14. Change the World through Wonder and Joy
Hi there! Welcome to Journey On! I’m Dave Schmelzer.
So in the last episode, we talked about how growing spiritual people might be able to help lead our very divided world through these divisions into a more hopeful future. That this kind of spirituality might have an important, large-scale promise.
This week we’ll look at this starting from the inside out, starting from the kind of practice that leads to sustaining wonder and joy and we’ll consider what that might mean.
I’ll start with a story about what things along these lines looked like for me during a recent experience.
Many Journey On podcasts focus on the thoughts of a given spiritual master like Brother Lawrence or Saint Francis. This week, after my opening story, we’ll focus especially on the thoughts and life of one of the most prominent spiritual leaders and most prominent peace activists on earth--still alive at 93!
We’ll look at the simple practice this leader encourages us to try as a starting point.
We’ll talk about things like the power of what we “touch,” as it were, in our focused thoughts and how that can offer a quick road to wonder, joy and even larger-scale change in our world.
And we’ll look at how one Bible writer suggests that the sort of wonder and joy that comes from this was central to Jesus’s power and impact.
Before we launch in, let me mention that, if this stuff grabs you, you might be interested in checking out a delightful weekly online group with people from around the country and a bit beyond. It’s Wednesday nights at 9 Eastern time. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more information about it and how to connect with it.
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Okay, kick us off, RyanHood, for Change the World through Wonder and Joy!
A few weeks back I went to a conference that triggered me in unexpected ways. The conference itself was great, so it wasn’t about that. Instead, I realized driving over to it that I hadn’t been to a gathering like that in a long time, but I used to go to a lot of them.
And they always triggered me. I have a weird phobia of feeling trapped, so historically I would skip out of a bunch of sessions at gatherings like this just so I could take a walk or something. And as I anticipated the conference, I realized that was just the tip of the iceberg.
So, driving over there, I realized I wished it were the day before or after the conference, because I like the freedom of less-structured days. And, because I’m a contemplative in the sense we talk about here, I immediately know how I should think about that. I should let it go, because that longing was this thing called “clinging”--wanting some past, more pleasant experience rather than the present experience I was being offered.
Then--still just in the car driving over--I realized that in these sorts of gatherings in the past, I also felt pressure to get to know people who might be helpful in some way to whatever I’m up to. This time, though, I had a contemplative category for that too. That would be “grasping”--reaching for some benefit outside of just being present to what was happening right in the present moment. So I let that go too. And that felt good.
At the risk of being overly indulgent, let me give you a few more blow by blows of my experience at this--again, quite good--conference. So I arrive--a little late, no doubt because of my need not to feel trapped. And after dislodging some unfortunate people who’d actually shown up on time, I settle in. And I focus on my breath to do my best to center me into what was actually happening, and not my historic inner challenges in such settings. And that worked great.
And lunch comes.And one thing I hate in unstructured, new environments like that is the pressure at mealtimes to...I don’t know...make them “count” or something. So in this instance I find someone sitting by themselves and we introduce ourselves over our food, and I ask after them, and they tell me a bit about themselves, and right about then, on the other side of me, an important person at the conference sits down with his lunch. And the person I’m talking with--evidently familiar with all of my old internal pressures--immediately quits talking with me and, talking over the top of me, starts ignoring me in an attempt to connect to the important person.
So, after a few moments of this awkwardness, I finish my meal, excuse myself, and clear my plate, looking for greener pastures. But by this time everyone has found a conversation, so I try to figure out which random group of people I don’t know to break in upon, and decide instead I’d just be happier taking a walk until the lunch session is over.
So I do that and take a walk on, granted, a lovely day, nonetheless internally berating myself. Here it is, my familiar pattern at conferences like this one. And I’m hearing old voices about how I’m wasting opportunities to meet people who somehow could be important later on in ways I can’t quite figure out. And I’m judging myself for again taking a walk on my own at such a time.
But, again, I’m a contemplative now! So I focus on my breath as I walk and on the steps I’m taking and on the environment around me. And suddenly it hits me: Well, I’m sure all those judgments are true. But this is a pretty great walk, and I’d actually been hoping for a pretty walk for several days before, but hadn’t managed to get out and take one.
And my sense in that contemplative space, perhaps from God, was: Well, another way to understand what’s going on here is that I’m getting an awesome gift of a lovely walk. And perhaps I can receive that and just notice my self-judgments and then let them go.
Things continue in this vein. I’m sure I’ve persuaded you that I could go all day with these internal observations! But, in this spirit, back at the sessions which now involve some sharing from the crowd, as I follow my breath, I’m aware of all the ways I judge people and then judge myself. Probably because of my historic problems with settings like this, I’m very guarded in my sharing, but some others share really freely. Some go beyond that to taking the floor whenever they can get the floor. And I notice I judge those people.
What’s that about? Well, with a moment’s further stillness, I realize it at the very least ties into an old wound from childhood that made me think other peoples’ thoughts were important and mine weren’t welcome unless I was explicitly given the floor. And then of course I noticed that I quit judging the free-sharers and started judging myself. Why was I the way I was? But, in my contemplative self--again, following my breath--I moved into a different mode of just noticing all that happening. I observed that welter of judgment and just noticed it.
And suddenly some good things started happening. I realized I was no longer ill at ease there. If it was right for me to share, I realized I could pull it off. Though, relatively speaking, I still was one of the more-silent participants, someone grabbed me on the way out to tell me that one thing I’d shared was one of the most valuable things they’d gotten out of the whole time.
I realized that I really didn’t judge even the most aggressive sharers. They were free to be who they were. I found myself on breaks just initiating with whoever was in front of me and having warm conversations. Suddenly a number of interesting connections came up, with people suddenly taking an interest in me, and, once we were introduced, even with some people knowing who I was by reputation and being eager to connect.
I left that time realizing I’d gained so much from the sorts of spiritual practice we talk about on Journey On. It’s not that, in my earlier self, I wouldn’t have realized many of the times I was judging others. I’m sure I would have noticed a few and done my best to not judge them, because I was aware that Jesus said judging is bad. But then assuredly I would have judged myself--because someone has to get judged. And in the end, in my heart, I would have judged the others anyway, because they would have continued to bug me. So it would have been a lose-lose, and the whole time would have been mostly stressful, and I would have been relieved when it was over.
Whereas in this case, just getting still and observing all the maelstrom happening for me beat by beat left me in a very different space. Cheerful. Grateful for the experience. Connected to what was going on and to the people in the room. Trusting that whatever good things needed to come from it would come from it. Immersed in what was going on moment to moment rather than wishing I was somewhere else doing something else.
On our last Journey On podcast, we talked about some ways that people looking to grow with God in their spiritual lives might help heal the major divisions in our world and so might help us all move forward into a better world. But some great spiritual teachers offer another perspective on this that starts much smaller.
They suggest that as we find the kind of joy and peace and equanimity that a growing spiritual practice is intended to bring about in us--perhaps in the spirit of what I experienced at the conference--we find that we are changing the world. For real, not just as a pleasant thought.
Some time back, I went with some friends to a famous sort-of church in my area and the speaker talked about exactly this in ways that I wasn’t sure I believed, but which might be an interesting starting point for considering some of the historic wisdom on the subject.
So this sort-of church taught that whatever our current spiritual and emotional state was would put out vibrations--actually, not metaphorically--that would change actual things throughout the world. And they had a detailed map about what emotions emitted what vibrations and about how to move to higher vibrations. And how accomplishing that would change the world in far-flung ways we could never know because of these powerful vibrations we sent out into the world.
Another friend, shortly afterwards, was asking me what I’d thought about my experience with these folks. And I mentioned their vibrations idea in a charmed but dismissive way. And my friend, a committed churchgoer whom I’d expect to dismiss these thoughts right along with me, said: “Well I don’t know.” They pointed out that there’s evidence that plants respond to our moods by thriving or wilting.Might that be because of vibrations? And they asked me what I thought of expressions like: That place had a good vibe.I said I thought that expression was great as a metaphor.But they kept pushing. How did I know it was a metaphor?
So, all to say, I submit the vibrations perspective for your consideration about ways that our internal state can impact the wider world. But let’s look at a related, but different contemplative perspective.And let’s start with the Bible.
So Psalm 45 is an ode to this great and noble king. And what makes this king so powerful and effective? Verse 7 says: “You love righteousness and hate wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Hebrews 1 quotes this same verse, saying that this so-called “oil of joy” is a central part of Jesus’s power and impact.
