Be the prayer

This week has felt hard. It’s reminded me of being in a plane going through stiff turbulence, being bumped around, in possible danger, and without any way to control the outcome of the flight. You just have to hold on tight and pray that the plane is sturdy, the pilots know what they’re doing and all will be well. 

But in this case, we are in the midst of political and planetary upheavals that promise no smooth landing. 

I don’t have confidence in our pilots, a.k.a. world leaders, to carry us safely through the turbulence of climate disruption, pandemic, economic crisis and all the rest of it. 

I know that the rivets are loosening on our “plane,” a.k.a. our planet.

We are in for a rough ride.

All we can do is continue to hold on tight…and pray.

For me, prayer is not about appealing to some all-powerful higher being that can step in to save us. Rather, I think of prayer in the way Mary Oliver described it in her wonderful poem from happier times, “The Summer Day,” when she describes prayer as the act of paying attention to the beauty of the world around her. In this case, it’s a grasshopper she’s watching:

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

The grasshopper invites Oliver’s meditation on prayer:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, 

how to fall downinto the grass, 

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed

how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

This is indeed the powerful pulsing question of our turbulent time, isn’t it? What are we going to do with the precious time we have left, before we are swept away into the maelstrom of suffering and death?

Glimmers. Photo by J. Browdy

Like Oliver, I believe that the other radiant Gaian beings with whom we share this planet have so much to teach us, if only we take the time to pay attention. 

The biggest difference between humans and other animals is in our vivid imaginations. We humans tell ourselves and each other stories all the time, and sometimes we get so caught up in the stories that they become our reality. 

For example, there I am up in the plane, imagining that any minute the turbulence is going to knock us out of the sky. We’re going to fall, flaming, to the ground! We’re all going to die! I start hyperventilating with terror, even though this is not what is actually happening…in point of fact, we are flying steadily on through the turbulence toward our destination, where, as the pilot has just informed us calmly, we’ll soon be landing.

There is no other animal that expends so much energy on worrying about imaginary future scenarios. Our Gaian relations model for us the equanimity that comes with living tranquilly in the present moment. 

We humans have the capacity to make ourselves sick, physically and mentally, with our neurotic imaginary anxieties.

To counter this tendency, we need to pray, in Mary Oliver’s sense: to ground ourselves in the calm of the natural world around us, and remember to breathe. 

This is probably not possible in the fire lands of the Pacific Coast of the USA right now. It’s not possible when one’s body has been invaded by the coronavirus. In such dire moments, any animal would be rightly terrified and suffering, as so many are at this very moment.

But you who are sitting in some quiet place reading these words…if you are still healthy and well-fed, able to breathe deep and listen to the birds chirping and the wind in the trees…your job is to ground yourself in that beauty and let yourself become not only a receiver but a transmitter for it. 

Send the beauty you inhale out into this turbulent suffering world. Let your attention to the beauty of what surrounds you be your prayer, for yourself and for others.

May our focused gratitude for this precious moment be a balm and a beacon of active hope in a world so desperately in need of the solace of prayer. 

Glory. Photo by J. Browdy

21 Questions for 2020: #8

#8. From pandemics to politics to melting poles and wildfires—how are we to understand the rapid-fire changes sweeping over our planet? How should we respond? 

I know I am far from alone in feeling battered by the constant deluge of shocking news. There is no time to ponder and assimilate; we are like human shock absorbers—take a punch and keep on rolling. 

2020 started off with the wildfires burning millions of acres in Australia, and has moved on rapidly to the uncontained spread of the COVID-19 virus, followed by a global stock market slide so steep that we are suddenly hearing the R-word—Recession. The poles are melting dramatically, while the usual political processes are melting down in the wake of Russian intervention designed to sow distrust and chaos. 

What in the world is going on? 

The transition of our planet is speeding up and intensifying. We are all feeling the pressure of the birth canal now, and it’s far from comfortable to both witness and be part of such rapid and profound change.

The fires and floods; the climate disruptions; the pandemics and the economic and political upheavals—all are part of the vast interconnected system called Gaia, and she is working now to return balance to our planet. The first task is to check the growth of the invasive species called Homo sapiens, which has been responsible for the overheating of the planetary atmosphere, the loss of so many other species, and the contamination of soils, seas and air.

We know that humans have pushed the planet beyond her carrying capacity—not so much in numbers as in consumption. The planet could support billions of people, if we lived in harmony with her life support systems, rather than raping, pillaging and destroying our home. 

Take a look around. You are living in a very rare moment on Earth—a slow-motion tipping point, with the luxury of time to apprehend what is happening, and perhaps even time to affect the outcome. 

Are you going to hold on for dear life to the old ways that brought us to this crisis? Or are you going to let go of the past and let the winds of change propel you forward?

The Democratic primaries have been an exercise in precisely this kind of decision-making. Will the electorate choose retrograde candidates, or politicians who are not afraid of change? 

Each of us is a like a tiny cell in the vast organism that is our planetary home. Like the trillions of cells and bacteria that compose our bodies, every element of this planet has a role to play in creating the health and well-being of the greater living system. The choices we make matter. Every day is an opportunity to contribute to the greater good. 

The one thing certain in life is that we will die. One day we will be released from what Ojibewe elder Mary Lyons calls “the shell of the body.” Paradoxically, transformation is what creates stability on Earth. 

When you look into the world and see the rapid changes taking place, steady yourself with the knowledge that they are signs of Mother Earth seeking to stabilize her life systems to better serve the planetary organism as a whole. 

The long historical arc of human innovation known as the Industrial Revolution is bending towards its finish line. A new cycle of growth is already underway, rooted in an ecological understanding of the interdependency of all life on Earth.

Let’s grow! Let’s go! Let’s let go of the past and embrace the new with all the exuberance of a wild meadow bursting into flower in the springtime. Life is calling us all to dance. What are we waiting for?

I leave you with a favorite poem by Mary Oliver, who, as always, gets it just right.

When death comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

© 1992 by Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston

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