently, in New guinea, a poet accompanied an astronaut to a tribal gathering, and through translators, she was excited to introduce these natives, who had never seen a car or phone, to a man who had actually stepped foot on the moon. As it happened, the moon was full that night above the windful trees. Through words and gestures, it was conveyed that this man had been to the moon. To her surprise, there was no astonishment, but simply a recognition of kinship. Hurriedly, the natives retrieved one of their shamans, who conveyed to the poet and the astronaut that he, too, had been to the moon - through visions, through dream-walking. Humbly, the poet thought she had something marvelous to give to these people, only to discover that they had already been there. And the astronaut and the shaman sat under the night sky, comparing what they had seen on the moon, while the poet listened.
  8. Our constant insistence that we are the self-creators of our own destiny, the builders of our circumstance, can create a spiritual cataract that blocks us from being touched by the mystical light of spirit that so often surrounds us. As with the astronaut and the shaman, we often dismiss early wisdom traditions as primitive and infantile. Consider how we have minimized the Pagan and Hindu devotions to multiple deities as undeveloped theologies, when they are honoring how the Divine speaks directly through the things of this world. St. Francis would have welcomed the chance to worship Ganesh in the form of an elephant, or to pray to light as a divine source pouring through the hole in the roof of the Pantheon in Rome. Yet somehow we fear such direct contact with grace.
  9. So a continual and deep risk for us, if we are to feel the presence and friendship of all there is, is to humbly lift the veils we drape ourselves in, the veils that insulate us as the self-creators of everything we experience. Whether we accept it or not, we are asked to let life, in all its unseeable elements, touch us.
  10. How? We can begin by removing the buffers of perception that we create. We can remove the "like' of metaphor, letting the wind be God's voice. We can remove the "as if" that surrounds old feeling, letting that memory BE a visitation. We can remove the imagined sense of dream, letting us feel our deep connection to other beings. We can remove our condescending stamp of theology, letting the spirit in all things touch us. We can remove ourselves from the center, letting the indwelling spirit pass through us, time and again, refreshing and rearranging us, until with D. H. Lawrence, we utter, without shame, "Not I, but the wind that blows through me."

Wherever I Go

  1. When I dare to ask, and when people feel safe enough to share their truth, I hear what lives beneath our buffers of perception. When I dare to listen, I hear story after story of the One Direction and of the net of influences by which the Great Spirit informs our lives.
  2. Only last year, an old woman in her kitchen in Tennessee told me of the time she heard her son call out for her in a muffled way, as if he were hurt in the yard. How this seemed impossible, as he was far away in Vietnam. How at that moment, as she found out later, he was so terrified in crossfire that he hit the jungle floor and called out her name. How she fell to her knees praying when she didn't see him in the yard.
  3. And there was the Yaqui healer who had spent his whole life in the desert. Something made him want to travel halfway around the world to learn form the Maori Indians of New Zealand, a seafaring people whose desert is the sea. For months, they listened to the desert healer ask, "How do we live near the deep?"
  4. For months, they didn't reply But finally, the night before he was to go home, they gave him an answer. In a holy offering, they blessed him with a bowl of fish eyes. He stared into the bowl repulsed, but it was clear that this was a sacred gesture offered to very few. 
  5. They expected him to eat the bowl of eyes that had seen the deep that humans can't see.
  6. So he ate the fish eyes and that night in the Maori dreamscape, he was carried armless through some clear depth where all he had to do was breathe and face forward. He woke knowing something of surrender and that - no matter where you live or what your tradition, no matter whether you obey or rebel - if you are to see with the eyes of the deep, you must take in what lives in the deep. For no amount of talking or thinking or watching can substitute for taking in what lives below the surface.
  7. Of course, our challenge is to know which of our experiences are old fish swimming, and to find the courage to eat the eyes of those experiences, believing that doing so will change how we see.
  8. When the desert healer went to leave, the Maoris said farewell, reminding him that whenever he touched the skin of the sea, they would know each other's heart and he would be home. It is the same in all cultures around the world. When we dare to touch the skin of that sea that is deeply human, we quickly know each other's heart and are mysteriously home.

The Great Opening

  1. And then there was the son of a soldier who killed his own people. It was that gentle son who went in despair to his grandfather's bridge to ask in his solitude WHY. That night he dreamt that everyone who had been hurt and everyone who'd done the hurting met on that bridge. And in their awkwardness and pain, it began to rain flowers which grazing their skin, opened their faces and they were healed. And the flowers, falling into the water, brought the fish who thought the petals were food. And the son of the soldier woke committed to the building of bridges and to the food of flowers raining from the sky.
  2. In the light of day, this gentle son told me that the bridge where faces open is the Great Opening, the place where all things live and meet. When he left, I closed my eyes until that bridge appeared. It took quite some time. When I opened my eyes, I realized how small and deep one human life can be. I realized I can't possibly encounter everything, and so, it doesn't matter that I haven't experienced these things myself, that I've never been to New Zealand or dreamt of flowers raining from the sky.
  3. It brings us to a crucial paradox of experience. While I can't truly know something until I've lived it, there is also a common source at center that is greater than all the experiences any one life can have. This is the bridge where faces open. At this threshold, we can become dangerously small and insular if we limit truth to just what our small lives have encountered. On the contrary, the true gift of firsthand experience is that through our breaking heart, we can find our way to the heart of all experience. It is humility of this sort that can deepen our compassion, and such compassion allows us to embrace the underlying truth that all our experiences thread together to form the Living Universe.
  4. So, though I may never be asked to eat a bowl of fish eyes, and though I might not have the courage to do so, even if asked, I can find the courage to admit all levels of reality into my heart, I can welcome surprise as the teacher that lets me see the blessing that waits beyond my small understanding of things. I can feel my way like a blind man, praising the existence of light because I can feel its warmth all over my face.



Introduction and Table of Contents ~ The Exquisite Risk ~ Daring to...

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