Archive for the ‘yin and yang’ Tag

Deeper than Yin and Yang, Part 2: Playing the Field   Leave a comment

[Part 1]

willow-byardIt must have been early in its life that the 70 ft. trunk of the willow in our back yard split in three. In this picture I took yesterday, it almost looks like three separate trees. As an instance of the triads and triples and threes prominent in Druid tradition, the tree serves as a visual reminder every time I look out the bathroom window. (It’s also just a tree.) And whenever I’m there,  I can if I choose consider the willow. When I face a choice between two paths, often enough if I look patiently, a third option comes into focus, standing behind the two in front. Well, maybe not always as clear as these three trunks, but still …

As many others have before me, I find that looking for an “obscured third” factor or option is good discipline. While three no more constitute the whole field of the Possible than two do, seeking and finding a third is one step in a helpful direction. With bad math I can claim it’s 33% more accurate. At least it acknowledges complexity, and lets me read the contours of a moment or situation more fluidly, allowing for wider possibilities.

The ready tendency of human perception toward isolating pairs of opposites does of course simplify the messiness of the field. Of the universe, of life-as-we-know-it. As a preliminary take on what’s going on beyond our noses, it’s often not bad as a first approximation. But it’s only that. We all remember the crisis, the either-or, the hard call under stress, but far more often than we realize, the energies, potentials and tendencies in most situations are multiple rather than binary.

“I have to make more money or go into foreclosure. For here or to go? Either you’re with us or against us. If I don’t quit now, I never will. Yes or no? Soup or salad? Boy or girl? Either you believe in God or you don’t. Liberal or conservative? Thin crust or deep-dish?” We’ve all faced and heard these kinds of choices, possibly muttered — or shouted — some version of them to ourselves or others. “Paper or plastic?” “Left or right?”

How often have we’ve acted on one or the other, and not always to our advantage? I can feel my hackles rise, just thinking about it all. No one likes to be boxed in. Even “thinking outside the box” is still in or out. Still either-or, yes or no. Who makes their best decisions hassled, pressured, under the gun? Yes, some of us may be intermittent adrenalin junkies and love the high of danger, the thrill of risk, the seat-of-the-pants choice, the coin-toss of fate. But as a whole lifestyle, after a while it can start to look much less attractive.

“Left or right?” Well, we could turn around and go back the way we came. Or get out and walk straight ahead. Or park and wait for a bus or cab. Climb a tree and scope out the area. Or …

“Paper or plastic?” “Neither. I brought my own bag.” The relaxation that often follows seeing and feeling and acting from the richness of a third (or fourth or fifth) choice rather than from a false binary should tell me I’m onto something. (So should the occasional look of surprise on others’ faces as the moment breaks through habit, routine, semi-consciousness.) Maybe the choice itself matters less than I thought. Or maybe more — and so it shouldn’t be rushed, but savored. We love options, then deprive ourselves of them when they count most.

Part 3 to come.

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Updated 26 August 2015

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Deeper than Yin and Yang, Part 1: “The Darkness Also Had Spoken”   Leave a comment

[Part 2]

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).

woe-legThese 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,

lma-cover-rjstewartWith 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.]

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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 EarthseaLiving Magical Arts.

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