A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace

A moment in Mexico

A moment in Mexico

I was walking by myself on a pristine beach in Mexico. It was early morning and the sun hadn’t quite made it’s appearance yet. Looking out to where the expansive gray-blue sky met the grayer, bluer ocean, I could feel the sand, damp and slightly chilled, compress beneath my feet as I walked.

Slowly, the earth came alive. I noticed small crabs as they scampered to the tiny holes they’d dug. I heard the gulls squawking as they came together for breakfast and a bath. The blues got brighter as the sun lit up the clouds in a way I’d seen a thousand times before but never quite like this.

And in that moment, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I was just there, awestruck by the natural beauty and by a sense of relatedness to everything around me.

Time passed. The tide of my thoughts rolled back in. And I wondered, “What if I could have more moments like that?”

Riding the subway

City Hall StationA few months ago, I was exiting the City Hall subway station when I noticed a disheveled-looking woman, eyes bulging in a crazed kind of way, struggling with a shopping cart full of overstuffed bundles. The elevator was broken and I saw she’d have to haul her cart up the stairs. I purposefully walked the other way. “I don’t have time to help some crazy woman.”

Then I stopped. Just that week, a colleague had introduced me to the “I Will Listen” campaign, raising awareness for mental illness. I thought how I would offer assistance If it was someone struggling with a stroller or a nicely dressed older person. Why was I walking away from this woman who needed help even more?

“Can I help you?” I said.

Another gentleman was there and together we (barely) managed to haul the incredibly heavy cart up the stairs. The woman was very appreciative. “God bless you,” she said. We all smiled big smiles and wished each other a nice day. And as I walked home, I felt a certain lightness. I’d exchanged detachment and judgment for connection and a blessing. I kept smiling. And though I’m not religious, I felt blessed.

Stuck in traffic

NYC trafficOne Sunday evening, I was driving up the west side of Manhattan with 3 of my kids in the car. Traffic was crawling and I could feel myself getting tense. Then I noticed the sun glinting off the Hudson River and it reminded me of something Martha Beck quoted, referring to a Navajo prayer called “The Beauty Way”.

There is beauty before me, and there is beauty behind me.
There is beauty to my left, and there is beauty to my right.
There is beauty above me, and there is beauty below me.
There is beauty around me, and there is beauty within me.

I recited it in my head. (My kids are not quite ready to hear me say these things out loud.) And I thought more deeply about everything around me. The gorgeous river. My eldest son next to me and two of my daughters behind me. How lucky I was to be safe and comfortable in my car. The hundreds of individual lives and stories in the cars all around me.

I smiled. My frustration had turned into some kind of bliss.

Then just this week

Just this week, the exact opposite happened. I had several bits of good news and I should have been happy. Instead, I was focusing on something unpleasant, something that had been bothering me for a while, and I couldn’t let it go. I tried the techniques I learned to come back to the present, but I failed. I kept turning the thoughts over and over until they made for an ugly, bilious stew. After years of trying to tame the hamsters in my head, I was upset they were still roaming freely.

Then I thought back to that woman in the subway and that drive in traffic. And I realized I didn’t have to go to a faraway place to experience a glimpse of rapture or a glimpse of peace. So I kept practicing. I reminded myself that “today is not just another day in my life.”

And I smiled.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to A glimpse of rapture, a glimpse of peace

  1. Newidad says:

    Great note, John — well said. Terrific to see you at the Jive event and hope we can speak one evening over the next few weeks. I took on HR on an interim basis 2 weeks ago so my “feet have not touched the ground”….. Best wishes. Michael Norwich

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Beautifully written, John. Such fundamental thoughts. But we have to be reminded of them once in a while. Thank you!

  3. Nice that you take us on your journey; taming hamsters or goading the shadow voices takes on a different meaning. Cool that you managed to link these events and encounters over time … in my mind this is a dimension of being a reflective practitioner that is too often ignored.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Russell. That’s a really interesting comment. I do find that, over time, working in a more open, connected way has improved my ability to link things – ideas, people, stories – in all parts of my life. “Deliberate practice” at looking for and making connections does indeed seem to yield results. And it’s making for a richer, more interesting way to live.

  4. Dennis Pearce says:

    Nice post, John. It brought back a memory from a long time ago when my sons were very small. I’m sure you know how parents of babies learn to tell the difference between a serious cry and one that just indicates discomfort. Well I was on a long airplane flight engrossed in a book when I started to notice in my peripheral vision these heads turning and nasty glares from the people around me. Eventually I realized that a newborn baby had been crying that “I’m not happy” cry, most likely from the change in air pressure, but I had been completely oblivious to it. I saw the mother was doing her best to calm the baby, so I went back to reading. I remember smiling to myself and thinking “that’s nothing for everyone to get upset about — it’s the sound of life!”

