Selection from


Summer's Fullness

When we were children, summer lasted forever. The days stretched out. The light lengthened. The world was playful, carefree, dream-like, endless. We were alive—with playmates real and imagined. And, at moments, we felt we could talk to the trees and the birds and all the other creatures above and below and around us. All were our kin. And this included all the elements: Wind in trees and in the tall grass. Waters of creek or stream, river or ocean. Rocks in gardens or on cliffs. The fiery sun. The languid clouds. The night sky too. Everything companioned us in a time out of time, where the heart ruled.

From this summer lyric, let us pick three images to dwell with: the sun, the heart, and relational life.

First, the sun with its light and warmth. Shining on all of us. Suggesting, in summer, fullness, fulfillment, completion. Nothing left out.

Second, the heart, calling us to care for the community from friendships to family to larger communities. Wholeheartedly, to invite each of those communions to be heart whole.

A morning poem (gatha) from the community of Thich Nhat Hanh says:

Waking up this morning, I smile
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

The first line sounds the note of the heart—“waking up . . . I smile.” Wakefulness and joy. The last line reminds us that the heart is in service of our life with others. In fact, the heart promises partnership whether in the midst of joys or sorrows.

Third, our relational life extends the resonances of the sun and the heart. We might say, “In the beginning is relationship.” We enter the world in the care of others and we learn to become, in our turn, caregivers. Again and again, we are reminded of how intertwined with others we are. We occupy a unique place in the great web of all life. Unique, yes. In the great web, yes. Holding both aspects simultaneously. As an ancient text expresses it:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother
and even such a small creature as I
find an intimate place in its midst.

All people are my brothers and sisters
And all things are my companions.

So it was in the days of summer when we were children. Might it not be so again?

In this essay, I wish to explore three themes: (a) summer sun with its sense of fulfillment, (b) the heart with its care for the community and (c) the primacy of relationship throughout. I wish to explore them as they are manifest in all the stages of our lives, but especially in the later years. So let us return to the four stages of life as articulated in ancient India: Student, Householder, Forest Dweller, and Sage.


What might fulfillment mean for the Student-in-us?


What might fulfillment mean for the Householder-in-us?


What might fulfillment mean for the Forest Dweller-in-us?


What might fulfillment mean for the Sage-in-us?

Put differently, what is maturity or completion at each stage? What is the quality of heart at each stage? What is the quality of relational understanding and love at each stage?

As prelude, notice that our life can be seen in two arcs: the Arc of Ascent and the Arc of Descent. In a calendar year, spring and summer mark ascending or rising energy; autumn and winter signal descending or falling energy. We are more familiar with thinking of fulfillment in the rising energy of a life (stages of Student and Householder); we are less practiced at understanding fulfillment in the falling energy of life (stages of Forest Dweller and Sage).


The Arc of Ascent — when life energy is rising

Part I: Summer Fulfillment for the Student-in-us

When I taught university students I held out the ideal of a lifelong love of learning. Of course, both the love and the learning must be present, and this implies that the type of study must be such that it touches and enlarges the heart. I am pointing toward the “feeling intellect” or the “educated heart.”3 Dante speaks of an “intellectual light, light filled with love, love of true good, love filled with joy, joy surpassing every sweetness.”4

Rumi also speaks of this type of knowing when he writes:

There is a kind of Knowing that is a love.
Not a scholarly knowing. That minutiae-collecting
Doesn’t open you.
It inflates you, like a beard or a fancy turban.
It announces you, saying,

There are certain plusses and minuses
which we must carefully consider.

This other Knowing-Love is a rising light,
a happiness in both worlds.

Perhaps we could say that this love of learning is also a learning to love. Such study has a long history. In the monastic tradition, it was called lectio divina—a reflective and heart-felt tasting of the text for the sake of expanding and deepening our loves. So we begin with a type of reading—a type of studythat can nourish our soul and renew our spirit. Call it spiritual reading, yet the reality is much more. What we read must refresh the spirit and hence will usually come from the wisdom traditions. Here we are keeping company with the true, the good, and the beautiful in thought and art. And keeping company with the great-souled ones among us. How we read is equally important. The monastics spoke of tasting the words as if walking in the vineyard of the text.6 Sapere = to taste. Sapientia = wisdom. All this echoes Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” When we read in this fashion, it becomes a spiritual practice. Thus, this sort of learning to love is complete with every enlargement of our capacity to receive our life. Fulfilled and complete in each moment, ever-open to increase our longing.

