Persistence   Leave a comment

Persistence, and its twin patience, may be our greatest magic.  Sacred writings around the globe praise its powers and practitioners. So it’s hardly surprising, here in the too-often unmagical West, with its suspicion of the imagination, and its demand for the instantaneous, or at least the immediate, that we are impatient, restless, insecure, harried, stressed, whiny, dissatisfied and ungrateful.  We bustle from one “experience” to the next, collecting them like beads on a necklace.  The ubiquitous verb “have” leaves it mark in our speech, on our tongues:  we “have” dinner, we “have” class or a good time, we even “have” another person sexually, and one of the worst sensations is “being had.”  We do not know self-possession, so other things and people possess us instead.

The “slow food” movement, the pace appropriate for savoring, craftsmanship, care, reflection, meditation and rumination (slow digestion!) all run counter to the ethos of speed, promptness, acceleration that drive us to a rush to orgasm, speeding tickets, the rat race, stress-related illness, and so on.  None of these problems or the observations about them are new, of course.  But we remain half-hearted in our efforts or understanding of how to “pursue” their remedy.  We chase salvation as much as anything else, as a thing to collect or gather or purchase so we can be about our “real” business, whatever we think that is.  Spirituality gets marketed along with orange juice.  For a sum, you can be whisked off to a more exotic locale than where you live your life, spend time with a retreat leader or guru or master or guide, and “have” (or “take”) a seminar or class or workshop.

Anyone who has adopted a spiritual practice and stuck with it has seen benefits.  Like regular exercise, it grants a resilience and stamina I can acquire in no other way.  I sit in contemplation and nothing much happens.  A week or a month goes by, and my temper might have subtly improved.  Fortunate coincidences increase.  My dream life, or a chance conversation, or a newspaper article, nudges me toward choices and options I might not have otherwise considered.  But usually these things arrive so naturally that unless I look for them and document them, I perceive no connection between spiritual practice and the increased smoothness of my life.  From a slog, it becomes more of a glide.  But the very smoothness of the transition makes it too subtle for my dulled perceptions at first.  It arrives naturally, like the grass greening in the spring, or that gentle all-day snow that mantles everything.

I abandoned a particular daily practice after many years, for complicated reasons deserving a separate post, and I needed only to read the notebooks I kept from that earlier time to recall vividly what I had lost, if my own life wasn’t enough to show me.  My internal climate faced its own El Nino.  I was more often short with my wife, mildly depressed, more often sick with colds, less inspired to write, less likely to laugh, more tired and more critical of setbacks and annoyances.  Set down in writing this way, the changes sound more dramatic — didn’t I notice them at the time? — but as a gradual shift, they were hardly noticeable at any one point.  I still had my share of good days (though  I didn’t seem to value them as much), and my life was tolerable and rewarding enough.  “But I was making good money!” may be the excuse or apology or justification we make to ourselves, and for a time it was true enough of me.  Then came the cancer, the near-breakdown, the stretch of several years where I seemed to move from doctor to doctor, test to test, treatment to treatment.  If you or anyone you know has endured this, you get what I’m talking about.  It’s distinctly unfun.  And while I won’t say lack of practice caused this, it’s an accompanying factor, a “leading indicator,” a constituent factor.  Doctors might very profitably begin their diagnoses with the question, “So how’s your spiritual practice?”  Our spiritual pulse keeps time with our physical lives.  They’re hardly separate things, after all.  Why should they be?

In the story of Taliesin I mentioned in my last post, the boy Gwion, so far from the future Taliesin he will become, is set by the goddess Cerridwen to watch a cauldron as it cooks a magical broth meant to transform her son Afagddu, a mother’s gift to her child.  A year and a day is the fairy-story time Gwion spends at it.  A full cycle.  The dailiness of effort and persistence.  The “same-old,” much of the time.  Gwion’s a servant.  The cauldron sits there each morning.  The fire beneath it smoulders.  Feed the fire, stir the liquid.  It cooks, and Gwion “cooks” along with it, the invisible energy of persistence accumulating as surely as the magical liquor boils down and grows in potency.  Through the spring and summer, insects and sweat.  Through autumn and winter, frost and chill and ice.  The cauldron has not changed.  Still at it?  Yes.  The broth slowly thickens as it bubbles and spatters.

One day a few drops (in some versions, three drops) fly out onto one of Gwion’s hands, burning.  Instinctively he lifts the hand to his mouth, to lick and soothe it with his tongue.  Immediately the magic “meant for another” is now his.  He did, after all, put in the time.  He sat there daily, through the seasons, tending the cauldron, stirring and keeping up the fire, swatting insects, breathing the smoke, batting sparks away, eyes reddened.  Yes, the “accident” of the spattered drops was at least partly the result of “being at the right time in the right place.”  It is “luck” as well as “grace,” both operative in his life.  Part, too, was the simple animal instinct to lick a burn.  And the greater portion was the effort, which catalyzed all the rest into a unified whole.  Effort, timing, luck, chance, grace:  the “package deal” of spirituality.

And the consequence? For Gwion, his growth has just begun.  It is his initiation, his beginning.   In his case it distinctly does NOT mean an easier path ahead for him.  In fact, just the opposite — more on that in a coming post.

The Hopi of the American Southwest call their ritual ceremonial pipe natwanpi, “instrument of preparing.”  The -pi suffix means a vehicle, a means, a tool.  Tales like this story of Gwion can become a natwanpi for us, if we choose — part of our preparation and practice, a tool, a way forward.

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Fast food

Transformation

Hopi blanket

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