From late spring to late fall, I live very near the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Cod, a flexed-bicep peninsula jutting off the southeast coast of Massachusetts. On the Cape, the timing of the tide is everything. Our daily decisions revolve around a tide chart clipped to the fridge by a magnet, occupying a place between surf shop bumper stickers and a grainy old photo of me wearing a floppy woven gardening hat. Whether surfing, canoeing, fishing or beachcombing, it's all about being in, on or near the water.
One of my favorite ways: on my standup paddleboard. The rhythmic feel of my paddle gently slicing through still water requires physical exertion, yet the synchronicity between my physical effort and the resistance of the water is like a complimentary relationship – an agreement between my intention and the water beneath me. It reminds me of the marriage between resistance and balance necessary in Tai Chi. When I’m paddling, I am more serene and one with the world than at any other time. The kind of near perfect serenity and oneness that I feel with my surroundings is different than the time I spend in church or reading the Bible—it is deeper. Instinctual. It is a personal spiritual experience unbound and undefined by dogma. When I’m near the sea is when I’m most content, so I thought for a long time that being near the water was essential for a sense of peace and oneness with God.
Living a geographically double-life has taught me otherwise.
From late fall to late spring, I live in Carefree, Arizona where I run desert paths winding between granite boulders and grand old saguaros, and I hike rocky trails with summits boasting hazy lavender vistas and rainbow sherbet sunsets. Roadrunners dart away as I approach, and from the corner of my eye, I spy tree lizards or chuckawallas scaling the sunny side of a smooth stone. Over-analysis of each foot placement causes a choppy, unsteady gate resulting in an increased chance that I’ll slip on the gravely path, but when I trust my body and let momentum and energy take over, focusing solely on what is needed at that exact moment (and I refuse to worry about thorns or wind), I am effortlessly moving from one step to another without a care. There’s no water in sight, but the movement is the same—fluid.
Whether walking on a trail through the lush marshes of Cape Cod Bay, or navigating a gravely path circumventing boulder formations in the deserts of Arizona, I might brush my hand against a low-hanging branch, or pause long enough to imbibe the aroma of a flower and find delight in its small splendor, however fleeting and forgettable those moments may be. These seconds of awareness and perfectly calm contentedness in which I notice one thing without allowing myself to be bothered by the nagging demands of the day… this is the energy of God and the essence of contemplation. It's a chosen pause in the middle of an active thing to recognize the unity in all things.
It is fragility of tender yellow petals; determination and gusto of a bud willing itself to open, despite unknown environmental influences awaiting its appearance; complete synchronicity of water, earth, sunlight, and creatures; sometimes, especially in the desert, it is the joy of encountering radiance, color, beauty, fragrance, pushing through a hairline crack between two stones.
I think we as human beings are actually drawn to tension more than to stillness, and maybe it's this juxtaposition of beauty emerging through hardship that actually pulls me in and holds my attention. The tension invites awe illuminates the loveliness of the small life. Encountering the tiny miracle creates an experience of joy and oneness with creation. If I'm lucky, this brief moment of awe lingers and affects the rest of my day. Enough moments like this, and I begin to understand why contemplation is a practice that permeates and illuminates quality of life. At those are the times I don’t just feel rich, as if joy is a temporary drunken illusion. I am changed—the spiritual refreshment is real. The richness is real. Awakening to nature’s gorgeous abundance elicits a quickening in my heart – a sense of grateful euphoria that frees me from longing.
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