We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, trans. Stepthen Mitchell
When you’ve lost everything, what is there? In honest moments you confront your losses and wonder, “What’s left?” It is a part of life, you are always losing things: the car keys, your coat, your money, your well being; children grow and leave home; you lose your health as you face the inevitable disability; relationships change, the person you thought you knew has disappeared; life partners die. It is part of life, you are always losing things. What about today? What have you lost today? See.
A natural reaction to loss, is to hold on tighter to what you have, to what is left. Maybe this has helped. Or maybe you have noticed that holding tight is an excellent method for losing what you believed was yours. Holding tight, you believe you own people, things, circumstances. Touching lightly we notice: it is all gift. Jesus noticed this and said, “Save your life and you will lose it, lose your life and you will save it.”
There is a parable of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas that helps us to move more deeply into this paradox, The Woman and the Jar:
Jesus said,”The kingdom of God is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it, she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house she set the jar down and found it empty.”
When we think of God’s kingdom we think pearly gates, choirs of angels, or if we are more present oriented we think not of an empty jar but rather of mountains of meal – an all you can eat buffet. The formula for the kingdom of God is something like this: Life = bliss, bounty, favored status. This parable of the woman in the jar, though, goes in another direction. It takes what you believe about bounty, goodness and the kingdom, tosses it on its head and then turns it inside out.
On its head
In the 1980’s singer Bobby McFerrin had a hit on his hands. Perhaps you sing it every now and again, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” In the song he loses his job, his relationship, his apartment and he informs us that he has a little song where he sings, “Don’t worry, be happy!” Perhaps you’ve tried this. Maybe you have noticed it does not work. Nor would it work for the woman with the jar. Her loss is an invitation to worry, sadness, even panic. And no doubt all of that is part of her loss – as it would be for all of us. We think that is hell. Fair enough. This parable calls you into the loss, into whatever it might mean for you, to be with it. You might notice as you grieve your loss, that if you don’t hold onto it as if loss were your life, it will change. Where you had seen desolation, you might meet something new.
I have seen at least one death bed conversion, where someone seemed to transform right in front of my eyes:
Jill was bitter woman – a life-long and active alcoholic. She was mean to her husband, children and grandchildren. She got cancer of the liver. She ranted and raved. It wasn’t fair. She was young, etc… but as her skin color changed to the ruddy brown of jaundice, something just shifted. She relaxed and she asked forgiveness of her husband and children. Her focus changed. She enjoyed the birds in the feeder, the white of the snow, the brilliance of the sun. Her grandchildren sat on her bed, playing patty-cake. All she wanted to talk about was love, and family….The day she died she said that she was happy.
When everything is lost, what then?
As loss visits us, we can find enjoyment in what the moment has to offer. There is, then, one more step.
In a sermon on poverty of spirit, German mystic Meister Eckhart speaks of a poverty so empty that any trace of the soul apart from God is erased. “…poverty of spirit means that a person is so empty of God and of all God’s works that if God wants to act in the soul, God himself must be the place where he wants to act – and this God does gladly…It is here, in this poverty, that a person attains the eternal presence which he once was, and which he now is and which he will forever remain.” Paul spoke of this poverty when we said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
So, when I am gone, when everything is lost, what then?
There is only This, or if you will, God is all and in all; or There is only God.
There are a dozens of traditional Zen koans that get to this as a lived reality. Maybe these could be of some help:
How is your hand like the Buddha’s hand?
How does an enlightened person fall into a well?
Or maybe this koan from Paul:
“It is not longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Please show me Christ.
When she reached her house she set the jar down and found it empty.
1)Tao Te Ching, #11, is from Stepthen Mitchell's rendering in Tao Te Ching, Perennial Classics Edition, 2000. Thanks to my friend Amanda Valerie for the reference.
2) The Eckhart quote is from The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose, edited by Stephen Mitchell, Harper Collins, 1991