I have been to remote monasteries in Nepal, to centuries-old churches in the snowy forests of Romania. I’ve been to jungle shrines on a tiny island in Thailand. I’ve been to dozens of temples in a small city in India, as well as to many holy places in China, Vietnam, and Jordan. I have visited those places chasing beauty, chasing that moment when my heart opens itself to what is utterly unknown and for a little while I have eyes that see. The reason I travel is to collect images in my heart and folkart in my hands. I love the unscripted moments that come when I am immersed in a place I do not know or understand.
To know God one must go to where God lives, in one’s own heart. The problem is, as a child, God lives in your heart, but as an adult, we normally put ourselves on God’s throne. We know as children, then we start forgetting in puberty and by adulthood, almost all is lost. If you want to know real secrets, if you want to know how it feels to be embedded in the fabric of the sacred, then you will develop a doable routine that unspectacularly breaks you, day after day after day.
You will commit to one or two daily activities that you will often feel like NOT doing, that no one would herald as extraordinary, and you will do them doggedly, imperceptibly, without fanfare. If you want to do them, they don’t count. It has to be stuff that is a little bit irritating. We all know the difference between work and play – there’s that secret little bitter flavor. That’s what you need.
It doesn’t matter what the activities are, it only matters that they break you, not break you like agony, break you a little, they are a wee push off your throne of self-important dignity, a discourteous push out of your fantasy that you’re smart and self reliant, they are a not-so-nice shove to shift you away from petty hatreds and concerns.
When I run, for the first half of the time I’m usually replaying a bunch of annoying shit in my head. But eventually the running gets hard. I’m hot and I’m tired and it’s not pretty and I’m no longer enjoying the breeze coming off the Indian Ocean. Then I feel that ego crap literally streaming out of my head in a little polluted cloud. I no longer even look up much. I’m just running at my very unimpressive pace, just slogging it out.
In that moment I’m beyond the pale, in the realm of mystery and magic. I cannot manufacture that moment and that moment is not at all attached to how hard I run. It comes when I finally don’t give a fuck. I’m not hoping, or angry. I’m not entitled or proud. I’m just exhausted and dirty and an old woman in some pretty unfashionable workout clothes.
The magic happens in a moment and a moment later it’s over and I’ve forgotten the whole damn business and I’m in my car and the music is loud and I’m chugging my nearly melted water. I’m barreling like a maniac through Dar traffic, thinking for the billionth time that driving in the developing world takes the skills of a Formula One driver which I have not – because on every dirt road there are literally dozens of fragile human beings going about their life business, men pushing carts, huge crowds on buses that are certainly overloaded and even more certainly unsafe, tuk-tuks that drive at absurd angles into oncoming traffic and on sidewalks, people on rickety bikes held together with a worrisome bit of this and that, and piki-piki drivers who zip through the mess on their scooters and take the most insane chances flitting through the clogged streets like butterflies after nectar. Has something mystical happened to me in that 40 minutes? How the fuck would I know? I’ll tell you how I know – because I know things, things I cannot know unless I run.
Right afterwards, when I’m home and filthy with sweat I quickly rip off my running clothes which are saturated, and throw on a kanga, which is a piece of fabric that covers my nakedness, and I rush to my altar to get my prayers done preferably before the maid arrives. (Normally I fail and the maid is doing dishes as I pray.) I made my altar years and years ago from a window I found in the garbage in China, but, me being me, I’ve added to it. I have this little tin cup that holds my daily tea light prayer candle, a little tin cup I found on the floor on the forest outside a really cool Buddhist monastery in Koh Tao, Thailand. The altar has prayer beads given to my by a Muslim friend who brought them to me from her pilgrimage to Mecca. It has a prayer flag from Tibet that a friend who visited Tibet saved for me. It has prayer flags I picked up from secret religious sites in China where illegal worship happens. It has an olive wood cup from this fantastic church in Jordan. It has a few holy items from some gorgeous temples in Maduri, India. It has a wee tasseled cross hand made by a Romanian nun. It has a small blue hand blown oil stopper I found in the desert in Qatar. It has my grandmother’s wooden cross that my grandfather made for her. (My grandfather who was a violent alcoholic bastard.) It has a really cool Ganesh that was given to me by a friend who found it among the rocks in Doha on the Corniche where the Indian workers fish on their one day off a week. That description doesn’t scratch the surface of my altar. My motto has always been, More is Better. Which is untrue, except possibly for me.
