No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality. ― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
It seems that for these past few years of guiding small groups of earnest seekers of integrity and hope (and I am one of those seeking) I have been unlearning and discarding as much as I’ve learned.
I’m gently salvaging the sacred threads from old tapestries to reweave a new narrative that is truly mine.
One of the unlearnings is my inherited concept of ‘wholeness’.
It was a set up. I was exposed to a spiritual teaching that becoming whole was a deeply individual work. It was a personal, achievable, spiritual destination by rigorous discipline. I had a lofty vision that wholeness would be experienced as a steady state of perfect harmony and well-being. To be whole was to achieve some complete and abstract internalized selfhood.
Alas, I have slowly discovered that wholeness is not my private perfection nor my spiritual achievement. Nor is wholeness what the monk/writer Thomas Merton described as “my personal salvation project”: a project doomed to fail because it tragically misunderstands the nature of the work of a human life. Merton describes this unlearning about wholeness poetically from his own failures as a contemplative:
…It is a small thing to say the roof is gone: He has not even a house. Stars, as well as friends, Are angry with the noble ruin. Saints depart in several directions. Be still: There is no longer any need of comment. It was a lucky wind That blew away his halo with his cares, A lucky sea that drowned his reputation. Here you will find Neither a proverb nor a memorandum. There are no ways, No methods to admire…
(*from the poem ‘When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple’ Thomas Merton)
Thus, my tidy fabric of wholeness is frayed beyond repair, I confess. I am in need of another narrative.
How about a muddy drill rig?
A week ago in my morning practice of meditation, thoughts came and went. Yet I couldn’t get a memory out of my head that morning which arrived late in the practice. It was a memory of a drill rig spinning down deep for water. After the meditation, it was the word ‘wholeness’ that came to me in connection with the memory. In this very moment, before sitting down to write these words, some dots connected into a pattern. I can try to describe what I’m learning here.
Some years ago, I was a project manager at a small zoo. We decided to heat and cool a new public building with a geothermal system. There was water under the ground. We knew it. Some older pumps and wells existed nearby. And we could use the water in our heat exchanger; we could also use the outflow as an aquatic feature that would flow back into the nearby creek.
The drill truck arrived one day. I’d never seen a water drill up close and in operation, so I stayed close by to see how the crew drilled down to the aquifer below my feet. We hit water at 10 metres depth. The crew drilled down deeper to install the new casing. (An aside: there was indeed a lot of water there!… so much that we tested over 2000 litres/per minute I recall and the water level did not fluctuate as this was pulled from the new well.)
Wholeness is not a perfect internal state but a loving and muddy drill rig. It is to be committed to who I am: my shadow and my light. It is to know how to drill down here in the muck and gravel of a full embrace of what I like and dislike about myself and my experience. It is to activate a deeper faith that I will find a source of life in the place of the real.
Wendell Berry’s words have power for me. Wholeness is to live responsibly in the small part of the world that is home. It is a persistent loyalty to find the aquifer below my feet in this earth. And it is in the places I find myself: below and in my marriage with Robyn, in my relationship with my fading mother Bonnie, in my RareBirds co-op house of broken, lovely friends, in this grassland and valley that holds the flow of two rivers and the remains of my grandparents, my dad and my brother, in the activist group of Greens and others that share a social vision and a calling to drill into the confusing muddy ground we call politics, on my yoga mat each time I practice and in my glorious body as it moves and teaches me, and in each encounter where I am alive to another and to myself. This is what I now understand as wholeness.
Being whole-hearted: in the here and now.
This can only be done by drilling into a larger consciousness. It is through being present to where the rig really is located. It is being lovingly aware of what the drill is moving through- the tough spots and the smooth muddy layers- the shame and joy of my life. Ultimately, it is in being truly contemplative: contemplating in real time each lived encounter and experience.
Can I do this? I am learning. Can I trust this drill of understanding as it moves into the layers of meaning? Can I be loyal as it does? How do I commit more of myself to go deeper into the aquifer?
I know one thing for sure. It is in the here and now that I need to be attentive and filled with wonder.
And in the depth of what lies below ground, we will find that shared aquifer, that reality where, beyond the illusion of our separateness above ground, we are truly one.
…If I am to let my life speak things I want to hear, things I would gladly tell others, I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear and would never tell anyone else! My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of. ― Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation