“You wander from room to room
hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck!”
Sufi Mystic Rumi
Recently, National Public Radio began airing a series of readings of short essays, each composed by a different individual but all on the same subject—“This I Believe.” Years ago, when I was in high school, this topic was discussed in another series of radio essays, inspiring my high school English teacher to assign us, her students, the task of writing our own essays concerning what we believed.
I wonder what I would think now of what I wrote then, could I recover it. Would my beliefs today be greatly changed from those I held some fifty years ago?
I ask myself, how well have I lived up to the beliefs I articulated then, or, for that matter, those I feel strongly about now.
I’ve given all of this some thought lately because of a recent conversation with a friend. She said that the retreats at Earthsprings help us to re-center within our own authentic natures. Since then I’ve been pondering my authenticity.
I can say this: my core values seem to have remained remarkably constant over the years, although the terms I use to define these values and the means I use to express them have varied greatly. Certain interests, certain passions always are with me. Even if I ignore them, they keep re-emerging, again and again. It is these consistent things about me, I’ve decided, that have to do with my authentic self.
The psychologist James Hillman has written extensively on this topic, particular in his book The Soul’s Code. He proposes an “acorn theory,” a notion that, just as the mighty oak’s destiny is written in the tiny acorn, even so each person is born with a particular, innate “acorn” of self, a life-image that is one’s essence, and further, remarkably, Hillman says that this image calls a life out to its own destiny. The metaphor is expanded even further. Even as the acorn is destined to be an oak and not a palm tree, or a sunflower seed is destined to be a sunflower and not a tomato, each oak is unique from every other oak, and each tomato is a thing unto itself, unlike any other tomato.
Likewise, Hilllman says, each of us, with our particular “seed” of individuality, can—if we have the right environment and opportunity and if we take right advantage of those—continue growing as a unique Self, in the life-long process Carl Jung called “individuation” and Yogananda called “self-realization.”
Hillman says, “We need a fresh way of looking at the importance of our own lives,” and he urges us to reclaim the sacred awareness of our intrinsic, authentic personhood.
Hillman, Jung, Yogananda, and my friend are, of course, not the only ones praising the power of personal authenticity. Observe:
The artist Edward Hopper said, “In every artist’s development the germ of the later work is always found in the earlier. The nucleus around which the artist’s intellect builds his work is himself…and this changes little from birth to death. The only real influence I’ve ever had was myself.”
A Christian Science reading says: “We should examine ourselves and learn what is the affection and purpose of the heart, for in this way only can we learn what we honestly are.”
The Confucian Doctrine of the Mean states: “What is meant by ‘making the will sincere’ is to allow no self-deception…This is called satisfying oneself.”
Pablo Picasso said, “I don’t develop; I am.”
Plotinus said, “Even before reason there is the inward movement which reaches out toward its own.”
Japanese author Kenji Miyazawa said: “We ordinary people must forge our own beauty. We must set fire to the greyness of our labor with the art of our own lives.”
And, of course, there’s Carl Jung, who said, “In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
What are the reasons we waste our lives or betray our authenticity?
How or why do we forget ourselves, neglect our deepest meaning, trivialize our time and efforts in random byways rather than staying focused on who we are and on all that we are capable of being? We all know many answers to these questions: the press of everyday life, the necessity of attending to logistics, distractions of all sorts, illness, aging, romance or the loss thereof, and on and on. Not to mention the seemingly necessary compromises we must make of time, attention, and even values.
How much easier, then, it is to stay “fuzzy” about what we truly believe rather than focus on it clearly. Real attention to one’s belief, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz reminds us, brings a sense of responsibility, a necessity for living up to our values. To be true to ourselves may mean having to let go of some comfortable illusion or some convenient arrangement so that we actually do something.
Or we may feel that we are not worthy of our own beliefs. A good friend in California challenged me the other night, asking why I do not often now take the responsibility of speaking out publicly, as I so often did in the past, about my views on matters of importance. After a moment’s thought, I told her that probably it was because during the painful dissolution of my thirty-year marriage, my trust in my own insight or moral authority had perhaps temporarily faltered. Or, I said on further discussion, perhaps it’s just that in my later years, I have a more complicated view and don’t know how to simplify it without fatally distorting it. Or it may be, as someone has said, “The older I get the less I think of what I think.”
I do know that I, as Hyemeyohsts Storm once told me about myself, am a “peace chief,” whereas others are, appropriately, “war chiefs.” My authentic self has always been appalled by controversy. While I do enjoy a friendly debate, I suffer when involved in what seems to me to be any overly-heated free-for-all. Even a hotly contested game of cut-throat bridge could do me in.
When I worked in Washington DC in the 1960’s, attending hearings on Capitol Hill and being up to my ears in political in-fighting, I realized that my true nature was to persuade rather than confront, to negotiate rather than defeat, to include rather than isolate.
