Falling in Love with the Universe as It Is
So why have I told you this personal story? I’m putting it down here because I am an example that shows that powerful shocks do not always wake us up fully. It’s only when we look inward that the real awakening happens. We can do that without having to experience the upheavals, of course, but most of us don’t. In fact, it wasn’t until I began telling my story, here, on these pages, that I truly did look more deeply and discovered the things I’m now communicating. I learned them as this book went through its vari- ous drafts. Writing this book is, in many ways, the work I had left undone from all those years ago.
There’s a lot more to this story since I’m still living it. I had to re- learn some of its lessons again and again. Such is the resistant power of the frightened part of the self. It comes back in ways that surprise us. It lures us back into our old ways. The important lessons, though, are always there for us to access if we pause and remember what we know. This is true for all of us. If we don’t remind ourselves of what we know, regularly, we will not be able to live our knowledge. That’s why most religions have Sabbaths and holy days, so we can step to one side and see who we are outside of the flow of daily life.
Coming that close to death reminded me about how good life is. I felt grateful to be alive. I also recognized that I cannot solve all life’s problems by myself—neither should I attempt such a her- culean task. That’s a step towards Humility. It gave me a stronger sense of what I could and could not do, of what love could do, and ultimately about what I was supposed to do to contribute to the lives of others. I saw the beauty and the futility of idealism, even in my failures. And so they weren’t failures. They were my chance to touch the abyss and come back, almost from the dead, and throw out a whole lot of prejudices.
The fearful part of me would have clung to the job until it killed me. Gratitude and Humility saved my life so I could be useful in other, more fitting ways. And on the way I found myself falling in love with the universe, just the way it is.
We could put it another way, too. Life gives us the test first; then later on it supplies the lessons we need to pass the test.
I have no doubt that some readers will see the words here, and say, “That’s fine. You came through it. But what about me? I’m still in this place of pain!”
If this is you, then I can reassure you. My example is specific, but it also has applicability to almost all such situations. I’d like you to notice that the real turning point, the actual spiritual healing, only came when I let go and was able to feel the poignant delight of being alive now, not knowing if I’d be alive very long. This was the place of Gratitude. I didn’t even know it at the time. I didn’t consciously think, “Oh, that’s gratitude kicking in.” But I’m certain now it was gratitude.
I’ll give you an example based in literature, one that has proved to be deeply consoling to generations of readers who have intui- tively absorbed and treasured the lesson it has to offer. Because of this we can be reasonably sure this story articulates something that people feel to be true, even if the story itself is not literally “true.” The haunting tale The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great depressive nineteenth-century poet, evokes this feeling of gratitude so well. In that surreal story the Mariner finds himself sailing on a ship which is becalmed in the ocean. The water runs out, and the men begin to die. The Mariner is wracked with guilt because he feels he brought about this disaster by taking his crossbow and shooting a friendly albatross that had been visiting the ship.
Just as the Mariner is about to give up all hope, a ship sails to- wards them. It’s a false hope, though, because this is a ghost ship and on it are two figures, Death and Life-in-Death, playing dice for the crew. Death wins all the crew except the Mariner, who is thus condemned to survive, living with Life-in-Death. If you’re pres- ently suffering with a disease or a spiritual crisis you can, I am sure, empathize with this description of the experience.
As the hellish voyage continues the seascape becomes more and more horrifying until at last some enormous water snakes arrive. When they do, the Mariner is fascinated, and the poet tells us he gazes at them in awe as they swim next to the ship:
Within the Shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire
Blue, glossy green and velvet black They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire.
We might expect him to respond with fear, but he doesn’t. In his desolate state death would have been welcome, he says. So he has no fear and no hope. He’s beyond despair. In fact, he’s in a much more important place than fear because he’s been broken open. Here’s what he thinks as he gazes on these extraordinary creatures:
Oh happy living things! No tongue Their beauty might declare;
A spring of love gushed from my heart And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me And I blessed them unaware.
The selfsame moment I could pray...1.
