In college I read a book that was modeled on Dante’s Inferno. Charting the progress of a young African American man through various American cities, the tale made the point that we have rings of hell right here and right now, and that we have our own poets and storytellers (Dante travelled with Virgil) to bear witness. By now (thanks to the lectures I listen to in my car) I realize that Dante was radical himself, filing his tale with bold examples of corrupt popes and officials but the image from that masterpiece that stays lodged in my aging brain is the image of the deepest ring of hell and Satan frozen, utterly incapable of movement. The idea that evil was being outside the flow of life and that freedom had to do with being in alignment or obedience to the higher laws of life—freedom as obedience–this was a huge paradoxical news flash. But I intuitively knew it was true; think of addiction, think of dreary nowhereness of life on the lam.
What stayed lodged in my heart and mind from the modern urban inferno was an image of a young black man sitting in a rough bar, playing the tough guy, harboring a secret asceticism under his ragged coat. I was a dreamy white girl from the sticks and I identified with him!
I realize now that I have treated having a spiritual like being in a rough bar. Picture the bar in Star Wars or any other archetypal rough bar, full of strange characters. My sense of having a spiritual life was that it was best lived as a kind of secret agent—outside seeking to be a woman of the world, learning things go, finding a place, a craft, then being a worker among workers; while inside seeking truth, exploring what it might mean to be in alignment with higher laws. The sense that having a spiritual search was best kept under wraps was born of a sense of how quickly consciousness gives up its freedom, attaches itself to images, memories, thoughts—especially thoughts about self. I was wary of identifying with a spiritual path, of assuming the role of follower or teacher of any particular way, because even as beginner (especially then) it was easy to see how people lost the openness of beginner’s mind as they identified with a role. It seemed to me that it was best to live a double live, to be a kind of secret agent of transformation. I longed to know a greater life, a life that I felt certain was lived by other beings in other times. But I didn’t want to deceive myself, to lose the life I was seeking by grasping at it.
It took a long time and many experiences of loss and gain to realize that we find the path to freedom in those moments (really, in moments) when all separation falls away. Almost everyone has had a few “if I get out of this alive” moments. In those moments, for me at least, there is no more inside and outside, no self and others. There is just the understanding that life is fleeting, burning–it really is an inferno! There is no time in such a moment to care about who we are–there is just a wish to join in and be helpful, to be one more pair of hands on the bucket (or broom or sandbag or feeding) brigade. Separation is hell, and there is a way out.