“Man is a make-believe animal,” wrote William Hazlitt. “He is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.”
I am looking out at a white world through window framed with the uneven spikes of ice cycles.”What are these daggers I see before me?” I’m moving from Hazlitt to Macbeth because of the daggers of ice hanging from everybody’s house, and because reports of a coming “monster storm” have taken such an ominous, apocalyptic turn. People are talking about this latest evidence of the effects of climate change in the way they talked in the opening of the famous Scottish play– as if the world has been knocked out of balance by ill deeds. There is grounds for this, of course. The earth urgently needs our care and attention. But we also need to see what gets in the way of seeing situation clearly and responding, not just reacting and projecting? Today, because I am living in a little house in a wooded area that now looks today like a fairy tale cottage, all framed in ice cycles. Today, because my neighbors and I are burrowing in in the face of reports of a storm advancing like a great beast or monstrous army–today, I am aware that I am actually am living in a fairy tale.
I go walking through falling snow. As I slip and slide down the hill and around the lake, I am full of plans and worries and desires to have this and avoid that. Different scenarios well up and pass away. P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins and a founding editor of Parabola, said that everyone has to be the hero of one story: their own. Not to be is unthinkable. This is what the brain does, spins a story starring us, even if we are anti-heroes (which is not uncommon. Most of us are very self-critical). Whether we are or not we are almost always caught up in the narratives of our journey: This is who I am and this is what life is like. Yet there are moments when we wake up, moments when inner or outer conditions cause us to be here now. Anything might pierce us, a bird call, the pristine beauty and silence of the snow.
This morning it was a kindly neighbor telling me part of her roof has collapsed under the weight of the snow. What should she do? I told her to call her insurance company, there are nice people there who can tell her what to do. Hardly original, and such a small help, but still maybe a little helpful. I stood with her awhile and extending a little neighborly compassion lifted me up out of my own story. It reminded me that we can change our story or our role within it. We can learn to cultivate the “thin places,” those times when the dream isn’t so thick. At those moments, I believe we may begin to move from scripted character to co-author of our lives. At those moments, we may begin to learn how freeing it can be to act a part, to play a role.
“In order to be, we have to “play a role,” writes Madame de Salzmann. We need to find a way to reconcile our aspirations to awaken to the higher, to Truth, with our natural desire to express ourselves, act out all our various perfectly good and natural strivings and intentions in life. How can we do this? We must strive to be present, taught Madame de Salzman, Buddha, God himself. “To be present requires dividing the attention,” writes de Salzmann. “Three-quarters must be kept inside and only one-quarter allowed to support the movement toward manifestation.” By keeping the attention inside, I believe she means being mindfully aware of the body, feelings, thoughts moment by moment. By one-quarter of the attention supporting “the movement towards manifestation,” I believe she means living consciously. She means being with desires as they arise, neither repressing them or getting lost in them: “At one moment, for example, I may experience a wish to indulge a pleasure like smoking or eating. Either I immediately give in to the idea and have no contact with the desire, or I refuse and create conflict, again without contact because I have dismissed the desire. And everything that arises in me proceeds like this. The desire is life is life itself in me, extraordinarily beautiful, but because I do not know it and do not understand it, I experience frustration, a certain pain, in giving in or in repressing it. So, the struggle is to live with the desire, not refusing it or losing myself in it, until the mechanism of the thinking no longer has an action on me, and the attention is free.”
In other words, we can be with the energy of desire for this or that, not identifying it with the mind but experiencing it as a manifestation of the life force–extraordinarily beautiful! The movement to be made is not to repress or indulge but to invite or somehow kindle and keep lit an awareness that can accompany us as we seek to fulfill our desires.
Working this way we see that the realization of spiritual truth is situational, particular, a unique moment of alchemy when attention turns the lead of usual sleep into gold. We don’t obtain this kind of truth so much as give ourselves to it for a moment. It is an act of seeing and service.
Today, as I bring in wood and lay a fire in the woodstove in case of the massive power outages that are predicted in the “monster snow” now advancing across the country like a blind beast of an army, I vow to try not to be completely taken by the story of the storm and my desires for, say, electricity and internet and hot water. I vow to try to consciously play this role.