Human Being, Not Human Doing

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961; Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst; father of analytical psychology.)

The rain was steady and heavy all night. I say “all night,” but I’m not really certain when it started. It’s not as if it awakened me, and I looked at the clock and whispered to my sleeping self, “Ah, it’s raining.” But I could hear it, even as it lulled me into a deeper and more restful slumber.

When I awakened, the raindrops were pearling their way down the window panes. As I lay in bed–looking and listening–I knew that Plan B would govern my day.

Plan A had been to continue my yard work. This year, my focus is more on “taking out” than on “putting in.” I have lots and lots of shrubs–especially rhododendrons–that have outgrown the spaces where I planted them. For some, a heavy pruning will restore their vitality and their appearance. For others, pruning will neither restore their vitality nor their beauty. They have to be removed. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Pruning. Removing. Hauling truckload after truckload to the landfill. That was my Plan A.

But I had checked the weather forecast before going to bed and knew the strong likelihood of rain.

That was when I came up with Plan B. I could spend the day doing some extra indoor biking. Then, I could start rearranging the artwork in my office–a task that I have needed to tackle for months, but one that I have managed to avoid doing with full success. And betwixt and between, I could make Ukrainian Sauerkraut Soup–perfect for a chilly, rainy-day dinner–and I could bake Jumbo Sourdough Banana Nut Muffins–a perfect way to use up this week’s sourdough discard. 

It was settled. Plan B, it would be.

But before I started to execute that plan, I perused my smartphone news. As I did, I was ever aware of the rain, still falling hypnotically. For a second, I considered stopping the pendulum on my grandfather clock so that the only sound would be the rhythm of the falling rain. Then, in the next second, I looked out the window onto my deck. I could see the raindrops dropping one by one off the scalloped edges of my Asian patio umbrella–all wet with green bamboo, red sun, pink blossoms, and blue happiness. And for another second, I considered trying to count the drops as they fell, starting at the 6:30 position on the umbrella, proceeding clockwise, counting every sliding raindrop, working my way back home, and then beginning anew.

As I considered those thoughts, I glanced down at the next news flash to discover an article from Open Culture: “Stephen King Recommends 96 Books that Aspiring Writers Should Read.” I knew immediately that it was not newsy at all. I had read that same article nearly a decade ago. I perused the list anyway, discovering that I could not claim to have read any more of those books now than I could claim to have read them then. As I reached the end of the article, I found that King had updated his list: “Stephen King Creates a List of 82 Books for Aspiring Writers (to Supplement an Earlier List of 96 Books.)” I scanned that list quickly.

Somehow, I was brought back to the reality of my grandfather clock still ticking. I had not stopped the clock as I had considered doing. I was brought back to the reality of the raindrops still falling off the scalloped edges of my Asian patio umbrella. I had not counted the raindrops as I had considered doing.

I was brought back to the haunting reality that my day was wasting away.

I still needed to meditate so that I could get started with my Plan B. Meditation does not come easy for me, even after years of daily practice. I’m finding, though, that I can sit with myself for longer and longer periods of time without my mind being pulled in the direction of all the other things that I could be doing.

But on this day, when the “all” of the day seemed to be wrapped up in the “all” of the rain, I decided to sit for a shorter-than-usual spell. Ten minutes. No more. I had things to do on my Plan B.

I was drawn to an 11-minute mindfulness session. Surely, I could spare an extra minute, especially since the title tugged at me: “Human Being, Not Human Doing.”

“If you’re like most people, you probably feel like you have to be constantly doing something.”

I was stunned. How on earth did acclaimed meditation coach Lynne Goldberg know so perfectly how I was feeling? How I feel so often?

In her meditation session, she explores the roots of our obsession with doing, tracing the origins all the way back to our childhoods when others praised us for doing things that we were good at doing. Art. Dance. Music. Sports. Wordplay.  She continues her exploration–even into relationships–noting that the praise we receive for the things that we do begins to validate us and our self-worth.

And then she drives home her point. Validation through doing is external, controlled by others. It leaves us with the feeling that we have to continue to do–to perform–in order to get those accolades. To feel loved. To maintain that sense of self-worth. Interestingly enough, we’re not even aware that it’s happening.

“At your essence, you are a human being, not a human doing. You are loved and worthy and enough exactly as you are. The only approval that you need is that of your own.”

“Well, of course,” I say to myself. The notion of loving yourself–of approving yourself–goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks even if it did not enter mainstream psyche and pop culture until the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the Hippies of the 1960s.

More, I’m not quite certain that I agree with Goldberg’s tack of tracing our emphasis on doing to the praise that we received from doing things well as long ago as our infancy. It seems to me that we need to consider other possibilities. The joy and love of work. The joy and love of doing. The joy and love of creating. The internal, self-validation that doing things well brings us even when others are totally unaware that we’re doing them.

