“What’s it all about Alfie
Is it just for the moment we live
What’s it all about
When you sort it out, Alfie
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if, if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above
Alfie, I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed
You’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day Alfie, oh Alfie
What’s it all about Alfie?”
Songwriters: Burt Bacharach / Hal David
While the students sit in quiet meditation, the old master jumps from one to the other, in their faces yelling, “If not now when?” The quintessential question of any effort to live a truly “spiritual” life is, “What’s it all about?” First, your idea or desire to be more spiritual, then the big one, “What is your life all about?” Followed by, “Really, what is life all about?”
I have spent forty-five years a student of the spiritual masters, everyone from the writers of the Talmud, the Gospels, the Teachings of Thomas Merton and other various Catholic saints and contemplatives, and the Buddhadharma. I have prayed, meditated, gone on retreats, hosted retreats, taught meditation and prayer, but, it was not until the day they told me I had cancer that I really, finally, faced and answered the question, “What’s it really all about?” While I have certainly visited it on numerous occasions for the past forty-five years; I will tell you that until you have “no choice” to really, really, face the question, lean into it, and not leave the room until you have answered it, that living “spiritually” idea is just another one of those “nice ideas” you have.
There’s a lot of talk about how perhaps maybe after COVID19 is under control, we the people, and the world will have visited the question in some kind of global consciousness way and, everything will be different. In my previous reflection earlier this week following the death of my Mother, I offered a vision for the world I hope we will work toward. While there is evidence, you rarely hear about on cable news, that people are really beginning to “lean into” the question, I must admit I’m kind of “wait and seeing” it through. For every positive and hopeful example rising out of this quarantine we find ourselves in, there is as many examples of “the more things appear to change the more they stay the same.”
Thomas Merton wrote that, “Love is our true destiny.” Albert Einstein wrote that, “Each of us are part of a whole called by us Universe.” I have always believed that we are made of the stuff of Love and, that Love is not some passive emotion we get to enjoy when someone loves us, but rather an active, engaged, verb, to be expressed and spread around by each of us for the benefit of others and not just for our egos. Einstein went on to explain in his own unique way that we are never really “loving” anyone but ourselves until we have “expanded our circle of compassion” to include all sentient beings “including the whole of Nature.” He emphasized that this was “the task” before each of us who live in the 20th and now the 21st Century, and that the future of life on Earth depended on it.
So “If not now — When?” “What are you really waiting for?” “What is your life and all that spiritual matter really about for you?” I tell my students, “Ego got you here (to Zen training), it will not keep you here.” For those who come and truly commit to a lifestyle grounded in Loving-kindness, Compassion, and Benevolent Service, who stay around to continue to do the work, the only thing that keeps them here is — Love. Sangha, Community, are the “Fruits of Love”. Whether we are talking about a religious or spiritual community, or a global community. And, “What is loving another person?” Well let me quote my dear teacher Thomas Merton again.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” And, “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
We never really see “other” whether it be an-other person, the world around us, and even ourself, until we stop trying to “twist them and ourself into an image.” And then not until, our love “seeks only, the good of the one loved.”
Another factor about “Loving’ other to remember is, the old Zen saying, and I will paraphrase it here, “It’s easy to love someone who loves you back, someone you have an attraction to.” What about the stranger? What about your spouse or partner during quarantine who is driving you crazy? What about the kids who won’t stop complaining? What about a world that has disappointed you? Mother Theresa wrote that, “Love is not love until there is some kind of sacrifice on the part of the lover.”
For the contemplative, and the truly Zen student and monk, isolation and silence is the ground for confronting these questions and arriving at answers which transform us and not just make us feel good. The contemplative and the truly spiritual person must, “travel through the valley of the shadow of death,” before he or she reaches Nirvana.
