Almost exactly twenty years ago, on a raw spring day, I took my then 2-year-old daughter to see the Disney version “Alladin” at our neighborhood movie theater in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. It was meant to be a big day for baby Alex, her first big screen movie. Yet after all these years, I realize there is a scene in that movie that became a big deal for me: a key slips into a lock and the entrance to a cave slides open to Alladin. What seemed to be barren desert is revealed to contain wonders, treasures, the boy who seemed to have nothing was being offered riches beyond comprehension.
That cartoon scene became an emblem of a dream I once had in college—of a ghost town on the prairie, shuttered and lifeless, and under it an ancient city, an extraordinary structure with arches and pillars, inlaid with intricate patterns inlaid with brilliant jewels, veined with canals filled with dark, flowing water. I traveled through the city in a kind of gondola, amazed that such a world could exist under a place that seemed so bleak and godforsaken. I felt like that ghost town back then, parched, stranded in school. I despaired that I let my parents down. I could never have articulated it at the time but I really actually despaired that I would ever find what I was seeking (although I didn’t know I was seeking.) Without daring to admit it, I suspected there was another world within this world, and that some beings found their way to it—Alladin, for one.
It is misery to suspect such a thing without knowing which way to turn. Yet after all these years, I have come to realize that being lost and bereft is part of the journey. Somehow, these contrasting experiences—being lost and found, striving and being open to receive –turn the key in the lock and reveal the cave of wonders. On Sunday evening at my local meditation sangha, I read a bit of a poem “Diving into the Wreck” by the late, great Adrienne Rich. I thought it was a wonderful description of what it can be like to go on retreat or sit down on a meditation cushion to meditate:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it….
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light….
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
To me, the poem captures the difference between the intention and the reality, words and the thing itself. But my sangha friend Michael asked a powerful question: “Why do we need as this stuff, the book, the mask, and flippers? “ He explained that he longs for the experience of sitting in the sun without equipment, just sitting, just breathing, just being. He had climbed a mountain earlier that day and brought some of that experience into the room—that very fresh and direct contact with reality. I would feel the vibrant life in his question. Why do we need the book of the dharma or any other wisdom tradition, the techniques and rituals, the equipment? Why can’t we have the thing itself and not the myth?
On one level, we need maps, even though it’s not the territory. And we need all the help and support we can get. But on a deeper level, I also sense now that there is a mysterious necessity in our wrong turns and posturing, our clumsy and ludicrous putting on of masks and flippers, even in our giving up and despair. We can’t see it or experience it at the time, but those moments lead to a subtle turning. In the midst of doing that wrong things, there can be a longing to live a different life, to undo all my conditioning, to receive instead of striving, to listen and watch and not know, to descend instead of rising. Counter to all appearances, diving with all that ridiculous equipment can lead us to the unconditioned. The beggar boy can find his way to the cave of wonders.