The other day I flew to Newark, New Jersey, to give a benefit lecture on behalf of the Trenton Soup Kitchen. I have been involved with the TSK for five years now and I consider the work this charity does to be absolutely magnificent. Anyway, I arrived midday and was met by a lovely, middle-aged driver. Within minutes we were in his immaculate car heading to our destination, which, according to his GPS, was an hour away. My first reaction was, “Ugh, that’s half the flight time from Chicago.” My second reaction was, “I hope this guy isn’t a chatterbox because I need to make notes for my talk.”
Heading out of the airport, the driver and I both settled into our normal routines. He got his GPS going and I pulled out my notebook. Then he asked, “Is the temperature okay for you?” All he wanted to know was if the air in the car was warm enough, right? That required a yes or a no and a thanks for asking. But instead, something in me found his accent very curious. Why? I grew up in a home in which half my relatives had foreign accents, as did half the people in the neighborhood. People with accents are so common in my life that I hardly notice them, but I noticed his. Then I noticed that I needed to know where he came from – I mean I absolutely needed to know. Why? I don’t know why.
So I asked him, “Where are you from? I am intrigued with your accent.”
He smiled and said, “Where do you think?” I looked at his face through the driver’s mirror and the deep lines around his dark brown eyes blending in with his warm smile told me that this was a good man, a very good man.
I said, “Persia.”
His eyes sparkled, “Very good, but not quite. Close. What’s next to Persia?”
I froze for a moment. My mind went blank. I needed to bring up the globe in my mind’s eye. I said, “Okay, just a minute. You’re not Turkish. You must be from Afghanistan.”
“Yes, I am Afghani. I came here when the Russians invaded my country. I had just completed my degree at the university in Kabul. You can’t imagine how beautiful Afghanistan was before all these wars. Now I have two sons and a daughter here.”
I put my notebook down and we began to discuss his life, his journey, his world. He told me how the turmoil of decades of war in Afghanistan has affected his family and the lives of so many people he knows. And then he told me that he lost his job when the company he was working for let go of many of their employees. As a result, he was losing his home. That struck him as among the more overwhelming events of his life, as he did not think such a thing could happen in America. I told him about how many people I knew in that same situation.
Lest you think his man was complaining about the events that had unfolded in his life or drowning in his sorrows, that was not at all the case. Rather, he presented these chapters of his life with a type of “matter of fact” voice that was devoid of self-pity or anger. I was the one pressing for more details, asking him to expand on how and why events happened as they did in his life. I was the one picking at his wounds. If anything, he should have dropped me off at a bus station and told me to catch the next bus to Trenton.
Then he said, “I should be quiet now. I notice you have work to do.”
He didn’t ask me why I had come to Trenton and as I realized that, I hoped with all my might that he would not. And then I had this overwhelming gut feeling, that unmistakable rupture I get when I know I am right, “This man and his wife come to the Trenton Soup Kitchen for a meal or maybe even a few meals each week.” I knew it.
I was desperate to change the subject now. I could talk about anything – weather, sports, Hurricane Sandy – just don’t ask me why I have come to Trenton. Then my phone rang. It was a family member calling about another family member who was in a very serious crisis. We were circling the wagons, as they say. He could hear me, not because I was speaking loudly but because I was sitting directly behind him. For fifteen minutes, I discussed possible treatment and outcome for a beloved family member. My voice had gotten tight. I was shutting down, withdrawing into the silence of grief and tears. I hung up the phone, staring out the window.
This lovely Afghan man said, “You know, when my daughter was five, she was diagnosed with this rare illness. Her female organs matured faster than her physical body and she started to menstruate at that age. We were terrified. We took her to a doctor and he told us that she needed to take this certain shot once a month. It cost $1,000.00. Insurance covered that while I had my other job but then I lost that job. I did not know what to do. I needed to provide for my family, for my home, for their health. I was never so frightened. I told my wife that I needed to go away for one reason. I needed to go and be with God. I needed to be alone to take my life, my problems directly to God. And so I went away to pray for two weeks. I had to be alone, to do nothing but pray.
When I returned, we took my daughter to a different doctor and he said, ‘Why do you want to have her on this medication? She is perfectly healthy?’ And she is perfectly healthy. She is healed. I know that God is with me, even through these difficult times. Yes, I am losing my home. I can replace that. I could never replace my daughter, or my sons. And so we will grieve the loss our own home, but for how long? Perhaps three days. But how long would we grieve the loss of my daughter? We would grieve until the day of our own death. And so God blessed me by showing me that he is truly with me, with my family, and that he hears our prayers.”
