What is it that you most want in the world?
God, where do I start?
Name one thing.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask the universe to live in a town with at least one coffee shop.
Yeah. I think I could make do with that.
This is a conversation I’ve had with one of my best friends. Not once. This conversation is like a mantra or a pop song—repeated with frequency and passion and often cutting out due to unreliable cell phone service. Hello?
My best friend’s been through a traumatic few months, particularly with her career. She’s a college professor by trade, writer by nature, and recently neither seemed to be working out as she would like. Having sat at her writing table, tea in cup, for many frustrating hours with nothing to show for it. Even though her current contract at a university gave her one more year of employment, she was ready for the next phase, to set her sights upon a new spot on the career horizon.
She was experiencing a growing sense of inertia where she was. Her fear was that she was stuck, and that all too soon she would be left without any job at all. But she thought she had a fairly good shot at finding a better job, so the following months were spent sending out resumes and shopping for poly-blend interview suits online.
Interviews that came and went with no news. Days went by, then weeks, and at the other end of the telephone line the gravity upon her became audible, compressing and lowering her voice. She’d gone from feeling confident that she could change her fate, that she could free herself from her rut, to feeling like a woman with no options. She felt unwanted and unable to do anything about it. The phone calls became less hopeful, more desperate and tearful.
I don’t know what else to do, she said. I’m begging the universe to help me.
It was more than begging; there were candles, icons, and third eye-opening incense. My friend is a fairly practical person who doesn’t spend much time calling on divine forces. She spends little time worshiping elephants and goddesses because she’s always cleaning out the cat litter or grading the endless stacks of student papers. She’s searched, spiritually, but she’s never been fully committed to finding any specific answers. Suddenly, she’d developed a desperate need for certainty and guidance from whatever is out there.
So many of us find ourselves in this situation. Whether it’s searching for a job or finding a mate or standing by the hospital bed of a loved one, we find ourselves in a negotiation process with the universe. Many of us are nonbelievers, skeptics, doubting Thomases. The decision to begin the negotiation process with some nebulous force, something we aren’t even sure exists, is the first hesitant step toward belief.
Seekers aren’t really born so much as they are created. If you read the books of the great sages and swamis and nuns and monks, you will find that all of them describe a moment of crisis. Though many of them start with a strong spiritual hunch, it’s failure and confusion that leads them to belief. Negotiation with the deity, demands that they show themselves on earth, is a way of cementing that belief. Even if they suspect there may be nothing to show.
I’ve known so many former atheists, myself included, who found their spiritual paths reluctantly. It’s one thing to not believe in a spiritual force when you and everyone you love is healthy. When you aren’t drowning in the chaos of of the world, it’s easy to stand firmly on the shore. You can actually convince yourself that you understand the most complicated mysteries of existence. Then you get your ass kicked by this world and it’s off the shore, off the pier, belly-first into the chop and the deep end, and from there it’s usually out of the frying pan and into the flames.
My friend was going through what billions of people around the world are going through. Yoga classes are packed with these new pilgrims. The overworked mothers, the terrified college students, the self-hating souls, the injured athletes. So many people I know came to yoga because they had run out of answers at a point when they most needed them. For a lot of new yogis, the beginner class package is like buying a ticket to Oz. They want to know who the hell is behind that curtain.
And in true and good fashion, my friend found that all her incense-burning and offers of precious gems to Ganesh weren’t doing much. The rejections piled up and she took to piling herself in bed with a stack of books with the cats by her feet. The universe wasn’t going to come through.
I fucking give up, she said. All her ridiculous pleading and begging, all her crafty negotiations, left her feeling hopeless. If there truly was something behind the curtain, why wouldn’t it show itself by giving her a job?
And then something strange happened. It wasn’t strange like Jesus appearing in a piece of wheat toast, or like Harvard calling with a tenure-track position. It was the sudden appearance of a coffee shop on the downtown streets of her town. She’d been driving to work and there it was where an empty space had been. It was a burning bush with two sugars and a vegan brownie.
Down through the years it had been her most consistent wish. She’d said over and over how she could live anywhere through almost anything if there was just a small space with some tables and the persistent noise of coffee grinders. In all of her fantasies about a new job, it was the potential coffee shops that got her most excited. She imagined herself writing for hours on a wooden chair by a window, the light of her new life flooding in. A place of absolute peace.
My friend understood that the universe hadn’t answered her call for that perfect job. It probably wasn’t the universe that put that coffee shop on her downtown corner, either. What she’d been given was an opportunity to embrace her current situation simply as it was. All the dreams of packing up a U-Haul to another town, another life, were just that—dreams. As she walked through the doors of the coffee shop, she realized the perfection of this single moment. She’d found a still point in the middle of a whirlpool.
This is the thing about negotiating with the universe: you won’t get what you want. Many of us don’t even truly understand what it is that we want. We crave worldly success, only to find that it was actually love that we wanted. We crave beauty, only to find how fleeting it is. We want all our loved ones to live forever, but it is often through their deaths that we understand what their lives meant to us.
Spiritual practice doesn’t erase painful events from our life stories. There are places—padded cells, spas, the womb—where we are somewhat protected from the world. These are temporary spaces designed to prepare us to go back into the whirlpool of human experience. We can’t escape death no matter how many candles we light. Pain and joy are written into the contract from our first breaths to our last. But within all of this there are these little bursts of light, like sparklers from some distant and divine party. A reminder that someone or something is there amidst all the seeming darkness.
Celebrate the small moments of mysterious intervention. You’ll find hope in the coffee shop and the unexpectedly large tax return and all the little details that often go unappreciated. If you are looking for the big I am God and here I am in a piece of toast moment, you’ll be missing the perfectly crafted latte that just appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Namaste.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta