“The purest and truest spiritual life begins with accepting everything that comes to you as a gift and teaching.”
One of my earliest teachers was a river. I grew up close to the hill country of Texas, and in the summers my parents would drive north, about sixty miles, to a section of the Guadalupe River near the small city of Hunt. I learned to swim in her currents, and one of my first experiences of the deep side of life came in swimming underwater. I would swim two or three feet beneath the surface with goggles, seeing the vague contours of my parents standing on banks of her shore in the sunlight and also looking around me at the underwater world of perch and catfish.
There was something quiet and beautiful about the underwater world, even as I loved the light world of my parents. This experience was one of my first experiences in meditation or prayer; in the quietness you could really listen. The Guadalupe River helped me understand that there are two worlds: a mysterious world beneath the surface and a light world above the surface — around us and within us. Both worlds are beautiful, and there is no need to say one is better than the other. But I do want to honor the Guadalupe River as a mentor in my life. She helped me appreciate the vibrancy, the aliveness, of deep listening.
Dogs were also teachers for me. At home we would always have pet dogs and I loved them all. One was a cocker spaniel named Patty. I remember petting her when I was about five years old, looking into her deep brown eyes and feeling the touch of her hair against my fingers. She looked back at me, and something was transferred between us, a sense of trust, comfort, and affection. It was communicated through eyes and touch, quite apart from words. Patty helped me understand the preciousness of other living beings: people, of course, but all living beings with whom we can have social relations and also those that are quite independent of us. A Buddhist might speak of this preciousness as the Buddha-Nature in each being. A Christian might speak of it as the Breath of Life within each being. Whatever language we use, the intuition is similar: We feel the presence of another living being -- kin to us and different from us — who is a subject of his or her own life and not just an object for us, and who can feel our presence.
And then there’s popular music. It, too, has been a teacher. John Lennon once reported that, when he was a young boy growing up in England, nothing really affected him until he heard the music of Elvis Presley. I get this. John’s love of Elvis must have frustrated his teachers. I know because I am a teacher myself. No teacher finds it pleasant to realize that students prefer Elvis to algebra. But perhaps John’s negligence was justified by the fact that he was growing in a kind of intelligence which is complementary to the various forms of education often emphasized in school. Formal education focuses on mathematical wisdom, verbal wisdom and sometimes, through physical education, bodily wisdom. Music focuses on emotional wisdom. It offers a tutorial in human feeling. This is the kind of tutorial John received when he listened to Elvis sing "Love Me Tender" and "Don’t Be Cruel." In the melodies and rhythms of rock and roll he heard the longings and energy of the human heart. I think music functions for me in this way, too. Indeed, for many people music also functions as a world religion, offering a touch of transcendence even for people who may not be sure if they believe in anything transcendent. For some people it is a substitute for world religions and for others a supplement to them.
And finally, for me as for so many others, movies have been teachers. In my case, I often recall scenes in movies that invite me to consider who we human beings are and who we can be. One of the great values of movies is that they tell stories of people’s lives in a three-dimensional, full-bodied way. I think, for example, of the final scene of Places in the Heart, a movie made in 1984. Here is how Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat describe it: “The closing scene takes place in a church. As the camera slowly pans the congregation receiving communion, we recognize all the characters — those living and dead and departed for other places. It is an image in which the lambs and the wolves, the wronged and the wrongdoers, the betrayers and the betrayed, are all together as one. It is an unforgettable cinematic statement about hope.” I sometimes find myself going to the internet to watch the final scene, just to remind myself of what I live and hope for: namely a world in which the wronged and the wrongdoers truly are reconciled, me along with them.
I’m not sure this world will ever arrive in any way that I can now imagine. But I know that, if it arrives, I will only be able to recognize it because I have had teachers who point me in its directions: countless people, of course, but also rivers, dogs, music, and movies. Such a team of teachers.
Perhaps there is a deeper Teacher, too. An inwardly felt lure to be receptive, to be open, to whatever guidance I can find, in whatever way I can find it. People name this inner Teacher in so many ways. As a young boy I learned to address her as “God.” Not God the tyrant or God the bully or God the king. More like God the Friend or God the Companion. I think she is inside me and inside everyone and that she has many languages. I think I see her when I pet dogs and swim in rivers, when I am touched by scenes in movies such as Places in the Heart. Even today she has a place in my heart. She likes to sing, too. Process theology has helped me understand that she’s got the whole world in her hands. I’m pretty sure that one of her favorite songs is "Love Me Tender." I can hear her now: “For my darling I love you, and I always will.”