THE NATURAL WORLD
1. THE WEATHER OF THE SOUL
Dawn: Hallowing the Beginning
Wind: Opening to New Life
The Sun: Mother/Father of us All (Shape-Shift: pretend you are the rising sun)
Cloudy Days: Heavenly Comforter
Rain: Discovering our Vegetative Soul
Snow: Heaven on Earth
Rainbows: The Messy Beauty of Emotions
Thunderstorms: Shattering the Familiar World
2. CREATURE TEACHERS: PLANTS AND ANIMALS
Trees: A Teacher for Life (Shape-Shift:
pretend you are a tree)
Trees and Humans: A Sacred Marriage
Weeping Willows: Shelter in Time of Sorrow
Pits and Seeds: Failure as Growth
Soil: Caring for the Self
Flowers: Turning Toward the Light
Frogs: Speaking and Acting from a Deep Place
Ducks: The Paddling Beneath the Glide
Migrating Birds: That Most Wild and Necessary Journey (Shape-Shift: pretend you are a migrating bird)
3. ELEMENTAL WISDOM
Rock: Being Strong, Sturdy, and Still
Sand: Harmonizing the Elements of Life (Shape-Shift: pretend you are made of sand)
Heat: The Energy of Life
Gases: Lowering the Pressure
Water and Air: The Unseen Medium of Love
Ice and Snow: Miraculous Transformations
4. SACRED LANDSCAPES
The Outdoors: Our Truer Home
A Lake: Being Still Waters (Shape-Shift : pretend you are a lake)
The Desert: The Gifts of Desolation
Mountains: The Spiritual Ascent (Shape-Shift : pretend you are a mountain)
Polar Exploration: Striving Toward the Ultimate
The Natural World: Moving Beyond Moralities
Wilderness: A Wildness Beyond the Self
(WHAT OUR THINGS HAVE TO TEACH US)
5. THE CAR, A SPIRITUAL GUIDE
Cars: A Teacher of Self-care
Driving: Lessons for the Highway of Life
Windshield Wipers: The Practices that Clear Our Vision (Shape-Shift: pretend you have windshield wipers)
Speedbumps: Progress Through Slowing Down
The Passenger Seat: Surrendering Control
6. OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
Opening and Shutting Doors: The Benefits
of a Good Barrier
Unlocking with a Key: Penetrating the Barriers of Life (Shape-Shift: pretend you have the key)
Opening a Soda Can: Knowing When to Keep a Secret
Shaving with a Razor: The Merits of a Daily Practice
Throwing Things Away: Creating Space and Time
Recycling Garbage: Using the Trash of Our Life
Uncapping a Fire Hydrant: Releasing Hidden Resources
7. STILLNESS AND MOTION
Still Things: Learning to Be, Not Just Do
(Shape-Shift: pretend you are your own clothes)
Beds: Rest and Support
Crutches: Learning to Lean
Steps, Stairs, and Escalators: The Spiritual Climb
Magnets: The Force of Spiritual Alignment
Flags: The Wind Made Visible
Sailboats: Blown by the Spiritual Breezes (Shape-Shift: pretend you are a sailboat)
8. IN-SIGHT: LOOKING DEEPLY INTO THINGS
Mirrors: Reflections on our Oneness
Stained Glass: Illuminating the Universe
Contact Lenses: Clearing our Spiritual Vision
Cups: Beyond the Half-Empty and Half-Full
Guns: The Distorted Voice of the Soul
Money: "Thou Visible God"
9. THE WISDOM OF THE BODY
The Body: Lover of the World
The Human Face: Each the Face of God
Standing: The Unity of Earth and Sky
Walking: Falling with Style
Footprints: The Presence of the Past
Sleep: Re-connecting to the Source
Insomnia: The Blessing Wrapped Inside the Curse
Pajamas: Friend of Body and Soul
The Belly Button: A Holy Place (Shape-Shift: pretend you are in the womb)
Death and Birth: The Unlikely Twins
10. COMING TO OUR SENSES
Color: The Unnecessary Beauty of the World
Smell: The Mystical Sense
Whispering: The Harmony of Speech and Silence
Bells: Hearing the Origins
Sex: The Ecstacy of Creation
The Caress: Held Close by the World
11. MIND WELL
Pens and Pencils: A Word to the Wise?
