It’s been over 35 years since I began my daily reflective practice—more than half of my life. The last 20 months—the COVID time—gave me the gift of staying at home. After 15 years of intensive international travel to teach and speak, I’ve been “off the road” for almost two years. The quiet and stillness of my home sanctuary has given me space and time for going deeper within—an experience that has been mostly gratifying and sometimes uncomfortable.
My life has been driven by a passion for learning—for expanding my awareness and understanding of how life works. Yet life has never been so confounding to me as it is now. There is so much happening in our world that I don’t understand. Often, I don’t know what to think, what to feel, or what to do. I get lost in pondering: How can this be? How did we get here? How could we have missed so many warning signals for so long? Or did we notice the signals but chose to ignore them? How can we create a world that works when things are so messed up? Where do we begin?
Walking Towards What I Don’t Understand
When I was still in my 20s, I spent two summers singing at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma was also there—a rising star in the classical music world. Though we only met briefly, every time we passed on the narrow streets of that ancient Umbrian hill town, he greeted me with a big smile and generous spirit. Little did I know then that he also had a passion for learning, and that he would ultimately use his success and fame to bring healing, hope, and understanding to the human experience through his world-music group Silkroad Ensemble.
Yo-Yo Ma articulates his approach to life simply and clearly:
Each day I move toward that which I do not understand.
The result is a continuous accidental learning which
constantly shapes my life.
This last year has given me more time and space to move toward that which I do not understand. Without conscious intention, I found myself going deeper inside issues that wouldn’t let go of me—in particular, racial and economic inequality and injustice. It’s not that I dove into deep research. I just began reading some articles and books to learn more about the bigger contexts of those issues. As events related to these topics continued to unfold in real time, I practiced listening to the energy and the issues themselves. Instead of being so quick to form an opinion or interpretation of what was happening on the surface, I peered down through as many layers as I could perceive in that moment to gather information, insight, and awareness.
That practice continues. Every day.
The further I go in my search for understanding of how we got to where we are—how and why people think, feel, and act the way they do—the more I sense deeper and deeper layers in what is happening. And that sensing takes me deeper inside of myself. I touch my own deeper feelings, hidden beliefs, and perspectives and attitudes that have been shaped by my upbringing and life experience. In turn, the deeper I go inside of me, the more I can better sense what may be happening inside of others, and therefore, what is driving situations in my country and in the world.
Gratifying Yet Uncomfortable
It’s gratifying because I am getting glimpses of understanding about some of our incredibly complex social conditions. I’m touching deeper layers of anger, rage, fear, grief, sorrow, longing, and disrespect that are a part of the human experience, even though the depths of some of those feelings have not been a part of my own lived experience. I feel like I am stretching and growing as a human being.
At the same time, it’s uncomfortable when I am confronted with how much I have not been aware of. I’m confronted with my own naïveté about the systemic nature of many of these issues. And about how long they have been eating away at the heart of humanity.
At this point, I’m not looking for solutions; I’m looking for understanding. And that’s what is leading to the continuous accidental learning that is stretching and shaping my life—my awareness, my compassion, and my choices. I trust that if I focus on understanding first, next steps will begin to show themselves.
“Burying my head in the sand” is not a solution
Sometimes it’s tempting to just bury my head in the sand or run away from it all. Maybe that would be easier. Maybe it would cost less energy and be less overwhelming. Maybe I should just focus my attention on my own life. Because who am I to think I can do anything about the problems of the world?
Yet the reality is, I can’t do that. Deep inside, I’m still uneasy. I’m still stirred up. I know that there is more waiting to be considered, to be addressed, to be processed, to be listened to, to be present with. Burying my head in the sand does not bring me peace. It brings me denial. And at some point, the truth of what is happening will break through my awareness and insist on being acknowledged. So, why not face that truth straightaway?
When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.
We can choose to accept that challenge. We can learn to look deeper into ourselves and into the societal conditions around us. We can deepen our understanding of why we show up the way we do. And we can be curious and compassionate about what has caused other people to show up as they do.
Perspectives, beliefs, and views of how the world works are created by lived experience over a lifetime, and sometimes over generations. Those perspectives and worldviews only change because lived experience changes. Therefore, we can’t expect that beliefs and worldviews will change overnight—ours or anyone else’s. However, the more we are able to understand the complexities of how we all got to where we are, the more we can meet our current challenges and opportunities with greater clarity and benevolent action. And that’s a start toward creating possibilities for new lived experiences.
And so, my journey of awakening continues. Going deeper in myself helps me go deeper in understanding what is happening in the world. And vice versa. I keep walking towards what I don’t understand. I keep learning and growing in who I am and how I engage with the world. For sure, it’s uncomfortable at times. Yet it’s more gratifying than I would have ever imagined.
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