On inhabiting one's life

What does it mean to be awake?

One evening this week, I was sitting in my living room looking at nothing in particular when suddenly I noticed the substance of the dark, carved-wood buffet set against the wall across the room. Substance is the wrong word. It was more the actuality of it, the fact of its existence, the such-ness of it, if you can say such a thing.

Time seemed to stop. I was suspended in the moment. A part of me knew something unusual was happening, but whatever it was barely had “my” attention. It was like there were two of me. One experiencing my life. The other sort of tabulating or assessing the experience. And the tabulator had left the console for a moment.

My eyes took in a nearby armchair, and then rested on the antique, lion-faced andirons in my hearth, the pair my mother had picked up at Harvey Klar’s or The Neighborhood, antique stores she loved back in the day. They, too, suddenly leapt out at me as if I had never seen them before. They were simply there, so very there, stating their being plainly. I saw every wrinkle in their countenance, the consternated eyebrows, wrinkling forward toward the center of their faces.

I just went to check on their expressions, to make sure I got it right. I knelt down before the two lions, and B., who was sitting on the couch nearby, said, “They’re sad.”

“They are, aren’t they?” I said.

Why had I never noticed that?

I said, “How did you know they were sad?”

“I looked at them,” B. said simply.

“I mean, how long have you known that they were sad?”

“Always. I’ve always known that,” B. said.

And, I never knew that.

(What else am I missing in my life?)

Yet, the other night, the lions leapt out at me. They insisted I see them. And see them I did. For, I venture to say, the first time.

It was shocking, strange. And I knew it was special.

In my Zoom yoga class the other day, my gifted teacher Cybele read a poem after our shavasana session. It was by Layman Pang, a Buddhist in the Zen tradition who lived from 740–808. He said,

“My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.”

Something about that poem riveted me. I realized it was about occupying one’s life. Really filling out the shell of our existence.

What does it mean to do that?

A dear friend who is facing down late-stage prostate cancer used to say he lived life with gloves off. He didn’t mind if he cut or burnt himself. If it was cold, icy, freezing. He wanted to experience life in its entirety. With its attendant risks and pain.

Another friend, a former boyfriend, used to tell me he intended to keep jumping out of the plane, and hoping one day his parachute would catch him. He hoped to never stop jumping. At the time, he was talking about love. He meant, “I will always try. I will always leap for that brass ring. I will always put my heart out there, even if it gets stomped on. (Even if I die.)"

What I like so much about the Pang poem is the notion that we don’t have to do anything special to have a special life, to be special. We already are special. If we can only wake up to our lives.

After the experience I had in my living room the other night, it’s clear to me that I am not fully occupying my life. Rather, I spend a good deal of time ruminating, analyzing, regretting, anticipating, and managing anxiety. I also spend a good deal of time protecting myself.

And let me tell you, it’s no way to live.

My living room experience the other night was a gift from a parallel universe, one that is always available to us, one we can cultivate. It requires patience, humility, and a willingness to turn the prism, or to be sensitive and aware enough to notice when the prism is turned for us. These moments are filled with ineffable beauty. Time falls away and beauty arises as we are brushed by the divine.

Don’t take my word for it. Cultivate a small quiet space in yourself to it to appear. You won’t be sorry.