I still feel that way. Even my gardens here at Earthsprings now are an inclusive hodge-podge of plants; you name it, it gets in, a little too helter-skelter for the tastes of more orderly people who view the whole profusion and shake their heads. Even when I pull weeds, I talk to them, telling them that there’s plenty of room for weeds to grow over there, outside my small flower-beds. I can’t even stay mad at the deer who last night ate my lovely pepper plants that had just set peppers for me.
So if I harangue less in my old age, it’s perhaps because I am reluctant to posit things in terms of “us” against “them,” whoever either may be. I have been, perhaps, worn down, or elevated up, into a more global, more pliable, less self-righteous place than I used to be in. I’ve done enough damage in my own lifetime to become more tolerant of other’s faults.
But my faithful California friend, with whom I was having this conversation at 1 a.m., still challenged me. “You can’t get away with that,” she said. “You have always cared deeply and compassionately about what’s happening to the poor, the homeless, the under-privileged. You’ll have to speak out again, to act, I know you! No matter what has happened in the past, you have to stand up for what you believe in. It’s your responsibility. You may not be perfect, but you are enough.”
This reminded me of an article I had read recently, entitled “Faith, Is It Real, Or Am I Real?” Its author, Marc Gafni, writes:
“There is a secret wound lurking inside all of us. It is the fear that we are somehow not enough. We secretly feel that if people really knew all of our imperfections they would not love us. Much of Western religion, in a distortion of the tradition, has reinforced this feeling: ‘Indeed you are not enough; so aren’t you lucky that God is so wonderful that he loves you anyway…even though you are not enough?’ This is a love that creates radical dependency and emasculates a human being. Biblical consciousness begins with the statement, “You are enough. You could be more. God is the force within that invites you to be more, as well as the cosmological embrace that loves you as you are.’ Even as we strive to grow we need to realize in the depths of our souls that we are enough.”
If we do know that we are enough, just as we are, in our own authenticity, we can go ahead freely, whatever the challenge. And there are always challenges.
During a talk once, Joseph Campbell said:
“…It takes courage to do what you want. Other people have a lot of plans for you. Nobody wants you to do what you want to do. They want you to go on their trip, but you can do what you want. I did. Once I went into the woods and read for five years…It was exciting—writing journals, trying to find out what I wanted. I still have those things. When I look into them now, I can’t believe it. Actually there were times when I almost thought—almost thought—’Jeez, I wish someone would tell me what I had to do,’ that kind of thing. Freedom involves making decisions, and each decision is a destiny decision. It’s very difficult to find something in the outside world that matches what the system inside you is yearning for…”
When we are not able or willing to choose what we want for ourselves, when we pretend to be someone other than our true selves, we become like T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men:”
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpieces filled with straw. Alas
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.
Shape without form, Shade without color
Paralyzes force, Gesture without motion.”
Many people today, perhaps all of us at one time or another, look within and see a “hollow” person, without shape or form. We realize we are not living according to the dictates of our own best selves. Then we must face our “shadows,” and, if we stay with it, we can grow.
After the tragic death in a plane crash in 1961 of Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, his private journal was discovered. It was considered so profoundly important that it was given to poet W. H. Auden to translate into English, and then it was published. His journal entries give incredibly moving insight into a man of power and position who struggled constantly to understand himself and his authentic place in the world:
“…While performing the part which is truly ours, how exhausting it is to be obliged to play a role which is not ours; the person you must really be in order to fulfill your task, you must not appear to others to be, in order to be allowed by them to fulfill it. How exhausting—but how unavoidable, since mankind has laid down once and for all the organized rules for social behavior…How am I to find the strength to live as a free man, detached from all that was unjust in my past and all that is petty in my present, and so, daily, to forgive myself? Life will judge me by the measure of the love I myself am capable of, and with patience according to the measure of my honesty in attempting to meet its demands, and with equity before which the feeble explanations and excuses of self-importance carry no weight whatsoever.”
In another entry he wrote that he aspired to be
“…governed by that which comes alive when we have ceased to live as interested parties or as know-it-alls. To be able to see, hear, and attend to that within us which is there in the darkness and the silence…”
Over and over, Hammarskjold wrote in his private journal about his awareness that a part of what seemed to be his very “given” nature was a level of disrepute, something he related to what, he said, Christians call “original sin.” About this he wrote:
“We reach the point where it becomes possible to recognize and understand Original Sin, that dark counter-center of evil in our nature…Life in God is not an escape from this, but the way to gain full insight concerning it. It is not our depravity which forces a fictitious religious explanation upon us, but the experience of religious reality which forces the “Night Side” out into the light. It is when we stand in the righteous all-seeing light of love that we can dare to look at, admit, and consciously suffer under this something in us which wills disaster, misfortune, defeat to everything outside the sphere of our narrowest self-interest. So a living relation to God is the necessary precondition for the self-knowledge which enables us to follow a straight path, and so be victorious over ourselves, forgiven by ourselves.”
