For years now, and especially since our move to Bisbee in 1996, I have written about "life itself," in this blog here and many other places and, earlier, in a newspaper column for the Bisbee Observer, during 1998 to 1999.
I have never been very clear in my own mind about what "life itself" means precisely. I think this is a good thing. I have used the term to more or less refer to a stance of celebrating ordinary life, life with "nothing added," life itself as sufficient.
I think it was the Buddhists who first helped me use this term, the Western Buddhists that is. They seem to endorse a “nothing special” existence that celebrates the world that is. Charlotte Joko Beck comes the closest to expressing this view in her book, Nothing Special: Living Zen, but there are others who express this view also like Pema Chodron.
John Cowan doesn't use the term "life itself" explicitly but this is what he is talking about in his wonderful book, Taking Jesus Seriously: Buddhist Meditation for Christians. Again, I discussed his book here.
Another source of influence has been James P. Carse's The Silence of God and Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience.
The Silence of God is a reflection on the meaning of prayer. Carse's book is difficult but what he wants us to do is to think about prayer in a larger way.
What he means, in the end, is that the saying of Jesus “Ask and you shall receive,” is a rather profound commitment to the spirituality or mysticism of ordinary, daily experience.
Carse interprets “ask and you shall receive” as “ask so that you may receive life itself,” receieve the world anew, afresh. By asking (or prayer) Carse is describing taking up a stance toward everyday experience as revelatory, filled with grace.
In our asking we are striving to receive the world as gift, as wonder, as good news.
While Carse’s book is ostensibly about prayer, in my view at least he really is talking about how to receive ordinary, everyday existence, receiving life itself whole instead of prayer as a kind of petition for assistance in changing some feature of our life. (I once knew a woman in North Carolina who prayed about everything, including whether to buy a Simmons Beautyrest mattress or a Sealy Posturpedic!)
In the Buddhist tradition that I refer to, mainly again Western Zen that includes Zen by easterners who write for a Western audience, God is not a preoccupation. Instead enlightenment is typically described as attaining to the 'spirituality' of everyday life, to the grace of the ordinary.
I have used the word "waiting," to clarify Carse's ideas about prayer. Waiting is a concept that has great stature in the Jewish and Christian tradition, and for me waiting became for me ‘waiting on life itself.’ One meaning of waiting is attending. Waiting on life itself means attending to life itself as a kind of miraculous, wondrous affair.
Or to put it in Carse's terms, waiting on life itself means receiving life itself, the whole nine yards as the very first step in spiritual growth. Receiving life is like accepting life, rather than living with what happens as a constant quarrel.
After we accept life as it is, fully, we then can determine what must be changed and how we might best change it.
Does that make any sense?
For example, last night we had two couples over that we have known since we moved to Bisbee and even before, in the case of one individual, a woman who was a former student.
And as I sat there and watched and listened and occasionally participated (well, more than occasionally) I suddenly realized how wondrous and even thrilling ordinarily life is and can be; how precious it is, and how grateful I am for it, every bit of it.
The term "gospel" means the good news, the good news in the midst of life, the good news that is life itself. Life itself is gospel because it is capable of gifting grace, wonder, and joy whenever we open our eyes and wake up from the sleep of the familiar, the routine.
But we have to attend to ordinary life carefully and attentively if we are to receive the good news of life itself. We have to “wait” for life itself, where wait means a meditative and attentive receptiveness.
And in this attentiveness and waiting and receiving, I am still a beginner.