By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
A friend spent several days paddling down the Winooski River this summer. He said that on the first day on the river, he paddled so hard that his arms ached throughout the night, and he second-guessed whether five days travelling down the river to Lake Champlain was such a good idea after all. His second day on the river, he realized that he needn’t work so hard; he could trust the current to pull him along, while he paddled in a pleasant, rhythmic way, taking in the changing scenery along the way. Once he discovered the current, his journey was transformed from an arduous, depleting expenditure of energy into a rich and restorative experience. Yes, he still needed to paddle, but a restored relationship to the current deepened his experience of the present moment.
Ideally, that is just what religion is supposed to do for us: connect us to the divine force that is always present, enriching every aspect of our lives and generating the resilience and love that deepens our experience of reality and makes life meaningful. In fact, if religion is not a transformative experience, then it is merely a club. Clubs are fine, but not exactly what the great spiritual masters like Jesus or Buddha seemed to have in mind as they forged their paths to fullness of life and encouraged us to follow. As the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr writes, “The work of religion is to reunite what our egos and survival instincts have put asunder, namely a fundamental wholeness at the heart of everything.”
For several years now, I try to begin my day by seeking the “fundamental wholeness at the heart of everything” from my front porch. With a cup of tea and my iPhone in hand, I read two short “meditations” sent out via daily email by a couple of wise monks. Then I read my “daily lectionary” email, which is simply several paragraphs of sacred scripture from the Old and New Testaments. And over the course of these few minutes I breathe my deepest breath of the morning and slowly begin to be able to take in the glorious big sky right in front of me, suddenly alive with dancing and darting birds and majestic hawks riding their invisible currents. In the words of the poet, “I loaf and invite my soul,” which changes everything.
That “wholeness at the heart of everything,” is easy to miss. Life being what it is, it’s hard for us humans to pay attention to the current that’s always flowing in the direction of our destiny and which restores us to ourselves. Without some kind of regular attention to our spiritual nourishment – wherever we find it – our deepest longings can all too easily devolve into addictive consumption and vague disappointment, leaving us malnourished and paddling harder than we ever need to.
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.