Shine a Light


“Not those speaking the same language but the ones sharing the same feelings understand each other,” writes Rumi.

I have no idea if the great 13th-Century Persian Muslim poet and mystic actually said this, but it has proven true in my life.  It deserves to have been said by a great being.

A few weeks ago, I met my second cousin and his wife for the first time.  I was excited to meet him and also very anxious because on the surface our lives are very different.   He has spent his life in the greater Salt Lake City area, as a banker and a Mormon.  I am a New Yorker, a writer and editor who was days away from leaving for the Spirit Rock Meditation Center near San Francisco,  for the final retreat in a two year training to become a “Community Dharma Leader.”

Entering that program grew from my growing conviction that we need to go local—just as there is a growing call for local food there is a need for local meditation groups, reading groups, places for daylong retreat.   Also, this particular program aimed at being diverse and inclusive.  It was wonderful practice in being open to other views while being aware of ourselves, in cultivating a two-way attention that includes heart and mind, wisdom and compassion—and awareness the program’s founder Jack Kornfield calls “loving awareness.”

As I cooked and otherwise prepared for my cousin’s visit, I remembered hearing that before humans knew how to make fire they carried a live ember with them from place to place.  I remembered that my mother, who didn’t have many happy memories of childhood, often spoke of taking a train with her mother to Salt Lake City to visit her uncle and aunt, my cousin’s grandfather and grandmother.   The memory of how kind they were glowed like an ember, kindling a wish to extend loving awareness.  Suddenly, this seemed so much more interesting than thinking about how different our thinking might be.

Loving awareness draws on what the Buddha called “Wise Intention,” meeting what arises with an attitude of renunciation or letting go—not clinging to our views or grasping for anything else.  Besides letting go, Wise Intention includes an attitude of good will and the intention to do no harm.  I had an inkling that this generous inner attitude, this three-note chord of welcome, can lead us to the gates of the divine kingdom of the Golden Rule: a state that allows us to see in others what we wish to have seen in ourselves—that we are part of a greater whole.

Wild storms hit the day of the visit.  The power went off. The power came back on.  As I drove to LaGuardia to pick them up, traffic slowed to a crawl.  There was a report of a tornado touching down on highway nearby.  Frontier Airlines from Denver was re-routed to Boston before it could land.   And from the moment my cousin and his wife walked towards me, they were lovely.

They seemed to be engaged in the same practice, to have the same feeling that I did. From the moment they got in my car for the long, rain-lashed ride home, they seemed to practice meeting what arose with loving kindness.  They showed me how insidious it can be, making assumptions.  It turns out we some of the same views about the current political scene, but that wasn’t what what touched my heart, even felt revelatory.  The real lesson was that when we drop into the heart instead of the head, when we really aspire to practice Wise Intention, the Golden Rule—we drop into a field where we can meet.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing/ there is a field.  I’ll meet you there,” writes Rumi.   There are human values and practices that are beyond all fixed ideas.  They are like glowing embers that can kindle fires to warm and connect us, to lead us the Whole.

My cousin asked me about Buddhist mindfulness.  I learned a little bit about the sacred meaning of family—and I learned about my family.   I learned that I’m the direct descendent of a Danish lord who assembled a vast estate in the 12th Century.  There were deeds of land

“I don’t know how to tell you this but that means you—we–are definitely descended from a Viking,” said my daughter, who is studying medieval history in graduate school in England, and knows about such things.  “In the 1100’s, that would be how a vast estate was assembled.”

For a few days, my husband called me “Tracy the Terrible.”

My daughter reminded me that I am made up of Danish and an English, Scottish parts—oppressor and oppressed.  As are we all.   Days later, at Spirit Rock,  Jack Kornfield led us in a visualization exercise that involved expanding until we included the whole of the Bay Area, then whole of the Earth, holding the experience of all people as they migrated around the earth in the embrace of loving awareness—then the Earth itself, out and out to the cosmos, allowing ourselves to imagine being one with the Whole.

Some people who write into this blog space seem to disdain subjective experience—and probably an exercise like the one Kornfield offered.  But I remembered hearing Lord Pentland, a brilliant man and leader of the Gurdjieff Work, once talk about the symbolic meaning of the cross.  The horizontal and the vertical intersect, he said.  The horizontal trajectory of our ordinary experience, our lives in time must intersect with the timeless, the highest.   In my cousin’s visit, in the two year training of CDL, I glimpsed that there is a Truth that cannot be thought.  But we learn to open our hearts to others–to practice loving awareness, the Golden Rule, call it what you will–it can shine through our small subjective stories.  When when two or more meet, there can be another Guest.


