One of my many privileges in life, and there are a lot of them, is to live in a place of great natural beauty. Accustomed to seasons of changing leaves, barren trees, snowfall, the budding, fragrant spring, and the majesty of a summer thundershower in my childhood in Germany, admittedly the low rate of seasonal change in California took some getting used to.
Instead of forests and green hills, we have palm trees and sand. But one thing that changes is the light. In Winter there are both sunsets and sunrise of deep orange, of indigo and gold.
So sitting at a stoplight a mile from the Pacific Ocean a couple weeks ago, I had a sudden flash of awareness of these layers of beauty. A son it took five years to conceive in the back seat asking me questions, in a car inherited from a deceased father-in-law, a mile from the ocean looking at a painted sunset, shades of orange and gold against the blue, headed to a free orchestral concert given by a faith community of people I respect and admire.
It’s what Wordsworth might have called a “spot of time.” It’s a kind of magic moment, this apprehension of beauty.
And yet, a line from another Romantic poet also came to mind: “he who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy.”
What this means is when we become fixated on the game of attaching to pleasurable experiences and identities, we get stuck in binary thinking, in dualism. Life becomes only about minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure, an almost animal existence. There is an abiding awareness that we must be careful not to cling too tightly to those experiences, even of deep beauty.
The trick is to enjoy without clinging. And why? When the inevitable counterpart comes, a moment of deep suffering, we maintain the awareness on a gut level that this, too, shall pass. Both tragedy and beauty will come and go, part of the dance of being human.
And on this contemplative path there’s another kind of magic moment, a little more mundane, a little subtler than the ambers and ochres of a sunset.
At work several days later, I had a large project due. I realized after printing a hundred pages of a 250 page document, there was an error and I’d have to start over. I was prepping for an online class, trying to get this task done, and so I made the quick revision and hit print. My computer suddenly wouldn’t recognize the network printer. I turned the computer off and back on. Nothing. I restarted the printer, which then wouldn’t connect to the network. The password is written on a box I usually have in my back office. I couldn’t find it. I ran to the garage, found the box, came back, and entered the password.
Stress level at a medium at this point.
The computer finally recognizes the printer. I click on the PDF to print, and Adobe wants a password. I enter it. It doesn’t work. I start thinking “how is it possible that it takes this long to perform an action I already had working about thirty minutes ago?”
Stress level elevating.
I search my inbox, hard drive, and OneNote for the password, finally find it and start printing, go into the house for a quick bite before my online class starts, and my son starts asking me questions while my wife tries to share some important information. I see a package I’ve ordered: new shoes. I slide them on listening to my wife, trying to get my son to wait with his question. The shoes are too small. This is a reorder of a purchase I just returned for being too small already. One more thing to do as my wife comments “you’ve been buying an awful lot of things lately,” not understanding that much of it has been returned for one reason or another. “I’ve been working pretty well within the limited budget I’ve got,” I respond, my voice no doubt inflected from the annoyance of the printer, the password, the PDF, and now the shoes. She responds, “everybody has to work within a budget, ok? Maybe not everyone understands that.”
Stress level peaking.
Let’s pause here for a second. My default state is one of easy irritability. Is it genetic? Is it the sleep apnea? Ultimately, the reason why doesn’t matter. It has to be recognized and dealt with. Any one of these stressors might normally send me into orbit. Put all of them together and there would normally be a high chance of some kind of outburst. And now, this straw that breaks the camel’s back is a perfect excuse to direct that at someone in particular, an outlet for the pent up resistance energy.
Instead, just before the chest heave became a string of unkind words passing along the vocal chords, I was able to exhale and have a flash of insight: my state of mind is distorted. There was a series of stressors I reacted to unskillfully. Now I’m ready to vent. My tone of voice was misconstrued. Yelling in response will not produce any positive outcome. Let’s take a second to reflect on each successive stressor and how I handled it instead of responding immediately.
That shift from responsiveness to reflectiveness is the second kind of magic moment. In the contemplative mode, it’s deepened and broadened when we can slip out of “spots of time” altogether and just recognize our simple presence, beyond stressors, beyond activities and outcomes and schedules, touching that eternally transcendent that is always already there.
The perception of beauty comes and goes. The perception of stressors come and go. Part of the exercise of recognizing the thought, then letting it go, then doing so again and again is a preparation for these moments. For appreciation, recognition, for acceptance and self-control. It’s a kind of transcendence.
The rest of that line from Blake? “He who kisses the joy as it flies lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
Contemplative Practices: 5 Ways of Consenting To The Divine (Now $37)
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a wise person once said, "Take pleasure in everything you do, but don’t do anything for the sake of pleasure."