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An Animating Presence: Dani Shapiro on the Quest for a Connected Consciousness

The art of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue.

“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” physicist Margaret Wertheim asserted as she turned to Dante in reconciling science and spirituality. Centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, had articulated the same sentiment — and yet here we are today, we secular moderns, still struggling to find a form of spirituality without religion.

That’s what novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance, unselfconsciousness, and unaffected candor in Devotion (public library) — her moving memoir of the search for a sense of sacredness as a nonbeliever shackled by the tyrannical routines and responsibilities of contemporary adulthood, longing for some form of tangible assurance that there is a greater meaning to be savored.

Art by William Blake for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ Click image for more.

Jolted out of the trance of productivity by the prod of pain — her father’s untimely death, followed by the near-loss of her baby boy by a rare disease that strikes seven out of every million infants — Shapiro finds herself on the so-called spiritual path, skeptical of even its terminology. But the journey that unfolds is unexpectedly revelatory, her record of it profound without the slightest trace of precious.

As she plunges into the Eastern traditions — arguably the most common refuge for those disenchanted with the organized religions of the West and drawn to the philosophical aspects of spirituality — Shapiro is discombobulated to encounter the familiar demons of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which she had long left behind and was now, in the wake of her father’s death, trying to understand.

Amid a Metta meditation — Metta being the Buddhist practice of “inclining the mind in the direction of good will” — she is suddenly gripped with unease at the required chants:

After a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer. Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself: judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl once again, and I could barely sit still.

When she raises the question to the group, the teacher — none other than the venerable Sylvia Boorstein — explains that rather than metaphysical sorcery, the chants are meant to channel our deepest wishes. (“May I feel protected and safe,” this particular one goes. “May my life unfold smoothly with ease.”) Shapiro’s initial reluctance to give the notion of a wish much credence (“Wishing was something children did — wasn’t it?”) eventually gives way to grasping the deeper significance of these ritualistic incantations:

What did it mean to fervently, wholeheartedly name a desire? … To speak out of a deep yearning — to set that yearning loose in the world? … Could a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer? … Maybe it wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.

Writing itself, she comes to observe, works much like a prayer. With an eye to Buddhist scholar Steve Cope’s term for early meditation experiences — “the noble failure” — Shapiro, who has since expanded on this idea in the magnificent Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, reflects:

In novels — as in life — there is no perfection. We do the best we can with the tools we have at our disposal. Given that we are changing, the tools are changing, the thing itself is changing — there must be a moment when we stop. When we say, This is the best I can do for now… There is nobility in the effort, courage in the dailiness — the doggedness. It is a process of trying and failing. Of beginning again.

And so it is with the search for meaning — like writing, its rewards spring not from the finished product but from the integrity of the process, from the act of holding up one’s own end of the dialogue along its ongoingness.

Shapiro brushes with a stark testament to this as she nears the end of her journey. Over tea, a friend asks whether she has found an answer to her spiritual inquiry. She recounts the exchange:

There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief. Add on top of that trying to talk about personal belief with a very smart atheist. But I had some things to say. And wasn’t that the whole point, really? To opt back in? To form — if not an opinion — a set of feelings and instincts by which to live?

“I would say yes.” I took a leap. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the book of life.”

“So what exactly do you believe, then?” She sipped her tea and waited for a better answer. I wanted to tell her that exactly and believe don’t belong in the same sentence.

“I believe that there is something connecting us,” I said. “Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”

I looked at my friend for any sign of ridicule, but saw none. She was nodding.

“An animating presence,” she said.

That was as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt. Something — rather than nothing. While sitting in meditation or practicing yoga, the paradox was increasingly clear to me: emptiness led to fullness, nonthought to greater understanding.


I thought of Sylvia Boorstein’s elegant phrase: complicated with it. We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all — nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.

Devotion is a beautiful and deeply gratifying read in its entirety. Complement it with Shapiro on vulnerability and how to live with presence and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown, then revisit neuroscientist Sam Harris on cultivating nonreligious spirituality and Alan Lightman on finding transcendence in everyday life.

Published May 27, 2015




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