Summer provides a time to slow down and carefully observe things I might not otherwise notice: the marbled-green beauty of a whole watermelon, the daily changing kaleidoscope of nail polish on my daughters’ flip-flopped toes or the hollow crash of clams falling from the heavens.
Seafood falling from the sky! Perhaps the apocalypse was upon us and the end of the world as we know it would begin right here on the Connecticut shoreline. As I surveyed the beach more closely, I noticed a seagull with a clam the size of a Volkswagen Beetle wedged in her beak. Suddenly, I’m mesmerized by the seafood conundrum. The seagull’s beak is not strong enough to pry open her supersized dinner, so she awkwardly flaps her wings to drag the leaden cargo upward like a gawky adolescent at a seventh-grade dance. Miss Piggy must have been watching seagulls when she famously said, “Never eat more than you can lift” because when the famished bird’s meal had become too heavy to drag higher, she released the bivalve bomb onto the concrete below with a spectacular smash.
On the one hand, I felt compassion for the clam wondering what it must be like to be kidnapped, dropped to your death, and eaten whole. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the cleverness of seagulls who are often maligned as mere flying sea rats. As I watched this spectacle of beach life, I wondered what lesson could be gleaned from this classic and cruel Darwinian moment. I smile to myself and think, “Sometimes you’re the seagull and other times you are the clam.” If you learn to look, you’ll see universal wisdom in any and every moment. I’m still absorbing at least three lessons from this salty dance of life and death.
1. Use What You Have
Maybe you’re like me. You’re sensitive to the suffering of the world and feel its weight on a daily basis. You notice how unfair and random life seems to be — from the bottom to the top of the food chain. The countless injustices of war, racism, chronic poverty, and systemic inequity smolder within you until flaring up and flaming out indignantly. The innocent suffer, and the guilty elude justice. Global problems intertwine with personal problems as you survey your own busyness, your messy house and your vague sense of uneasiness. You blame the kids, your partner, your parents, the government, Wall Street, technology, world leaders, and God. If only you had more money, more respect, more power, more sleep, and more free time, you could overcome your powerlessness and really make a positive impact in your family and in the world. At best, this is a poor personal excuse; at worst, it’s toxic trap implicating you in the suffering of others.
The seagull doesn’t waste its time wishing it were a falcon or complaining that it doesn’t get the same respect as the bald eagle. The seagull simply uses what it has available. We can look around at what’s missing in our lives, or we can use the modest resources we have to create love, connection, and compassion in the world. What makes life rich and soulful is not acquired possessions but shared presence. Being present to others is the most powerful resource that we already have to bring healing to our world. There is power in your presence beyond your imagining. So, show up as fully as you can to your kids, your parents, the cashier at the grocery store, the familiar stranger in town, and the janitorial staff at work. Use what you already have: your attention and your presence.
2. The Inevitability of Loss
As I watched the clam be devoured in a single gulp from the comfort of my beach chair, I remember that life is painful. No amount of protective shell can shield us from this reality. We get hurt, we hurt others, and we die. No matter what, this is our fate. Hopefully, in between, we also love, laugh, rest, eat chocolate, and serve others. As a practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, I cherish these practices because they’re nothing special — they’re completely ordinary and don’t require any special set of conditions. Mindfulness practice offers us a deep reservoir of presence no matter what is happening. The most sturdy and reliable resource we have is the power of our presence to meet reality as it is. We suffer to the degree that we try to avoid or numb ourselves to what is actually happening in the moment. Mindfulness does not exclude any situation, but includes the entire spectrum of the human experience by bringing curiosity and compassion to whatever is arising, however painful or disappointing. This willingness to meet the pain of life with honesty and courage is at the heart of our practice.
3. The Nourishment of Vulnerable Places
While it’s not much consolation to the clam, there is nourishment for the seagull if she can get past the clam’s outer armor. The inside of the clam is the place of vulnerability, and protecting the soft inner core is a matter of life or death. Because we fear the seagulls of life, we clam up and insulate ourselves. We expend a great deal of energy protecting ourselves from the imagined or real judgments of others. Like the clam, we create a protective exterior shell, a forward-facing facade to hide behind. This mask is constructed with accomplishments, intelligence, appearance, cleverness, judgments, political affiliation, nationality, and any kind of external trappings. The false self is not the evil self; it's just not the true self. It doesn’t reveal the fullness of who we truly are.
The world is waiting for us to summon the vulnerability to open our shell and reveal who we really are. While coerced vulnerability is always unjust, chosen vulnerability is true gift of self to another and a vital nourishment to the spiritual life. The purpose of the contemplative life, cultivated by intentional spiriual practices such as mindfulness and meditation, is to slowly dissolve the shell of the false self. While the false self will always be with us in some form, we seek through spiritual practice to lessen its command of our life over time. Sometimes this dissolution of the false self is gradual and hardly noticeable; at other times, it feels like life is sending you into a free fall like a clam dropped from the sky.
Vulnerability does not mean subjecting yourself to unsafe conditions, the cruelty of others, or injustice. Keeping yourself safe is an important life skill born of experience, intuition, and self-knowledge. True vulnerability means surrendering the impulse to clam up for fear of being hurt, looking silly or feeling ashamed. We soften the heart and lower our defenses so we can live more fully from a place of authenticity and truth that leads to joy and peace.
So, as your summer unfolds, look closely at the world around you. See what wisdom emerges from the beach or the lake or the sky above. There are universal lessons waiting to be revealed if we open ourselves to each moment and learn to see.