Books: Mind-Melds and Virtual Realities
Novels and Plays: Appreciating the Drama of our Life
The Computer: Model for a Well-Functioning Mind
The Worldwide Web: www.Connection
"Home": What's in a Word? (Shape-Shift: pretend you are coming home)
12. THE MUSIC OF MOOD AND EMOTION
Tears: Cleansing and Healing
Cheerfulness: Learning to Cheer for Yourself
Love: The Limitless Ocean (Shape-Shift: pretend you are the ocean)
Fear: The Hidden Messenger of Love
Joy: The Mothership Calling Us Home
13. SPORTS AND CHILD'S PLAY
Play: The Soul's Delight
Feeding a Baby: Messy Growth
Bubble Gum: Expanding the Spirit
Buried Treasure: Searching for Spiritual Riches
Football: Moving the Ball Downfield
Sudden-Death Playoffs: Playing with Death and Eternity
Balloons: Death as Liberation (Shape-Shift: pretend you are a balloon)
Home Run: The Journey Home
Merry-Go-Rounds: Coming Home to the Divine
THE UNIVERSE, OUR HOME
14. HEAVENLY PHYSICS
Sun and Moon: The Loving Eyes of God
Stars: Gazing Upon the Infinite
Celestial Space: Where is God?
The Night Sky: Death as Revelation
Light: The Eternal in Time
The Dark Universe: The Glory of All We Don't Know
Quantum Mechanics: The Creativity of Chance
Wormholes: Passage to Another World
The Big Bang: How Once We Were One (Shape-Shift: pretend you are at the Big Bang)
15. EPILOGUE: TIPS FOR SPARK-HUNTERS
When surgeons first became adept at cataract
operations, they were able to restore sight to dozens who had
been blind since birth. Many of the newly sighted were astounded
by what they saw. Marius von Senden presented their cases in a
book, Space and Sight, which in turn had a powerful effect on
writer Annie Dillard, who quotes from it in Pilgrim at Tinker
One patient, after her bandages were unwrapped, describes a human hand -- its function still unrecognized as "something bright and then holes." Another was amazed to discover that each of her visitors had a totally different face. Who knew? A little girl stands speechless in a garden, then takes hold of "the tree with the lights in it" as she calls it. For many, the experience is arduous. A twenty-two year old woman was so overcome by her surroundings that she shut her eyes again for two weeks. Upon reopening them, "the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: "Oh God! How beautiful!"
Oh God, how beautiful! Oh God, now I see. Have we not had such experiences, albeit fleeting and maddeningly intermittent, of scales falling from our eyes and the world perceived anew?
The sheer ordinariness of things is our cataract. We view our day through a glaze of familiar tasks and objects. Ah yes, another Wednesday. Ah yes, another tree by the side of the road, the ten thousandth we have seen and therefore no longer see at all. We glance at our to-do list and will never find written there encounter mystery; be dazzled and amazed; receive a great teaching from an unexpected source. No, we're happy just to get the laundry done.
But there have been moments we cannot deny them when our world lit up as from a fire within. Perhaps it was the day we first fell in love; or went walking in a majestic forest; or found the solution that had so long eluded us to a problem which had plagued our life. Maybe it was that time we took off on a vacation, and the very expectation of novelty served as windshield wipers for the soul. Suddenly we are able to see afresh. We realize the beauty that surrounds us. Hidden at the heart of things we find lessons and reconciliations. A holy spirit, we sense, pervades the world this world, even with its Wednesdays.
Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism, tells a creation story that speaks to this spirit. When God made the world, wrote Isaac Luria in the 16th century, the divine light He emanated was so intense that it shattered the vessels containing it. The light fragmented into divine sparks (nitzotzot) which fell to earth. "Every particle in our physical universe, every structure and every being, is a shell that contains sparks of holiness," writes Rabbi David Cooper. But these sparks remain hidden in our ordinary world. Our sacred task as human beings is to uncover them, an act of cosmic restoration (tikkun). This we do through acts of service, prayer, lovingkindness, and appreciation, whereby we attune to and celebrate the universe. We are here to heal the world by finding sparks of the divine, and in so doing to ourselves be healed.
This is no easy matter. Most self-help books tell us to seek healing through an inward journey. Examine and transform the contents of your mind. But can we use the mind, with its endless chatter and neuroses, as our primary tool to fix itself? This book advocates instead "going out of your mind" finding healing in the lessons and blessings that surround us, the sparks that permeate the world.
