The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you who must raise your sails.
The primary delight of writing The Inconceivable Surprise of Living was discovering gems like the Tagore line above. With a simple metaphor, Tagore (who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature) clarifies that we need not think of grace as an occasional gift beamed to us from a distant God. We could choose instead to perceive grace as an ever-present energy we can harness to power our spiritual awareness.
Just as wind-powered boats use various kinds of sails--mainsails, jibs, and spinnakers--Tagore’s words make me wonder how many different kinds of sails we can put up for grace. Here are a few that keep my boat out of the doldrums:
Silence: Helen Tworkov wrote: “If the mind can get still enough, something sacred will be revealed.” I find that creative ideas and new awarenesses often show up when I practice stilling my mind. It’s almost as if calming the winds of ordinary consciousness allows us to catch a different kind of breeze.
Flow: A psychologist with a hard-to-pronounce name (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) has researched the state of “flow” which occurs when we’re deeply immersed in an activity that is both inherently enjoyable and moderately challenging. The easiest way to know your own flow activities is to notice when time seems to fly by because you’re so engrossed in something you enjoy. When we’re in a flow activity, it’s as if we not only put up a sail for grace--our whole being becomes the sail.
Slow time in nature: Christian monk and theologian Maximus Confessor said in the sixth century: “Creation itself is the first revelation of God.” If we’re hurrying through nature, however, we can miss the revelation. I remember a few years ago bicycling on a trail with my mind churning on lots of work projects. I caught myself wondering as I passed through a woods dressed in its full autumn garb: When am I going to take some time off to see the fall colors? Nature flows along on the slow wavelength of God, but it’s easy to go charging through it on a much faster wavelength and miss the grace.
Laughter: Modern writer Anne Lamott has called laughter “carbonated holiness.” Theologian Karl Barth wrote: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Laughter brings not only delight, but awareness of mystery. Why does a surprise to the mind or a nonsensical comment or story make us react with such explosions of the breath and contortions of the body? Pure grace!
Metaphor: A friend has told me I’m addicted to metaphors. She is right, but it’s a positive addiction. All that is required to discover delightful images (like the one in Tagore’s line) is to keep the question “How is this thing (or event) in my present awareness the perfect metaphor for some other aspect of life?” running in the background of your mind like virus software. This program, however, is not looking for bad stuff that will lock us up; rather, it constantly looks for creative ideas that can light us up. The grace in metaphors is, for me, a bit like the grace in laughter. In both cases, a surprising new connection in the mind creates the magic.
Unknowing: Awe is inherently grace-filled. We can invite awe to show up regularly if we are willing to move into unknowing. The body, for instance, becomes miraculous when we remind ourselves that no one really knows how our trillions of cells work together in such marvelous harmony. Gravity becomes an invisible fascination when I remember that no one has ever understood what it is or exactly how it functions--yet physicists think that if it had not existed from the first instant of the Big Bang, our universe would not exist. My own consciousness is also a ready source of awe when I recall that we really have no idea what consciousness is or how it comes to be.
Other focus (vs. self-focus): Recently my computer had a virus and I was struggling with how to get rid of it. Such events have the power to get me struggling with myself (Why did I not get a better virus software that might have caught the problem?). Then I had to change gears for a meeting with a patient. Within minutes after the session began, I could feel the gift of having another person on which to focus my attention. It felt like coming home to a safe place. Extending our energy to others allows us to be a filament for grace, not just a receiver of it.
Finding the gift in challenges: Having done a bit of sailing when I was younger, I was always fascinated that a boat can sail against a headwind. When our lives shift from a peaceful trailing wind to a stiff headwind, we can still catch the winds of grace. This involves moving from How can this suffering be? to How can this suffering be a gift? We don’t need a belief that someone, perhaps God, is deliberately causing our suffering to impart grace to us. We can just decide to embrace an idea expressed by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma over 1500 years ago: “Every suffering is a seed, because suffering impels us to seek wisdom.”
I’m sure there are many other sails to catch the winds of grace. I’d be interested in hearing about yours. Happy sailing!