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Moments that Take Our Breath Away

Life is full of surprising insights – like the one I discovered walking through the airport in Denver. On an empty chair at the shoeshine stand, I saw a pillow with the quote: “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

The moments that take our breath away awaken us. They open our eyes to see something new, something deeper, something that breaks through the ordinary. Such moments capture our attention and stop us in our tracks. They touch our hearts, move us in unexpected ways, open us to meaning and mystery, and give us a glimpse of the spiritual.

It is one thing to recognize awakening moments that overtake us in powerful ways that can’t be ignored. It’s quite another to recognize the subtle invitations that surround us every day – inviting us to awaken to something deeper and more profound.

The difference between awakening moments that are dramatic and subtle reminds me of my grandson. As he was working his way through college as a waiter, another server began to flirt with him. When he didn’t get the message, she finally came right out and said: “I’ve got a crush on you.” Later, my grandson admitted: “I was clueless!” Being in a romantic relationship was totally new to him; it was a dimension of life he hadn’t yet experienced. As a result, he didn’t grasp the subtle cues, recognize what the woman’s behavior meant, and know how to respond.

When it comes to awakening, there are times when all of us are clueless. Even though we “get” the dramatic moments, we may miss the subtle clues that urge us to pay attention to something more, to recognize the deeper mystery that is unfolding before us. The challenge of awakening goes beyond recognizing the occasional dramatic moment. It also involves cultivating an attitude of mind and heart that allows us to continually open ourselves to the subtle invitations to awaken. It involves developing an intentional openness and readiness to recognize the everyday invitations to see beyond the ordinary and allow ourselves to be captivated by wonder and awe.

In my own efforts to cultivate an openness to awakening, several practices or disciplines have helped me become less clueless and more open. They include cultivating an inner quiet, listening wholeheartedly, seeing through the eyes of children, and breaking the ruts that reinforce my own narrow views. Each of these practices has helped me awaken to the deeper meaning of my experiences and be more open to the spiritual dimension of life.

Cultivating an Inner Quiet: In the fast-paced, adrenaline-fired lives that many of us lead, it’s important to step back, take time to reflect, and cultivate an inner quiet. All too often, our preoccupations and self-focused agendas dominate our attention and absorb our energy in “what I have to do.” It reminds me of the story of the man approaching the Zen master with a desire to become his student. When the master served tea, he filled the cup and kept pouring even though the cup overflowed – spilling the tea everywhere. The student was shocked and exclaimed: “The cup is full; it can’t hold any more.” The Zen master replied that the student’s mind was like the cup. Unless he emptied himself of his preconceived notions, he would be unable to receive the master’s teaching.

Cultivating an inner quiet requires emptying the cup of our preconceived notions and conventional thinking. It urges us to slow down, quiet our minds, and open our hearts. It involves the self-emptying necessary to leave behind the preoccupations and biases that shape the way we see life. When we begin to live out of an inner quiet, we start to see in new ways, think more openly, and connect with life at the heart level. Slowly, we become more open to the wonder and amazement that surround us every day.

Listening Wholeheartedly: My friend Ralph used to joke: “Don’t talk while I’m interrupting.” His comment would bring a laugh, but it also revealed a sad truth. We can be so assertive in advocating for our own point of view that our interactions digress into “everyone talking and no one listening.” It reminds me of the cartoons that describe verbal exchanges as “blah, blah, blah.”

Cultivating an openness to awakening urges us to develop the discipline of listening wholeheartedly – with our hearts and our whole selves. Such wholehearted listening requires being fully present to the other person – paying attention to more than the words in order to grasp the deeper meaning of what is being revealed. Wholehearted listening requires emptying ourselves, giving up our own agenda, and resisting the urge to respond with pat answers or superficial advice. It requires giving the other person our devoted attention – creating a safe and sacred space in which to receive the other’s self-revelation. Listening wholeheartedly opens us to profound encounters with others, deeper self-awareness, and experiences that awaken us to meaning and mystery.

Seeing Through the Eyes of Children: One day I noticed a young boy at the beach watching a frog. He was captivated by it, but he wasn’t trying to catch it. I asked him if he thought we should give the frog a name, and his face lit up with an enthusiastic “yes!” I asked: “What do you think we should name it?” Without hesitating, the boy said: “How about Mr. Jumpy?” I was utterly surprised and responded: “That’s the perfect name!” I found myself shaking my head in amazement. In my wildest imagination, I couldn’t have come up with such a good name. There is something about the spontaneous insight of children and the unique way they see life.

Seeing through the eyes of children can help cultivate an openness to awakening. Perhaps that is something of what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) Children see and experience life in unique ways. They are close to Jesus’ heart, and he uses them as examples for us. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt. 19:14)

Dr. Seuss reminds us: “Adults are obsolete children.” Cultivating the discipline of seeing through the eyes of children helps open us to the spontaneous appreciation that children have for enchantment, magic, and mystery. Spending time with children is one of the ways to cultivate an openness to awakening. Hopefully, some of their spontaneity and insight will rub off on us.

Breaking Ruts: My friend Daryl put it this way: “A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.” Cultivating an openness to awakening requires breaking ruts, overcoming stagnation, and letting go of the habits and patterns of behavior that dull our senses. Whenever we find ourselves going through the motions and sleepwalking through life, it’s time to renew our commitment to awakening and open ourselves to the spiritual dimension of life. Rut breaking behaviors that open us to awakening include learning something new, immersing ourselves in experiences that stretch us, taking on difficult challenges, and encountering unique people and cultures.

A poster in a restaurant provides an insight encouraging us to awaken: “Adventure begins at the edge of your comfort zone.”  Sometimes, moments of awakening take our breath away – yanking us out of our comfort zones by surprising, exciting, and inspiring us. Other times, the practices we use to cultivate an openness to awakening help weaken the insulating walls of our comfort zones. As that occurs, we find ourselves recognizing the subtle, everyday invitations to awaken to something more. The more fully we open ourselves to those invitations, the more we will awaken to the wonder and awe of the spiritual journey.

Questions to Ponder

As you reflect on awakening moments in your own life:

  • What moments of awakening have you experienced that took your breath away?
  • What are some of the subtle invitations to awaken that you have experienced – either because you recognized them at the time or because you realized it later?
  • Which of the four practices outlined above would help you become more open to awakening moments?
  • What steps could you take – today, this week, and going forward – to integrate such practices into your spiritual journey?