Here are some quotes from a monk--I’ll tell you more about him in a minute--whom the great Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton called his brother above all others, who, quoting Merton here, sees “things in the world exactly the same way” as him and whom Martin Luther King nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.So he’s an especially interesting intersection of contemplative spiritual stuff that has real world impact.
Here’s this guy talking about this stuff.
“If we change our daily lives--the way we think, speak, and act--we change the world. The best way to take care of the environment is to take care of the environmentalist.”
“When we walk mindfully and touch the Earth with our feet, when we drink tea with friends and touch the tea and our friendship, we get healed, and we can bring this healing to the world.”
The speaker is Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve talked before on Journey On about likely the most famous and beloved Buddhist monk in the world, the Dalai Lama. But Thich Nhat Hanh is probably number 2. He’s a biggie. As I post this, the NBC series The Good Place, about a version of heaven and hell, had its final episode a couple weeks back. It included an extended analogy from Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s--as I post this--still alive at 93--so here’s hoping he’s still alive as you listen to this. He’s in exile from Vietnam because, before the war, he refused to take political sides in the theory that the spiritual leaders there would be the ones to pick up the pieces after the war. So he was attacked by both sides and has ever since lived in exile in France. He’s regarded as one of the leading peace activists of the last half century or more--again, Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. And he’s written extensively and thoughtfully about Jesus.
And, for our purposes here, he aligns strongly with the biggie Christian contemplatives. Again, Thomas Merton said “he and I see things exactly the same way.”
So let me throw a few of Thich Nhat Hanh’s perspectives your way and see if you find them as encouraging as I do.
First, he’s regarded as the happiest person on earth--a nice and unexpected quality for a peace activist to have. A nun I’ve read on him says that he enjoys each moment more than anyone else she’s run across and that has remained true as he’s aged.
I’ll give you a few more quotes from him and about him--including from this nun--in a moment. And then I’ll finish by offering some concrete suggestions from him and a few others about how to get the win-win of finding more and more joy in each moment and also impacting the world.
And, just to preview, the perspective of all the great spiritual teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh included, is that what gets this good stuff is what they call practice. Actually faithfully and diligently pursuing these spiritual choices.Maybe you can see at least a hint of that in my opening stories about what practice looked like for me at this conference.
So these quotes are all, in their own way, windows into the practice he’s suggesting. And they’re pretty encouraging!
This is the nun talking about him:
Once we had organizational problems which seemed to me of paramount importance. I saw Thay in the garden and related the problem to him. Rather than tell me directly what I should do, he led me to a small magnolia tree and asked whether I had enjoyed the fragrance of this flower yet. There are so many wonderful things in our world to enjoy, and yet we concentrate on what is not going well.
We’ll get back to that last point in just a moment.
Then these are quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh. [The recorded podcast includes a few observations from Dave about each of these quotes.]
On suffering: You have every right to suffer, but you do not have the right not to practice when you suffer.
Everytime we hear a bell, like a telephone, we should go back to ourselves and enjoy our breathing as this wonderful sound brings us back to our true home, the miracle of living in the present moment. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
Our body is here, but our mind is elsewhere--in the past or the future. We are not really alive, we are like ghosts. If our beautiful child were to come up to us and offer us a smile, we would miss him completely, and he would miss us.
Let us really enjoy touching our breathing and being alive.
As you wash your face in mindfulness, aware that you have eyes that can see, that the water comes from distant sources to make your washing possible, your washing will be much deeper. “Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.” We pay so much attention to what is wrong, why not notice what is wonderful? We rarely take the time to appreciate our eyes. Seeing is a miracle, a condition for our happiness. We don’t act as if we are in paradise.
Or our heart, which pumps thousands of gallons of blood every day, without stopping, even while we sleep, as it brings us peace and well being. But we only touch things that make us suffer
--we’ll look more in a minute at the power he gives to our “touching” things--
and because of that, we give our heart a hard time by our worries and what we eat and drink. Doing so, we undermine our own peace and joy.
Everything becomes real. We become ourselves, fully alive in the present moment, and the tree, our child, and everything else reveal themselves to us in their full splendor. “The miracle is to walk on Earth.”
So let me interject with a couple of observations from these quotes.
A central pathway to our own joy and to healing the world comes from sustaining being astonished.
