Lately, I’ve had a visit from a savage cold and cough. The enforced rest allows me to do things I don’t usually allow myself to do during the work week, including watching Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” yesterday evening. It has also given me a chance to have an epiphany–just in time for the feast of the Epiphany tomorrow.
In “Midnight in Paris,” an unhappy young screenwriter played by Owen Wilson (acting like Woody himself) visits Paris with his fiancé and future in-laws. Walking alone one evening, he discovers that he can travel back in time to Paris in the 20’s, every evening after the clock strikes 12. Among other heroes, he meets Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the wild and dazzling Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I bet most readers of this blog can guess the resolution (spoiler alert, as they say): it has to do with accepting the present rather than living in the past. The protagonist learns that present is unsatisfactory because real life is messy like that, the wheels don’t turn as smoothly as they do in dreams. Before I drifted off to sleep, I picked up A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I read a harrowing account of the hellish life of poor Scott Fitzgerald, who looked so glamorous in his brief cameo in the movie.
This was my epiphany: there is usually quite a story submerged under the insights we have on the path. Take the experience of letting go. In one way, it is a very simple and direct action. Whatever the mind is clinging to right now, drop it and return to an awareness of the present moment,. We all take this action of letting go of thoughts of Fitzgerald or what you had for lunch, returning to the simple, rich experience of being here and now. No matter how raw or unsatisfactory that experience may be (it’s not so much fun when you have a cough), that action of returning to or remembering ourselves usually brings a burst of a fresh, new energy and attention that attunes us to the larger world— a larger intelligence. Yet, as refreshing and energizing as this is, we don’t remember to do it all that often, and we rarely let go completely. We start to make the effort and very quickly remember an email that needs sending.
My epiphany involved realized that letting go completely is the tip of a very big ice berg, the end of a long and winding road, the resolution of a gripping drama—choose your cliché. There are moments of letting go in which a luminous, clear energy and attention appears. The formidable French teacher, Madame de Salzmann described this way: “It is an attention that will contain everything and refuse nothing, that will not take sides or demand anything. It will be without possessiveness, without avidity, but always with a sincerity that comes from the need to remain free in order to know.” This is a revolutionary state in which the act of seeing and receiving is greater than any object, any perceived outer goal. What would it take to land in such a place, to be truly impartial and nonpossessive, to see through to the real aim and meaning of our life?
In the Christian tradition, the Epiphany marks the day the wise men from the East came to pay homage to the infant Jesus. According to Matthew 2:1–12, they followed a miraculous guiding star to Bethlehem and brought gifts of “gold and frankincense and myrrh.” These three wise men or Magi saw through surface appearances to the divinity of Jesus. Their visit was seen as evidence that the Gentiles as well as the Jews would worship Jesus. “Magi,” from which the English word “magic” comes, denotes follower of Zoroaster and was associated with an ability to see through things, including the ability to read the stars and the fate that the stars foretold.
The word “epiphany” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “”manifestation” or “striking appearance,” and it refers to that sudden realization or comprehension or illumination of the larger essence or meaning of something. Usually such moments, even when they come to brilliant scientists, happen after significant labor. Often this labor involves wrong turns and humilitation which leads to humility—which derives from “humus” or earth. Often epiphanies come in moments when we are touching the earth.
After long labor and struggle, much drama, a moment comes when we let go, when we drop it all and return to the simple experience of standing on the earth. There may be a beautiful sensation of putting down the chain we usually drag through life, the chain of karma, or (to put it more modestly) the chain of caring what other people think of you, caring how things come out and if you are a success in the eyes of the world and all that. Instead of being broken by this world like poor, gifted Scott Fitzgerald, we can break free. We can step off the wheel of seeking, of greed, aversion, delusion about better times. We can stop and be still and return to ourselves, which (irony of ironies) is the same as forgetting the self and becoming one with others.
Enlightenment may turn out ot be the simple yet radical act of stopping in the tracks of our seeking and returning to ourselves—to the ground of our real being. It may turn out to involve an action of the heart more than the mind (In other cultures the mind includes the heart and the body). It involves opening to and allowing ourselves to be pierced by the whole blessed story. Sometimes, allowing ourselves to try this–just giving up and letting go and being here–we may discover that miracles never cease.