But I’m not going to quibble over any of those possible disagreements right now.

For now, I’m just glad that I stumbled upon Goldberg’s meditation.

For now, I think that I will revisit King’s recommended reading lists and start to read–or reread–one of the books that I find there.

For now, I think that I will count the raindrops as they fall off the scalloped edges of my Asian patio umbrella.

For now, I think that I will stop the pendulum on my grandfather clock.

For now, I think that I will continue lounging in my azure blue linen bathrobe as noon approaches and as rain continues.

For now, I think that scrambled eggs on toast might be perfect for dinner.

For now, I think that I’m really enjoying doing nothing more than just being.

Plan? Say Whaaat? What Plan?

“Tell me what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” (1935-2019; American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with nature)

The pull quote is one of my favorite lines from Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. Don’t be misled by the quote. It’s not as simple and straightforward as it seems.

Let’s fool around with the quote the way that Oliver would like for us to fool around with it. Let’s try a paraphrase:

What do you plan to do with your life?

There. That’s seems simple and straightforward. I ask my students something similar:

Tell me. What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s simple and straightforward, too.

What makes me pause, however, is one life. Who amongst us thinks about having one life? We all know that in reality we only have one life. But as Oliver phrases it, it becomes a caution: remember–you’ve only got one life; don’t screw it up.

I linger longer in the presence of the word wild. Wild–unrestrained or not adhering to the rules–goes against the grain of having a plan. Wild and plan seem contradictory and mutually exclusive.

I lean in harder against the word precious and pause once more. Again, the poet seems to be suggesting that as we design our plan and imbue our life with wildness, we need to remember that our one life is precious. It is of great value. It is not to be wasted. It is not to be approached carelessly. But, if that be true–and it is–how can we couple wild and precious?

Suddenly the seemingly simple poetic line becomes a hefty and weighty question that leaves us staggering as we reach the poem’s end.

Interestingly enough, Oliver opens her poem with questions that are more sobering:

Who made the world?

Who made the swan and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

Those Creationism questions are too large for any poet to answer, especially in a short poem such as Oliver’s “The Summer Day.”

Oliver knows that, too. In the next few lines, she does a masterful poetic pirouette that shows us how we can approach those questions–how we can approach our one wild and precious life–by shifting our focus from the riddled enormity of the cosmos to the more understandable singularity of the immediate moment:

This grasshopper, I mean–

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

the one who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–

Think about it. What happens when we shift our focus from the big picture to something right in front of us? What happens when we shift our focus from trying to figure out who made the grasshopper to simply being at one with the grasshopper–not all grasshoppers, just THIS grasshopper?

When we shift from a wide-angle lens to a close-up lens, we begin to see the here and now. We begin to see what’s in front of us. We begin to see THIS grasshopper as she gazes around, washes her face, opens her wings, and flies away.

It seems that the poet would have us understand that our pause in the presence of immediacy–THIS grasshopper, for example–opens gateways to deeper meanings, more felt than understood.

The poem continues:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

How incredibly simple. Stroll through the fields. Be idle and blessed. Fall down–kneel down–into the grass. Pay attention. Stay there all day.

That’s precisely the plan that Mary Oliver offers us as a way of living one wild and precious life. Have no plan other than to kneel before the summer day. Have no plan but to kneel before this grasshopper. Have no plan but to kneel before the immediacy of the moment.

We may not have answers to the big questions. We may not know fully what prayer is. But we certainly have the ability to pay attention to all the here-and-now grasshoppers that bid us be idle and be blessed as we kneel the whole livelong day.

As I begin 2023–having ended a glorious 23-year career as a professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College and before that an equally glorious 25-year career at the Library of Congress–I am reinventing myself.

Understandably, the question that most people ask me is:

What’s your plan?

“Say whaaat?” I gasp. “My plan? What plan?”

All that I hope to do is pay attention to my own here-and-now grasshoppers as I kneel before them.

That’s how I’ve lived my life so far. Maybe that’s why I’m so stoked by this poem. I’ve always been able to pay close, reverent attention to the task at hand, so much so that, most of the time, it’s as if nothing else matters. It’s as if nothing else exists. That’s not to say that I have not had short- and long-range plans. I have. But the greater joy for me has come by allowing myself to be rapt by the moment and to be slain right then and there in its immediacy.

I hope to continue living that way as I reinvent myself. I want to kneel down lovingly in the grass before the things that I love so much:

Language, Literature, and Writing.

Research and Publishing.

Biking and Hiking.

Baking and Gardening.

Family and Friendships.

Home and Hearth.

Faith and Spirituality.

As I kneel before those loves and more–known and unknown; seen and unseen–I want to lean in, pause, and pay close attention to the singularity of each and every moment, fully confident that my one wild and precious life will continue to unfold precisely as it should unfold, precisely according to plan.