So I plop down in front of that altar on this red tire that I use as a chair, one the dog normally sleeps on except when I’m praying. Then, once I’ve lit my candle and turned on my Muslim incense burner and dropped in either Catholic incense or local Frankincense from Oman, and the room begins to fill with smoke, once I’ve done that, I pull the two books I use for worship out and set them beside me.
I read two passages, one from one sacred text, one from another. I usually read the second one out loud. Then I open the other book I use which is liturgical and I do 3 things, one bit is a preface, a prayer that I do not do “properly” in the sense that I rotate through those not by date but just one after another. Then I use my pencil and put a little hatch mark so that tomorrow I do the next one. When the hatch marks begin to annoy me I take an hour and erase them all. Then I flip to another section, read another text aloud, maybe 10-15 lines. Then I turn to the center of the book and I read another longer text aloud. This whole business takes about 5-10 minutes. Then I conclude with a prayer, the same one I pray every day. I light a piece of Indian stick incense and, getting up, I say prayers over various parts of my life using various rooms as triggers so I do not forget anything – my work, my employees, the health of my family, people with whom we do business, my husband, my son, our living things including pets, fish, and plants, our fiscal life, my immediate and some extended family, my best friends and their families, the machines in our lives, and I conclude with a prayer about our cars and driving which always seem to me to be the most dangerous things we do. I do the same damn thing every day, 5 days a week. I do not do it on weekends, but I do pray every day a very simple prayer. The entire business start to finish takes about 20 minutes.
Those are my “disciplines”. Are they amazing? Not at all. Does anything seem to be different afterwards? Nope. But then – then – that’s the thing. Show up, show up, show up, show up and sometime in that grind the mystery happens and I know what I want to know, I feel the core strength surge in myself again. It’s not earned, and I don’t even do any of what I do with the right “attitude” because there isn’t a right attitude. It ain’t pretty, but I get it done. And I’m not allowed to not do it. I will not allow myself the luxury of avoiding the only two things I do every day that consistently bug the living shit out of me. My life, in general, is amazing. I have the coolest kid and family. I love my work. I’m not poor. I live exactly where and how I want to live. So, therefore, I’m in constant danger. I’m in constant danger of believing my own bullshit, of starting to think I’m pretty damn special. No problem. Running reminds me I’m a slob and unfit. No problem. My prayers remind me I’m a total fucking idiot.
The holiest place in the world is your own heart. To get there, to the arms of God, to the bounty of God, you have to kick your “self” off the throne. If you do not then God has no place to be. You have to make “room” for the only throne God will occupy.
De-throning takes less than an hour a day, it’s the most difficult thing to do, and everything in you will fight it because evil doesn’t want you to find liberty and truth and joy. So evil will constantly beg you to overthink it, evil will tell you to coddle yourself. (Often I will command myself, as I’m doing one or both of these two things, “Don’t think, Don’t think.”) Evil will ask you to examine the pieces of it and demand that you justify the importance. For God’s sake, absolutely, positively don’t make it precious. Fuck that. Just do it. And you will know what holy folks know.
Why do some people really know God? Because they do a few disciplines day after day after day after day and they figure out, one day at a time, that God is actually real. Submit yourself to any processes that you really don’t particularly feel like doing, choose to do this because you want to bug the crap out of yourself, because you know in your heart it’s the only way to decentralize your self. You can’t kill the self once and for all. You have to kill it today and then again tomorrow. But if you do decide to do this, to boot your comfy ass off the throne, you’ll most certainly know what you really what to know – that God is alive. That God is real. That God actually is intimately engaged in you, that God is your biggest fan, that you’re terribly, terribly important, and that anything, and I do mean anything, is possible.