To this end, the book is composed of 101 brief essays. Each seeks to discover a spark of the divine in everyday objects, activities, and experiences, and the glories of the natural world. Driving a car. Shaving. Cleaning out a filthy room. The ever-changing weather. The comic gravity of a frog. The spareness of a desert landscape. The delighted mess-making of a child confined in a high-chair. They will all become our teachers. We don't need to go to Tibet to find a sacred space and saintly guru. The teachings we need are right here and now if we but know how to see.
Accompanying each of the book's 101 entries is a brief question or exercise meant to extend and personalize its meaning. They invite you to take the principle just discussed and play with applying it to your life. From a small spark a mighty fire can grow if you choose to fan the flames.
To further the book's use as a transformative tool, I also include some fifteeen guided meditations taking off from particular entries. I call these shape-shifts, for they are meant to assist you to shift bodily, mentally, spiritually into the heart of another being. Here children may be our best teachers. A young girl pretends she is a flower opening her petals to the sun. The next moment she has transformed into a dog fetching a stick for her master. Through such shape-shifts, children master new styles of movement and awareness; play with a fluid sense of identity; and express empathy for the beings that surround them.
From where did that empathy first arise? Those who believe in reincarnation might say we feel for other creatures because once we were them: The memory is sedimented deep in our soul. From an evolutionary point of view, we are genetically related to all life and bred to fit like a hand in a glove to natural environments of forest, desert, and mountain.
Much of our physical and mental disease might be attributed to our loss of such relationships. We are cut off by our engineered environments, and the machine-like demands we place on ourselves, from a flowing communion with the more-than-human world. As a result, we tend to lose our humanity. We grow tense and tired without fully knowing why.
Chinese medicine emphasizes attunement to the four seasons of the changing year. Indigenous tribes are guided by a totem animal, such as eagle or bear, with its unique powers. In Indian hatha yoga, when the body takes on the "Cobra" pose, or the "Boat," or the "Mountain," it accesses the flexibility, strength, modes of awareness, associated with these beings.
This is the intent of the "shape-shift" meditations I intersperse throughout the book, as well as many of the book's briefer questions and exercises. They invite you to step out of your habitual skin and mind, and enter into other forms.
Accompanying the essays are also sparks of inspiration, quotes garnered from many of the world's religions and the pens of artists and poets. The notion that the world is filled with holy sparks is hardly limited to Kabbalah. It is experienced by mystics across the planet and recorded in their sacred traditions. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," writes Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. "It will flame out like shining from shook foil." For Zen Buddhists, enlightenment comes the moment we realize that samsara (the created world) is none other than nirvana in disguise.
To get us started, here are some quotes from diverse religions. Notice how each uses its own conceptual language to articulate the sacred nature of the world. Notice as well the commonality of feeling that leaps beyond religious differences.
Our time on earth should not be spent trying to transcend "worldly" things or the material world, but finding God in the midst of them. Jesus never denied the world. He went about instead discovering His Father everywhere in it. He saw spiritual significance in common things and actions: a lily, a grain of wheat, a mustard seed, bread, wine, water, doors, mending, sweeping, sewing. For Him, all was prayer and presence.
Sue Monk Kidd, contemporary author, God's Joyful Surprise
All that [the jnani-bhakti seer-saint] sees he regards as forms of God....In the majestic ocean he sees the grandeur of the Lord, in Mother Cow he sees the mother-like tenderness of God, in the earth he sees His patience, in the clear sky His purity, in sun, moon and stars, His brightness and beauty....Thus he practices the art of seeing the one God at play everywhere, and doing so, one day, the seer-saint merges into the Lord.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave, 20th century teacher, Talks on the Gita
There is no sphere of existence, including organic and inorganic nature, that is not full of holy sparks which are mixed in with the kelippot (husks) and need to be separated from them, and lifted up.
Isaac Luria, 16th century teacher of Kabbalah
Every branch, leaf and fruit
Reveals an aspect of His perfection
The cypress hints of His majesty,
The rose gives tidings of His beauty.
Jami, 15th century Persian poet
In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess we connect with Her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all.
Starhawk, contemporary author, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess
The mountains, I become part of it...
The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters,
I become part of it.
People often ask me how Buddhists answer the question: Does God exist?' The other day I was walking along the river....I was suddenly aware of the sun, shining through the bare trees. Its warmth, its brightness, and all this completely free, completely gratuitous. Simply there for us to enjoy. And without my knowing it, completely spontaneously, my two hands came together, and I realized that I was making gassho. And it occurred to me that this all that matters: that we can bow, take a deep bow.
