A Little Yearning to Live our Lives Differently

Walking the labrynth at Chartres Cathedral

A Little Yearning to Live our Lives Differently

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 15, 2021 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

July 15, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Silver Spring, Maryland, community online on Thursday evening
July 16, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all online on Friday evening

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday and Friday evenings we will focus on the yearnings many of us have had for a more spiritual life, a way of living in which we aspire to be calm, clear, and loving in whatever situation we find ourselves. Recently, I’ve been stimulated to think about my yearnings in new ways as our Takoma Park online morning group reads through Inviting Silence: Universal Principles of Meditation by Gunilla Norris. It is a book of prose poems exploring what it means to “quiet the mind and center the heart.” In the introduction she writes:

Throughout the years I have found that beneath whatever we might think our discontent is, we very much need three things: an awareness of our inner longing … the courage to act on behalf of that longing … and a sense of community to support and maintain our interior journey.

One section that encouraged me to see my early spiritual yearnings in a new light was titled “Beginning to Begin.” The section leads off with these words:

Can we recognize that now and then there comes
an inner sense, a fleeting thought, a little yearning
to live our lives differently?

We don’t know what this means or what it requires.
We shake these notions off like a dog shakes off water
and go about our business.

But the longing continues.

I grew up in a middle-class family, not deprived in any visible way. I was also an unhappy child. It was hard for me to recognize, name, or understand my own unease and disquiet. Without much awareness of what I was doing, I started looking for answers outside my family and the secularized Jewish tradition I was raised in.

Beginning in my early teens I observed and asked questions of my friends and their families. I particularly noticed the ease, or lack of ease, in parent-child conversations, the presence of what I now call “everyday joy,” and the ways their religion influenced their everyday ethics and actions.

When I hitch-hiked across Europe as an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by the ethereal energy of the Chartres Cathedral. Later, back in Southern California, where my parents lived and I attended college, I made repeated visits to the Vedanta Temple in Hollywood and the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine near the Pacific Ocean. As at Chartres, I was viscerally attracted to the spiritual energy these places emit.

Soon I was avidly reading books such as Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. The spiritual yearning was clearly in me. However, also in me was a full set of middle-class anxieties and beliefs. I wanted to be loved (but didn’t know how to love). I craved respect and recognition. I felt entitled to a meaningful and comfortable life. And I foolishly believed that all these desires would be fulfilled if I just kept trying harder.

As a young adult I didn’t yet have the second and third needs Norris identifies as necessary to truly address our discontent: “the courage to act on behalf of that longing … and a sense of community to support and maintain our interior journey.” I would not have that courage and support for decades. I found them only when I finally realized that underneath all my discontent was a spiritual illness. If I wanted relief, I needed to learn from teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, who knew how to heal spiritual illnesses, and to practice with others in a spiritual community.

This Thursday and Friday evenings, after our meditation, we will read the full “Beginning to Begin” section (see below) from Inviting Silence, and share our reflections:

  • Did you experience early signs of spiritual yearnings?
  • Were the yearnings an important impetus to begin and develop your mindfulness practice?
  • Do you think of yourself as currently making effort, in Norris’s words, to “quiet the mind and center the heart?”

You are invited to join us.

Also, below, is a related excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh about anxiety as the illness of our age.

Warm wishes.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


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Beginning to Begin
From Inviting Silence by Gunilla Norris

Can we recognize that now and then there comes
an inner sense, a fleeting thought, a little yearning
to live our lives differently?

We don’t know what this means or what it requires.
We shake these notions off like a dog shakes off water
and go about our business.

But the longing continues.

Who has time, we ask? What is it anyway?
Reorganize to do what? Stop?
Do nothing? Be quiet?
What for?

Our practical selves only know how to perfect,
produce and perform.
This, at least, we can see as useful. This has results.
We want to believe in this way of perceiving.
For a little while it seems to give us
some sort of self-image.

But the longing doesn’t let us alone. It won’t go away.
We become even busier perhaps
to “take care of it.”
We numb ourselves with distractions—things to do,
consume, and maintain—
things to collect, experience, and entertain.
We can always think of more miles to run.

Still the little yearning continues … .

Could we sense that this longing is not lack
or something worse
—some kind of fundamental fault in us?
Could we receive it as an invitation instead,
a calling, a small voice inviting us home,
back to our truer self?
This shift in thought can move mountains.
It can let us begin to begin.

Anxiety is the Illness of Our Age
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.” There are wars — big and small — in many places, and that can cause us to lose our peace. Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick.

Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 15, 2021


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