The Invitation

My daughter is packing to move to England at the end of the week.  As I sit here by the picture window typing, she comes in from time to time to tell me some new detail about her graduate program or the location of a possible flat or the friends she will be sharing it with.  For some reason, I find little packing details particularly wrenching:  coats, dresses, and shoes leaving this home for a bright unknown. She is bubbling over with happy plans for her future and I am very happy for her.  I am also deeply relieved that she is not moving to London the way I moved to New York—which was under the spell what I now call Jane Eyre syndrome.

I travelled to New York and set about getting some kind of job with a blend of determination and timidity, as if I was an unwanted visitor, an unloved orphan in the world.  I longed to draw closer to the great fire, to be invited to feel the real the warmth and vibrancy of life.  But I had no idea how to go about it.  It took many years for me to learn that the invitation is always being offered…and that it is issued on the inside.

The invitation to the great party of life comes when we let go.  This is a lesson that must be relearned again and again, because it is human nature to try to be in control.   Counting down to my daughter’s departure, my moods are very changeable.  At some moments, I am serene and expansive, full of wisdom and sympathetic joy.  In these moments it seems that after all these years as a spiritual seeker, I am finally getting somewhere!  At other moments, and when I least expect it, I will feel like crying like a big baby. All that seeming wisdom, and sympathetic joy just vanishes like smoke, and I am left with the knowledge that nothing is turning out to be the way I thought it was going to be.

In such a moment, I wonder why nobody ever told me that this earthly life of ours was going to turn out to be so impermanent, so subject to change and loss.  It seems like we are like snow people, capable of just melting away.  I can feel a bit like Dante, in the middle of the journey of my life and lost in a dark wood—the first half of my life seems like a blissful illusion while what is yet to come is truly unknown.

Lately, the reality of impermanence is so powerful it wakes me up in the middle of the night.  Sometimes, I get up and meditate.  Recently, in a marvelous a weekly newsletter called Brain Pickings, I read a list of rules for students and teachers, the creation of the artist and educator Sister Corita Kent. Sitting down to meditate is my way of following Sister Kent’s first rule:  “Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.”

Sitting in silence I remember that knowing what I don’t know and what I can’t control is an important way of knowing.  I remember that when all else fails, when life breaks your heart, there is another kind of truth that is always waiting to embrace you.  Sometimes when I sit, especially in the face of such a momentous change, I realize the truth—the real truth—cannot be thought, just seen, just live. I realize there is a fork in the path—and not just in the middle of our lives but the middle of any given moment.  We can lament our fate or plot to change it—or we can seek to speak and live and be in accord with the nature of the way things are.

As the countdown to England approaches, Alex comes in to admit that she is also scared.  The future is unknown.  I tell her that this is what I have learned after many mishaps and many years of just plain living: the invitation is always being offered.  When your heart is broken, when you all else fails, when you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.  Let go.  Sit down and be still.  Don’t know. The truth that cannot be thought.  The truth of what is always waiting to receive you.

Comments

    • Yogi Berra knew what any great yogi should know. There really is nothing we can do–at least in an outer sense. We can just seek to see and be with what it–or not.

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  1. Nice post Tracy, I can relate as I have three kids, the oldest of whom is a sophomore in college. Something about fall, after harvest time and dreaming about new possibilities, and finding them unsettling. . . Life is impermanent, uncertain and changeable at all times. I wasn’t ever told any of that either, except perhaps to try and “grasp” tighter the good times. The spell of the ego/self is so strong and how would we understand anyway when someone tells us – each of us is a pilgrim in our own life and heart along our own path – all the more reason to celebrate in compassionate joy! I spent two years of grad school in two different countries (non English speaking) and I think “scared” in this context means alive! We each have our own aliveness index if you will, that is also something we have to figure out for ourselves. Some of us are lucky to discover it in the “middle age.” I count myself fortunate in this regard. Thanks for the post Tracy!

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    • Thanks, Barb. Very well said. Graham Greene wrote: “When we are not sure, we are alive.” I really do want Alex to be fully alive–to be a pilgrim in her own life instead of merely a tourist. What I find interesting is that as I watch and help her prepare to leave, I am also a pilgrim–visiting a strange land called impermanence. You have to visit certain places yourself to know what others know who have gone there before. No one can tell you what impermanence feels like, the “magic” feeling of the passage of time–the way it makes life so changeable. And of course there is a blessing in this as well: “This too will pass.”

      Today I woke up with a new sense of possibility, the sense that I could adopt an attitude of giving myself to life, being a witness to change and changing along with it…which is not unlike the adventure of going to grad school in another country.

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  2. Tracy,
    What a beautiful meditation, and tribute to your daughter!
    I have 5 children, so as a mother, I can relate to your feelings,
    I love your analogy of the snow people, and how our feelings are always subject to change, “This too shall pass.”
    When our children are young, we have the luxury of spending a lot of time with them, but part of our experience as Pilgrims is to recognize that everything is a gift, including our times apart.
    I find that looking at all I have to be grateful for helps (when I remember to do it!)
    I think of the saying, “You have to let go so they can come back.”
    How wise you are to be able to just sit with your feelings, and witness that which cannot be thought! I really like that.
    Yes, we are all Pilgrims, on our way to a holy place, but as Pilgrims, we share our journey with one another, as you have done with your thoughts and feelings. I think that helps us to realize that we are not only on our way to a holy place, but indeed, where we are, in the present moment is also holy.
    Thank you for sharing your journey.
    Peace,
    e

    P.S. We will be in England for two weeks…leaving this Saturday, and I will be thinking of you and Alex. May she have a wonderful school year!

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    • Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight, Elizabeth. It’s good to know you are out there as a fellow Pilgrim. Have a great time in England!

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  3. Yes, life is like that. Shakespeare described impermanence well in “All the world’s a Stage”

    “All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players:
    They have their exits and their entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts,
    His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
    Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
    And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
    Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
    Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
    Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
    Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
    Seeking the bubble reputation
    Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
    In fair round belly with good capon lined,
    With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
    Full of wise saws and modern instances;
    And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
    Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
    With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
    His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
    For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
    Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
    And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
    That ends this strange eventful history,
    Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
    Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

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    • It’s hard to beat Shakespeare. And there is really no escape from the progression of roles…except to play them consciously, as Gurdjieff said. I think that must be the ultimate freedom, to fill obligations–even to love–consciously.

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  4. I agree Tracy, there is no escape from roles. But playing them consciously is a quality of suffering few are capable of. Opportunity is one thing and the ability to actualize it is another. That is another reason I admire Simone. She lived this understanding like some sort of comet that came from an unknown origin, stirred things up, and left. I believe she acquired something that is no longer a blind continuing result of karma.

    “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” — Simone Weil

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    • That’s a particularly marvelous quote, Nick. And there is a lesson in it about roles, states–how might they be useful?

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  5. Paul’s second letter to the Coronthians is all about suffering and how it is used to help us to become better people….example:2 Cor 7-10, i will quote 10 ” For that is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong”.
    Sounds paradoxal, but I know it to be true!

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  6. I remember once reading from a source I believe was associated with the Work that the Crucifixion was a conscious drama. Years after when I read that quote by Simone it vivified it for me.

    The conscious drama had nothing to do with being a good person by secular standards but just the capacity to remain conscious to the intents and reactions of the worst of the World and our normal tendency through denial to become a mechanical part of this collective reaction. Such a conscious action from such a level of being not only invited the Spirit to assist in Jesus’ Resurrection but cleared a path to the Way for those open to Jesus’ energy who can follow in the transition from the Old Man into the New Man.

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  7. Nick,
    Did what you wrote come from Gurdjieff? I am finally starting to read,” In Search of the Miraculous”.
    However I hope it isn’t too daunting for me. :)

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  8. Hi Elizabeth

    Gurdjieff writes of Christianity but his teaching on levels of reality and how it relates to man’s “being” is what made Christianity along with the esoteric purpose of all the Great Traditions live for me. The idea of the conscious drama came from another. I was not quoting Gurdjieff.

    There are people who I believe have acquired something which enables them to write about Christianity in a way that expresses something more than lovely thoughts. One such man is Dr. Maurice Nicoll who was a student of Gurdjieff. He wrote “The New Man” and “The Mark” which can awaken a person to the depth and purpose of Christianity.

    All I can say is that I have benefited a great deal from reading ISM. These books by Dr. Nicoll showed me how little I understood Christianity.

