“Pay attention. Be astonished. Share your astonishment.”~ Mary Oliver
No one could have epitomised this quote better than the 74 year old man reading it with passion from the podium of the crowded hall. These three are the most important things in life, he told us.
We were showered with other such inspiring quotes by poets and scientists, rappers and rabbis, warriors, priests, prophets and philosophers all speaking about the same understanding, the same message — that the divine exists within everything, and the path out of suffering is simply through paying attention and acknowledge it.
This shower of wisdom and quotes came pouring out of the most animated, enthusiastic, scholarly and radically non-traditional 74 year old I’ve ever met. Mathew Fox, a theologian and ex-priest (kicked out of the church for his compassionate, inclusive and liberal teachings) eloquently wove together the true meaning of spirituality, ritual and mysticism — beyond dogma, religion, cryptic languages or dower practices.
And that meaning, he told us, has everything to do with our fate as individuals, as a species and as a planet.
I often feel uncomfortable using the word God. In fact, I mostly avoid the word spiritual.
They bring to mind either oppressive, confining religious systems that seem to have no spirit, or over the top, airy-fairy, ungrounded practices that seem rooted in denial or separatism.
Ironically, I’ve also chosen a life and career dedicated to deepening relationship to spirit — my own, that of others, the planet and the whole universe. Part of that dedication however is about demystifying spirituality and our understanding of subtle energy. Rather than putting it in the sky or cave or far off ashram where it may feel inaccessible to the majority of people, I like to frame and find spirit within our everyday life.
I like to replaced the word “God” with “Universal Energy,” but I know that it all means the same thing. And most importantly, I know that everyone, everything for that matter, has spirit within and for that simple reason is intrinsically spiritual.
This is why I’ve been so drawn to study and practice Yoga. It’s non-denominational (even though culturally influenced by Hinduism) teach us many practical ways to live in deeper connection to universal spirit.
One of the most common phrases in the yoga world today is, “live in the present moment.” Though cliche, there’s a damn good reason it’s repeated over and over again.
If our consciousness does not reside in the present moment, we can’t paying attention to all of the wonder around and within us. When we’re lost in worry or regret, planning or reliving, we’re distracted from the awesomeness of life. These fluctuations of the mind, the Yoga Sutras says, lead to suffering.
Hatha yoga teaches us how to pay attention. We begin simply by observing our breath and sensations to climb out of the racing thoughts and bring our awareness into the moment. It’s a simple method but highly effective.
The minute we start to pay attention we begin to see, feel and acknowledge spirit. And something magical happens — not just to a select blessed few, but to everyone. Our nervous system calms, we feel more connected within ourselves as well as with others, and this simple paying attention changes how we interact with ourselves and the whole world.
The more we pay attention, the more awe, wonder and amazement of the world within and around us arises. We become dazzled and amazed with our own existence, and this naturally leads to gratitude.
Fox said at one point, “Humanity will not be saved by more information, but by more appreciation.”
He explained that this “radical amazement” not only leads to joy but also to courage, because all beauty contains terror. He spoke about how wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe, and this can be equally awesome as terrifying.
But, it is this confrontation with the universe that we need to heal ourselves and our plant. In Fox’s workshop he spoke about how disconnect the modern world is from the cosmos and the universe. This is not some far out notion, the universe and cosmos are simple the stuff we’re made of.
Another of my favourite moments was just before he dismissed us for lunch Fox threw up his hands and said, “The cosmos are not an abstraction, they are the tomato in your hand!”
All food, all life for that matter, is nourished by the sun, the cosmos. With each bite we are taking in the magnificent, complex interconnectedness of the universe. How often are we taught to remember that?
Fox asserts that it’s this lack of realising how much we are part of the bigger whole, the entire universe, that leads to our lack of self care, environmental degradation, war making and psychosis.
Spirituality is about finding that connection and having the courage to confront a universe that’s full of uncertainty and terrifying beauty. This courage is all about opening and strengthening the heart. “Courage” after all comes from the Latin word for heart, which also implies inner strength.
Share Your Astonishment.
Fox spoke about the four paths of spirituality we all walk down. The first, the path of positivity, joy, astonishment and the second, the path of negativity, facing the terror and finding courage, leads to the third. The path of creativity.
Sharing our astonishment, in what ever way, is an act of creativity that comes from the heart and requires courage.
Sharing our astonishment is what we’re here to do. In yogic terms they call it “dharma” and is a word with many meanings that very much echo Fox’s message. Dharma on the one hand refers to the cosmic order of the universe. It is also spoken about in terms of individual dharma.
I like the way Deepak Chopra phrases it, “Following our dharma in the deepest sense means that we’re not really obeying the laws or regulations set down by society. Dharma isn’t about the external world but about aligning with the pure spiritual force within. When our intentions, thoughts, words, and actions support our life’s purpose, we are in dharma. And then we bring fulfilment to ourselves and everyone else affected by our actions.”
When we feel ourselves guided by creativity, not just in the sense of fine art but creativity in all aspects of life, we know we’re connected to spirit. This creativity from spirit leads to the fourth path of spiritually, the path of transformation. Just as Chopra said, when we are in our dharma we are fulfilled and everyone else is affected by our actions.
At the end of his lecturing Fox exclaimed, “Our activists need to get more spiritual and our spiritual people need to get more active. We are the first species on the planet who can choose whether or not we go extinct.”
So, call up that courageous heart and share with us your astonishment! You may well be astonished with out it transforms the world around you.