Being astonished at life turns out to be a big deal. And that makes sense, of course.
But, as a favorite Catholic writer of mine from about a century ago, G.K. Chesterton, majored on, the whole ballgame boils down to being astonished and then sustaining that astonishment.
Here’s a quote from a Jewish contemplative, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, that I ran across recently along these lines:
“I would push back on the notion that your life has to amount to something. It’s just an amazing thing that you exist at all.”
That’s in the spirit of the enterprise.
Faithful practice along these lines is, we’re told, a central, do-not-pass-go pathway to being able to pull off that sustained astonishment.
In your faithful prayer and meditation, notice and wonder at your physical surroundings.
The scent of the magnolia tree, walking on this green earth, washing your face, hearing a bell, feeling the tea cup and tasting the tea--I’m sure you noticed how sensory Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual practice is.
And that’s present in my opening story too, right? I’m walking, tied up in my ruminating thoughts about what a loser I am to again be taking a walk rather than networking, and then, as I focus on my breath, I notice the sun on my lovely surroundings, I notice what it feels like to take the steps I’m taking, and suddenly my world, with God jumping in to interpret it, is much brighter and more joyful. I’m, as it were, “touching” the beauty of the walk in my heart rather than just “touching” the cycle of negative thoughts,And, what do you know?, things concretely change as a result of this touch.
So in your prayer and meditation times, and then in your mindful life, see what happens when you notice your physical surroundings in wonder and gratitude.
Some great spiritual teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh included, notice how we experience being what the Bible calls “born again” and even “resurrected” in small ways along these lines.
Back to Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When you hear the bell calling you to your breath, you stop your thinking and the bell rescues you and brings you back to your true home, where the Holy Spirit and mindfulness are alive. There you are born again; you are born again several times a day. This is the practice of resurrection. We die so many times a day. We lose ourselves so many times a day. We also come back to life several times a day. If you don’t practice, then when you lose your life every day, you have no chance to be reborn again. Jesus is born every moment of our daily life. Every day is Christmas day. Every minute is Christmas minute.”
So, in this spirit, a third encouragement along these lines is:
Use common, daily triggers to reconnect yourself to joy.
You’ll remember that he talked about using bells this way. Here’s another one he mentions.
“At the beginning of each meal, I recommend that you look at your plate and silently recite, “My plate is empty now, but I know that it is going to be filled with delicious food in just a moment.”
Perhaps that could be a silent lead-in to saying grace, if you’re a saying-grace sort of person.
Recognize our human bias towards noticing problems.
That’s a biggie for many of these folks, that practicing noticing blessings and wonder can change us, and that, if we don’t, joy becomes far harder. Because, again, we will throughout our day mindlessly “touch” problems and so bring them into our heart. I found, after thinking about this, that when I pray for loved ones, rather than starting in on how I want God to fix the problems in their lives, I now begin with a formula: “Thank you, God, for delightful x person.” I celebrate how God has promised to answer my prayers for them. And then I pray whatever I pray. I discovered a real difference immediately upon doing that. The next time I greeted any of these folks, I, without trying, did not at all take them for granted, but found myself brightly saying sentimental things that are not my nature, like: “How’s my favorite person doing?” I mean, I was saying this straight-faced! Not like me at all! But I meant it, and it’s sustained.
Practice delight in the present moment as having all the answers and joy you’re looking for.
Whatever challenges you face.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that this is the biggie, the only really important thing for the monks he trains. He’s come up with a simple meditation and prayer device along these lines that I now use all the time. It’s been a total winner.
[Dave explains this more on the podcast. The first word is on your inbreath, the second on your outbreath, the third on your next inbreath. The fourth on your next outbreath.]
Here are some closing thoughts from this man who, again, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King and who is regarded as one of the great workers for peace on earth in the last sixty years.
“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will benefit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”
“There is no way to liberation, peace and joy. Peace and joy are themselves the way.”
My delightful contemplative insights at the conference I went to turned out not only to have real benefits to me, opportunities for growth and joy that I’ve been wanting for all of my adult life, but also had at least some spillover to others there and in the rest of my life.
Let’s start in on changing the world through our wonder and joy.
That’s it for this week’s Journey On podcast!
Thanks for being with us, and I’ll see you next time--and maybe online on a Wednesday night.