When people come to me in my role as therapist or minister, they will often bring some question, some persistent ache, confusion, or wondering, some inner quandary that will not let them alone. Many of us occasionally carry some vague, lingering discomfort or uncertainty that can keep us awake at night, or hijack our attention during the day. Perhaps some complex relationship or event remains perplexing or confusing; maybe something essential and familiar in our lives that once felt reliable or positive suddenly feels tentative, or disturbingly unstable; perhaps what was once a refuge for us is beginning to feel less solid or trustworthy, and we feel lost or afraid.
Sometimes parts of our familiar, habitual life no longer serve us. But whatever may be coming next has not yet made itself clear, and we wonder how long we must wait before some new way of living emerges, and finds its way of being in our days.
These are very human portals through which we all pass, some more than once, in our lives. No matter how we resist or argue about why our lives must always change, or be changed, they do, and they will. So, how can we co-create what takes birth in the soil of this inevitable change? What will our new life look like? What would we choose for my future; who would we hope to become, how would we even begin to help create the life I want?
Whenever I meet this choice point, this as yet unrevealed life, with someone who has sought my company as a mentor, or spiritual director, I am inclined to steer our exchange toward an exploration of their days. Please, teach me about your days, what are they like, how do you feel about them? Then: What kind of days would you like to have? If you could shape whatever time you have, tell me a story of one single day that would, for you, feel beautiful, nourishing, filled with what you love - kindness, company, love, play, accomplishment, adventure?
What kind of day, well-lived, would bring you fulfillment or deep sufficiency? What would it contain, what would you be doing or feeling, as you imagine moving through the hours of this day?
Listen: Our life is a pilgrimage made only of days. We cannot shape a whole life. The arc of destiny drawn by the accumulations of a human lifetime is more than we could ever understand or grasp. Mark Nepo, a dear friend, offers his own invitation for us to make peace with this limited, human scale of our authority to shape our lives:
Just as someone starving can’t eat a whole loaf of bread at once, but must break off pieces and eat slowly, so must the conscious heart live off small pieces of infinity in order to digest what will nourish.
We cannot ever chart any reliable course over the span of a life that will not end up having to be re-imagined, re-calibrated again and again. We cannot draw the shape our lives will take, predict its future, or control its outcome. But we can, when we awake in the morning, live this one, sacred, miraculous day. Some of us do this driven primarily by habit and inertia, a life made arguably easier by replicating each day the way we have lived the day before, and before that, repeating whatever we always choose anyway.
Others prefer to live out each day in response to a cascading flow of external demands, constraints, requirements, and responsibilities, by just trying to make it through one more day. Or, we can listen carefully, aware and alive to the subtle shifts in each moment for what feels, in the crucible of our inner intuitive knowing, like the next right thing to do today. Still, even if we do begin to honor a small fraction of the beautiful threads woven in the fabric of one single day, this will not eliminate our problems or cure our sorrows. So what is the point, if changing our days will not necessarily protect our life from ache, loss, grief or loss?
Because, in the end, our life is not a problem to be solved; it is a gift to be opened. The color of the sky, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends, the shape of clouds in summer, the red of maples in fall— these and a thousand tiny miracles punctuate a single day. If we are so preoccupied with plotting our future success or failures, we unintentionally impoverish ourselves by ignoring the astonishing harvest of these small gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our awareness or acknowledgment. We risk sleepwalking through this precious human life.
So, then, let us choose. And whatever we choose, however we decide to use our days, the shape of our days becomes the shape of our lives. For this and countless other reasons, many spiritual traditions focus their practice on the way we most honorably and authentically place our heart’s best attention on one single day. As the psalmist reminds us, This the day the Lord hath made, let us
rejoice and be glad in it.
Excerpted from A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller