The moments we can’t see (Happy Photo)

As always, if the photo is why you’re here scroll on down!

The photo today is what I call a “lucky shot.” Which means that I lack the skills to actually capture photos like this one, but somehow managed to do it anyway. As always, it is minimally processed.

I’ve been wanting to post this photo for awhile, but it’s a difficult one to find a quote for. Unlike so many of my other favorite shots, this one doesn’t seem to lend itself easily to any special interpretation. It’s just a neat photo of a moment in time that is usually not visible to the human eye. Technology helps us capture and freeze such moments (in this case, the moment before a wave comes crashing down), which is cool, but I’m not really sure there’s any deep meaning there. Ultimately all I could come up with is that there are millions of moments like this in life that we can’t or don’t see. Life goes by, we miss a lot, we need to stay in the moment and try to enjoy it…blah blah blah. Yeah, it’s all been said ad nauseam by everyone from Lao-Tzu to basically every mommy blogger.

So I started meditating on the photo. What else could it mean in terms of where I am in my life right now? As those who have been reading know, I’ve been struggling. One difficult experience after another adds itself to the pile. A difficult breakup, an unexpected and devastating medical diagnosis, and unfortunate experience with a scary guy who seemed like he might become a stalker, bad feedback from my favorite advisor on a dissertation chapter. And then, guys, the icing: I owed money on my taxes this year.

I’m keeping all this in perspective. I’m not saying I haven’t cried buckets these last few weeks, but I’m cognizant of my blessings: parents who are healthy, ditto my sister, I can pay my mortgage, I have friends, and I am making some money here and there, and so far, it’s been enough.

But still, I find myself asking those questions we all ask when going through challenges. Why is this happening? Why is it happening to me? Why is it happening now? What should I do?

And there are no answers. Not really.

Those who believe in free will would say it’s the unfolding of consequences of all the choices I’ve made along the way, and that I must use my free will to change or fight my circumstances. Those with faith in God would say that it is God’s will, which we cannot understand, but must accept. Daoists would say something surprisingly similar: that the universe unfolds as it should, and rather than fighting this, we should seek to be in harmony with it – go with the flow, so to speak. A scientist friend of mine believes the meaning of life is to fight against entropy – so I suppose his advice would be to do what I can to create some order out of the chaos, to salvage what I can to keep going.

I don’t subscribe fully to any particular spiritual or other lens for viewing life, though some appeal to me more than others. But what all have in common is this idea that we can’t stop bad things from happening. They vary on whether the correct approach is acceptance or action.

I’m not against taking action. But I feel, intuitively, that now is a time for me to practice acceptance. To sit and listen. To practice inaction. Once I realized this, the photo below took on a different meaning for me.

There’s a scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love in which she has a dream that a Yogi guru meets her on a beach and tells her to figure out how to stop the ocean waves from rolling in. So she starts drawing up all kinds of plans, but finally gives up in frustration. She does not possess the skills to figure out how to do it. Then she hears the Yogi laughing, and he basically ridicules her (but in a kind guru way) for ever thinking she could possibly stop the ocean (p. 146).

So for today’s Happy Photo I’ve picked a Lao-Tzu quote, because his philosophy I think best captures this idea: that the world unfolds according to a way (the Dao) that we cannot stop, and the best thing to do as the waves come crashing down is to relax into them rather than fear or fight them. Then, eventually, things will work out on their own or we will know what action to take that is in harmony with the Dao – and this will lead to happiness and peace.

Jelly

“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?”

(Lao-Tzu, trans. S. Mitchell)

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To be worthy is to be busy

(Title is a quote from an Atlantic interview with Brigid Schulte about “the overwhelm.”)

Many people who complain about being busy are hoping everyone hears this subtext: “I’m important, needed, and valuable.” We live in a society that lauds constant activity. To be idle is to be lazy. It might even be a sin.

The problem is, there are no limits to busyness. How do we know when we are doing enough? Over the last fifty years we have increased our activity levels. We work more hours than people everywhere except Japan and South Korea. Our kids must be constantly engaged. We have checklists of everything we “have” to do.

We know something is wrong with this, but we don’t know what it is. I’ll tell you what it is.

In our culture, we have no way to talk about not being productive that doesn’t have a negative connotation.

Think about it. How would you describe a long Sunday afternoon in which you did nothing? Would you say, “I was idle all Sunday”? That would sound like you shirked your responsibilities.

Would you say, “I did nothing all Sunday”? If you did, would you say it self-deprecatingly? As in, “I know I should have got stuff done, but…” Or would you say it proudly, as in “Even though I had all this stuff to do, I said screw all that, I’m going to laze around.”

Doing nothing. Lazing around. Being idle. Wasting time. Being unproductive.

What about, “I relaxed all Sunday”? (But wait, that’s doing something! You spent that time worthily! You actively relaxed! Relaxing is allowed as long as it is preceded and followed by being productive!)

Do you feel guilty about those times when you “get nothing done”? That’s what’s wrong with our culture of busy.

We need long periods of deep idleness, in which we do nothing except exist. It gives our brains time to process past activity, which takes longer than we imagine, and can serve to put us back in touch with our centers (or God, or the universal energy, or…). I believe in being idle. Still, I get nervous if I have not done anything for awhile (anything productive, that is).  If I have not checked off some items on my ever-present mental list of things I “have” to do to be a worthy (read: productive) person.

I try to find ways to describe my inactivity in a positive way, those hours in which things go undone because I need down time. I want to value my idle hours as much as the productive ones, and as something more than just a dichotomy of productivity.

The best way I’ve come across so far is what an old teacher of mine said when I asked her what she was doing in her retirement.

She said, “I just be.”

To be worthy is to be.

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Photograph taken on Eleuthera.