I came across this article the other day. I wrote it in 2004, at a time when I had just moved home to a grey Dublin January from a sunny country I had loved. I was unsuccessfully jobhunting, and life was seeming distinctly lacklustre. I was sitting in a Georgian city park with my notebook (then, as now, a notebook usually travelled with me) and I was thinking, in a slightly panic-stricken way, ‘what if this is all there is?’
And the words started to flow, and I got an answer to my question. It’s interesting to see that now, sixteen years later, although my life and the world looks quite different, it still rings true for me. In some ways, it has guided my path ever since.
What if this is all there is?
And what if it’s enough?
What if everything we need for happiness, everything we need for enlightenment, everything we need for fulfilment and abundance and joy and creativity is right here, available to us?
We have grown used to giving our power away, bestowing our authority on anonymous voices that talk down to us from pulpits, television screens, newspapers and books. We look to heaven, to other worlds above, below or beyond, to our saints, our ancestors, our spirit guides, our teachers and holy men (for our holy women can be harder to find, and may not attract as much attention). We go to workshops, we go to ashrams, we look with longing to India, Tibet or Peru – these places whose years of insight we seek, adopt, corrupt and trivialise.
Why is it so much harder for us to believe that salvation – or enlightenment, if that is what we seek – is at hand? Why can’t we see the divine in a field of buttercups as well as in the vast peaks of the Himalayas, feel the communion of shared abundance in a weekday breakfast as well as a packed church, feel divinity in the ordinary, the undramatic, the mundane? It’s not enough, comes the thought, followed closely by the nagging uncertainty that we too are simply not enough.
In our constant striving, constant reaching, constant seeking, we are in a race that sadly has no end. And caught up in the endless maze of our advanced and complex society, we not only lose sight of the goal, but also of the path.
What if this is all there is? Stop trying. Stop killing yourself trying to keep a strict spiritual practice that brings you no joy. Stop thinking ‘I should’ and ‘I must’, and ‘What if?’
We are people with lives, people with responsibilities – and meditating while your children starve and your laundry piles up is no sign of virtue. Stop segregating your spirituality. Stop trying to take time away to pray and instead take a deep breath right now. And another. And another… and feel the world slow down.
Notice every instant. Relish the small blessings, the comic moments, the things that would make your heart smile if only you had time to pause. Listen right now. What do you hear? How long has it been since you noticed the birds singing, or for that matter, really heard what’s playing on the radio?
Do everything slowly today. Breathe slowly, eat slowly, listen slowly, talk slowly. Walk slowly. Stop trying to be faster. Stop trying to be more, or better, or best. A saint, after all, is not the best soul, but simply the one whose soul is empty, waiting to be filled by infinity.
The hearth, symbol of heat and light, offers fulfilment to the most basic of human needs. How comforted we are, even in long summer evenings, by warm candlelight once the sun has set. How nourished we are by the simplest of foods lovingly prepared, if not over a traditional hearth, then over its modern equivalent.
The hearth and its gifts typify the everyday sacred – blessings that are utterly ordinary, and utterly necessary. The hearth fire, for as long as we have built dwellings, and perhaps even longer, has been bound up with images of the everyday sacred. Whether Vesta, Hestia, Lakshmi or Bríd, the goddesses of hearth, home and sacred flame have always had a special place in the spirituality of ordinary people. For many Christians, Mary fulfils that function, and if her statue is no longer as common on kitchen altars as it once was, perhaps it has more to do with our collective turn away from religious hierarchies than a rejection of the broad and nurturing principle she represents.
Traditionally, the hearth was centre of the home, and almost by default, the centre of community within the home. Most of us no longer have hearths, and we rarely think of the blessings of light and heat and community until for some reason we are left without.
We can easily feel isolated, forgetting or denying that we are inescapably part of the system within which we live. For many of us, it is not a healthy system. Like the seasons, living systems expand and contract. Plants sprout, grow, bear fruit and begin to decline, waiting for the next rebirth, but we seem unable to face the uncertainty of decline, running blindly forward on a path that has already begun to disappear from under our feet.