    Here is an excerpt from Dr. Nicoll’s “The New Man.” Perhaps you’ll feel what I mean. I once wondered why the Bible is written as it is. Many people wrote that the Bible was just contradictions and nonsense. Once I understood why the Bible had to be written as it is, it opened doors for me. He wrote in Chapter ONE:
    ***********

    ……………”The idea behind all sacred writing is to convey a higher meaning than the literal words contain, the truth of which must be seen by Man internally. This higher, concealed, inner, or esoteric, meaning, cast in the words and sense-images of ordinary usage, can only be grasped by the understanding, and it is exactly here that the first difficulty lies in conveying higher meaning to Man. A person’s literal level of understanding is not necessarily equal to grasping psychological meaning. To understand literally is one thing: to understand psychologically is another. Let us take some examples. The commandment says: “Thou shalt not kill.” This is literal. But the psychological meaning is: “Thou shalt not murder in thy heart.” The first meaning is literal: the second is psychological, and is actually given in Leviticus. Again the commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is literal, but the psychological meaning, which is more than this, refers to mixing different doctrines, different teachings. That is why it is often said that people went whoring after other gods, and so on. Again, the literal meaning of the commandment: “Thou shalt not steal” is obvious, but the psychological meaning is far deeper. To steal, psychologically, means to think that you do everything from yourself, by your own powers, not realising that you do not know who you are or how you think or feel, or how you even move. It is, as it were, taking everything for granted and ascribing everything to yourself. It refers to an attitude. But if a man were told this directly, he would not understand. So the meaning is veiled, because if it were expressed in literal form no one would believe it, and everyone would think it mere nonsense. The idea would not be understood — and worse still, it would be taken as ridiculous. Higher knowledge, higher meaning, if it falls on the ordinary level of understanding, will either seem nonsense, or it will be wrongly understood. It will then become useless, and worse. Higher meaning can only be given to those who are close to grasping it rightly. This is one reason why all sacred writings — that is, writings that are designed to convey more than the literal sense of the words — must be concealed, as it were, by an outer wrapping. It is not a question of misleading people, but a question of preventing this higher meaning from falling in the wrong place, on lower meaning, and thereby having its finer significance destroyed. People sometimes imagine they can understand anything, once they are told it. But this is quite wrong. The development of the understanding, the seeing of differences, is a long process. Everyone knows that little children cannot be taught about life directly because their understanding is small. Again, it is realised that there are subjects in ordinary life that cannot be understood save by long preparations, such as certain branches of the sciences. It is not enough to be merely told what they are about.

    The object of all sacred writings is to convey higher meaning and higher knowledge in terms of ordinary knowledge as a starting-point. The parables have an ordinary meaning. The object of the parables is to give a man higher meaning in terms of lower meaning in such a way that he can either think for himself or not. The parable is an instrument devised for this purpose. It can fall on a man literally, or it can make him think for himself. It invites him to think for himself. A man first understands on his ordinary, matter-of-fact or natural level. To lift the understanding, whatever is taught must first fall on this level to some extent, to form a starting-point. A man must get hold of what he is taught, to begin with, in a natural way. But the parable has meaning beyond its literal or natural sense. It is deliberately designed to fall first on the ordinary level of the mind and yet to work in the mind in the direction of lifting the natural level of comprehension to another level of meaning. From this point of view, a parable is a transforming instrument in regard to meaning. As we shall see later the parable is also a connecting medium between a lower and a higher level in development of the understanding…………..”

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  9. Nick,
    Thank you for this! I will have to get this book too after I finish this one….so much to think about!

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  10. Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present
    All time is unredeemable.
    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.
    Footfalls echo in the memory
    Down the passage which we did not take
    Towards the door we never opened
    Into the rose-garden. My words echo
    Thus, in your mind.
    But to what purpose
    Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
    I do not know.
    Other echoes
    Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
    Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
    Round the corner. Through the first gate,
    Into our first world, shall we follow
    The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
    There they were, dignified, invisible,
    Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
    In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
    And the bird called, in response to
    The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
    And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
    Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
    There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
    So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
    Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
    To look down into the drained pool.
    Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
    And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
    And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
    The surface glittered out of heart of light,
    And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
    Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
    Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
    Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
    Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.
    Time past and time future
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    From – Burnt Nortonby T.S.Eliot

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  11. Although most teachers and students bear little resemblance to Sidney Poitier and Lulu in To Sir With Love, the arc of the film is true. Where we begin is not where we end.

    Thank you for this gift of eloquent sharing in all its joy and pain.

    When I was very young, I didn’t mourn passing because it offered the promise of something grander. But now that I am older, I linger over a flower a little bit longer because a thing of beauty can never be a joy forever. All things pass.

    But to be fully present to fully experience life can be a joy or sadness, at least for now.

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