The Japanese are wizards at serenity. Think of the tea ceremony and Zen rock gardens. What these placid products of Japan have in common is a high degree of order. Every element fits in its perfect place, and doing so harmonizes with every other element. There’s lots of space, too. The sips of tea come with such deliberateness that each moment of repose, before and after, feels as important as the activity itself. The rake creates its graceful sand patterns as if following invisible, previously etched grooves.
All this serenity is critical for the Japanese because the rest of their society is so frenetic. They live crammed together on teeming islands. Their cities overwhelm the senses with a neon-drenched cacophony. You might say that the meditative aspects of Japan are an attempt to bring balance to a lifestyle that would otherwise be totally out of balance. And this begs the question – what would a lifestyle look like that was serene by its very nature?
In contrast to Japan’s extremes, consider the long, steady life of a redwood tree. A redwood can live for over 2,000 years and grow almost 400 feet tall. With leaves high above the forest floor, it’s relatively impervious to the otherwise deadly ravages of insects, fire, and flood. It just grows and grows, serenely, a little at a time over a long stretch of time.
Yet, a redwood tree is profoundly limited in its adaptive capacity. It can only live on one small stretch of earth. It can only produce one type of leaf and grow in only one direction. If its environment becomes inhospitable, a redwood is literally stuck in the mud, unable to pick up and travel to friendlier surroundings. Therefore, while inspiring to behold, this mighty tree doesn’t offer us much instruction for serene survival amid today’s fast, furious, unprecedented change.
But my niece does. Beatrix is about to turn seven, and she’s an ace at the card game Concentration. She doesn’t play with the usual deck. Instead, she uses one that features pairs of fairies. There are flower fairies, midnight fairies, river fairies – twenty duos in all. Beatrix calls this game Fairy Matching, and she beats me at it every time.
With uncanny accuracy, Beatrix keeps track of which fairy goes with which. She doesn’t just remember but also intuits. You may think I’m deluded by pride but I swear it’s true: I’ve seen Beatrix successfully select four sets of fairies in a row without ever having seen them turned over beforehand.
How does she do it? I’m not sure. But clearly, she has an uncanny knack for knowing what belongs together, and also when. She doesn’t just turn on this supra-rational skill haphazardly. She saves it for those rare moments when I seem to be mounting a challenge, when I might for once actually win.
Now what can Beatrix’s fairy matching teach us about serenity? The same thing, more or less, that was taught by Ecclesiastes. “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” You to heed each moment’s call.
And how the call comes… most of the time, it’s through energy.
Energy, the kind of subtle, intuitive flow I’m referring to, is a controversial subject prone to lots of grandiose claims and confusion. Yet every one of us has a “sixth sense” and has felt it countless times. Whether we heeded it is another matter. Beatrix heeds her sixth sense continuously because she hasn’t yet been talked out of it.
Heeding your own sixth sense in relation to the call of the moment means recognizing whatever energy is present. While there are endless types of energy, most of us encounter just a handful each day. There’s to-do list energy, for instance, when suddenly you notice an increased ability to “take care of business.” There’s also communication energy, when suddenly it’s right to talk things over. In addition there’s contemplation energy, playful energy, and even house cleaning energy.
When we align ourselves with the energy of the moment, our capacity to thrive increases by leaps and bounds. When we disregard that energy, and try to accomplish something out of synch, it becomes as difficult as it is unpleasant.
I bet you already know this. Haven’t you forced yourself to clean house at least once when housecleaning energy was nowhere to be found? The chores were grueling and seemingly endless, right? But how about when you cleaned house with recognition that Now is the time to clean! Didn’t everything go quickly and smoothly, as if the wind were at your back?
Every once in a while, the demands of everyday life make it impossible to match our actions with the energies we perceive. Our kids suddenly need us when it’s time to relax, for example. Or, we get a clear message to nurture ourselves right before a big work deadline. At those times, tuning in, we realize that the wind can’t be at our sails, and that resisting that truth would only amount to misreading the entirety of the moment.
More often, though, we don’t actually have to misalign with the energy that’s present but do so anyway because it doesn’t fit our plans. We try to impose our will on the moment, in spite of our sixth sense, due to plain old stubbornness. We want what we want when we want it. And the cost of that stubbornness is – by now it should be obvious – our serenity.
Every moment, fortunately, provides a new opportunity to get that serenity back. The fastest, most efficient way is to tune in, and then match that moment’s specific purpose under heaven. Once you do, it’s not just wind that appears at your back. Sometimes it’s also fairies.
From the upcoming book, Surfing Your Inner Sea: Essential Lessons for Lasting Serenity, Chronicle Books, August, 2009. This copyrighted material may not be reprinted without prior written consent.