Along the edge of my wife’s garden, spilling onto the brick walkway, grow the peonies planted more than ten years ago. She started the pink flowers with rhizomes from her mother’s garden. Those in turn were transplanted from her grandmother’s farm sixty years earlier. Telling this story the other day, she said to a visitor, "These are precious to me."
"Rare," "beautiful," "out of the ordinary " are various expressions describing the things of our world that we elevate to the category of "precious," elements of our life to be treasured and cared for, not to be squandered or treated carelessly. We assign this quality to material items considered unique and priceless. In addition, it is the value we give to intangible feelings - respect, affection, confidence - that provide us a sense of optimism and buoyancy. Our health also becomes "precious" when we become aware how vulnerable it is.
On a larger scale, people everywhere, with few exceptions, feel strongly that life itself is "precious." Yet, do we really understand why we feel this way? What is our meaning - what can we point to - when we say, "Life is precious?" How can we appreciate the real basis for the priceless nature of life?
Life is more than personal possessions. It is not limited to having material things, good feelings, and good health. Only when our understanding of life goes beyond possessions - tangible or intangible - can we allow our self to see life’s universal, spiritual nature. This seeing, and the spiritual attitude and practice that makes it possible, is itself precious.
Life is the unfolding of something very big, even though we cannot say precisely what that is. The unfolding has no name, yet we may assign a tentative name, such as God, Buddha, Big Mind, or the ground of being. The name we give is unimportant. What is vital is our understanding of its nature.
In the universal sense, life has neither beginning nor end. To see it as if it did is to put artificial limits on it. When that happens, life appears to us in the shape of a game, a project, or a combat. Mistaking the shape, interpreting life as if it were a game, we become concerned with, "Am I winning?" And at the end we ask our self, "Did I win?" This misunderstanding of the true nature of life can provide neither satisfaction nor appreciation of life’s true precious quality. How is it possible to "win" something limitless?
The complexity and pace of our modern world distracts us from recognizing the truth of the life we have. We are under continual pressure to "win" in the narrowest sense. Attempting to grasp the intangible "win" produces confusion and alienation. We can "win" by not being concerned with winning, by not troubling our self about "scoring, " or obtaining a personal possession. Then we can start to understand the meaning of "precious" and what life is all about.
It is never too late to arouse the mind of spiritual practice. The arousal starts with the subtle feeling that life’s precious nature is rooted in the non-material and non-emotional, beyond what we can see, touch, or feel. It is the desire to see life as it really is, to fully embrace it, to trust it even when the material and emotional things that we cherish in the everyday sense are denied or taken from us. It’s starting point is the dim but emerging awareness that everything in life is sacred.
Spiritual practice is reflected in the mindfulness and respect we bring to our daily activities and relationships, in avoiding careless judgments, words, and actions. Carelessness and disrespect for each other and for what we do is like tossing trash into a clean, life-giving stream. Being responsible for the consequences of what we do or say is how we avoid polluting our world, recognizing its precious nature.
All things in our world - including those we are not fond of - are precious. This understanding grows as we practice accepting, with grace, whatever comes our way: delights, difficulties, confusion, heartbreak, joy, wisdom. When we know that this is our work - our spiritual practice - we discover friendship and compassion for everything, without exception. However, without open-minded acceptance, we can become overwhelmed with grasping.
The world we live in is all-inclusive. There are trees, friends, animals, parents, rocks, oceans, competitors, grandchildren, strangers, storms, sunlight. Everything is precious; everything is sacred. Without the vision that comes from spiritual practice, we forget the nature of our world, leaving only a small view of things and of our self. To appreciate the inherent precious quality of our world is to a have a large, unlimited vision of the meaning of our life.