I have tromped through the woods of northern New England for many decades now, and until the other day I can’t remember seeing the white variant of Cypripedium aucale, the moccasin flower. But that day I saw four of this unusual variant of a ground orchid, a flower made very rare in North America because of habitat loss. What a blessing! What a gift of life! After the exultation, though, I was left with an uncomfortable question: why had I not seen them before?
I was startled by awakening to what is. The white variant isn’t unknown, so this wasn’t a matter of documenting an encounter because of new mutations or further habitat loss. Rather, my perceptions had shifted. I had learned to see something that before I had not seen, even though those white variant orchids had continued their lengthy growth cycle.
But why would I then see four of these unusual variations of a rare flower in four separate locations on one day? Surely there’s a meaning in that! Maybe there is some larger meaning, and I could certainly choose to tell that story. However, what I understood was happening was that familiar phenomenon of seeking to integrate the new way of seeing into a larger pattern. Perhaps you’ve appreciated a new model of car or a particular fashionable shade one day. Over the course of that day and the next several days, you see that vehicle or color everywhere. Eventually, you no longer remark upon that car or hue because it has become woven into the fabric of your perceptive narrative.
We human beings, like many other animals, perceive patterns. We even create patterning stories that help us navigate the world, our perceptive narratives. But while navigating is a very good skill for bringing the family for a visit and establishing organizational missions and speaking in a very simplified way about education and the life of the spirit, the patterns we rely upon for navigation can prevent us from seeing what is.
One of the ways we can measure how well we’re stretching and growing our spirits is how often we find ourselves surprised and uncomfortably aware of what is. I speak of “wow!” as one of the basic forms of prayer. When was the last time you had a wow experience? When was the last time you had to reweave your perceptive narrative into a wider way of being in this world?
Changing our perceptive narratives requires us to appreciate and encounter ways of being we don’t already inhabit. That means, we can be shaken or discomforted by the newness of awakening to what is. I see this happen regularly in my work around issues of justice-making. How do we comprehend experiences of oppression? Well, if you’ve been oppressed and you’ve had experiences of freedom, it can be relatively easy to say this is not that. But if your usual perceptive narrative either justifies oppression or doesn’t include any notion of deliberate practices of holding onto more of the pie for some folks than for others, then some wow experiences will be required to change that narrative. That’s why programs increasing awareness around physical disabilities will commonly offer experiences in limited mobility, sight, and sound.
practice teaches us dwelling in the wow and observing the other feelings that
arise as we reweave our stories of what is. When we meditate on our breath,
we’re watching our breath in and out, in and out, and the sensations that arise
as we watch the breath. When we study the same wisdom texts and stories over
time, we’re deliberately moving through the familiar to encounter the
unfamiliar within that. The structure and routine of spiritual practice is
precisely what allows us to become used to observing, waiting, meeting
wonderment in the familiar, and reweaving our stories. When the practice feels
boring and routine, that’s exactly when to ask oneself what we might be missing
therein. I’ve been around these woods for many years, and still I meet
surprise. I’ve been traveling with my prayer life and Jewish and Christian
Scriptures for many years, and still I meet surprise.
As you meet this day, in your routines and your familiarities, what might you yet not have experienced, encountered, or seen that has been there all along? Today, may you have many moments of awakening to what is.