As we prepare for the birth of a new issue, I share one of my favorite quotes from The Unknown: “Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries,” Theodore Roethke.
The spiritual path leads to vulnerability, to opening to mystery. It is not clinging for dear life to a set of propositions or stories about who we are or who others are or how life is supposed to be. But before we can be vulnerable to mystery we must be vulnerable to ourselves. As I blogged about awhile back, life dealt me a shock recently, forcing me to come face to the raw power of my emotional defenses, my capacity for fear, hurt, and rage against loss. I like to forget about this and imagine I’m wise, but it’s like imagining a volcano is dead when it is just dormant. Just when I thought awakening may really be possible, it turns out there are enormous underground sources of emotional energy just waiting to serve the dark lord.
Watching myself freak out from time to time in the past month, I came to understand a little more deeply the meaning of the Buddha facing the terrifying armies sent by the demon Mara to unseat him. To awaken, to penetrate the truth beyond selfish illusion, the Buddha had to face his own fear and hurt and rage. It dawned on me that the Buddha had very powerful emotional reactions to move through. After all, he was human—and the greater the potential, the greater the resistance.
Time and again, the Buddha stressed the need for energy (viriya), the crucial ingredient behind wise effort. The very same energy that pours out of us (or me) when we are hurt—that fuels our sometimes violent reactions to the threat of loss is the very same energy that can go into generosity, compassion—into being free from suffering. Awakening requires the liberation of our energy. Awakening may actually be a process of liberating our energy. Instead of being tossed this way and that by our dark and stormy reactions to life, our lives may slowly become instruments of truth.
The other day, I took a long walk and gently asked myself why I was still so upset about what I took to be a betrayal by a trusted friend. I like to imagine myself a woman of the world, a student of human nature. Why did the revelation of a deception upset me so? As I walked along, looking at the beautiful changing leaves, not repressing the upset, not expressing it, just holding it in accepting awareness, a deeper truth bubbled up: a powerful human tendency to cling: “It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our effort to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness.”
– Pema Chödrön, “The Fundamental Ambiguity of Being Human”
The illusion of certainty was pulled out from under me. And out came the troops in their scarred and dented armor of old hurts, old disappointments. But as the dust settles, I see that we may use our energy, our precious life force in a new way, we may become brides married to amazement, to mystery:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
– Mary Oliver