12 thoughts on “Shine a Light

  1. Bravo.

    I never thought I was descended from Vikings until red hair showed up in the beard I grew in my mid-50s. Then again, my ancestral background (emphatically northern European) should have suggested it.

    Our ancestors (Celts, before they were Vikings) were unruly. They painted themselves blue; they went into battle naked, and were famous for fighting to the last man… and woman. They were some of the only foreign warriors the Romans (supreme badasses in their own right) were impressed enough with to make sculptures of (now to be seen on Capitoline Hill in Rome.) But they were also extraordinarily sensitive craftsmen and artisans who produced, among other things, the Gundestrop Cauldron, which shows myriad influences from all over Europe… if they had had Mormons then, there would be some on it.

    We can’t discount the external, subjective experience. Life is a blend of the inner and the outer. If we don’t bring it together to make a whole thing, we are missing something.

    1. Thank you, Lee,

      I’m touched by what you write (actually by much that you write). Twice in my life I had visions of Viking long ships–they seemed to emanate from deep, deep inside. The morning after my mother died I “saw” her sail away in a ship as I stood on shore. Then, in the midst of this CDL training when it seemed our differences were so great we would never meet. I “saw”–I had a lucid dream full of sensation and feeling of being in a Viking ship. In this dream/ vision I was preparing to land, and I was preparing my heart–daring myself not to be defended but to be open, vulnerable. I know it sounds silly, but it really happened–it was as if I was reaching into the distant past, discovering that the heart is not a simple muscle, but a mind, a world, capable of holding much more than fear or desire.

      And that fierceness and passion that led our ancestors to fight to the last man and woman (love the equality) can be transformed to be fierce compassion, fierce awareness, a refusal to shut anyone or anything out of your heart or awareness.

      I would like to see a picture of the cauldron you speak of…we are all in a caudron, aren’t we?

    2. Lee writes: We can’t discount the external, subjective experience. Life is a blend of the inner and the outer….” I completely agree. When we are given, I think we make a tacit promise to live our lives–to help make a whole thing, to help bring the Truth down to Earth.

  2. Thank you Tracy.

    “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing/ there is a field. I’ll meet you there,” writes Rumi.

    This “field”, is the place in us we need to remember to visit more often…

  3. I was walking my two greyhounds in the local park this morning. As the sun came out, I noticed how the morning sun caught the dew clinging to the leaves on the ground. It was beautiful. Life can be so beautiful when we are open to its possibilities and forget to take the “bait” of assumptions.

  4. Hi Tracy

    Good to see you’ve returned in one piece. I was thinking about your post last night. I like when you post since your sincerity makes it possible to put your understanding in the context of my own understanding. Very often when a person does this in the presence of a charlatan or blind believer it is seen as critical. This is unfortunate but it is as it is.

    Anyhow, I remembered Jacob Needleman’s recent blog post

    “If you meet a person of developed being, of real presence, you feel something in their presence, it makes you quiet, you become yourself, if only for a moment, in their presence. That’s what we need: real people. “Mankind,” says Gurdjieff “is asleep”. We need people who are waking up. Ideas are important, they are necessary, theoretical clarification is very good, it’s happening in Tradition—Frithjof Schuon is the expositor, my friends Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Huston Smith—these people provide us with very important theoretical things, ideas. Some academicians are beginning to wake up to it a little; Most have no real idea about the importance of Schuon partly because he seems so imperious—which he is, but it’s worth it. What he brings is so powerful, so beautiful. But it’s people: that’s what’s needed. When I meet them I have to feel their being, which often includes a mysterious level of compassion coming from them, not just insistence on ideas and official allegiance to an official tradition.”

    Water seeks its own level and for me it seems important that a person sincerely ask themselves what in them is attracted to self development. I’ve seen by experience it is often just egoism. Offering “compassion” makes a person feel important and everything remains at the same level. True compassion isn’t so easy.

    “To bear the manifestation of others is a big thing. The last thing for a man.” Gurdjieff

    “Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.” Simone Weil

    Now when Gurdjieff and Simone are in agreement on such an observation, I am invited to contemplate the sense of it rather than the usual “who me?”

    Is there a difference between the “Loving awareness” of egoism and the loving awareness of the inner man? I believe there is but they are easy to confuse since the outer man is dominant and denies the inner man.

