"Wide Open Territory"
- in the High Desert -
Just outside the doors of the market where I shop for groceries sits a man at a card table with little more than a tiny umbrella to protect him from the scorching rays of the triple-digit desert heat in these summer months. Like clockwork, he shows up every day collecting donations to help support a local homeless shelter.
Whenever I see that guy sitting there, the lines on his face make me think he may have lived a hard life, and I can only imagine how terribly grueling it must be to get up every day and sit for hours on end in the hot sun, hoping people will be generous, often enduring the insults of shoppers who don’t want to be bothered by solicitations at a supermarket; but he’s always very kind, never pushy, always has a good word for any who pass him by.
The other day, feeling particularly sorry for this man as the afternoon temperatures edged up to almost 115 degrees, I asked him how he does it, how incredibly difficult it must be to do what he does every day? His response really “floored me. “No,” he said, “I really love my life and I love what I do - every day I look forward to coming out here. I meet so many great people and I am doing my part to help support some real important work.”
What an important lesson for me about how my assumptions were getting in the way of seeing what was really there. I was assuming this “poor fellow” was burdened with a heavy task and a hard life when, in fact, he was a joyful person living a life that was free. Maybe I was the one who was the “poor fellow.”
A Buddhist essay I read the other day observed how our “assumptions” limit us in the living of our lives:
Assumptions bind us to the past, obscure the present,
limit our sense of what’s possible,
and elbow out joy.
Like everyone else I get up every day with a whole set of stories about life that I have learned over the years and continue to carry around in my head - assumptions about who I am, my assumptions about others, even my assumptions about “God.” So I often look at life and only see what I expect to be there - these assumptions do indeed limit possibilities and often elbow out joy.
The poet William Blake once offered this piece of wisdom:
If the door of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to be as it is,
We have closed ourselves up and so we only see everything
through the narrow chinks of our cavern.
I really like this image: looking at life through a narrow little “peep-hole” that we have carved out over time and thinking we see all there is to see, when in fact everyday life is full of surprises and everything is “infinite.”
I actually think that cleansing our assumptions and “paying attention” to what comes to us at every moment of every day is perhaps the primary if not the only goal of the spiritual journey.
One Zen practitioner put it this way:
When you pay attention to your everyday life,
You’ll discover something truly wonderful.
Our regular, old pointless lives are incredibly joyful –
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly