The other day I was busy in the kitchen, making coffee, putting clean dishes away, putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, eating a piece of toast with jam, thinking about getting Zoom up for Brainstorming with Bo, reminding myself that I needed to get the script for my role as liturgist later on in the worship service. Then I stopped. I realized that I had eaten most of my toast without even tasting it.
I closed my eyes and put the last bite in my mouth. I felt the texture of my favorite bread, still slightly warm, a slightly crispy on the outside, still soft on the inside; the different textures of the whole wheat flour, sunflower and millet seeds, the slightly nutty flavor contrasting with the explosion of sweetness and indescribably complex flavor of the homemade strawberry freezer jam. As I slowly chewed, allowing the sensations of flavor and texture to capture my full attention, I was, for a few moments, transformed, transcendent, totally caught up in the “O!”, the awesomeness of that unique moment.
I could give you the recipe of the jam, the components that went into it; the ingredients of the bread, the nutritional value, the calories per slice. I could reduce it to a formula. After all it’s “nothing but” a mixture of components; it’s just bread and jam. This is what E.F. Schumacher called the “nothing-but-ness” of objectification of experience. We can analyze, classify, categorize the components of our experiences and thereby reduce our encounters to a litany of “facts”, thereby removing any meaning or sense of awe.
In 1848 that the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach used his famous phrase, “We are what we eat”. I would go a step further and say that we are what we “attend” to; the world becomes for us what we pay attention to. When we attend to the world around us without prejudgement, open to the sensations, the nuances, the uniqueness of each moment…we expand…the world expands. Instead of “nothing but”, the world becomes “more than”.
A few days ago I was on Sauvie Island shortly after dusk with a group of friends around a pleasant fire. The chorus frogs started singing. I closed my eyes and felt the voices of thousands and thousands of tiny frogs surround me. I could feel the sounds with my entire body. It was like floating in air, being suspended in a cocoon of…I don’t know. I don’t have words that begin to describe the sensation. It’s so much more than words. All I can say is that it was transformative, transcendent.
There is a strong tendency in our culture to discount these experiences, to say that we are projecting onto nature our own imagined motives and emotions. Several years ago I was backpacking with a friend in the Wallowa mountains. As I came around a bend in the trail a beautiful golden eagle took flight from a nearby tree, swooping down into the valley below and rising up into the air above. As I watched with my full attention I could feel the joy of its flight as it soared effortlessly above me. As my friend caught up with me I said, “Can you imagine the joy that eagle feels?” He said, “Eagles don’t experience joy. They just want to [procreate] and eat.”
It really doesn’t matter to me whether an eagle actually feels what I call joy. I really can’t begin to imagine what an eagle actually thinks or feels any more than I can imagine what a butterfly feels when it lands on a lavender blossom or what the blossom thinks. What matters is that when I give my full attention to watching a butterfly land on a lavender blossom, I am transformed. I experience the “O!”, the awesomeness of the complexity and beauty of creation.
You have probably noticed that shortly before dawn on a summer day the birds begin to sing. First a robin here, a sparrow there, then a rising cacophony of voices that blend together into a magical chorus as the sun crests above the horizon. This always brings to my mind Isaiah 6:1-3:
In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!
All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”
Am I projecting? Of course. But it totally transforms me as I watch the sun rise above the horizon, God entering God’s throne room, heralded by God’s winged creatures. Giving that moment of my full attention I experience the earth filled with God’s glory. Holy, holy, holy indeed.
We become what we attend to.