By the time this wonderful man finished sharing his story, I could not stop the tears from pouring out of my eyes.
“Do you have any water?” he asked me.
“Are you thirsty? Here, I have a bottle of water,” I said as I gave him my water.
“No,” he said, “I am not thirsty. I am going to pray for your family member and I am going to put those prayers into this water and you will take this water to her. It will carry the grace and light of God’s response.”
I asked him if I could pray for his family, for his journey through hardship and his return to right livelihood. And so, pulling up to my friend’s house, my driver held the bottle of water in his hands and sang prayers from the Koran. He rocked slowly back and forth in the front seat of the car, falling deeper and deeper into an inner dialogue with God. I closed my eyes and quietly entered into my own interior castle, holding images of this man’s face and soul in my heart.
In the midst of this sacred ritual, I heard the sound of my friend darting out of his home to greet me. I quickly came out of my prayer space and signaled to him by holding up my hand, “Stay where you are. Don’t come near this car.”
Still this dear man continued in his prayerful request that healing grace be given to my family member. Tears now flowed from his closed eyes as his body movements revealed that his heart beat closely with heaven’s pulse. Finally, he opened his eyes and handed me what anyone else would take for an ordinary bottle of Evian water. We held each other’s hands for several seconds, thanking each other with nods of our heads and the tight grips of our hands. Still appearing to be an ordinary Evian bottle from the outside, I looked through the ordinary and into the extraordinary. I stared at this bottle of water and for me it became the substance of miracles, the story of a man’s life journey, and on the day I was picked up to do a benefit for the homeless by a man losing his home whose very prayers I suspect may well have contributed most to the healing of my family member. It became “holy water.”
We Breathe Together
There was a time when I would have been in awe by the coincidence or synchronistic happening of meeting a man who was in the throes of the crisis I had come to lecture about. Carl Jung named such happenings “synchronicity,” a word very familiar to most of us now. He identified that there seemed to be a phenomenon that united seemingly random events through psychic or psychological links.
That’s all fine and good but I think that beyond that, perhaps we are even more interconnected than the word “synchronicity” is able to convey. I believe that in some way we breathe together; that is, that at any given moment, the people we are surrounded by are all sharing some mutual experience in some way. It’s of course not possible to ever really check out this theory of mine but for me, the more I reflect upon it, the more I seem to experience expressions of it in some way. Let me elaborate on it just a bit.
Refined spiritual teachings tell us that the perception that we are separated from each other is an illusion; thus, we have the mystical teaching that “All is One.” Mystical teachings are given the status of “mystical” because they are beyond “reasonable.” That is, they cannot be “comprehended” through the intellect. You can nod your head at the theory that “All is One” because on paper, the idea makes good sense. But it is impossible for you to actually “get” the power of that idea because it is not an “idea.” It is a “truth” and mystical truths are not accessible through the mind. They can only be revealed to you through the soul when your soul is mature enough to handle the consequences of such a profound and enlightened revelation. Teresa of Avila wrote that, “God invited me into the Fourth Mansion of my soul. I could not get into this place on my own.”
A firewall exists between the mind and the soul, between what is reasonable and what is mystical. These are two separate but parallel dimensions of reality – one is literal and one is transcendent. That we are interconnected in some way with each person we share space with is literally incomprehensible to our intellect, but not to our soul. That is the reason why when we have such moments as I did in the car with that wonderful driver that open up and allow for a “soul conversation,” we discovered our shared lives. In fact, all we discovered was what we had in common, but we had to go through our souls to find those treasures. He is a devout Muslim. I am a devout mystic from a Christian background. He prays his way. I pray mine. He is about to lose his home. I am going to raise money for the homeless. Somehow our souls recognized each other.
At the end of the day, my true theology is that all life breathes together, moves together, heals together, and suffers together. How can it be otherwise? The illusion is that we are separate from each other. We are not separate, though we appear to be to our senses. I could just as easily been driving him to his lecture and going home to pack up my belongings, soon to move out of my home. And he could be the one raising funds for the homeless, blessed enough to be returning the next day to a secure home. Life is precarious and can change in the blink of an eye. Buddha teaches us that wisdom. The only thing that was separating that wonderful man and me from each other’s experience was the will of God in that moment in time in our lives.
