Rabbi Levi saw a man running in the street, and asked him, "Why do you run?" He replied, "I am running after my good fortune!" Rabbi Levi tells him, "Silly man, your good fortune has been trying to chase you, but you are running too fast."
My friend Marilyn is a devoted massage therapist. She is very kind and works very hard. She serves in the poorest section of San Francisco, offering her services for free to those most in need. In seedy residential hotels, where there are people dying of AIDS or suffering from tuberculosis, she goes from the room of one sick person to another, massaging, rubbing the salve of good care into their isolated dying bodies.
When Marilyn and I talk on the phone, she often sounds exhausted. I invite her to spend a day at the beach. She says she can't. She has too much work, too many people to meet, too many things to do. She is almost weeping, such is her need to rest, but she has no inner permission to stop working, even for an afternoon.
Marilyn cares for others with great conviction. But she does not care for herself with the same conviction. She feels her time at rest will somehow take away from those in need, those whom she truly loves and hopes to serve. She assures me she is all right, and in many ways I know that she is. But if she does not rest, how soon will she burn out, and who will care for those who need her then?
Shortly before Jesus was killed, he was sharing a meal with his followers at the home of Simon, a leper. A woman arrived, wearing an alabaster flask containing expensive ointment. She broke open the exquisite flask and anointed Jesus' head with the precious oil. His disciples were very angry with Jesus, saying: Why this waste? This ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor. But Jesus responded, Why do you trouble this woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
What is Jesus saying--not to worry about the poor? Of course not; his entire ministry is about service and kindness for those in need. He is saying that a life of compassion must include compassion for all beings, including the giver.
Our reluctance to rest--our belief that our joy and delight may somehow steal from the poor, or add to the sorrows of those who suffer--is a dangerous and corrosive myth, because it creates the illusion that service to others is a painful and dreary thing. Jesus says there will always be opportunities to be kind and generous. Just as there is a time for every purpose under heaven, so is there a time for nourishment and joy, especially among those who would serve.
Elaine, a well-respected therapist, came to me for counseling. As a woman from an abusive family, she had for many years struggled, grown, and overcome great sorrow. Now she was very strong. She was proud of what she had become. And while she had achieved professional success, she felt it was not time to explore her inner landscape, the more subtle movements of her spiritual life, and asked if I would be her spiritual director.
In spite of her significant career accomplishments, Elaine experienced a nagging emptiness. For some people, emptiness can feel fertile and spacious, alive with possibility, as a womb is ripe for the child to come. But others feel emptiness as an ache, a void; something painful, in need of being filled. When we are empty, we feel unhealed; when we are unhealed, we can feel unworthy. I sensed Elaine was uncomfortable and afraid of her emptiness. "Tell me about your sense of worth," I said. She began by recounting her triumphs and successes, and her growing sense of personal and professional self-esteem. I stopped her. "I am not speaking about your self-esteem, which I am sure is justifiably strong, considering all you have done in your life. I am asking about the quiet times, the nights before sleep, the silent moments of the day when you are alone, when you are not a successful professional. In the Catholic Mass, there is a phrase spoken before one receives communion: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But say the word, and I shall be healed. For some reason, as we sit together, I am reminded of that phrase. What do you think?"
Unexpectedly, she wept. Silent sobbing tears, for a long time. She looked at me surprised, as if I had both betrayed and loved her, hurt and thanksgiving rising together in her eyes. We had touched an emptiness that felt like a wound. It was deep inside her, and she did not know what it was. It frightened her.
This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness. If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness, a terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode and destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop moving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done--anything to fill the time, the empty space.
Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs. But many of us fear emptiness. When we first glimpse emptiness, we taste the death in it. It feels like an abyss, a sheer drop into eternity, a dangerous negation of all that is alive, visible, safe, and good. We prefer to remain in the realm of form, surrounded by things we can see and touch, things we imagine are subject to our control.
I stumbled on emptiness one winter in Massachusetts. I was a visitor at a three-month silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist retreat center in Barre. As a guest, I arrived after two hundred people had been sitting in silent meditation for nine weeks. When I first entered the meditation hall, I felt as though a warm wind was pressing on my chest, pushing me backward, forcing me to regain my balance. The silence of two hundred quietly breathing beings was viscerally palpable--silence that filled the air more surely than if it had been completely empty.
I took a place in the rear of the hall, and for a few days practiced in the company of these dedicated pilgrims. Vipassana meditation requires simply noting the rising and falling of the breath, and with it the arising and falling away of thoughts, sensations, feelings, returning to the breath again and again. One afternoon, completely unbidden, came emptiness. I felt a spaciousness beyond measure. For no reason I could fathom I felt how all things dissolve into nothingness, and arise again--people, buildings, the blanket covering my legs, thoughts, feelings, passion, ideas, my body, my loved ones, the earth itself, all simply forms that would, in their time, inevitably dissolve again into emptiness. The terror of the void was not there; I felt more liberated than frightened. In a way, everything was already over, all life destined to disassemble into emptiness. Suddenly, there was nothing else to worry about.
Kabbalists call this place the most intuitive and intimate relationship with God--the ein sof, literally, no limit, or infinite. It is that place that is both full of God and completely empty--because at that level there is no "thing" for God to be. There is only quiet, spaciousness, being. As the poet Paul Valery said, "God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing shows through."
At a retreat, a doctor took me aside and confessed that for him, and for many of his friends and colleagues in medicine, part of their rush and hurry is fear of the terrible things they will feel in the quiet. They are so close to so much suffering and loss, they are afraid that if they stop, even for a moment, the sheer enormity of sorrow will suffocate and overwhelm them. The business of the medical model is in part a defense mechanism, a way to skate over the rampant, tender uncertainties of the practice of human healing.
Thus do our unspoken fears and sadness speed up our lives. We are terrified of the painful grief that is hot to touch, sharp and piercing, so we keep moving, faster and faster, so we will not feel how sad we are, how much we have lost in this life: strength, youthful playfulness, so many friends and lovers, dreams that did not come true, all that have passed away. When we stop even for a moment, we can feel the burning, empty hole in our belly. So we keep moving, afraid the empty fire of loss will consume us.
When I was a boy I learned to skip stones across a lake. If I threw the stone fast and true, it could skip clear to the other side, barely getting wet. But if I threw it too slowly, it hit the water once and disappeared. We do not want to disappear. If we slow down we might be pulled by some gravity to the bottom of our feelings, we might drown in all we have lost. So we keep moving, never finding refuge, never touching the tenderness that propels us into a life of speedy avoidance.
While our speed may keep us safe, it also keeps us malnourished. It prevents us from tasting those things that would truly make us safe. Prayer, touch, kindness, fragrance--all those things that live in rest, and not in speed. Only when we take refuge in rest can we feel the company of the angels that would minister to us, regardless of what we were given. In the stillness there are forces and voices and hands and nourishment that arise, that take our breath away, but we can never know this, know this, until we rest. This is what Jesus talks about when he speaks of the Kingdom of God. It is the Promised Land of the Hebrews, flowing with milk and honey. It is the Pure Land of the Buddha, what all the saints talk about, this place of safety and serenity, available and prepared for us, if we will only stop, and rest.