    I’ve seen marriages break up and read of communal efforts dissolving because all this loving awareness was actually an expression of egoism that needs the sense of prestige to maintain itself. If Gurdjieff is right and we are asleep, how much compassion are we really capable of without the presence Jacob Needleman suggests?

    If it weren’t for the Work ideas and the respect for what the mind offers, I would easily be a slave to the egoism my emotions support. I’ve come to respect the distinction between acquired emotions and the potential for a human being to acquire “feelings” and their recognition of levels of reality our sleeping state denies.

    What we ARE is one thing and what we DO (subjective experience ) is another. The inner man is what we ARE and the outer man is known by what we DO

    “May the outward and inward man be at one.” Socrates

    It is possible IMO but requires confronting inner resistance almost impossible to conceive. It also requires a quality of humility capable of admitting our nothingness. How many can have it?

    “Compassion directed toward oneself is true humility.” ~ Simone Weil

    I don’t see this compassion as suppression by good intentions but rather just becoming willing and able to “see” in the real meaning of the word.

    It never hurts to want and strive to be a good human being. However, I believe that when a person masks the reality of themselves through “acting” it can cause more harm than good and actually turn into its opposite. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    I believe that Jacob Needleman is right and the key is presence. It is ironic that something so important is denied by virtually any psychological trick possible preferring the idolatry of an image – even of oneself.

    1. Hi Nick, I can tell the difference between inner compassion and a ego-driven pose of compassion very directly. At the retreat–and during the visit I described. I felt still inside. There was a feeling of relinquishing, of giving up views, stories. During the retreat, several times I really wanted to get up and tell a story to the group. I love to tell stories. But then, I didn’t. It occurred to me that if I didn’t speak, others would–and that the simple practice of presence would be a way of being generous, the listening with attention is a way of being generous. I know what you are describing is very fine, but it can be practiced. Quiet can descend like grace on an ordinary person like myself, and something like presence–or the wish for it, or an opening for it–can arise.

  5. There is a word that is often used by some of you that I feel has a very distict meaning here, with a specific vocabulary and tradition. Will you explain it please? Presence.

  6. Hi Ron

    Presence is an idea that requires more than a post so my explanation is only an indication of my personal understanding.

    Hi Ron

    First consider the conscious potential for a human being as described by Jacob Needleman.

    “Man, Gurdjieff taught, is an undeveloped creation. He is not really man, considered as a cosmically unique being whose intelligence and power of action mirror the energies of the source of life itself. On the contrary, man as we encounter him is an automaton. His thoughts, feelings, and deeds are little more than mechanical reactions to external and internal stimuli. He cannot do anything. In and around him, everything happens without the participation of his own authentic consciousness. But human beings are ignorant of this state of affairs because of the pervasive influence of culture and education, which engrave in them the illusion of autonomous conscious selves. In short, man is asleep. There is no authentic I am in his presence, but only an egoism which masquerades as the authentic self, and whose machinations poorly imitate the normal human functions of thought, feeling, and will.”

    I see that I am the automaton. Gurdjieff describes Man asleep through an analogy with a horse drawn carriage

    ““A man as a whole…is almost exactly comparable to that organization for conveying a passenger, which consists of a carriage, a horse, and a coachman. In the case of the real man, the passenger is the owner of the carriage…Before our nature was spoiled, all four in this team – horse, carriage, driver, master – were one; all the parts had a common understanding, all worked together, labored, rested, fed at the same time…

    …But the language has been forgotten, each part has become separate, cut off from the rest. Now, at times, it is necessary for them to work together, but it is impossible – one part wants one thing, another part something else. The point is to re-establish what has been lost – this is the purpose of development…

    …the power of changing oneself lies not in the mind, but in the body and the feeling.”

    Presence for me is the conscious ability through the use of conscious attention to allow our centers to function as ONE in alignment inviting the master and its connection with its source.

    Plato IMO describes centers in alignment in book 4 of the Republic:

    ………But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others, –he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals –when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business; always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance……

    The quality of conscious attention we know of as presence makes this alignment possible to maintain in our daily lives. The quality of being within which conscious attention is normal is of a greater quality than me as an automaton

  7. This seems a fascinating blog. Thanks, Tracy!
    Presence, for me, is the act of loosing awareness of my separateness as I focus all my mental and sensory attention on “the other.” For me at any rate, this creates an interconnection that is emotional, intellectual and almost tangibly physical. Out of this springs my compassion, no matter how disparate we appear to be.

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