This insight is, perhaps, an aspect of the “more complicated” awareness I mentioned earlier that makes it so difficult for me to simplify any statements about what I believe. Likewise, it causes me immediately to cry “Balance! Balance!” when I hear public speakers who focus entirely upon “positive thinking,” to the exclusion of this deeper reality.
I remarked on this in a Fellowship meeting recently:
“Yes, by all means, be positive, but about everything, everything. It is necessary, I believe to have a positive regard even for the negative aspects of life.”
This is not easily explained or lived with, but it is part of every mystical tradition. It is the cross at the heart of Christianity; it is the “suffering” at the root of Buddhism, it is why Native Americans and many other thoughtful people refer to whatever they mean by the ultimate as “Great Mystery.”
It is, it truly is, positive, life-enchancing, to pay due respect to all aspects of life, even the seemingly abysmal. We learn this as we age, I guess, of necessity rather than by choice.
Robertson Davies remarks, “One always learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence.”
Recent changes in our cultural climate are, I think, forcing all of us into another level of “loss of innocence.” Recently I heard of some survey (who knows how they come up with such information) that Americans are now the most depressed people in the world. Certainly the level of anxiety amongst us has increased dramatically. Perhaps this has to do with our having to face our collective national “shadow,” to realize our country’s negative impact on the rest of the world. Old patterns of belief about ourselves held that we were the “good guys,” saving the world. That notion has become obviously too narrow.But there is, we want to protest, something uniquely American, something profoundly good in the ideals upon which our nation is founded, however little or much we have lived up to them. We hear people saying today, in outrage or frustration at current affairs, “This just isn’t how America is supposed to be,” sounding a call to us as citizens to return our government’s behaviors to the core values of our constitution.
And, of course, there’s the terror we feel about terrorists, as well as the troubling ambiguity about just who the terrorists are—them, us, everyone? Many of us feel a loss of confidence in the intrinsic rightness or righteousness of the present government or any government, for that matter, or the church, or any authority other than our own, and what of that?
That is the question, of course. If we are thrown back upon ourselves for authenticity, then it is imperative that we be clear about our own core of integrity, our own essential kernel of truth. Without such awareness, we may be uncentered, untethered, tossed about with every wind.
To make even that more difficult, we have to consider the dynamic nature of the Self itself, if you will, given the ever-changing, perpetually unfolding nature of the Self. Any new self-development or any rapid self-expansion, however authentic it may be, even for adults or elders, can “throw” us. We often go through an experience something like the experience preteens go through when their bodies have growth spurts so that they suddenly don’t quite know how to walk properly without tripping over their own feet. Or consider, for example, the adolescent who acquires a new driver’s license who immediately backs the car up into the fence or into another car’s fender. That’s why insurance is higher for adolescents; they lack experience to match their newfound understanding. We can be that way too, at any age.
When we have authentic growth, breaking out of old patterns, psychological or spiritual, we often “have the wobbles,” like someone new to riding a bike.
We can be like Einstein when he was contemplating the new theories of physical reality, when he said it was as if the ground had been pulled from under him. He could see the truth of what was being discovered, but he didn’t yet know how to be with it. We are like that occasionally too. We become unsure, ungrounded in any comfortable certainty.
In those times, we might benefit from the remarks of the great Hindu mystic Kabir who said:
“Look at you, madman,
Screaming you are thirsty,
You are dying in a desert,
When all around you there is nothing but water!”
And there is the Sufi poet Rumi who said:
“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck!”
Andrew Harvey, like countless others, has written about many various practices that can “efficiently” help us stay on the pathway of our authentic selfhood, or as Harvey calls it, “the divine within us.” In his book The Direct Path, he outlines a whole array of methods. Here’s an excerpt from the “Contents” page of the book, which can serve as a sampling of the many methods available to us if we choose to follow them.
…practicing mindfulness through watching the breath…
…breathing in the power, love, and strength of the Divine and breathing out your inner tension, sadness, and fear…
…three practices of concentration…
…a practice of gratitude…
…the practice of the mantra…
…the path of self inquiry: who am I…
…invoking the presence and force of the divine mother…
…conversations with God…
…prayer as a focus for meditation…
…practicing the presence of the Beloved: a Sufi heart practice…
…expanding the circle of love, a Jewish tradition…
…the practice of giving and receiving…
…the practice of lovingkindness…
…the sacred body…
…diet and fasting…
…reducing daily stress: eight exercises
…nature as source of healing
…creating sacred space…
…rites of passage…
…the passion to serve…
Whatever method we choose—one of these, or one of our own devising—it is essential, I think, that we do practice, and not just haphazardly either, but in an ongoing serious commitment to our sense of our own truest selves.