Eido Shimano Roshi, contemporary Zen abbot
Do you want to work upon the world and improve it?
It won't work.
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you try to fix it, you'll ruin it.
Tao te Ching, #29
religions, including ones cited above, have a world-denying strand.
This world, we are told, is permeated by suffering, darkness,
and illusion. Loosen our ties of attachment, we are warned. Withdraw
from our sensuality, and the binding power of desire, that we
may transcend and be free.
Yet the quotes above and throughout this book focus on another, complementary religious theme; that the world, rightly seen, is God's abode. Encounter it with humility, mindfulness, and reverence and you will be astonished by what you find. The most ordinary of things can radiate lessons and beauties. The very distinction between the secular and sacred dissolves.
In the prototypical mystical experience this can occur in a single blinding flash. The light of God suddenly and everywhere shines forth. This book presents a more patient, even piecemeal approach that for may be more possible for many of us. (It is for me.) I call it the path of the "slow-motion mystic." This involves the bit-by-bit uncovering of holy sparks, now and then, here and there, as we are blessed to find them by the roadside. While any single experience may seem small, their cumulative effect is not. In slow-motion, we make genuine progress on the path to mystical awareness.
So journey through these 101 essays, and use it to trigger a joy and attentiveness in the larger journey known as your life. There are many possible ways to travel through this book. In my own rush-rush life (full-time teaching, two young children) I may often have but a few minutes to read in bed, bathroom, or between household tasks. But I'd like in that time to be moved, enlightened, and inspired. Impossible? Not necessarily -- Japanese haiku compress great meaning into seventeen syllables. My intent is similar, and so each essay is brief as possible, taking but a few minutes to read. They are appropriate for morning or evening meditation, or a "spiritual snack" while on the run. Those with particular personal meaning may be worth lingering over and returning to, along with its associated question or shape-shift.
The larger arc of the book organizes our spark-hunting by regions of the world. The first section explores sparks scattered throughout the natural world; its weather, creatures, elements, and landscapes. Section Two focuses on "object lessons" from the constructed world, as we invite the things we've made cars, fire hydrants, beds, money -- to become not just our servants but our teachers. Section Three focuses on "human being": what does it mean to be human, and do it well, and find holy sparks within our own body, our senses, mind and emotions, even our sports and play? Section Four closes the book by returning to the broadest possible context the entirety of the universe, and the "heavenly physics" whereby scientists now understand it. As a young child I would gaze at stars strewn across the vast distances and feel myself grown vacant, and wondering, and spacious, an experience both scientific and religious. But why even draw that distinction? The creation story given us by twenty-first century physics is as mystical and inspiring as any found in a holy text.
Though the ordering of essays has its logic, feel free to construct your own or to operate by chance and intuition. One of the fun features of spark-hunting is the serendipitous play of the unexpected. So you may wish to open the book at random, trusting to synchronicity that what your eye alights on will be just the thing. Or you might turn first to that book section or essay that particularly appeals. Perhaps you're intrigued by the notion of car-as-spiritual-teacher, and will leave the nature stuff for later.
You may also wish to hunt up pieces, spread throughout various sections, that address particular life issues you now face. In such a way, the book can be used as a self-help guide for personal transformation and healing. To aid this approach, at the end of this introduction I supply a sort of alternate table of contents that signals essays linked by underlying themes. For example, entries on "pits and seeds," "the desert," and "recycling garbage" are grouped under the theme of "Dealing with Dark Times." If you are dwelling in such darkness (and who among us, at times, isn't?) you might turn first to these entries in your search for sparks of light.
Whatever route is taken, the ultimate goal of the book is to render itself superfluous. You are learning how to take over the task of discovering divine sparks. The inspirations in this book are inevitably limited and channeled by my own sensibility. (For example, being a city dweller I have but a few entries based on wild animals; as a sports-lover, football and baseball are represented.) Your circumstances and enthusiasms undoubtedly differ from mine, and so shall your spark-hunting. Some of the experiences recorded in this book that deeply moved me may leave you cold. The solution: find your own sparks.
To assist this, I close the book with some tips and suggestions for avid spark-hunters. You can even start reading there if you want, and then "play along" throughout the book, journalling about your own experiences even as you read some of mine. For it is not just this book you are exploring but the great Book of Creation, written in its language of wondrous creatures and landscapes, daily chores and duties, lovers and relatives, furniture and appliances, earth and sky, and on and on, amen.