Gifts of the Spirit: Living the Wisdom of the Great Religious Traditionsby Philip Zaleski, Paul Kaufman
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Drawing on the wisdom of teacher from the world's great religious traditions, including Robert Thurman, Sharon Salzberg, Ram Dass, Mother Mary Clare Vincent, Joan Halifax, and Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, Gifts of the Spirit deepens our appreciation of such everyday routines as waking up, eating, and working, as well as the abundant rewards of enjoying music, gardening, walking, and being with others. Vivid descriptions of rituals from around the world help us find new spiritual meaning in life's key passages.
- Zen arts of cooking and eating
- Jewwish and Native American coming-of-age rituals
- Bedouin rules of hospitality and friendship
- Mindful approached to pregnancy and birth
- Ancient Christian practices that nurture the dying
- Shaker philosophies of daily work and craft
- The Buddhist way to a peaceful night's sleep
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Life in a Day
I was clambering over a toppled oak when I caught the faint, acrid scent. Perhaps a patch of moldy mushrooms, I thought. I had spotted large clumps of brown fungi in the area a few weeks ago, before the late spring rains arrived. As I continued on my evening ramble down the rough trail toward the lake, the smell increased. Looking up, I noticed dark specks mottling the air. I broke through the brush, cutting my thumb on a bramble as I entered the waterside clearing.
Before me the air danced with fairies. I didn't notice the pain in my thumb, so entranced was I by the sight. The fairies were tiny, with pale green or yellow translucent wings, their torsos long, brown and curved as if in ecstasy. Clouds of them coagulated and burst apart, roiling up twenty feet or more, then thinning like mist and drifting toward the ground. I discerned individual threads in the shimmering tapestry, but only for a second or two before a wind gust or some herd instinct remixed the threads into a seething knot.
Right away, I recognized what I was seeing: a swarm of ephemeroptera, or mayflies--also known as fishfly, spinner, shadfly, and sandfly--dancing in erotic frenzy. The ground was slick with their carcasses; they coated the gravelly path and the surrounding granite rocks. A faint scent of decay arose from the mass grave. But this insect cemetery couldn't hold my attention; I was far more captivated by the bedroom antics in the sky. There males danced, females pranced, happy couples mated, and a new generation of ephemeroptera was conceived before my eyes. It was a glorious sight. But what gave it special poignancy was the remarkable life cycle ofthese miniature creatures--also known, fittingly, as dayflies--for after a long somnambulistic stretch as nymphs, they burst into adulthood, make love, and die all in a single day.
If, as Matthew Arnold observed, the life that burns half as long burns twice as hard, then these mayflies blaze like the sun. To be born, procreate, and die in twenty-four hours! No wonder the mayfly has become an archetype of life's swift passage, beloved by poets, philosophers, and fishermen (who find them to be splendid bait for trout). Benjamin Franklin wrote a soliloquy from the viewpoint of a "venerable ephemera who had lived four hundred and twenty minutes," a hoary age. This mayfly, a prophet and visionary, shakes his head in wonder at his "great age," decides to spend his remaining seconds "in the reflection of a long life spent in meaning well," and surmises that the sun, whose arc he has traced across the sky, will soon "be extinguished in the waters that surround us, and leave the world in cold and darkness, necessarily producing universal death and destruction."
I sat down on the shore, the low summer sun warming my neck, wondering idly how many mayfly Methuselahs reeled toward death within this great throng of life. I planned to watch the delicate ballet for five or ten minutes before resuming my hike. It didn't work out that way. Within a few seconds I was engulfed in mayflies. They clumped around me, flying into my ears and mouth, settling on my red shirt and blue pants like flecks of whitish-brown paint. I breathed shallowly, reluctant to draw a family--or an entire clan--into my lungs. They flew against my face, so thick at times that it seemed like a crystal veil was suspended before my eyes, through which the world shimmered, suddenly unknown.
Enveloped in mayflies, I held my ground for a minute or two--each minute a month from a mayfly's point of view--enraptured by this spectacle of life coming and going like ocean waves. Is this, I wondered, how God sees the rising and falling of generations, kingdoms, civilizations? Just for fun, I tried to switch lenses, to see this drama from the mayfly's point of view. Here was something new! It dawned on me that philosophers write from a human perspective when they pity the mayfly its brief moment in the sun. But from a mayfly's perspective--that is, from the profundity of a mayfly's experience of time--a moment can contain a lifetime. William Blake knew the secret:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
When Benjamin Franklin's mayfly rejoices in his "long life spent in meaning well," we laugh, but that laugh contains a secret assent, for on some level we know that the mayfly doesn't deceive himself; his day is indeed a lifetime, and he really has "lived long enough . . . to glory."
Well then, I thought, why not take the mayfly's wisdom as our own? Every day, our mayfly sage suggests, is a miniature life: we are born with the dawn, grow to full potency at noon, retire in the evening, and find oblivion with sleep. Here lies a deep truth. Whether we yearn for yesterday or pine for tomorrow, it is only in this day, this now, that our life unfolds. Thus the most famous slogan of the 1960s counterculture: "Be Here Now." Twelve-Step programs offer a close cousin in "one day at a time." Days do come one at a time, and so we must take them. "Carpe diem," goes a more ancient saying, and although we may reject the bittersweet despair that underlies that summons to pleasure, we in search of the spiritual life must also seize the day.
In religious cultures, people cherish an exalted view of the day--a view, one might say, commensurate with that of the learned mayfly. The very word day derives from the Indo-European dhegwh, meaning "burning" or "shining," the same root that gives rise to deity, divinity, and divine. Some traditional societies perceive the day--and time, its parent--as a god.
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Co-author, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life
Meet the Author
Philip Zaleski is senior editor of Parabola magazine, coauthor of Gifts of the Spirit, and author of The Recollected Heart. His writing on the subject of religion and culture appears regularly in such national publications as The New York Times Book Review and Reader's Digest. He teaches religion at Smith College.
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