Three Words

I had dinner last night with a charming and funny Welshman named Ilt, who travels the world for his job as a location manager for the movies. He had just come back from Vietnam and Japan.

Wherever he goes, he plays a little game, inspired by his time spent at Wadi Rum in Jordan. There, the description of T.E. Lawrence kept floating though his mind. Lawrence wrote of Wadi Rum's monolithic rockscapes: They are "vast, echoing, and God-like". In tribute to Lawrence, Ilt finds his own three words to capture the essence of every place he visits.

As someone who travels almost as much (though not nearly as exotically) as Ilt, as well as someone who came from a family enamored with words and word games, I have decided to make his three-word distillation of a place part of my own travel rituals.

But, as I was driving home from dinner last night, through misting spring snow, I realized that another reason the game resonated for me was because there have been three words playing through my head all week. These three words form a phrase which we have been taught to resist, avoid, or even fear.

They are: I don't know.

I've never really understood the antipathy towards those three words. I have always found them among the most honest, truthful, humble, and liberating words I can utter. Whenever I am learning something, if I pretend I know something so as not to appear ignorant, I never really learn more. But if I am truthful and say, I don't know, that opens me up to whatever it is I need to understand more deeply.

We are taught: Knowledge is power. Know what you like. Write about what you know. But if we are really honest with ourselves, there is usually a lot more that we don't know than we do.

These days, that certainly seems true for us all -- not just as individuals, but as a planet.

And, in my humble opinion, admitting that is not just okay -- it's imperative. When we have the humility and grace and honesty to say I don't know, we open ourselves up to healing.

This past week, those three words -- I don't know -- have been my go-to answer for almost anything. As I pack up the few things I am keeping and sell the rest, it's not just other people who are asking me the questions to which I don't know seems to be the only honest answer. My deepest soul searchings all seem to find the same reply.

Where are you going to live? I don't know.

Are you leaving Santa Fe for good? I don't know.

Will you be working as a designer still? I don't know.

What will you do after you are ordained? I don't know.

What does it mean to be of service? I don't know.

Is what I am hoping to do going to help anyone but myself? I don't know.

The questions keep coming. . .but the answer is always the same: I don't know.

And that's the truth. 

Yesterday was the penultimate class of my seminary  program, which I have attended over the course of three years. I did the first year twice, because I got all the way through it once, and realized I had approached it "like school". I could have just read the books and gotten as much out of this, I thought to myself. So, I took a year off and did it again with the sole(soul) purpose of cracking open my heart to Love. It did. By the beginning of this academic year, my doors to my heart were flung so wide open, all I could feel was Love! WOW!

But this winter, when that cracked-open heart felt so battered and bludgeoned, those doors closed up, to use one of my dad's favorite expressions, "tighter 'n a drum". And in yesterday's class, as I listened to classmate after classmate speak from their souls in beautiful and inspiring honesty, I could barely feel the wide-open place I had come to think of as "me". In fact, I felt like the old me: Stuck in my head, distant, watching through a glass darkly, my heart encased in bullet-proof glass. I realized I still feel stungunned by this year's events.

So, yesterday's question was: Will my heart ever crack open again?

Again. my answer was: I don't know.

It wasn't the answer I wanted, but it felt true.

Here's the thing about the truth. It does, as we are promised it will, always set us free. So, what those three words -- I don't know -- did for me yesterday was  bring me back to one of my core spiritual practices, inspired by a sentence I have loved my whole life:

"To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings."

Those words always brings me, unsurprisingly for someone who loves words as much as I do, to five more words which have been my mantra for my whole time in seminary. Whenever my answer, my feeling, my head and my heart say I don't know, I remember my mantra. It is the mantra that also always gets me to the heart space that is allowing me to create this Daily Practice of Joy. 

So, I want share my mantra with you in the hopes that your own I don't knows will bring you to the Unknowing that we all have to face with courage and humility and radical honesty. The bring-us-to-our-knees Unknowing that makes us remember our sacred medicine, our core wisdom, our Truth. 

This is my mantra:

Lean. Listen. Learn. Laugh. Love.

Lean: Not do, Not human will. Not muscle, Not even me. Just lean and trust.

Listen: Don't speak. Just get quiet enough to hear. The Truth that is Love broadcasts 24/7. I like to think of it as Radio Free God. I just forget to tune in far too often.

Learn: As far as I am concerned, the only fatal flaw there is is thinking we have all the answers. When we, as Rilke exhorts us, learn to love the questions themselves, we realize, in perfect koan-like clarity (hah!) that the questions are the answers are the questions are the answers. And it is, we are, all One.

Laugh: My worst flaw, as far as I am concerned, is taking myself and life too seriously. Nothing breaks the mesmerism of fear and self-loathing better than laughter can. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the absurdity of your monkey mind. Laugh just for the sake of laughing. But whatever you do. . .laugh!

Love: Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. And then love some more. 

When I get to the core of my I don't know, that ontologically unnerving Unknowing, what happens -- eventually -- is this: I remember my mantra and I sink into those words: Lean. Listen. Learn. Laugh. Love. And when I really feel each word in my deepest being, what happens is this. I release the unknowing that I have come to identify as "me", and I remember to lean. When I remember to lean, I begin to listen. And what am I listening to? That heart I have been so scared is lost. And when I hear the beating of my heart, I realize that it beats to the rhythm of the Great Heart that can never be lost. . .the Great Heart that not only beats through me, but beats through, as, in, of us all. And slowly, sometimes oh so slowly, my mind, my heart, my soul begin to open, to blossom, even to bloom. I lean, listen, learn, laugh, and love until I remember that there is something unshakeable that I do know. And that is Love.

Even if I don't know where I'm going to live or what my service is going to be or how the bills will get paid -- I do know this: Love really is all there is.

Slowly the little I-don't-knowing self peeks its timid head above the foxhole in which it has been hiding and sees the beautiful sunrise of Love streaming over the battlefield of the dark night of my soul. That Love shines, it always shines -- even into the dark I-don't-know corners of my life and my heart.

With a joy I had forgotten I possess,  I grab my white flag and begin to wave it as if my life depended on it.

Which it does.

I surrender.

Lean. Listen. Learn. Laugh. Love.

Surrender to Love.

Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love. We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us. The world changes when we change. the world softens when we soften. The world loves us when we choose to love the world.
— -Marianne Williamson
Three Words


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