Daily you call me to pray — not the prayer of asking, of importunity, but the prayer of communion, of celebrating blood flowing through veins, of life moving in lungs and belly. In the cool of dawn this morning I slip outdoors for air plush with oxygen, newly breathed out from the green lungs of the trees. I gaze on the mist-shrouded pines and maples and scrub oaks, hear the neighbor’s rooster break into the sheared metal cry that is his morning’s call. The other birds are already about, the jay chicks now big as their parents, and noisier, in their cries to be fed. A fox bitch slinks back into the woods, cat-footed and deft as she threads her way through tall grass and brambles. Dampness clings to my skin. Life-prayer, what the birds and wind and water and morning light are saying.
I say “you” call me to pray: there’s a presence I address, though it’s not a person. I could call it the echo of listening, the ambit of my attention, some kind of answer or reverberation to the pressure of a human walking the land and caressing the world with hominid consciousness that wants to talk, to name, to engage, to encounter as a person, to bring down to size a world that resolutely will not yield to whim, or whimsy. But that’s not quite it, either. “You” is the best I can do, to honor and salute the world I encounter, particularly when it glows or sparkles or hums or burns. Others have called it god or gods, Spirit or numina. We know a little better, in some places at least, how names can trip us up. But names can be good talk. It is awen, too: that Welsh word for “inspiration” that is also the presence of Spirit.
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Wadin Tohangu comes unbidden, unless it’s a prayer to the universe which alerts him as well that I’m actually paying attention again. Fallow time has “done it,” though merely “going fallow” as I mentioned in the previous entry doesn’t cause a change to happen, but it often accompanies it. Something about the will is involved. Sometimes the greatest magic is to set aside the will and be open to change. I don’t like surrender because I can’t claim credit when the change comes. I want it to be under my control. Stereotypically to surrender is a male difficulty and a female strength, but there are plenty of strong-willed women who find surrender difficult, and weak-willed men who need to work on self-assertion. So that’s not it altogether either.
“Are you finished talking to yourself about this?” Wadin asks, his mouth crinkled in a smile. I realize he has been sitting there for some time now as I swam and splashed in my thoughts. I smile back, unable to respond right away — or rather, my mind spins over a thousand responses, none of them particularly graceful or useful or true. But I do know I’m glad he has come. That’s something I hold onto in gratitude, and the whirling of thought slows enough that I can say it.
“It’s good to see you.”
His smile widens — he seems perfectly at ease in the moment, as if he came expressly to do nothing else than sit and listen to me think. Not in an obtrusive way, not eavesdropping, but simply how he is, awake to what goes on around him.
“You’re struggling,” he says, “with how to talk about the will, and that’s also been a focus for you for some time.”
“That’s definitely true,” I answer. “I guess inner and outer worlds do line up from time to time.”
“What happens when they do?” he asks.
“I’m freed up to write about it, for one thing,” I say. “I get unstuck.”
“The stuckness often comes from pushing with the will,” he says. He leans forward a little, resting his elbows on his knees. “It’s a common confusion to think that will involves strain.”
“Sometimes we push through, and we can accomplish a lot. And athletes push against fatigue all the time,” I say.
He nods. “That’s true for the physical body, of course. Muscular effort moves objects.” He pauses before continuing.
“We feel pain and can push through it with the will. Sometimes that means we ‘win.’ And of course sometimes that means we end up with a sprain or torn ligament or some other injury, too.”
He gazes at me. “So what causes the difference?” he asks.
“I’d say, listening to the body. Not fighting it, but working with it.”
“Good,” he says. “Certainly listening can spare you injury or tension or strain.” He runs a sandaled toe over a design on the carpet, and I realize we’re sitting in my living room. I write “sitting in my living room,” and look up from the keyboard, and of course there’s “no one there.”
“Come back to our conversation,” he says, reaching to prod me with a forefinger. “There’s more to talk about.” He looks at me with interest. “What did that feel like just now, when you returned from ‘no one there’ to our meeting?”
“I could feel an energy shift,” say. “I got interested again. And I wanted to keep going.”