Part I: Summer Fulfillment for the Householder-in-us

Summer shows up most intensely in the Householder. In other words, the sun, the heart, and life-in-relationship are at full strength in the Householder. Think first of the sun with its light and warmth. In one sense, the student comes to completion in the householder.7 The student takes his or her place in the world, learns to care for a circle larger than him or herself. This is most often seen as a couple expands their love to include children. The space of family. The sense of intergenerational time. I come to see myself in the midst of generations my parents and their parents and their parents, my children and their children and their children. The kingdom or “kindom”8 spreads out in space and time.

Freud defined maturity as the ability to love and the ability to work. Such maturity is seen in the image of the householder who takes on the care of a community and is aware of doing so. We can also imagine the householder whose household is an institutionperhaps a college or corporation. We can imagine taking on responsibility in varying ways for still larger unitsone’s nation or one’s planet. Indeed the word “ecology” derives from the Greek: “the study (logos) of one’s oikos or home.”

What is the fulfillment of the householder? In one sense, the householder is fulfilled in the children leaving home and taking on their own lives. In another sense, the family has simply changed form. As the shape of family shifts, new habits of heart and mind are called for to care for the whole and attend to its unique participants.

To have children, someone has said, is to live with your heart outside your body. Perhaps better, to live with our collective, familial heart outside our personal bodies. We have a new body and a new heart. Think of a garden where two apple trees grow. The garden is well-placed to take advantage of sun and water. The other plants are well chosen to complement the two central trees. Insects and birds, animals and people visit the garden. Gardeners care for the whole. They know when the context of the whole garden is healthy. They know when the individual members of the garden are flourishing. Robert Irwin placed this inscription on the garden he designed for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles:

Ever changing, never less than whole
Every present, never twice the same.

So it is with the garden of a friendship or a family or a college or corporation. The sun brings light and warmth. We who tend these gardens bring qualities of understanding and loving kindness, wisdom and compassion. The family then becomes a school of love inviting us to cultivate ways of coming to life more fully in all our relationships as they form and reform in kaleidoscope-like ways.

The Arc of Descent — when life energy is falling

Part I: Summer Fulfillment for the Forest Dweller-in-us

Consider the autumn phase of lifeafter retirement, let us say. The children are grown and one form of tending is over. Perhaps parents move over to become grandparents. They have entered the arc of descent; they experience falling energy. Shall we regard it as positive descent or negative decline? How shall we be with this phase? Is there fulfillment in letting go and letting be? How might we think about that?

For most of our lives, we have thought of fulfillment in terms of achievement, success, fame, and fortune. Upward and onward. Our culture reinforces this pattern. Is there fulfillment in simplifying? In returning to nature and to elemental things? Can one have less and less of certain things and more and more of other things?

A famous Zen story tells of a Western professor coming to Japan to study Zen. He meets with a Zen master and the master pours tea. And continues to pour the tea. As the cup overflows and runs over the table, the professor exclaims: “Stop. Can’t you see it’s full?” The Zen master smiles. “That’s how you are,” he responds. “So full of your own beliefs and opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”

With autumn comes acknowledging and letting go. Acknowledging life exactly as it is in its surface and depth. Acknowledging fundamental worth allows us to let go of what no longer serves. Opinions and beliefs. Ideas and identities. Roles and self-concepts. Acknowledging deep value, we can let go of what is not essential to us after all. In letting go and letting be, there is stillness and a space to see. As the song from Godspell has it: “to see Thee more clearly, to love Thee more dearly, to follow Thee more nearly -- day by day.”9

“My barn having burned, I can now see the moon.” So the Zen tradition puts it. Perhaps I realize I am more than my costumes. I come to see myself as a unique reflection of the great Mystery. Then I can become nothingnothing special. And at the same time, everything. For I identify with all beings and rest in peace. Between nothing and everything, I am again somethingone jewel in the great web of Indra reflecting the whole from a particular, unrepeatable perspective.

Part I: Summer Fulfillment for the Sage-in-us

I want to introduce the sage through a story:

For several weeks strange sounds had drifted over the mountains from the neighboring valley. There was much talk in the village about what these noises could be, but no one could make sense of them. Even the village elders had never heard anything like them. Finally one of the young men of the village was chosen to cross the mountains and see what was going on.

After two days of hiking he reached the mountaintop and saw in the valley far below a hive of activity with dozens of people working. As he drew closer, he saw a line of people, each with a huge stone in front of them that they were hammering and chiseling.

