Dedicated to Brother David Steindl-Rast who turns 90 years young this very day.
Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that spirituality is a separate department of life, the penthouse of our existence. But rightly understood, it is a vital awareness that pervades all realms of our being. Someone will say, “I come alive when I listen to music,” or “I come to life when I garden,” or “I come alive when I play golf.” Wherever we come alive, that is the area in which we are spiritual.
(Brother David Steindl Rast – Music of Silence, p.64)
We are all alive; but how Alive are we?
Breathing, eating, and sleeping, places us in the category of living organisms of the animal kingdom. We all pertain by default to this being-aliveness. We exist, we are alive – still.
But all of us know that there is another aliveness that goes beyond our vital functions and which, of course, only conscious living beings can experience: Aliveness – with a capital “a”. This happens when our life becomes magnified, attenuated. We experience, as Brother David Steindl-Rast says, a vitality, an awakeness, an awareness, that makes our being-alive joyous. When we become consumed by this spirit of Aliveness, we sometimes say “I feel so alive today!” Our life becomes extraordinary and we know in the depths of our being that Life has a value and worth that far surpasses the mere being-alive.
When we carefully examine “the how and when” of this Aliveness, we see that it is most often the result of two things: of being in the present moment and doing something we love doing.
As I write in my book Destination Earth, being fully immersed in the present moment has been an ideal of many religious and philosophical traditions. It has been a central part of Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian meditative practices for millennia, and it has been given many different names, such as mindfulness or awareness. More recently, it has been discussed in depth by Eckhart Tolle, who called it “The Power of Now.” The ideal is to be in the Now regardless of what one does – even during the most repetitive and boring activities.
Being in the present moment does not mean that one is constantly in meditative repose or continually feeling something special or having peak experiences. Actually, it is something quite ordinary. Every person experiences this. When one concentrates on important work or creates something meaningful which absorbs him completely, or when one is captivated by a piece of art or music, he is fully present in the now. In rarer and more extraordinary situations, such as a natural catastrophe, war, or other immediate danger, this experience is even more pronounced. When someone must fight for his life, or exert overwhelming effort under time pressure, he exists wholly in the present moment. In such situations, we often say that time stops because it seems that the person has exited the normal experience of the flow of time. Probably, the common and crucial element in all of the above instances of being in the present moment is self-forgetfulness. Immersed with all of our senses in what happens right this minute, we become self-forgetful and absolutely focused in whatever we do or experience. It is while being in this “mode of being” that we create something of value, or experience Life at its full.
The second element is doing something we love doing. As the quote above says, we are more Alive when we love what we do – for example during the preoccupation with our hobbies. Many people look forward to the work-day’s end that they may then enjoy what … they “enjoy doing.” However, this need not be so. For we can train ourselves to be more mindful when we do what we apparently do not like. Then we will discover pleasures in what we have become used to doing mechanically.
When talking about Gratefulness, Brother David likes to say: “It is to the extent to which we are grateful that we are happy and not the other way around.” I often feel that this can also be applied to Aliveness: It is to the extent that we are Alive that life becomes extraordinary and not the other way around. Maybe the events of our life are not divided naturally into ordinary and extraordinary. Maybe most of the events of our lives are extraordinary, and it is because of the absence of awareness and the lack of Aliveness that we come to experience ordinariness, boredom, or weariness. It is our focusing, our present-moment awareness, that causes each event of our lives to express its extraordinariness and shine. Although we may be in continuous awe and fully Alive while exploring the Grand Canyon, maybe our daily commuting route is also extraordinary, but we have shut down our senses and do not see it. We miss the route’s seasonal or daily changes, its constant metamorphoses, the wealth of little unique events that happen in it every day, because we drive unconsciously and our mind wonders to other things.
Being Alive is a very serious thing to be left to chance. Just as we strive to achieve a million other goals in life, let us infuse our life with Aliveness that will in turn permeate everything we do and all that we become.