“Never waste any amount of time doing anything important when there is a sunset outside that you should be sitting under!” ~C. JoyBell C.
“You need to just be.”
At the time I didn’t understand my teacher’s words. My identity entwined itself with my ambition.
I fought inner emptiness by overloading my calendar.
I fought loneliness by never leaving time to be with myself.
I fought depression by trying to do more.
None of it worked.
And the answer repeated itself, quiet and strong, “You need to just be.”
Fortunately, my teacher was too wise to only tell me to do less when she could see that I was clinging to busyness like a life preserver. Instead, she gently showed me where to look for more.
These are some of the lessons I learned more than thirty years ago when my teacher challenged me to meet her in an empty lot, walking distance from my house, on the side of a busy suburban Phoenix road. Day after day, we watched the sunset there together.
Lesson #1: Live deep.
There were beautiful parks in the area where I lived. Most people would have chosen a professionally landscaped setting, complete with benches, and maybe even a fountain, to watch the sunset.
But that was too much like my overly manicured life.
Instead, we sat in the dirt. The only landscaping to speak of was the sagebrush that dotted that lot.
And it was magical.
Driving by that empty lot at fifteen miles per hour, it seemed desolate. Dry. Unforgiving. But moving through it step by step, I discovered life.
I watched the birds and lizards. I discovered tiny desert flowers. The smell of sage permeated everything. Beneath the surface of what appeared dead was the beauty I had been searching for.
My feet on the ground there took me, step by step, out of the insecurities and discouragement in my own head. Slowly, wordlessly, I began to believe in something alive and beautiful in myself too.
Beneath the layers of busyness and loneliness and pain, I glimpsed happiness, and I was ready to live it again.
Lesson #2: The best part of the day probably isn’t in the schedule.
Life is a process, not an event.
Yet our culture socializes us to function as though joy can be predicted, scheduled, and completed in orderly increments.
Sunsets rebel against google calendar.
The time of the sunset shifts from day to day as the season progresses. The only way to experience the sunset is to be mindful of what is happening in the natural world, and to adapt.
It’s practice for life, when people need us at inconvenient times, and opportunities emerge when we least expect them.
It’s an invitation to listen to our own overscheduled hearts. To notice the rhythms of our spirits—whether we need quiet or company, challenge or rest.
Most of all, it’s a reminder to open to the happiness right in front of us.
I had gone through life telling myself I would be happy once I reached the next milestone or achieved the next goal. Problem was, the finish line was constantly shifting. As soon as I reached one goal, I replaced it with another.
Watching sunsets interrupted that pattern by literally interrupting whatever else I had scheduled and training me to stop, look around, and notice beauty.
How much happiness are you missing because you don’t have time to notice it?
Lesson #3: It’s about the unfolding.
Let’s face it: No one cares whether you watch the sunset. It’s not an accomplishment to list on a resume, or even an item for a checklist.
And that’s the point.
The value in watching a sunset comes in being present through the process. And every part of that process is beautiful. Life is the same.
Often, we want to skip ahead through the parts that are slow or painful or lonely, and to freeze at a single moment of achievement. Or ideally, consummate joy.
But life keeps moving. And that’s okay.
Until my teacher’s invitation, I don’t think I had ever taken the time to sit and watch an entire sunset from beginning to end. I certainly didn’t do it regularly.
On a good day I might have glanced up and noticed a moment of beauty in the western sky. I might even have snapped a picture. But then I went back to whatever I was doing.
Watching the whole process is different.
I learned that there is no single moment. The evening horizon is a constantly shifting tapestry. And it’s the interplay of light and dark, of clear sky and clouds, that creates the beauty.
So too in our lives. Joy unfolds in a mixture of light and darkness, and every part of the journey is beautiful.
Lesson 4: Create memories.
Many things about my teenage years are a blur. But not those evenings sitting under a sagebrush watching the sunset. Relationships are nourished and lessons transmitted when we intentionally create memories.
My teacher was good at that.
When I visited her home, she served me tea. That was because you can’t gulp hot drinks, she explained. And slowing down enough to gradually sip helps you to just be.
We planted tomatoes together, and then sat in the grass, and watched birds and earthworms. In retrospect, I don’t think she gardened regularly besides that experience with me. But she wanted me to feel dirt on my hands. To smell sunshine. To remember feeling a connection with nature, and with myself.
Once she turned up the air conditioning and lit a fire in her fireplace in the Phoenix summer heat. She did it because she thought I needed the meditative experience of sitting by a fire, regardless of the 120-degree temperature outside.
And although I now choose to sit by a river or the ocean when I want a to feel meditative in the summer, in creating that experience for me she made a lasting impression.
People matter. Our emotional well-being matters. The moments we create together matter.
Years later, when I had moved several states away and was feeling lost and discouraged for different reasons, my teacher packaged a giant sagebrush in a huge oversize box and shipped it to me.
For a reminder.
Lesson #5: Ending are also beginnings.
When you’re sitting in the desert, listening to the insects, watching the evolution of the evening sky, there is no ending. As the colors of the day fade, the stars begin to appear. And as the desert cools from the daytime sunshine, nocturnal animals bring increasing life and energy.
I realized that even though I came to watch the close of day, there was never a final curtain. There was only a continuation.
Life is like that too.
But even the changes that seem abrupt and complete—like the difference between day and night—also have strands of continuity and connection.
She taught me, without saying it, to look for opportunities for growth in my challenges, and to trust the process.
When my beloved teacher was diagnosed with cancer two decades later, she shared her hopes and reflections as she watched her own death approach. She was curious, open. In all of our conversations I didn’t hear her express fear about her future, although she was often concerned for me.
She shouldn’t have been.
She had given me the tools I needed twenty years earlier, in a dusty field, on the side of a road, in the fading light.