Mindfulness in the Sanctuary of Jiffy Lube

[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested!  Invite them to subscribe and receive every new post via email – hit the button on the right to subscribe.] There's a Zen story about an old zen master who was dying.  All of the monks gathered - in a kind of restrained eagerness  - around the deathbed, hoping to be chosen as the next teacher.

The master asked slowly, "Where is the gardener?"

"The gardener," the monks wondered aloud.  "He is just a simple man who tends plants, and he is not even ordained."

"Yes," the master replied.  "But he is the only one awake.  He will be the next teacher."

Apparently there's something about working in and being present to the natural world that produces a kind of "awakeness" toward Life.  The famous painter Vincent Van Gogh expressed this same reality:  "All nature seems to speak ... As for me, I cannot understand why everybody does not see it or feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand." (The Complete Letters, 248, I, 495)

There's something spiritually stimulating about being in nature and allowing it to speak to your heart and mind and soul.  There's something powerful about getting close enough to creation to hear its song and listen to its rhymes.  Every major religion in the world recognizes the spirituality of nature and provides various ways to become more "awake" to the voice of the Sacred that speaks from the world all around us.  It's pretty amazing what we begin to notice when we're being more mindful and aware of everything we see, hear, and feel.

I was sitting in the waiting section of the oil change garage off of the busy Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco last week.  My chair was close to the garage entrance so I could see the street.  I was thinking about the upcoming spiritual retreat we were taking with my Second Wind spiritual community, the retreat theme this year being on the spirituality of nature.  My initial response to what I saw and felt in the midst of my very urban environment was to heave a sigh of relief knowing that it wasn't much longer until I was going to finally be out of the city into "real" nature where I could hear God's voice and feel closer to the Spirit of life.  But then, as I looked outside the huge garage door and saw the cars driving past, hearing the traffic sounds, I was suddenly struck by a significant reality:  I was surrounded by "nature" right there in the middle of my huge city.  It wasn't just the green trees on the median of this busy boulevard, or the birds I saw flying overhead.  The heart and soul of nature was also evident in the awe-inspiring creative spirit that went into the design and construction of today's modern vehicles - the intricate, micro "creation" of computer chips and boards running the cars and trucks, the impressive design of the engines propelling vehicles toward their destination, the guys changing the oil in my car, running back and forth, using their appendages skillfully to service my amazingly constructed automobile (even though I kind of hate my old car these days and wish I could get a nicer new one).  Even the sounds that we so much associate with "anti-nature" (car horns, exhaust pipes from loud buses and trucks, traffic, construction sites, loud voices) are in fact the sounds of life, all of which involve the divine spirit of creativity, artistry, invention, passion, desire for the best in life).  And when that perspective hit me, I became aware of "nature" in the middle of my city in new ways that led to a deeper appreciation of God's Spirit all around me.  I had a very meaningful spiritual epiphany right there on busy Van Ness Avenue - I encountered the God of life in the sanctuary of Jiffy Lube!

Living with our "eyes" more open wherever we find ourselves, suggest the spiritual sages of all time, produces a deeper experience of life and an increased connection with God.  Nature is where life is; and life is everywhere.  I do realize, in addition, that being in environments that are more silent and quiet and environmentally natural is extremely conducive to spiritual depth and connection, as well.  But it's amazing how often even when we're in those settings we simply don't see or hear the Sacred Spirit of life very deeply - we're too busy "doing" instead of simply "being" attentive.  Intentional mindfulness helps make the connection.

The Hebrew poets in Scripture manifested this intentionality with nature so profoundly in describing their experience of God.  Their poetic similes and metaphors were filled with an environmental awareness that opened their hearts to the Divine Creator.  One pointed to the other.  God was both in His creation and the Master of Creation.  Looking at one was like looking at the other.  They facilitated experience, one with the other.  Notice this example:

"O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are! beautifully, gloriously robed, Dressed up in sunshine, and all heaven stretched out for your tent. You built your palace on the ocean deeps, made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings. You commandeered winds as messengers, appointed fire and flame as ambassadors. You set earth on a firm foundation so that nothing can shake it, ever ... What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side, made earth overflow with your wonderful creations ... The glory of God-let it last forever! Let God enjoy his creation!" (Psalm 104)

There is a profound spirituality associated with nature that is accessed by developing a greater mindfulness or awakeness or awareness of what you're seeing and experiencing.  That's why, at Second Wind, we value the natural world and desire to enjoy it, honor it, respect it, care for it, and share it often.  And we also value the city we live in as a place where God's breath blows and moves and stirs up life, too.  As urban dwellers, we're learning to feel the divine breath energize us and bring us to life in the middle of our urban "forests," where the voice of God sings to our souls the music of life.