    Another time a friend and I were on the way to see an art exhibit we were really looking forward to, when we got stuck in an interstate traffic jam for over an hour because a truck somewhere up ahead had overturned. We were too late and missed the exhibit, but we had one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had while we waited, talking about all kinds of things.

    I think it’s really important to understand the difference between problems and inconveniences. Sometimes when things seem to be a mess because of circumstances beyond my control, I find it useful to step back and think “OK, this is the way the world is now, so (1) how bad is it really? (2) what’s still good about it? and (3) what can I learn from it?

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Dennis. I like those stories. I think they capture what every book on happiness seems to say: It’s not what happens to you that matters. What matters to you is your reaction to what happens to you.

  5. julianstodd says:

    Really nice reflective writing and great stories. I love how stories draw us in and hold our attention, moving us from the beach to the subway and, finally (inside your head!) to a moment of enlightenment. Thanks for another great weekend read! Best wishes, Julian

  6. Brendan Francis says:

    Riding the Subway was a nice reminder of how such a small gesture can brighten someone else’s day.
    I was reading your blog before taking my dogs out for a walk yesterday.
    In NY you are not going to have to walk too far to come across one of the potentially ‘crazy’ people so unfortunately I am often guilty of avoiding eye contact and keeping to myself.
    While I was waiting outside a shop for my wife I noticed an elderly man who was not looking after himself too well looking at my dogs…pretty much the type of person that is usually avoided by the masses in NY.
    I said hi, asked him (Chuck) if he wanted to pat the dogs and ended up having a nice conversation with Chuck for 10 mins and learned he was from Jersey, served in the army and had always had dogs in his life until his last one (Mr. Jinks) passed away…he had a big smile on his face while he was reminiscing and while my dogs were jumping up and licking him.
    My wife came out and spoke with him for a few minutes.
    It wasn’t about us but we felt better for having made Chuck’s day a bit brighter.
    He didn’t want anything, just someone to acknowledge him.
    You don’t always have 10mins to stop but a little bit of acknowledgement and a smile can make the difference for someone else.
    Thanks for the reminder!

    • John Stepper says:

      That’s a lovely story, Brendan. Reading the comments here makes me want to collect more of these vignettes somehow. Maybe we could present them in such a way that we’re reminded how easy it is to bring light to our life and to the lives of others.

      • Brendan Francis says:

        Sounds like a good idea…would be nice to think that we could all take 5 mins a day to brighten the day of someone we don’t know.

  7. Really great piece, John. I, too, have noticed how difficult it has become to “stop and smell the roses” nowadays. I know I spend far too much time living in my own head, worrying about and trying to solve all of life’s little problems like (excel more at my job; be a better dad; improve my marriage; be a better person; find inner peace….the list goes on), and it frustrates me that I’m not more adept at finding or making those little moments which help to bring clarity to what’s really important in life. And yet there are days where I guess I just wake up on the “right” side of the bed, and find “moment” opportunities all around me, and ripe for the picking. The obvious answer is that these opportunities are all around me, all the time; I just need to re-frame my mental viewpoint and seize them. Clearly, I need more work at controlling my own “hamsters”, and keeping them from dragging me off into the weeds, but it’s encouraging to read how you approached this same challenge with something so simple as helping someone in need. ‘Cause let’s face it; there’s no shortage of that around any of us.

    • Some of the stories about doing small things for others reminds me of this Liberty Mutual ad, which shows how each small act witnessed can inspire another person to do the same and around it goes.

      John, your other point about holding onto something negative reminded me of a great quote from Nelson Mandela:
      “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” If I let myself go over and over a slight or a wrong done by another person, it is only hurting me, because they are certainly not anguishing over it!

      • John Stepper says:

        Nice range of references, Melody! Amazing how most of us are frantically looking for the keys to happiness while we’ve been holding them in our hands then entire time.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Tim. I think another key to improvement is not to worry how adept you are but focus instead on simply getting better. If I compare myself to Thich Nhat Hanh, it’s hopeless. But if I compare my progress to me a year ago, I’m getting better. And if I keep practicing, I’ll get better still.

      Viewed that way, I try to channel my frustration at myself into greater effort instead of self-flagellation. Much nicer. 🙂

  8. rainabba says:

    I love how this piece brings so many ideas and tools together. A good way to help others like myself begin to imagine how a small change here and little tool there can add up to a higher quality of life.

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