Up Ahead, Going On, Over With

We’re always in the midst of things. Even if we feel that life has shoved us off to one side, and we are spinning like a leaf in the shallows at the edge of the current, there is always something that we’re expecting, something we are trying to deal with right now, and something we see slipping away.

One of my sons worked at a nursing facility where he did the dishes. Apparently it wasn’t like doing the dishes at home, where you can pick your own timing and work at your own pace. At the nursing facility—reminiscent of an often replayed episode of “I Love Lucy”, where she misses an item coming down the assembly line, runs after it, catches it, then turns around to see that more items are piling onto one another—after which everything goes rapidly downhill—my son reported how if he fell behind, before he knew it every space he needed to keep the cleaning process flowing would be piled high with dirty dishes.

The flip side of feeling that our lives are a treadmill that never pauses is the feeling that we are stranded in a place where growth and change no longer visit. Then our question may be—not how do I climb off the carousel but—how can I revitalize and animate my empty days.

Part way into the film “Groundhog Day”, weatherman Phil spends an evening with Rita tossing cards into an upturned hat at the foot of the bed. After countless days during which he has awoken each morning to an unchanged reality he has finally begun to realize that each new day is offering him possibilities for discovery and growth, even though the next morning, at 6:00 am, everything will be once again wiped away.

Rita is at a disadvantage in this game because she hasn’t been spending her days tossing cards into a hat and so the cards she throws miss most of the time. Phil tells her to “Be the hat,” to which she responds, “Is this how you’d spend eternity?”  And Phil has to acknowledge “Now you know.”

This is one of many memorable moments in the film. Phil’s phrase “Be the hat,” has become a mantra of Western “Mindfulness”, which harnesses a step in the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment to improve our performance in whatever we are doing.

But this film is not concerned about improving Phil’s accuracy in tossing playing cards into an upturned hat. It is not even about how he learns to play the piano in all those days he relives in Punxsutawney, PA–although that is closer. Closer still is how he starts noticing the needs of others and helps them out, simply because he is present at the right moment to do so. Gradually—as his strategy of tricking Rita into liking him keeps being disappointed–he finds himself caring about everyone he meets. And only then—as we might have guessed sooner than we do—Rita sees that he is a fine human being. This must astonish her, because what has taken Phil half a lifetime of reliving the same day until he finally gets it right, happens in a single day in her stream of time.

This film presents a roadmap that we can follow in our own lives, including the recognition that we don’t have to invent a path to enlightenment because what is happening in every moment is that path.

We are all tossing cards into a hat at the other end of a bed, hoping to succeed in the narrowly conceived objectives that absorb our energy and commandeer our dreams. Yet at the same time there is always a wider terrain which includes and makes possible whatever we are focusing on in the moment: as if the Jack of Spades that is curving through space and landing in the upturned hat is also the elegant wing stroke of a Canada Goose lifting off a lake glimpsed through the mists of early morning.

It feels good to concentrate on the tasks of the moment and let energy, focus, and caring assemble in the presence of the gift of life, as it crosses the shoreline into our hearts and minds. And it also feels good to relax into the broader sweep of time and space that makes all this possible.

3 comments to “Up Ahead, Going On, Over With”
  1. This is excellent Michael. Wish you would consider posting this on the TSK Inquiry website too as another one of your Blogs.

  2. When I was a boy, there were times when I felt my parents had ‘shoved ME off to one side’…for instance, every summer, from the age of 8 to 16, they sent me away to boys camp in Dry Mills, Maine, under miles of pines, and on the banks of Crystal Lake. Sounds idyllic, but I was a chubby kid and had problems with some of the other kids. It was stressful to say the least. My last two summer’s there, I was employed as one of about 6 dishwashers. It felt like a prison, we literally never stopped washing dishes. By the time we finished the breakfast dishes for 500 kids and camp staff, it was time to have lunch, and then do dishes once again, then repeat the process for dinner. My hands were always raw and waterlogged. By the time we finished the dinner dishes, it was time to return to our quarters and go to bed. This went on seven days a week all summer. During those years I never looked forward to the end of the school year and the upcoming summer, in fact I dreaded it. These words from your post had resonance with me…
    “The flip side of feeling that our lives are a treadmill that never pauses is the feeling that we are stranded in a place where growth and change no longer visit.”
    My dishwasher days were a debased, insufficient feeling, empty but for the personal pain of having to be present for it. I knew there were others living happily out there, just not here.

    Life is our Ground Hog Day, isn’t it? Day turns to night, and then returns, repetition is the great teacher in our existence. We remember what works and what doesn’t, what helps and what hurts our situations, and hopefully grow in that revolving discernment, like saplings leaning in to the sun.

  3. Hi David,

    Thank you for your insightful and confiding comment. It sounds as if, before you could feel like a “sapling leaning in to the sun”, you had to do your time as a dandelion pushing through a crack in the sidewalk. What a summer job from Hades that was–both unremitting “treadmill” and “empty” of illumination. I wonder if Milarepa felt that way transporting Marpa’s house, stone-by-stone, from one hilltop to another. Considering that you are now so able to respond to the flying moment, with spontaneity and grace, perhaps those hard times have taught you appreciation for the good ones? For me, looking back, I feel that I had to contrive challenging dislocations in an effort to expand the narrow, dead-end path I found myself on. Perhaps in the end, finding some pleasure and meaning in whatever we are doing is what we can pick from the vine of life. The trick seems to be not so much doing things because we think we will get pleasure from them but just doing them because they are there before us and we can see that doing them may improve a situation for someone, somewhere, sometime . . . At least I find myself almost every morning trying to assemble a sense of who I am and bringing into focus a sense of what might be worthwhile spending my time on today.

    –Michael

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