We spend more, acquire more, move faster, work harder, and we rarely stop to ask ourselves why. In an attempt to fill the void we refuse to face, we seek quick answers. We invent our dogmas, moving from one half-understood truth to the next, picking indiscriminately from the wisdom of half a dozen ages and cultures and truly absorbing none of it.
We seek, as people have always sought, and we are certain that we would gladly relinquish our souls and wills to the divine, if only we could figure out what it is – what form, what name, what experience? Is there any reality, any answer? Perhaps the questions are more trustworthy in the end. Perhaps all we can do is ask and remain empty, trusting that some day the answers will appear and we’ll realise they’ve been there all along.
An authentic response
Authenticity is the only thing we can truly achieve. Experiencing our own being, our own lives, our every lived second, hour and day. Seeing and hearing and feeling and engaging and being truly alive, truly awake, not dazed or drugged or wishing to be somewhere else.
Action taken bravely is authentic… how often do we act deliberately from our deepest truth, rather than waiting for things to change, manipulating others, hiding from the truth, or simply sneaking around hoping not to be noticed?
What are our authentic passions? Do we even have time in this busy world to have passions? Are they obsolete? What’s happened to enthusiasm? When did we become afraid to have ideas? When did we start talking with the approval radar switched on and stop communicating from the heart?
We live in a sick society in so many ways, and so much exists as it does simply because we don’t think we have time to change it. Let’s start to take time. Right now, breathe. Look around you. See that somewhere in front of you there is beauty. There is beauty even in the faded red plastic of an old cup stark against a white wall, or the shadow of a houseplant tracing bold patterns on the floor. There is beauty in the laughter of children, or the warm smell of baking bread. Beauty, like love, is not hard to find once we stop putting barriers around it.
The first step
Walking meditation is a Buddhist practice that in many ways embodies the spirit of the everyday sacred. It is a mindfulness practice carried out in the world, equally effective in a peaceful garden or a busy street.
The walker begins by simply slowing down and focusing on the sensations of her own body as she moves. She feels the breath moving through her, her feet making contact with the ground, her balance shifting and every part of her body co-ordinating itself to achieve the next step.
Such an exquisitely complex process – how can we not see it as sacred? The walking meditator moves through the world with absolutely focused awareness, transforming an everyday walk into something extraordinary. Completely present in her body, she is aware of her feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts, letting them pass without settling their weight on her. She experiences her environment, the land she passes through, in a state of openness. She does not judge, and so she sees the beauty in all of it. Encountering others, she acknowledges them in all their shining potential, and so opens herself to the first small strands of reconnection, straining to reweave our fragmented world.
Pausing to give thanks
Those of us who grew up in the Judeo-Christian traditions also have practices available to us that can draw out our sense of wonder at the everyday sacred. Perhaps most basic, and in recent years neglected is the practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath. For both our Jewish and Christian ancestors, there was one sacred day in the week – a time to stop the work, a time to rest and give thanks for the blessings that flow through our lives.
We rarely rest any more, and we rarely give thanks, but this is a powerful practice. By acknowledging the abundance around us, we open ourselves to more. Take a time this week, a day or even an hour, and simply stop. For that time, what is around you is all there is, and it is enough. You are enough. There are no pressures, no demands, nothing to do, nothing to change, nothing to fix or improve. Just life, paused for a moment to rest.
By cherishing the small things, we open our hearts to the larger. By faithfully performing the infinite succession of small duties with perfect attention, we show ourselves capable of more. The hearth, the smallest and most ordinary of tasks, lighting the fire, making the food: this is where the sacred is to be found. In the small moments of peace and appreciation, there is heaven to be found. This is the everyday sacred.
If you are beginning or struggling on your spiritual path, contact me today to talk about soul care. Accompaniment on the path can make all the difference.