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Life as a Path: What does it mean to view life as a path?

May 17, 2021

Recently, Linda, my beloved wife of 47 years, was diagnosed with a facial melanoma. After a complex operation to remove the growth, we happily can say that she is currently cancer free. The next steps consist of reconstructive surgeries and keeping a watchful eye for new growths.

Amidst our hopes, fears, pain, horrors, we also experience tremendous love and gratitude for all the Beings, known and unknown, who are supporting us. In addition to the skilled medical teams, our families, close friends and the wider community of caring people, we also have experienced a surprisingly powerful source of support - conscious dedication to our life path.

Having a context that is larger than self, larger than focusing on personal happiness, great experiences or social success, creates a framework for viewing everything that occurs as essential in your unique life story. For example, reading a biography of someone you care about, you wouldn't want to tear out the pages of the difficult, painful moments. These trials are often the most critical for the growth and moral development of that character. Our depth as human beings and our capacity for compassion is forged on the hot irons of life's trials. Each event in your book of life has potential purpose and meaning.

I don't say this in a casual or cavalier way. Suffering is suffering; we all have our own "crosses to bear" and situations that can overwhelm us. I remember times of intense physical pain when tears, breathing and prayer were the only effective medicine. Seeing Linda suffering, bringing my love and care to her yet being unable to make it very much better, brings a place of heavy sadness and inadequacy that also needs my caring presence. Strong pain in any form, physical, emotional, or spiritual is the greatest of human tests; yet, there is no living without pain, just as there is no loving without loss. How can we approach our unexpected, life-upending trials with a whole heart? Conscious commitment to a spiritual or "larger than self" path changes the context of everything that occurs in life.

Linda and I have a deep, abiding view that our life is a spiritual path in which we choose - through awareness and in freedom - to view all that occurs as lessons in the school of unconditional love. Remarkably, Linda said this same thing to herself as a young girl. I came to this more gradually through meditation practice and self-reflection. We like to say that in being born into these vulnerable bodies, we enrolled in the school of love. Love in this sense means bringing intelligent, self-reflective, kind-hearted caring to as many moments as possible. While this might sound sentimental, it is actually quite vigorous in that it includes standing up to the enemies of the good, by saying "NO" to life denying forces. The Greek word agape - often called the highest form of love or unconditional positive intention - is closest to what we mean.

Waiting Room Story

Awaiting pre-surgery tests in this large Boston hospital that serves a diverse population including many of the homeless and drug addicted, we were surrounded by intense suffering. Three times police escorted injured prisoners in handcuffs; almost every person in the room was in obvious pain. Suddenly, Linda spontaneously shifted from her own fears and concerns and, in a transformative moment, realized that: "my job is to give love to every person here". As we have often said, moving from fear to love is our task and our liberation.

Sensing, as much as possible, for all the needs that exist within a moment, without favoring or denying anyone (including oneself) is the daunting intention. This is called caring for life itself. This attitude is the courageous antidote to either unbridled self-interest or self-denial. Caring for others, the world and for oneself in the right proportions requires many recalibrations and much humor, as one will often fail.

To choose love, not as a habit or a demand but in authentic freedom, needs awareness. Awareness requires presence - one must be present to notice anything. This loving, self-reflective awareness is essential for discerning the many needs simultaneously existing in any moment. Again, for us a life path must be dedicated to something larger than self-interest, yet include self-interest.

Savoring with Gratitude

Another key element of our path includes celebrating and savoring the gifts of life with profound gratitude. In addition to cultivating a discerning awareness and an intention toward agape, we feel that deeply enjoying the gifts of life is a spiritual deed. Everything is a gift, not earned, simply given. Presence is also a pre-requisite for wholehearted receptivity to these offerings.

If life is truly a gift freely given to us, isn't it important to fully receive and relish that gift? When we are present enough to freshly see the tree, smell the ocean, hear the bird, taste the food, laugh with abandon (never, ever underestimate the transformative power of laughter) or tenderly hold the hand of a friend, we are savoring life. Enjoying beauty in any form, giving our appreciative attention completes the gift. Without attentive, grateful listening, the sound of the orchestra is incomplete, as it is with all gifts.

Savoring by itself, stripped of gratitude can lead to self-indulgence, yet, without this capacity life becomes dry and stale. A lack of appreciation dishonors the gift. Awareness, love and savoring the gifts of life are ways of taking care of life through being present in the moment. Everyday I fall short of this intention and then, with reflection and forgiveness, I jump back onto the path.

Path - Your Life Journey

I often like to take what I call "the bird's eye view " on my life journey, a sense of objectivity toward my unfolding path. Sometimes I do this by imagining that I am seeing Russell from after his death, reviewing the various chapters of his life. When I do this, I notice that each important person or event was essential. Like a good book, all the pages fit together and are relevant.

The painful and challenging events, the one's I would not wish on others and hope not to experience again, led to vital learning that often was not appreciated in the moment. This realization has led me to assume that every event has value; even those things that I wish were different. Naturally, like all of us, I prefer enjoyable moments even as I have learned to appreciate the difficult one's. Gratitude for life itself is the natural outcome from this view.

Each of us is unique and has a personal path that is right for us. For some it centers on God, for others service, some dedicate themselves to creating beauty and others to learning. Whatever it is, from my view, it must be larger than one's own self-interest.

Our gratitude for "path" is not that life becomes easy or painless. Rather, we feel the immense fortification that comes from deeply knowing that our life has a larger context than simply enjoyment, success and positive experiences.

Are you on a path?

How would you describe it?

I know each of you is living with some kind of painful or challenging situation right now. As Linda and I go through our current ordeal, we feel more intimately for the personal trial that each and every person faces in living. We are all in this together, yet in many ways, we are alone in our suffering. No one truly knows what it feels like to be you, particularly in your painful moments. I wish you great courage, unexpected support and abundant blessings on your journey. I encourage you to consciously acknowledge, name and commit to your personal path - recognizing a larger context for your one precious life makes all the difference.


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