This last weekend, on our Second Wind retreat, our closing "ceremony" was to write a collective psalm of praise to God, each one of us writing two lines describing our personal experience of the weekend, and then putting them all together into one song.  After taking a few minutes to compose our two lines, we stood in a circle and read our lines in one complete collective psalm.  I'm telling you, it was a profound experience for me as I listened to the richly diverse and meaningful ways everyone had encountered God and experienced the depth of life through the retreat time, described in some wonderfully poetic tones.  Our intentional experiences of heightened awareness and awakeness, including times for reflection upon and observation of those experiences, revealed a significant spiritual epiphany for all of us.  The power of keeping our eyes, ears, hearts, spirits, and bodies open to Life!

As Van Gogh once said, "Oh! My dear comrades, let us crazy ones have delight in our eyesight in spite of everything - yes, let's!"

Human Ballast and the Soul: A Lesson From My 16' Snipe

I used to own a 16' Snipe sailboat.  Loved it!  Sailing is exciting in a smaller boat because you're right on top of the water, you can sense the speed more easily, and handling strong wind is a wonderful challenge.  The issue of ballast is quite different, too.  Small sailboats don't have the heavy keels that larger boats do.  They have dagger boards - a smaller, thinner, lighter board often made of wood or metal that can be retracted (pulled up or pushed down through the hull) depending on the depth of the water. So since there isn't lots of weight below the water line (like a large sailboat), the people in the boat provide the ballast and balance.  When the wind is blowing, the crew leans out over the edge of the boat to provide more weight counter-balance to keep the boat from tipping over.  Fairly crucial!

My 16' Snipe was basically a 2 person boat.  Which meant that the two people have to work together to keep the boat in good balance when tacking back and forth in the wind.  Human ballast.  Get the balance offset and the result can be disastrous, especially if you're in a race and trying to beat the opponents.

My youngest son Julian and I were sailing in Lake Washington, on the edge of Seattle, several years ago in fairly heavy wind.  It was very exciting and exhilarating!  We went into a tack - "Ready to come about!"  I shouted.  "Ready to come about!"  he responded.  I turned the tiller across the wind, and shouted "Coming about!"  He shouted, "Coming About!"  As the bow of the boat rapidly flew into and beyond the wind direction, I shifted sides immediately, but he was a bit too slow to shift to the opposite edge that was now leaning way up into the air - he was still down on the water side.  The balance was all wrong!  And with the new gust of wind pushing the sails down toward the water, and his weight down there, too, the boat went completely over, and we both flew out.  It felt like everything happened in slow motion (that is, I could see everything so clearly), and yet we capsized in lightning speed.

We still laugh with good humor at this exhilarating memory.  A great lesson:  get the ballast wrong and you can expect an undesired swim.  Lose concentration and you pay the price.  Effective sailing in a 16' Snipe in strong wind requires strategic balance.  Working together.

I've learned the same lesson in the rest of life.  You can't stop the wind from blowing (crisis at times is out of our control).  But you do have control over the depth and balance of life so that when the wind blows you have enough ballast to carry you through.  Your own personal depth is crucial.

And, as we experience in smaller sailing boats, having people in your life who work together with you in supportive ways is also crucial.  Balancing each other in meaningful and strategic ways.  Have a "team" in your life that is journeying with you to encourage and nudge and empower.  When I look at my times of greatest crisis, it has been the gift of supportive people, in combination with a inner reserve of determination that I never thought I had, that empowered me to not just survive but end up flourishing.

And truthfully, those times were far messier, chaotic, and painful than that sentence conveys!  Capsizing might produce some good stories along with meaningful lessons but it's still wet, cold and debilitating!  And some people do drown.

All of this is often referred to as paying attention to what matters most.  I call it spirituality – taking the time to pay attention to the internal issues of life, the heart-soul stuff that deals with the depth of life, the “below the waterline” concerns, developing healthy balance.  Paying attention to spirituality is what ends up providing stability and ballast and depth.  The result is that when the storms of life blow, there’s enough internal weight to weather it and end up not just functioning but flourishing.

So how do you do it, this thing called spirituality?  If a storm blew into your life right now, how would you handle it?  How would you rate the depth of your life (1 = shallow and exposed, 5 = deep and stable)?  What are the internal issues you need to deal with to give yourself more stability?  Do you have people in your life who are supportive of your journey?  People you can count on to be there?  How intentional are those relationships for you?  How hard do you practice with your "team" to do life well?

These are the things I want to explore in this blog called Soul Ballast.  The posts won't always revolve around a sailing metaphor.  There are so many other analogies and symbols and metaphors that describe this process of spirituality and developing soul depth.  Thanks for joining this journey with me.  Pass this blog on to friends who might be interested.  There's power in supportive community!

As my son and I were treading water in the lake after our capsize, our bodies beginning to feel the effect of such cold water, a Coast Guard boat suddenly appeared and the megaphone voice sounded, "DO YOU NEED HELP?"  I have to admit it felt good to have them providing a watchful eye of support as we worked to right my Snipe and sail on.  And Julian and I worked pretty hard after that to keep our balance together.  Lots of good tacks.  Even in heavy winds.  I love him for hanging in there with me!