When he finally reached the valley floor he approached a young man at one end of the line and asked, “What are you doing?”

“Huh!” grunted the young man. “I’m killing time until I get off work.”

Puzzled, the hiker turned to the second person in the line, a young woman, and asked, “Excuse me, but what are you doing?”

“I’m earning a living to support my family,” she responded.

Scratching his head, the hiker moved on to the third person and asked again, “What are you doing?”

“I’m creating a beautiful statue,” came the reply. Turning to the next person, the hiker repeated his question.

“I’m helping to build a cathedral,” came the answer.

“Ah!” said the hiker. “I think I’m beginning to understand.” Approaching the woman who was next in line he asked, “And what are you doing?

“I am helping the people in this town and generations that follow them, by helping to build this cathedral.”

“Wonderful,” exclaimed the hiker. “And you, sir? He called to the man beside her.

“I am helping to build this cathedral in order to serve all those who use it and to awaken myself in the process. I am seeking my salvation through service to others.”

Finally the hiker turned to the last stone worker, an old, lively person whose eyes twinkled and whose mouth formed a perpetual smile. “And what are you doing?” he inquired.

“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The elder roared with laughter. “This ego dissolved into God many years ago. There is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God works through this body to help and awaken all people and draw them to Him.”10

The elder in this story holds the key to fulfillment in the stage of becoming a sage. What has happened is that the illusions of earlier yearsthe quest to be somebody and to live in the eyes of othersdrops away. Always you were loved. Always I was loved. Always we were at one with the source. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Or alternately somewhere to go and something to do, yet not under illusion.11 Seeing clearly. Acting joyfully. In alignment with the Great Work and the Great Love. So we might say: “I do not do the work for myself. I do not do the work by myself. I do not do the work with my own powers alone.”

A Jew, thinking of our true size, might recall the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa: “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and on the other: ‘For me, the world was created.’ From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.”12

A Christian might say: “I live, now not I, but the Christ lives in me.”13 Or think of Jesus’ daunting words to the rich young man: “Sell all you have. Give to the poor. . . . Come and follow me.”14 Indeed there is something terrifying in truly practicing the presence of God. And something paradoxical as well. How crazy. We have everything and keep looking for more!

A Muslim might remember Abu Sa’id saying: “A true saint is one who walks amongst the people and eats and dwells with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and socializes yet never forgets God for a single moment.”15

A Zen man or woman might say with Seng Ts’an: “When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have always been.”

Eckhart Tolle, in speaking of surrender and finding God, puts all our themes together in these beautiful words: “Suddenly, a great stillness arises within you, an unfathomable sense of peace. And within that peace, there is great joy. And within that joy, there is love. And at the innermost core, there is the sacred, the immeasurable, That which cannot be named.”16

A Taoist might smile or, with the sage of the cathedral builders, laugh out loud.

So the sages listen deeply to what is occurring within and around them. Not taking things personally, they are ready to act from a center beyond themselves, willing to reinforce movement where it is flowing well. Where is fulfillment here? It is paradoxically, Nowhere and Now Here.17 And there is a further paradox as well. On the arc of descent, there is no one to take credit, so all moves effortlessly. The sage can wear any costume and even play the fool.

Coda: Summer’s Lessons

We began with three signs of summerthe sun with its fulfillment. The heart caring for the whole. And everywhere seeing life as relationship, interconnection, interbeing.

First, we found that fulfillment was far from a once-for-all phenomenon. No fulfillment is the last word. We are:


never finished with learning.


never finished with caring for our sectors of the Great Web of Life.


never finished with letting go and letting be, simplifying and returning to nature.


never finished with practicing the presence of God or, alternatively, getting out of our own way so that the greater light and love may shine through.

Second, each season has a fulfillment on its own terms.


The “heart learning” of the student issues again and again in insight. As insight expands, so likewise does compassion. Each act of insightcompassion is cause for celebration.

bullet The caring of the householder issues in the well-being of the unit and those within its enveloping field. Think of the task of parenting. Think of the marker events of achievements as the children grow in understanding and love and the parents grow as well. Each act of caring that reaches a fulfillmenthowever temporaryis cause for celebration.

The acknowledgement and letting go of the Forest Dweller also has its fulfillment. Suppose that the Forest Dweller practices acknowledging and letting go of the three poisons: clinging, condemning, and identifying (with beliefs and roles, ideas, and identities). Suppose we notice we are clinging to a particular “story”a particular way of seeing and speakingone that causes unnecessary suffering to ourselves and others. We let it go. Each act of such “letting go” brings clarity and freedom and is cause for celebration.18


The sage practices the art of disappearing, in a paradoxical way. As more of my agenda falls away, there is more space for That Which Matters to show itself. Each moment of openness to the mystery is an instance of grace and a cause for celebration. Paradoxically, I become more of what I truly am in thus opening to the universe.

