A Note from Our Publisher
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
My boys are straddling two stages of independence. One is young enough to enjoy hearing me read or talk with him at bedtime. The other is just as happy to read on his own, though he will tolerate me reading with him in special moments.
The other evening, I read from a book of Sufi teaching stories with the younger boy. Completing each story I asked him what meaning he found. In some cases he thought and replied, and in others he impatiently tells me to "just keep reading, dad!"
This is the routine.
With one story the boy didn't hesitate to share the meaning. It is a potent story, with a surprising turn of meaning affording a glimpse of the almost ubiquitous phenomenon of perceiving the world upside down.
You, who are reading these words, are likely not a child. Nevertheless, the story, which may seem whimsical, has some significance, and is equally valuable to young and old ears. As such, I am sharing it here.
A man died far from his home, and in the portion of his will which he had available for bequest, he left in these words: "Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that which they wish to Arif the Humble."
Now Arif was a young man at the time, who had far less apparent authority than anyone in the community. Therefore, the elders took possession of whatever they wanted from the land which had been left, and they allocated to Arif a few trifles only, which nobody else wanted.
Many years later Arif, grown to strength and wisdom, went to the community to claim his patrimony. These are the objects which we have allocated to you in accordance with the will," said the elders. They did not feel that they had usurped anything, for they had been told to take what they wished.
But, in the middle of the discussion, an unknown woman of grave countenance and compelling presence appeared among them. She said: "The meaning of the Will was that you should give to Arif that which you wished for yourselves, for he can make the best use of it."
In the moment of illumination which this statement gave them, the elders were able to see the true meaning of the phrase, "Let them give that which they wish to Arif."
"Know," continued the apparition, "that the testator died unable to protect his property, which would, in case of his making Arif his legatee in an obvious sense, have been usurped by this Community. At the very least it would have caused dissension. So, he entrusted it to you, knowing that if you thought that it was your own property you would take care of it. Hence, he made a wise provision for the preservation and transmission of this treasure. The time has now come for it to be returned to its rightful use."
Thus, it was that the property was handed back; the elders were able to see the truth.
There's a Sufi theme much like the golden rule suggesting one should wish for others precisely what one wishes for oneself. Of course, the task is not to stop at wishing, but to actively seek and procure the good of others.
The suggestion is that with a right-side-up perception this is not a selfless or sacrificing mode of behavior. Rather it is the counterintuitive means of achieving the happiness, wholeness, and wellbeing for which everyone seeks but can never quite grasp, precisely because of grasping.
The teaching is that those who work for the happiness, wholeness, and wellbeing of others gain access to a larger reservoir of these qualities, not in acquisition but participation. In this process, the ordinary experience of "other" relaxes and there is a beginning to work for 'the good.'
Another perhaps deeper meaning relates to the inheritance or bequest each person receives by virtue of being born in a human form. These are the faculties—the mind, creativity, the body and its powers, the emotional life, our characteristic makeup and strengths—all that we are given, and experience as "myself."
The movement describes a simple reversal of focus from inside to outside. Herein all that the magnificent instrument of being is, is not for the benefit of ego, not for personal pleasure and enjoyment. Rather all that we are is for others, and for the energetic ecosystem of a larger world of which we ourselves are a part.
The Sufi litany says "You have many endowments which are yours on trust alone; when you understand this, you can give them to the rightful owners."
*Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah, 1967 EP Dutton & Co., New York
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Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
What is a human being for?
This is a question that appears in my consciousness like Hale-Bopp streaking across the sky at unpredictable intervals. It appears at random times, on a schedule completely independent of the regular movements of celestial bodies or other contrivances like hours, weeks, or years.
The question popped in yesterday as I watched a high school theater group perform a production of the Broadway musical "Pippin." A cast of young adults paraded across the stage in a grand spectacle, meant, as best I could tell, to convey the myriad alluring characters and contexts of ordinary life.
In the play a protagonist, Pippin, is a narcissistic and self-involved "spoiled brat" seeking "fulfillment" through diverse experiences—excelling in learning at the academy, finding glory in battle, exercising political power, partaking of sexual extravagance and the creative fervor of art, even familial domesticity—and none contain the answer he craves. Meanwhile, there's a "lead player" orchestrating the unfolding events to keep Pippin preoccupied with his quest for elusive assuagement, and in a perpetual state of vexation.
The play reminded me of P. D. Ouspensky's book of short stories, Talks with a Devil, in which the devil's mission is to keep characters occupied with the satisfaction of desires and ambitions, fleeing discomfort and failure, and always striving beyond their current experience.