As you have often seen in my writings and heard me teach, the real valuable experiences are not those moments we are filled with joy and happiness watching a beautiful Sunset or the Sun coming up over the ocean, but they are the moments which “tax” us. Don’t misunderstand me I would love to see the Sun come over the Atlantic these days but, I still have work to do on myself with my patience while parenting my daughter during quarantine. Whether you understand it or not, the two are interconnected. We never see such wonders until we are able to see it while exhausted and frustrated, in the mundanities of life.
So class is in session. Our teacher, our teachers, are calling us. The Han is sounded. The lesson is generations upon generations old. An “Ancient Lesson for Modern Living”. One which has been taught again and again and, will continue to return until we have not just learned it but, we have “mastered” it.
What’s it all about, Alfie?
“If you have come here desolate,
If you have come here deflated, then
Thank your lucky stars the desert is
Where you have landed—
Here where it is hard to hide, here
Where it is unwise to rely on your own
Devices, here where you will have to look
And look again, and look close, to find
What refreshment waits to reveal itself to you.
I tell you that though it may be hard to see it now,
This is where your greatest blessing will find you.
I tell you this is where you will receive your life again.
I tell you this is where the breath begins.”
— Jan Richardson
May My Eyes Be Opened, My Heart Broken, Opened to receive this blessing.
I Love You,
“When I proposed the theory of relativity, very few understood me, and what I will reveal now to transmit to mankind will also collide with the misunderstanding and prejudice in the world.
I ask you to guard the letters as long as necessary, years, decades, until society is advanced enough to accept what I will explain below.
There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us.
This universal force is LOVE. When scientists looked for a unified theory of the universe they forgot the most powerful unseen force. Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others.
Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness. Love unfolds and reveals. For love we live and die. Love is God and God is Love.
This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will.
To give visibility to love, I made a simple substitution in my most famous equation. If instead of E = mc2, we accept that the energy to heal the world can be obtained through love multiplied by the speed of light squared, we arrive at the conclusion that love is the most powerful force there is, because it has no limits.
After the failure of humanity in the use and control of the other forces of the universe that have turned against us, it is urgent that we nourish ourselves with another kind of energy.
If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.
Perhaps we are not yet ready to make a bomb of love, a device powerful enough to entirely destroy the hate, selfishness and greed that devastate the planet. However, each individual carries within them a small but powerful generator of love whose energy is waiting to be released.
When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, dear Lieserl, we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life.
I deeply regret not having been able to express what is in my heart, which has quietly beaten for you all my life. Maybe it’s too late to apologize, but as time is relative, I need to tell you that I love you and thanks to you I have reached the ultimate answer!”
(I must first note that since the public appearance of this letter in 2015, several pundits have questioned whether or not Einstein is the author, or at least whether or not he wrote that, “Love is a Force of the Universe”. Nonetheless I think you will agree the letter has meaning and is itself a force for real insight and change.)
I was sitting in a chair receiving chemo at MD Anderson Cooper in Camden when I received an email from an old friend. I was already there for about 2 of the 6 hours and, I was already reflecting on my experience as the chemo flowed through my veins and the side effects began to surface. You need to know that I am not as unpredictable as people may think, at least on some factors of my behavior. Whenever I am alone, when I am feeling alone or lonely, my thoughts always go to the same place. I think of you; I think of those who I love and who I am blessed by their love. I think of my Vow I made years ago to “live my life as a benefit for others,” and my choice to actualize that Vow as a Zen-Monk and Teacher. I am truly, with you always, and you are truly the object of my love and my affections. No matter how difficult it gets, especially during chemo week, I never forget you my friends and supporters, my fellow monks, and our beloved Community of Pine Wind. These thoughts along with my thoughts of course of my daughter, are the driving force within me that keeps me determined to beat this cancer, to win the good fight, to stay around until my work is truly complete.
Whether or not Einstein wrote this letter in its entirety, or whether he ever wrote the line that “Love is a Force of the Universe,” I will leave up to the pundits to entertain. There is so much script in history including Biblical script in Western and Eastern theology which can be put to the same test. It is the message and its ability to help us wake up which matters, not the author. For today I am going to operate from and with the opinion that Einstein did write it or, he would have.
