So your spiritual practice – i.e., your life – is going well, and moments of insight come to you like the god-kissed gifts they can be. The afternoon light slants a certain way, bees hum in late-summer flowers, the sweet air itself intoxicates you, and the golden pollen of August dusts your eyesight. It’s what the SBNRs, the spiritual-but-not-religious, count among the “treasures outside the walls” of a church or temple. Walk but a little deeper into such moments, hone that attention ever so finely, and you may more fully participate in what the Lakota call Great Mystery:
A bird sings in a nearby tree, and “in that moment you understand the singing of the bird … the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirs the leaves … it may even seem to you that you yourself are a word spoken by the sunlight” (A Wizard of Earthsea, pg. 35).
These words are slightly adapted from Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy, a source of wisdom I count among my teachers in book form. Such a charged sensibility as Le Guin describes glimmers at the edges of our awareness all the time.
Of course as we age, we learn how to turn it off, shut it down, dull its sheen into an occasional daydream, because in full spate it can remind us painfully of what we have forgone in our quest for other things we thought mattered more. Often I abandon the greater magic for the lesser – and the spell I cast, the one we cast together – works all too well. Exhibit A: just look around, or check out the shrieking headlines.
Or it’s nothing, as far as I can tell, that I’ve done, or left undone.
Nevertheless I search my thoughts and actions for a clue, plumb my mood and my intent, skim my spiritual journal (if I’ve been keeping it up to date, if I keep one at all).
And sometimes, as over this past six weeks, I know precisely where the imbalance lurks. I’ve just finished a teaching intensive, working with international high school students in a residential summer program, doing evening dorm duty, teaching classes, chaperoning day excursions – the kind of all-encompassing, immensely rewarding and exhausting work I’d already done for sixteen years, and which I’d consciously left two years ago. So I knew exactly what I was getting into.
And I could see how out of balance I was getting day by day, postponing regular and vital “inner time” till after the meeting about a troubled boy in the dorm, after I’ve had breakfast — I’m starving!, after teaching three straight classes, after grading this stack of papers I’d promised my kids for yesterday, after a nap I’ve got to have now, or I’ll fall over. After, after, after. Because after all, these things are i m p o r t a n t ! I’m serving, giving, helping, connecting, making a difference! (Best seduction ever.)
In the middle of all this supposed selflessness, my wife and I found our arguments escalating and cutting deeper. I shirked tasks and cut corners, pleading fatigue. And when I didn’t step forward quickly enough to deal with a cluster of dorm incidents — including sexual hazing, secret videotaping, and two fights, all within a 24-hour span, and the deans took over and dismissed my complaints that I was cut out of the solution they had to impose in my absence — I took refuge in ugly self-pity.
Of course, nothing new. As magician and poet R. J. Stewart characterizes it,
With each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Living Magical Arts, pgs. 20-21).
We respond to stories, to myth, because they are our own lives writ large. My little drama, echoed in epic. It does not pay for me to ignore the second teaching, after the pleasant mysticism of sunlight and glorious connection. “Once … he had felt himself to be a word spoken by the sunlight. Now the darkness also had spoken: a word that could not be unsaid” (A Wizard of Earthsea, 66).
O, shut up, says my severest critic. Can you contemplate getting over yourself for a moment?! The story’s a cool story, and your human pettiness is no different than most other people’s. There’s no cosmic link. Stop your posturing, make your point and be done with it already. So I will assay nothing better than to close, once more with Le Guin’s words — the epigram that opens her book.
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.
[Part 2 looks further at dark, light, and the field they appear on.]
/|\ /|\ /|\
Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam/Parnassus Press, 1984. Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. Living Magical Arts: Imagination and Magic for the 21st Century. London: Blandford, 1987. Images: A Wizard of Earthsea; Living Magical Arts.