Tonight I’ll give the twelfth in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. The chapter, entitled “Deliver Your Gifts,” is preceded by a quotation by Reverend Howard Thurman: “Follow the grain in your own wood.”
Sometimes outer expectations of family and society can make it challenging to follow our own true path. As attractive as freedom seems, it requires us to take responsibility for expressing our unique gifts and talents.
Even when we succeed in liberating ourselves from inner constraints, we are not free from consequences. If we break the law, we can end up in prison. If we betray someone, we might ruin a relationship. Out of fear of taking responsibility for our actions and for risking possible negative consequences, many people resist the freedom to act, experiment, learn, explore, express, err, and begin over again.
Global problems of poverty, conflict, injustice, climate change, racism, and economic exploitation can discourage and paralyze us. As Jack says, “If you only worry, you’ll feel overwhelmed.” Remember that you are here, now, and you can contribute. Jack quotes Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I will not let what I cannot do stop what I can do.” We are free to contribute to the world in each moment of every day.
If we fear making a mistake or failing in our efforts, we can recall Krishnamurti’s instructions to a reluctant disciple: “Don’t be afraid to fail. Mistakes are necessary. They are the natural scientific method—experiments by toddlers repeatedly test gravity.” Last week I watched my 6-month-old great niece Eleanor trying to balance on unsteady legs. Even though she couldn’t sustain an upright posture for more than a second before toppling, she would giggle and roll over in between successive attempts to master the art of standing. For her, the exercise was a fun game instead of a serious effort to look mature. Despite her lack of physical coordination, Eleanor’s parents and I participated in the game and enthusiastically cheered for each brief moment of verticality.
When you try a new activity, you may worry about how you appear. Reflect upon how it feels to act when it’s all about “you,”—your worth, self-esteem, and image. How would it be if your actions were not considered an assessment of you? What it they were simply creative experiments to see what happens? When your ego relaxes, you can act in a playful, honest, and committed manner. No matter what you pursue, people around you will sense when you are being true to yourself, and they tend to respect that authenticity.
Recently I was at a reunion with my siblings and our parents in their vacation house overlooking Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire. By placing my ego on the back burner and not trying to insert myself into rapid-fire conversations, I had fun engaging in quiet, one-on-one talks and listening to my brother play classical guitar. A high point for us all was witnessing a moose swimming across the lake towards us. At the end of the weekend, one of my sisters invited me to join her and her husband on an outing. Instead, I decided to visit with my niece and to meet her 3-month-old baby, Wyatt, who touched my heart with his sweet smile. Throughout the weekend, I felt good about following what felt right in each unfolding moment.
As Jack says, “Beauty arises when the freedom to act is wedded to stillness.” When I pause to calm myself down, I can sense in my heart what really matters. Sometimes the best action is to refrain from acting, while offering an attentive and caring presence. Gandhi used to relinquish his leadership role one day each week to be in silence and to clarify his deepest loving intentions. By acting according to his highest truth, he inspired millions of people.
An African shaman named Malidoma Somé teaches that the whole purpose of human incarnation is to bring our unique gifts into the world. The members of his Dagara tribe believe that each person is born with a certain cargo to deliver to this earth. Even when your family, your school, or your culture do not recognize your gifts, it is important for you to recognize and to value them so that you can deliver your cargo. Pay attention to what you love and what gives you passion.
In 1978, one of my friends from Spirit Rock meditation retreats, Angie Thieriot, coordinated with a colleague to launch Planetree, an organization that humanizes healthcare. Angie’s goal was to transform the 24-hour monitoring and impersonality of modern hospitals, where patients find it hard to sleep and to recover their health. In a Planetree model hospital unit, classical music plays softly in the background. Patients wear their own bathrobes and pajamas and are encouraged to sleep in as long as they like. Instead of a nurses’ station, there is a study area, where patients are allowed to read their own medical charts and to write notes to communicate with their doctors.
No restrictive visiting hours are posted; family and friends are welcome whenever the patient can receive them. In a kitchen area, family members can cook favorite meals for ailing loved ones. At Planetree, everything is arranged for the comfort and convenience of the patient. I find it healing just to envision such a place!
We are all free to change the world around us. In the Bhagavad Gita, selfless service to help others is called a direct path to God. Mother Teresa declared, “The trouble is that you draw your family circle too small.” She saw everyone as her aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews, and she responded to their needs with care.
In the American myth of independence, we admire the settler and the cowboy who do everything on their own. But even these individuals were held, fed and nurtured as babies, and in childhood they were trained and educated. As adults, all of their tools, trade and medicine came from others. No matter how independent they seem, all humans are interdependent.
The problems of the world need our love. Love is the only power great enough to overcome greed and anger, violence and fear. As we develop inner freedom, we become available to the world and feel motivated to care for all life.
Zen teachers claim that there are only two things: You sit, and you tend your garden. It doesn’t matter how big the garden is. Through quieting the mind and listening to the heart, you discover that the spirit is not satisfied unless you also tend your garden. You cannot change all that’s wrong in the world, but you can start with a small gesture, planting seeds for a more compassionate future.
William James wrote, “I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving, human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, oozing water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.”
In 2010, the Associated Press reported a donation to the earthquake relief fund for Haitian people. Folks at a homeless shelter in Baltimore had mailed an envelope containing $14.64 in crumpled bills and coins, along with a scribbled message: “We are worried about our homeless brothers and sisters in Haiti.”
When you act authentically, even if it appears to serve others, it also serves you. Interviewers asked Gandhi what motivated him to sacrifice so much for India. His reply was, “I don’t do it for India. I do it for myself.” Paradoxically, when you are true to yourself, without being caught in aggression or fear, by serving yourself, you serve and inspire others.
At the end of chapter 12 is a guided meditation called “Deliver Your Gifts” (p. 216). Let’s do an adapted version:
Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
Allow your body to settle and your mind to grow quiet.
Recall that you, like all human beings, have unique strengths, gifts and capacities that you bring to the world.
Honor the fact that you are one of a kind.
Let these questions resonate in your heart:
What brings you most alive?
What do you love to share?
What makes you feel most creative?
When do you feel most connected to yourself?
When do you feel most connected to others?
What do you most want to change in the world?
What kind of work do you like?
What kind of play do you enjoy?
What are your passions?
What brings you the most ease?
What do others appreciate about you?
What have been the times when you felt most blessed?
If you were to list three strengths, what would they be?
How might you develop and express these gifts?
Breathe deeply and sense your heart.
When you feel ready, slowly open your eyes.
Turn to a partner and discuss some of what you learned in this guided meditation.