An altar at the checkout

an altar at the checkout
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Love is where you focus your gaze. Compassion is how you choose to see. Both are acts of intentionality, and both are ultimately creative. Both ask us to probe deeply into the strange and magical uncanniness found in even the most mundane moments of being here, of being present, of simply being. To transfix  and to be transfixed in a world alive with color, texture, and composition, to revel in a moment of time that reveals the sacred history of light and awareness is to be an artist, a mystic, a poet, a friend. It is to recognize that everywhere you stand is ground that has already been pronounced as holy, to see the face of every one of our fellow inhabitants as something always formed in the shape of the ineffable and wondrously Other.

I swing wide when it comes to humankind. I regularly bask in the exquisite beauty and brilliance of our species, but still find it difficult to tolerate people. Some days I think humanity is poetry personified, and on others I’d call us a plague. Somedays I praise our splendor, our ingenuity, and our tenacity. Somedays I pray for the Sun to burn out. To be fair, humanity, itself, seems to vacillate widely between ecstasy and atrocity. We are egocentric and oblivious, greedy and short-sighted, reckless and depraved. And yet, on the rare occasions when we can summon the capacity to be observant and unselfish, we are nothing short of exceptional.

Each one of us has the task of cultivating creative ways in which to regain a clarity of vision that opens us up to the full panorama of reality as a whole, a reality revealing that we are each part of a wider whole. If there is any cure for what ails us, individually and collectively, it is attention. Pema Chodron says that “In the elevator with a stranger, I might notice her shoes, her hands, the expression on her face.” In that moment “I [can] contemplate the fact that just like me she doesn’t want stress in her life. Just like me she has worries.” And that it is “Through our hopes and fears, our pleasures and pains,” that we realize just how “deeply interconnected” we are.

We are never passive observers. No matter how aloof we try to make ourselves. No matter where we are. We are always, and at all times, active participants in the unfolding everything-ness of all we observe. Even “Standing in the checkout line,” Chodron goes on to explain, “I might notice the defiant teenager in front of me and make the aspiration, “May he be free of suffering and its causes.” 

Reality is participatory. Collaborative and co-creative. Both particle and wave, dependent upon the ways we bear witness to it. There is a “yes, and” available in every moment. There is acceptance and there is expansion. “I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am,” says David Foster Wallace, “and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.”

Attention is an arduous endeavor. Seeing, really seeing, isn’t easy. Looking deeply takes more effort than we can imagine, and somedays despite our best attempts to do so, our sight will remain shallow and short. Somedays all we will be able to offer the world is a cursory glance.

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” says Wallace, even if you can’t muster the strength to see deeply “you can choose to look differently”. You can at least choose to look, at all. You can take a small moment to consider. And, “if you really learn how to pay attention,” Wallace explains, “then you will know there are other options.” There are a near infinite range of possibilities within your experience. Within what you experience and how you experience it. Options within the experience of your experience. A perpetual chain of openings and passageways. Wallace says that “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in a universe of flux and malleability. Nothing truly fixed. Nothing solidly concrete. “The only thing that’s capital-T True”, explains Wallace, “is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”

We can draw the curtains, close the blinds, avert our gaze, and shut our eyes. We can choose to pretend not to see, or we can look around. We can decide to notice and how. We can call where we place our feet consecrated. We can take off our shoes, and as Barbara’s Brown Taylor suggests, we can “set a little altar in the world”. We can build a shrine right where we stand. We “can stop what [we are] doing long enough to see where [we are] who [we are] there with, and how awesome the place is.” We can know that surely the numinous was here, and we did not know it.

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