Grace Requires No Practice

Originally published in the Quaker journal, 'What Canst Thou Say,' May 2006, and reprinted in the Quaker journal, 'The Carillon,' February 2017.

Despite the beautiful sadhanas I have learned from masters of the yogic tradition, and from mystics I have met in Cistercian monasteries, the great contemplative experiences of my life have come in moments of grace, when I had no intention to meditate. Only then did I truly understand what those traditions were teaching. I realized something so liberating, yet somewhat threatening to spiritual "practitioners." Grace requires no practice.

Our bodies were initiated into the deepest path the moment we were born. Right here, in the anonymous sacrament of the commonplace, through ear and eye and skin and tongue, we may taste and see that the Lord is good. Mere existence is cause for unbridled celebration. But are we ready to live lives of wonder?

I awake at dawn. For a few moments before this mind, like the rustle of yesterday's newspaper, begins its habit of chatter, I am simply awake without thinking... I listen to the faintest sounds, and beyond them, to the throbbing depths of pure silence. I follow that throb to the horizon of hearing. When I truly listen, there is no place but the present moment, and therefor no time. Then a robin trembles the universe...

Dawn's gray-lit silence,
changed by the first robin's song
to deeper silence.
Nothing prevents me from doing this meditation each morning but one thing: the concept of "doing meditation."

On a work day afternoon, amidst several busy projects, I take a short walk in the park. I glance up at the cloudless blue sky. How often have I looked at the sky: so available, costing nothing! Yet now, in this momentary window of grace, blue-sky-gazing is profound sadhana.

Usually the sky is the background of my thoughts. This time, thoughts fade into the background and blue clarity springs forward. I don't suppress thoughts, I just attend to the marvel of emptiness. The common gift of sight is my spiritual practice.

Looking into hollow blue radiance, I pass through the vanishing point, these eyes completely untangled from objects. I am intensely aware but unfocused. Hundreds of tiny muscles relax in my face. The gentle smile I felt when I was a sleeping infant returns to this old body. Then I close my eyes to discover.... the same vastness inside.

Gaze into my heart
and touch the deepest sky of
sapphire emptiness.
All my life I've been climbing: higher grades, higher status, pay raise, upward mobility, uplifting thoughts, up-scale neighborhood, higher tax bracket, higher standards, higher state of consciousness, cloud nine, the risen life! No wonder I'm weary. I'm always fighting gravity...

But tonight I'll lie down, spreadeagled in the cool grass of my back yard, gazing at nameless, near and distant stars. I won't take thought for tomorrow, what time I have to get up. I’ll just get down, stay low, commit the great American sin: doing nothing...

Thoughts fade as I shift attention to my breath, my flesh. Weight on ground, skin to sod... Suddenly, a revelation of the commonplace. Why did I never understand this before? I don't need to fight “weight,” or call it “gravity”! I call it earth's prayer for my body. She holds me to her breast.

My body is a ripple in the vast swell of force that rolls out through the cosmic sea. I am awash in star-waves; they too are part of my flesh, part of the same current that connects me to my planet. Where does this body end and hers begin? Who needs to ascend? I am already in the heavens. Earth's vast billow embraces the space beyond the galaxy, then gathers all, enfolding me in the infinite curve of here-ness.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust... How strange that we save these words of life until our funeral.

I stood up so long.
Now, star-dazed in dewy grass,
I am so fallen!

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