Like the devil in Ouspensky's story, the goal of the lead player and the cast representing the thousands of relationships and situations of life is to lead Pippin into "the grand finale"—a pyretic act of terminal self-indulgence—suicide. But Pippin turns away to a more essential, albeit ordinary, path and the lead player and cast boycott the event, removing all the props, music, and costumes. Pippin and his mate and adoptive child are left on the stage naked and content (though there are portents of a recurring cycle of illusion-chasing).
Meanwhile, I had my doubts that high school students playing the players had a sense of the multileveled, self-conscious implications of the play they performed, though perhaps I am wrong. The play invites an existential inquiry: What is the purpose of human life and of my life in particular? There is, it seems, an opportunity to inhabit the same set of circumstances in diametrically different ways. At one end of the spectrum is to waste one's circumstances in pursuit of satisfaction, comfort, and "fulfillment"; while at the other end is a wish and willingness to make use of the raw joy and suffering offered up in the moment, to "digest" and refine the material to give rise to a "something," which is the correct product of a human life.
For me, a step in the direction of arousing answers to the question is indicated in the Sufi suggestion to know the difference between the container and its contents. There's two elements in this equation. Discerning their difference gives conceptions and birth to a third—the knower of both the container and its contents.
The container for a human being is her instrument—the apparatus of her inner life, just as the cello or the pipe organ has the possibility of conveying a characteristic timbre, modes of musicality, and musical compositions. The container is the instrument playing an endlessly varied polyphony. It is a magnificent instrument, conducting a range of intelligences, an instrument we barely know from the inside, in the way that Pythagoras meant, when he inscribed in the lintel of the entrance to his academy: Know Thyself.
The content for a human being comprises the whole spectrum of experience, this endlessly varied and infinitely rich blend of thoughts, sensations, feelings, moving, instinctive, and sexual intelligences that are the media through which all experience is known. It is through this media of the inner life that all apparently outer experiences—all relationships and roles, achievements and thrills, acquisitions and accomplishments—are known.
Beyond this, what a person can do or manifest is a resultant of the concerted quality of these blended streams of intelligence, and every deed is imbued and impregnated with the resultant emanations.
"Every tree is known by her own fruit."
The knower is both the result and the reconciler of the container and the contained. The knower is invoked when one undertakes to tell the difference. Herein is a paradox—attempting to discern, in the moment of experience, the difference between the instrument and its sound evokes a third part, a knower, or witness; and the presence of the witness itself alters the integrity of the instrument and its voice.
Like Pippin, our collective malaise is to seek experience to provide fulfillment, and as an escape from some undesirable experience. Meanwhile experience is the gift given to us in general and in particular to inhabit fully as it is, not in surrender but with a will to inhabit every iota of experience we are given.
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Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
Speaking of heroes, on rare occasions I've met an exceptional person. These meetings transmitted something extraordinary, call it an energetic pattern, and not by hearsay or an inspiring story but in direct experience.
I am not knocking mythology. In fact, I love well-constructed stories conveying the experience of heroic beings though an integral narrative. An example is the stories of the 18th-century founder of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Name). These stories convey a heroism that, for me, cuts to the quick.
Here's one short example:
The voices of opponents were raised against the Baal Shem's teaching, for many rabbis could not understand his ways. Some said of him that he dishonored the Sabbath with singing and freedom, some said that his ways and the ways of those who followed him and called themselves Chassidim were truly the ways of madmen.
One of the scholars asked of the Baal Shem, "What of the learned rabbis who call this teaching false?"
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments, the guests danced to the music, and were merry, and the house was filled with joy. But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. 'See how they fling themselves about!' he cried, 'it is a house filled with madmen!' For he could not hear the music to which they danced."
Herein is the image of one who is free from the constraints of convention. Relieved of the constraints of doing the "right thing" and considerations of one's appearance, only a joyous and praising recognition of an abiding abundance remains.
What makes this story remarkable and raises Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov to the status of hero, for me, is my encounters with Chassidim in his lineage. Many generations later, some of the people practicing in the tradition he began still possess the palpable quality of joyous warmth and insight grounded in essential discipline ascribed to him. In other words, the force of his life created a pattern and channel with the resilience to transmit a quality of joyful freedom into the future, from generation to generation (L'dor va'dor).
When an inception has sufficient power, the myth of the hero is itself a vessel for the force of the life of its subject. This is why, I think, there is such a fascination with stories of heroes, not the least of which are in religious traditions, in which believers studiously absorb the stories of prophets and saints. The stories themselves are vessels for something material—the force and pattern of the life of the subject.
