What I think changes the world, for each of us, is being grateful.
We are so often not. We are so often focused on what we've lost, or think we've lost; or what others have that we suppose might make us happier; or on people we suppose to be enemies. There is a lot of pain to be had, in a huge, indifferent universe that barely notices us, with time and technology speeding far beyond what we can comprehend. We are insignificant creatures clinging briefly to this planet.
Yet that is also an incredible privilege. Just walking down to the compost bin with a couple of buckets of water as the sun sets, as nameless feathery grasses glow in the rich light, glancing at the reddening mountains, thinking over a day full of friends, I am suddenly grateful. Then at the front of the house I watch the love of my life hula-hooping to the mailbox to get the mail and the morning paper. The comic joy of it cannot be captured in the photograph I instinctively shoot.
I do not know what this world is. I don't fully trust those who feel certain they do, although it's certainly fine with me if you want to thank God or Allah or the Great Spirit. But do thank someone, or something. Science has taught us that folks who laugh freely and hard every day live longer. It may also be so with gratitude. Certainly it feels better to recognize how lucky you are than get obsessed with the transitory nature of it all, or a tragic presidential election.
I do have two theories I like to play with. One is that this earth is a toy that a child is playing with in some other world that's much more complex than we can imagine. At any moment s/he may toss it away; so live as fully and as well as you can, each moment. As Dogen put it, “At each moment, do not rely on tomorrow. Think of this day and this day only, because the next moment is uncertain and unknown.”
I first read those words on a train crossing northern China. As I read them, the train screeched and shuddered to a sudden halt. Immediately below my window, a blue-clad peasant lay dying. Hit by the train. Urine was spreading on the ground under him or her. Villagers or officials and trainmen gathered a few yards away, exchanging cigarettes. Dozens of fellow passengers nearly crushed me trying to get a better view.
The universe had illustrated Dogen's words in a unique way.
My second theory is that the denizens of some more sophisticated world take human form on this Earth for periods of time. I have not quite figured out whether they do this merely as a game – a far more complex and challenging one than the best-crafted video games – or whether there's a deeper purpose. Perhaps they do it to improve themselves. Perhaps they sign up for particular human lives, forgetting their “real” world the moment they're born here, and must remain here until they accomplish some particular thing, or reach some particular plateau of wisdom or goodness, when they are suddenly released back to the world from whence they -- we? -- came.
It seems as least as reasonable as the Christian or ancient Greek concepts.
But if you believe something else, fine!
What matters is to recognize that each moment, as a highly imperfect being in this highly imperfect world, is beautiful. And not to assume you or I deserve any credit for that.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 20 November, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG-TV's website. I hope folks enjoy it.]
[This column kind of wrote itself. I came back up from the compost bin and sat down, and it just happened.]
[I doubt I'd ever have written any such thing before meeting my wife. She knows about gratitude. In fact, early in our relationship, in a city far from here, she took me to the Gratitude Cafe. I don't know as I so consistently recognized life as something to be grateful for, until now. She's not only made me more grateful for life, but she's also a great example. I was not thinking when I wrote this column that this week would be Thanksgiving.]
[Dogen (Dogen Zenji, or Kigen Dogen), by the way, was a 13th Century Japanese writer, poet, and philosopher who was dissatisfied with Buddhism as it was practiced in Japan, traveled to China to find a more authentic version, and founded the Sōtō Soto School of Zen. Zen, of course, emphasizes being truly present and mindful in the moment, each moment.
Some years ago, when I was playing around with such things, I fashioned this, and a copy hangs on a wall here:
Thinking about how we get here reminds me that much earlier, when I lived on a boat off San Francisco, I photographed one morning my good friend Gary (who lived on the next boat over, and who died last year) and his daughter; I liked the way the early-morning sunlight accentuated the difference between his lined face and her fresh one; and as in those days I often photographed the dawn or a rainbow or whatever, then matched it with a poem, I made this:
Dawn loves my daughter.
Neither she nor the new sun
speaks of the past lives
through which they found their ways here.
Yet I hear them whispering.