Native Americans have traditionally understood this. That’s why they take time out for vision quests, seeking a personal vision that will guide them for a lifetime. That’s why they have such sayings as “What you’re saying, does it grow corn?” Their understanding of the need to live up to one’s beliefs with action is also why they do not call their spirituality a religion, but rather a way of life. Chief Leon Shenandoah has said:
“Everything is laid out for you. Your path is straight ahead of you. Sometimes it’s invisible, but it’s there. You may not know where it’s going. But you have to follow that path. It’s the path to the Creator. It’s the only path there is.”
Well and good, but, as my daughter Selena said to me recently, we are all so caught up in the day-to-day dramas of our lives that it is difficult to stay centered in the deeper truths we know. If we could, she said, just take time out and go to sit in a temple or in the woods for weeks, we would recover that sacred sense of ourselves.
What then would our lives be like?
If we were to live more consistently out of our true natures, what would that look like?
How would our lives be different if we acted on our most deeply held beliefs? How would our lives be different than they are right now?
Which brings me round to the purpose of the Gatherings at Earthsprings. While Earthsprings is not a temple, it is a place where we can take a brief time out from the ordinary pressures of our lives. We can take a time to refocus or reconfigure our sense of ourselves. We can allow ourselves to return to the core of our authentic, unique, precious being, while we are in the presence of others who value this practice.
So, whether you are woman or man, whether you are able to come to the retreat or not, I hope you will join me in preparing for it and holding the energy for it by opening minds and hearts to consider all this. If you do come, you certainly won’t be asked to write an essay or pronounce in public “This I Believe,” but perhaps such awareness can be a background for all that we do at the Gathering and, indeed, all that we do, period.
Actually, I want to modify that slightly. Once, when someone asked Carl Jung if he believed in God, Jung replied by making an important distinction. He said, “I don’t believe; I know.” Of course, he went on to say that his definition of God might not match anyone else’s. But how important it is to “know” something so big!
So, perhaps each of us might consider not only “This I Believe,” but also “This I Know,” or even “This I Am.”
Or, if you prefer the more dynamic version, taking into account the ever-unfolding nature of Beingness, you might have it something like this:
“This, the central core of Being always present in me, unfolding and emerging more and more, this is my authentic Self, in process. Everything else is just wardrobe or window-dressing that is put on and off as time and occasion call forth. But there is this something, always present, something I am never without, something that is, essentially, Me, and this is It, as I can define it in this moment.”
I have a profound awareness that we all need to be allowed time and space to return, as my friend said, peacefully to center.
Wounded as many of us feel, we need to be able to re-gather ourselves gently back around the solid, tested, inner core of our own spirits.
For anyone who feels separated from that right now, anyone whose vision is cloudy or muddy, our work together in the Fellowship, in our women’s groups, and in our retreats in general has always been about a focus on the unfolding of this precious selfhood in each of us. Each of us has come at our life together from his or her own “angle,” with his or her own “medicine.” We have always made a place—at our meetings and in our hearts—for the unique beauty and eccentricity of any one of us.
And so, through the years, we together have created opportunities to deepen our understanding and experience of what our authentic selves are. What a treasure it is to be a part of such a group!
To know that we can hold a place, reverently, to witness each other’s unique unfolding, with all its complexity and ambiguity, all the ups and downs and ins and outs, all the laughter, tears, anger, grief, forgiveness, as well as the times, periodically, when any one of us forgets and even abandons his or her authentic core of selfhood.
Someone gave me a quote that says, “A friend hears the song in your heart and sings it to you when your memory fails.” We are and have been memory keepers for each other in this group, reminding ourselves and each other always of each person’s intrinsic beauty. We’ve also been able, at appropriate times, simply to stand respectfully silent, trusting and holding a space, until one or the other of us, having gone wandering, finds his or her own way home.
So, I would have it be, if I could, that my voice, calling us to gather together, is always a call to come home, not only to Earthsprings, but, more importantly, may it be a call for each of us, each woman, each man, to come home to his or her own Self, to his or her own true being, to that which is at the center and core of his or her personhood.
Whether you can come to retreat or not, I hope you will heed this call. When you open in this way to your own authenticity, paradoxically, you will find all else there too, your sisters and brothers there, and all your relations there in the great web of life.
Finally, I leave you with this quotation from the modern Sufi mystic Iqbal:
“Who can tell what miracles
Love has in store for us
If only we have the courage
To become one with it?
Everything we think we know now
Is only the beginning
Of another knowing that itself has no end.
And everything we now can accomplish
Will seem derisory to us
When the powers of our divine nature
Flower in glory and act through us.”
Blessings of flowering to each of you. I hope to see you soon.