Back to heroes one knows personally. This is a really special thing, for when the results of selfless heroism touch a person's being, a cycle is complete in the transmission. The numbers of heroic beings I have encountered I can count on one or two hands.
One such hero is the person of John Anthony West, who died at his home in Saugerties in February. He was 85.
John was an individual in the truest sense. A writer and lecturer by profession, an honorary doctor of Egyptology, he used his gift of wit and tenacious interest in facts to illuminate the dogmatic ignorance of academic orthodoxy.
John with his colleague, Boston University professor Robert Schoch, proved that the enclosure and body of the Great Sphinx on the Giza Plateau had been eroded by water. As there has been virtually no water in Egypt since the end of the last ice age, his work showed that the Sphinx is at least 6,000 years older than conventional archeologists believe.
In a lecture to a conference of geologists, John mocked the archeological orthodoxy and their unwillingness to reevaluate dogma when presented with new evidence saying, "This concerns weathering patterns on rock, and when it comes to this, an Egyptologist's opinion is no better than a proctologist's."
When an academic Egyptologist took offense, John didn't miss a beat. "You gotta understand," he said, "the proctologists didn't like my comment either. They say that their job is to cure sick assholes; they don't like being compared to them."
Perhaps in spite of his biting wit, John had a powerful presence of being, which I experienced most directly walking together in a state of hushed awe through the unfathomable temples and monuments of ancient Egypt.
There is much more I can and will say about a recently living hero, the remarkable John Anthony West. For now, I send good wishes his spirit and gratitude for his life and work.
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Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
It's been a long time since I consulted the I Ching, but I did recently. The question at hand was part of a long inquiry into the nature of guidance. I suspect there is something like a compass at my center and at the center of every being. Throwing the I Ching can sometimes unstick the compass needle, allowing it to swing free and indicate a direction to take, or at least a direction in which to look.
The coins yielded two identical trigrams, though formed through different permutations of odd and even, each trigram comprising broken lines topped by an unbroken line. The two trigrams sit one atop the other. Looking at the image I had built I tried to fathom its meaning.
It looks like mountains, I thought, very Chinese mountains, stretching into a two-dimensional distance, with a canopy of clouds above. Sure enough, the hexagram is called "Keeping Still, Mountain."
Mountains standing close together;
The image of KEEPING STILL.
Thus the superior person
Does not permit her thoughts
To go beyond the situation.
The quality embodied in this trigram surprised me. I was expecting something dynamic—a call to action, a potent interplay of forces. But no, there was just this indication to keep still, whilst remaining alert to erring on the side of stiffness—"the fire when it is smothered turns to acrid smoke that suffocates as it spreads."
I interpret this call to stillness not as an exhortation to passivity but to alacrity. I think it has something to do with what Carlos Castaneda says the shamans of ancient Mexico call "impeccability;" of deeds perfectly appropriate to the needs they fulfill; of no omission and no commission.
Now, more than ever, I feel the imminence of an ordeal, and also the immanence of a fundamental support. This is the quantum view of matter as boundless space, punctuated at great distances by infinitesimal concentrations, held in form by a resilient, pulsing matrix.
The gossamer pattern of matter and its progress through events appears fragile and unreliable, seeming to require manipulation and control to achieve any predictability; and yet, within each subtle formation is a logic, or logos—a vibrational pattern granting an adaptive quasi-permanence, for a time, until the tone passes away and things fall apart.
So many gradations and harmonics of energy thrum through matter and play out all manner of manifestation in time. There is the energy that coheres matter into form, imbuing material with a particular elemental quality; a finer energy allows that material to become elastic, able to retain identity whilst changing form; a still finer energy impregnates the material with vitality; another, automatic activity; and sensitivity; consciousness; creativity; the unitive energy of love; and perhaps finally an energy that transcends all the bounds of existence giving the manifest world a geometric integrity and resilience.
Even in the face of the kaleidoscopic grandeur reliably unfolding in each succeeding moment, I experience an instinctive draw to doubt, a dread of loss or annihilation. Out of the fear springs an impulse to manipulate and control, to make reality conform to an image that the fearful tapeworm calling the shots from my gut finds comforting.
How to be receptive to and allow what is arising both within and in my circumstances, and at the same time to be free to respond: this is the work of life, like Christian in his Pilgrim's Progress (from This World, to That Which Is to Come).
Such a delicious predicament is the hexagram of Keeping Still, Mountain. Jelaluddin Rumi (with the translating help of Coleman Barks) put it this way.
A Chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it's boiled.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
"Don't try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.
Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this."
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