“All of these are important,” he says. “The shift is something you ‘do,’ but it’s not a strain or a push of what we normally call the ‘will.’ And your interest and curiosity also matter. They draw you in, rather than you pushing against resistance.”
I say nothing, waiting for him to continue.
“Imagination is effortless. You can ‘try to imagine,’ of course. Or you can simply imagine. This is the difference between will or imagination, and strain, which is what most people mean by ‘will’ or ‘willpower.'”
“What about people who say they ‘can’t’ imagine?” I ask.
“They’re usually telling the truth. Fear blocks them, or their straining against their habit or desire keeps them from accomplishing what they ‘try’ to do. That’s what they’re imagining instead. Imagination runs ahead of ‘will’ in that sense. It’s already ‘there,’ at work in the ‘future,’ long before ‘will’ arrives. While ‘will’ is still waking up, imagination has already constructed a palace or dungeon for you to inhabit, according to your focus. Not everyone imagines in pictures, of course. For many it’s often feeling instead. We already feel a certain way about something, and that ‘colors our experience,’ as we say.”
“But where’s the element of choice in that?” I ask. “It sounds like will or imagination is just a reaction to circumstances, rather than a conscious decision to focus on what we choose. Isn’t that the will? What we choose, rather than what we simply let happen?”
“Discipline of the imagination is the key to life,” he says, looking at me steadily. “What you attend to, what you look at or focus on, and how you look at it, determine your experience to a great extent. That’s the actual ‘will,’ not the strain to do something against our intention.”
“Would you explain that?” I say.
“Remember your own experience a short time ago,” he answers. “As you looked where I was sitting, you ‘realized’ that I ‘wasn’t there.’ Then your attention shifted, and our conversation continued. I’m ‘here,’ though I’m not ‘here.’ Which do you focus on, my presence or my absence?”
“You mean both are true?” I say.
“Yes. Though ‘true’ is a distracting word. You activate one or the other with your attention. That’s will, or intention.”
“But what about human suffering?” I say. “We don’t choose to suffer or experience hardship or disasters or …”
He was smiling at me again. “The challenge is that our habitual attention gives lasting reality to our imagination. ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,”* goes one way of expressing it. ‘What you do comes back to you.'”
“But what about people born into horrendous circumstances? You can’t say they imagined them into being!” I could hear the hint of outrage creeping into my voice. “The circumstances happened to them. They certainly didn’t choose them. Who would choose pain and suffering?”
“That’s an important question,” he says. “Do you know anyone who keeps making ‘bad choices,’ as they are called? And keeps getting painful results? That’s a fairly severe example of such choices at work. Of course we often face the accumulated consequences of long imagining. Lifetimes of imagination can solidify into exceptionally firm and unyielding circumstances. In such cases, an hour or day or even a year of change and effort may bring only surface alteration. Deeper transformation can take longer.”
“Aren’t we blaming the victim in such cases?” I say.
“You see, there is no blame here. We are talking about growth. You may know the story of the Galilean master who is questioned about the man born blind. “Who sinned?” his followers asked him. ‘The man himself, or his parents — what caused him to be born blind?’ And the Master answers them and says, ‘Neither one. All this happened so that the work of God might be shown in his life.’** A circumstance can be destiny, and we can lament limitation, or it can be opportunity, and we can move and build from there. It depends on which direction you look. One way to understand it is that a disciplined imagination is one that is ready to accomplish the ‘work of God.’ Imagination is a powerful tool of Spirit.”
“But where does it all start?” I say.
“Often the fledgling falls from the nest and learns to fly the ‘hard way,'” he says. then pauses at my expression.
“But gravity is not ‘evil,” he continues, “though it may hurt, if the chick tumbles onto a branch or onto the ground. But when the eagle has mastered using gravity to move through the air, it can soar.”
“Is that the price we pay?” I say.
“You hoped it would be painless, I see,” he says, smiling again. “Pain does get the attention in a way nothing else can. Maybe that’s why it’s still useful as a spiritual tool.”
“Pain as a tool? I’ll have to think about that some more.”
“You think a lot. Everything can be a tool,” he says. “You just need to decide how to use it, rather than getting stopped by it.”
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Updated 30 Sept. ’14