Next year, our situations could be the exact reverse of that very moment. Nothing in our lives stands still. Nothing remains the same. This man thought his home was secure. I believe that to be true about my home right now. He is now losing his home. I am sure that he at one point believed, as I do, that such a thing could never happen to him. Our lives change in the blink of an eye.
Miracles also happen in the blink of an eye – just like that. He could be offered a way out of his situation with equal speed. One phone call from a friend out of the clear blue offering him a new position could happen. He believes that and so do I. Such a belief is more than hope. It’s stronger than hope. It’s faith in the God he brought his problems to when all other earthly avenues failed him. But his faith in God did not fail him. His daughter was healed and the abundant grace that seemed to flow from that miracle was now sustaining his family, reminding them each day that God was with them through even their difficult times. But God, he believed, saved them from what would have been not a difficult time but a devastating one had his daughter died.
Breathing Life Through Your Soul
First, enter into the perception that “all life breathes, moves, heals, and suffers together.” You are not separate from anything or anyone. Take time to really observe the world you are walking in, breathing in, living in. Look at the people walking by you and hold the thought, “I have something in common with each one of them or else we would not be on the same street at the same time.” More than likely you will never know what that common thread is, but for the sake of this lesson, assume it exists. Perhaps you share an experience, or an unusual place you’ve traveled, or the same high school, or you have a mutual acquaintance, or you might discover you are working through the same trauma. The only reason you will never discover what threads unite you to all these people is the lack of opportunity to actually meet each of them. Unless the invisible elements that actually design the experiences of our lives intervene such as a happening of synchronicity, we never discover these psychic bonds that pulsate through the dark matter world.
Next, listen to your world. Listen deeply to the sounds in your environment and instead of ignoring them or being annoyed by them, consider that they are talking to you. These are the sounds of the world you live in and each day the sounds are different. Some days the world is loud and some days it’s silent. Some days are filled with rain and others with wind. Is there meaning to this? Maybe. Sometimes. But more significantly, the task is for you to become more aware of the world you are constantly “breathing” with, day in and day out. That itself has meaning.
Listen to the people in your world. No conversation is without meaning. Heighten your senses. Pay attention. Don’t dismiss the ordinary. In fact, see the most ordinary as the most extraordinary of your day.
Pay attention to what you are looking at in your world. Pause for the beautiful and the not so beautiful. Take time to actually appreciate what you can see and feel. Never judge the stranger who passes you in the street. Instead, remember that you, too, are a stranger to everyone on the street. You, as a stranger, are outnumbered. Walk on this Earth with the attitude that you are breathing with all these “souls” as best as you can. Sometimes it’s difficult but the truth is that breathing “kindness” into the air is the purest oxygen of all.
Redefine your understanding of Nature. Nature isn’t “out there” in the forests and woods. You are living on the Earth and all of the Earth is Mother Nature’s creature. Don’t be fooled by the concrete of the city. The city is built on Mother Nature’s soil and it is still an expression of Mother Nature. Don’t tell yourself that in order to appreciate Mother Nature, you have to go “out there” to the forest. Such an attitude shows that you are separate from the whole field of life itself. The human community is part of Mother Nature and the human community dwells in the cities of the many nations of this planet. Mother Nature is everywhere.
Finally, walk humbly on the Earth. Do not burden yourself with the attitude that you must be superior to the other people you see, that you must somehow let them know you are better than them. For all you know, you are walking past a great healer or a patient and loving mother caring for a handicapped child, or a father who just found out he got the job he so desperately needed. The stories of all three of these people may have threads to your life one day. You don’t know that. This is a wondrous Universe, a strange and mystical theater of life. We can only remain in awe of its perfectly ordered structure that seems to move in mathematical perfection while simultaneously being governed by an intimate God who seemingly knows each of us by name. How is that possible? Who knows? Who cares? It simply is.
Breath is life. We breathe together. We live together. We heal together. We thrive together. And, in this way, we survive together. With such a creed for life, we should not be surprised to find ourselves seated in a car with a man on the brink of homelessness while en route to do a benefit to raise money for the homeless. And yet you need a healing for a family member and he is blessed with the great grace of the healer. No, I am no longer surprised at such “synchronistic” happenings in my life. I see them as living proof that we even breathe together with the Divine. Somehow, in some divinely mystical way, our needs are known and our prayers are answered, “If we have but eyes to see.”
A Thanksgiving Thank you
I want to express my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of you for being a part of my Salon. I want to thank you for “breathing together” with me and for all the many lovely and supportive notes that I find so encouraging along the way. I hope your holiday is a blessed one.