That’s when everything changes. The wind blows, the corpse of the albatross drops from around his neck where he has been forced to wear it, the ghost crew rise up to man the ropes and the ship heads towards land, delivering the Mariner safe on shore. So what just happened? Th e important thing is that the Mariner blessed the snakes “unaware.” Not even he knew he had responded to their beauty with gratitude, with an unintended response of pleasure and love, even in the midst of hell. He only knew it later, when recount- ing his tale. But it changed everything.
This is the climax of the tale, the turning point.
We are just like the Ancient Mariner. When we respond to unexpected beauty we are always in a loving space, taken out of our usu- al mind-swirl, connected with the greatness of the universe and its ability to make everything majestic. Notice how the poet describes it: “a spring of love gushed from my heart.” A spontaneous overflow of love has changed the situation.
The Ancient Mariner responds to this beauty, but perhaps any- one who can find beauty in those odd and frightening water snakes has also regained a sense of child-like innocence, the same openness to all things that makes a three-year-old marvel over a bug or an earthworm. Gratitude seems to be the first thing he feels, though, because he blesses them. Innocence, Beauty, Gratitude, Humility, and a sense of being connected to Nature are all present in some form or other; all five qualities at the same time, and all suffused with love. When he blesses the snakes “unaware”—operating from some instinctual part of himself too deep for him to understand— he accepts that the snakes are part of Nature, and so is he. He be- comes aware of his own altered relationship to creation. Suddenly, he can pray, he says, reconnecting with the Divine. Remember, this was the same Mariner who callously killed the Albatross on a whim. Now he seems capable of Love and Humility.
The five insights are all interlinked, all roughly co-existent, like the five points of the pentacle mentioned already, one continuous line, unbroken, in five equal segments. They are qualities we can often find in ourselves after we’ve been thoroughly shaken and had to reassess our world. We may feel we’re broken, but in fact we’ve been broken open. These are the attributes we hope to find, that we yearn to find, when we meet those who are dying. After being with aged and dying relatives and comparing my thoughts with others’ responses, it seems to me that these are the recognitions we want our loved ones to be able to see and to articulate. And if they don’t, in some small way, we leave feeling short-changed. The life that is trickling away before us feels (at least to us) incomplete.
So perhaps the experience of this fictional Ancient Mariner can show a way forward for you, for us all. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, one small aspect of your life even while you are suf- fering, it will help to lead you out of hell. If you can find a moment of beauty, or a split second of humility, that can also lead you out of the nightmare. If you feel innocent wonder that reminds you that you are connected to every living thing, you can break the hallucina- tion that threatens to destroy you. You could also call it wonder or joy or whatever you wish – at bottom it will almost certainly start in gratitude.
Whether you are suffering with physical illness or with spiritual illness, the starting point for healing is gratitude.
For some years Oprah spoke about the idea of keeping a grati- tude book. Write down five things every day, she said, five things that you can be grateful for, no matter how small they may be. Even if it’s just someone holding a door for you, it should still make it onto your list. But write them down, she advised, so the events will be real. Then see how your life changes. You know what? She’s ab- solutely right. This simple action helps to shift us from negativity to gratitude, and it will help to keep us there. It helps us make a habit of gratitude, it opens our hearts, and therefore we cannot stay in our frightened-self world of pain all the time.
Please don’t think that I’m being reductive or prescriptive, here. I’m observing what seems to be the case for many people and for myself. In the case of Coleridge’s poem I suspect most strongly that he wrote it because he was dealing with his own depression, which brought him close to self-destruction. In writing his Rime Coleridge was coming to terms with his own life-passage, finding his way back to health.
Does this apply to us today? For illnesses such as depression of- ten medication is the answer—at least at the beginning. Medications can bring us to a place of peace so that we can deal with the issues that are giving us pain. And yet, I have to add that clinical de- pression is such a powerful condition that we cannot be sure that a depressed person will even be able to hear gratitude as an option for getting out of that mind-space. To one caught in the web of despair such a suggestion may even sound like an accusation. Depression has a way of cutting us off from possible solutions in that way. We just can’t see them. Yet I suspect that for many depressed people the moment of change happens just as it did for the Mariner—in a moment of wonder, or grace, or something almost unknowable. And that, too, is gratitude.