Third, I can get better at each stage through practice. And there is a sequence here.


The student drops a certain amount of egocentricity to allow the learning to be itself.


The householder drops a certain amount of egocentricity to allow, say, the family to be itself and flourish.


The Forest Dweller drops a certain amount of egocentricity by gaining skill in simplification and hence the natural world becomes more itself.


The sage becomes more skillful at a deeper allowingallowing and listening. And “all that is” flashes forth in glory.

“Me?” smiled the elder. “Doing?” The elder roared with laughter. “This ego dissolved into God many years ago. There is no ‘I’ left to ‘do’ anything. God works through this body to help and awaken all people and draw them to Him.”

In such a summer day, all is complete at every moment. And laughter rings out in celebration.



1 See Thich Nhat Hanh, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2006), p. 7.

2 Part of what is called the West Wall Inscription. It is from the office of Chang Tsai, an 11th century administrator in China.

3 The phrase “the feeling intellect” I take from Wordsworth; the phrase “the educated heart” I take from Robert Bly.

4 See Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, Canto 30, lines 40-42 describing the Empyrean. The lines are especially beautiful in the original: luce intellectual, piena d’amore; amor di vero ben, pien di letizia; letizia che trascende ogne dolzore.

5 See Coleman Barks, Delicious Laughter: Rambunctious Teaching Stories from the Mathnawi (Athens, GA: Maypop Books, 1990), pp 25-26.

6 Historian and social critic, Ivan Illich, speaks of this in his In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). The book, as a commentary on Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon, traces the culture of reading and the book from the twelfth century to the present.

7 In another sense, the student never stops learning—yet perhaps dies to one sort of learning to be reborn into another.

8 I came across the term “kindom” in reading colleague Rebecca Todd Peters’ book, In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization (New York: Continuum, 2004). Professor Peters writes: “I embrace Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s transformation of the concept of ‘kingdom’ and its patriarchal, hierarchical connotations to the concept of 'kindom,' which represents the ‘kinship’ of all creation and the promise of a just future. See Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-first Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 103 n8.” The comments occur in Peters’ book on p. 33, endnote 16 to chapter 2.

9 The song takes up a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester who prayed on his deathbed: “Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ. For all the benefits Thou hast given me. For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother. May I know Thee more clearly, Love Thee more dearly, Follow Thee more nearly.

10 Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999), pp. 60-61.

11 I am echoing here a song of the Community of Thich Nhat Hanh, which I learned at a retreat with Thây at Stonehill College in Easton, MA, August 12-17, 2007.

 “Happiness is here and now. I have dropped my worries.
   Nowhere to go, nothing to do. No longer in a hurry.”

And the second stanza:

 “Happiness is here and now. I have dropped my worries.
   Somewhere to go, something to do. But I don't need to hurry.”

12 The core story can be found in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948; 1974), pp.249-250. Buber refers to him as Simha Bunam of Pzhysha.

13 Gal. 2:20.

14 The story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels. See Mk 10:17-22, Mt 19:16-22 and Lk 18:18-23.

15 See Mohammad Ali Jamnia and Mojdeh Bayat, Under the Sufi’s Cloak: Stories of Abu Sa’id and His Mystical Teachings (Beltsville, MD: Writers’ Inc. International, 1995), p. 95

16 See Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1999), p. 187

17 I first came across this word play “Nowhere and Now Here” through my mentor Frederick Franck. See Frederick Franck, Pilgrimage to Now / Here (Maryland, NY: Orbis Books, 1974). This work becomes part of a larger work in Frederick Franck's Fingers Pointing toward the Sacred: A Twentieth Century Pilgrimage on the Eastern and Western Way (Junction City, OR: Beacon Point Press, 1994).

18 The three poisons of Buddhism appear as the second of the Four Noble Truths, after the first truth that there is suffering. I would distinguish necessary and unnecessary suffering. The three poisons are, in my way of phrasing things, the causes of unnecessary suffering. As we diminish them, we diminish unnecessary suffering. This is the third noble truth. The Eight-fold Path — the fourth noble truth — is the set of practices that keep us on the way of well-being. For more on these themes, see my book, Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Institute, 2004), especially chapter Eleven.