So, I would like to focus on my reflection on one particular set of lines:
“This universal force is LOVE. When scientists looked for a unified theory of the universe they forgot the most powerful unseen force. Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others. Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness. Love unfolds and reveals. For love we live and die. Love is God and God is Love.
This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will.”
While no one in their right mind would find chemotherapy a desirable experience, after nearly more than two years of receiving it I have made friends with it. Every time I anticipate its monthly arrival I prepare myself to welcome it and sit for however long I must not only in Camden but afterwards at home for the two more days I receive it through a pump attached to my body and, the weeks ahead I wrestle with its side-effects. I must report to you while as difficult an experience it is, and anyone who has experienced will tell you it is, I have been able to make use of it as a kind of “gate” a “portal for self-reflection and insight”. I have learned to use “suffering” rather than fight it or reject it, as a “vehicle” for learning and growing. I deliberately use this time as a lens for seeing myself, my place in the Universe, and my environment, and I am so grateful for everything I have seen and continue to see through that lens, no matter how dark or painful it has been at times.
Every time I have looked, every time I have reflected, while wearing that lens, whether pain or darkness or just the desire for it all to stop, I have always arrived at the same place. “In the end its ALL about Love.” When I trace that experience I find that its not just “the end,” it’s the beginning and the middle. The force we’ve experienced from time to time connected to our will to “survive” is “Love”. I want to survive this cancer so that I may continue to love you, my daughter, the world. And make no mistake about it, to continue to experience the Love I experience from you, my daughter, and the world. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, “the universal force is LOVE.”
“Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others. Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness. Love unfolds and reveals. For love we live and die. Love is God and God is Love. This force explains everything and gives meaning to life.”
“This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will.”
Yes, “we have ignored too long…” and, our work, as spiritual beings, begins only when we stop ignoring it and start “learning to drive it at will”.
This pandemic I believe is both a curse and a blessing if we take the time to step out of ourselves (ego) and sit with it offering it a “cup of tea”. It has forced us all to slow down, to stop, and to be in the very situations we need to be in after generations of arranging our lives in order that we can avoid being in those places. It has forced us to not only “see the selves we have become,” but to also “see the true-selves we must resurrect and be” in order for the future to even happen.
“Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others. Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness.”
“After the failure of humanity in the use and control of the other forces of the universe that have turned against us, it is urgent that we nourish ourselves with another kind of energy. If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.”
This pandemic has certainly brought to light mankind’s failure with all its advancements in technology, industry, medicine, to perfect the one advancement that completes us and adds to our ability to be a positive force of the Universe —Love. Love binds us, love leaves no one behind. Whatever plans mankind puts in place as governments, religious and secular institutions, science, communities, and neighborhoods,
“If we are to find meaning in life, [after our current global state] if we want to save the world [including the whole of nature] and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.”
Love which is: inclusiveness, justice for all, the end of all forms of hunger, poverty, exploitation, greed, and hatred, must be the “context” of future planning. No matter how this may seem to be a heavy menu, it is only our “willingness” or lack of, which will determine our success.
As always, these literally “transformational” steps must begin with individuals, with you, with me. We can be the force behind the reckoning that, “We are not now, or ever will we be, willing to go back to the status-quo, to the “old normal”. Not Now! Not Never!
We begin with serious and difficult questions: “How am I contributing to the decisions made by government and our social and religious institutions in this country which sustain suffering and its causes?”
We then must answer the question with “actions” and not just hope and or good wishes and prayers.
Our spirituality is not simply to be, but to work in harmony with others and for others; to work first on our own life, our own identity, our own destiny and then to work in the world while not of it, on mankind’s destiny, on humanity’s destiny. Thomas Merton reminds us, “If I can understand something of myself and something of others, I can begin to share with them the work of building the foundations of spiritual unity.” and, “In living out that destiny, it means much to have the example of someone who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. “
Remember, “We Are More Together Than Alone.” With that again I extend my hand, my personal commitment, out to everyone.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
I Love You,