Cave Quest




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On an evening in 1982, the Western shaman Michael Harner approached a cave in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, “silently calling upon the spirits to have compassion for me and to confer greater power for [his] work in healing others.”   The story of his night-long quest for shamanic healing powers in the depths of that cave (featured in the current “Power” issue of Parabola) is not that dissimilar to the efforts made by many of us in our quest for that elusive and subtle power called…meaning. 

The shaman Harner descended into the darkness, bringing nothing beside a sleeping bag, flashlight, and a snack.  He hoped something would find him and pass through him without the help of consciousness-altering drugs or any other extraordinary means.   On Monday in Manhattan, at a meeting of the Parabola team, it struck me that this is not unlike what the small group of us have gone through in the past few years as we work to make Parabola not just a journal but a resource and refuge for seekers of all ages and traditions.

We started the meeting with a few moments of silence, which felt befitting since Parabola seeks to help in the search for something impossible to impossible to quantify or describe…a significant quality…a quality of significance…a sense of greater import or aim…of hidden or special purpose….the meaning of meaning (as we mean it) goes beyond the logical connotation of a word or phrase to bring a sense of our connection to the greater significant mystery or meaning of life.  You begin to see the pickle we’re in.  Harner describes afraid of dying in the dark, a victim of his own “presumptiveness.”  We at Parabola have felt the same way.  How can a small group of ordinary people working with few resources hope to channel something so extraordinary?  Yet as I watched our web consultant David pass around the beautiful new editions of long out-of-print issues of Parabola—issues reaching back some 37 years—I realized that somehow against all the odds we are doing it.  And willingness seems to be the key.

I’ve seen this observation attributed to the late Jerry Garcia—that it’s absolutely ridiculous that we should find ourselves up to bat with so very much at stake.   But if not us who?  If not through vessels (caves?) like Parabola where?  As wildly presumptive as it may seem, perhaps like Harner our quest is not all that different from those first Western shamans, those cave painters in prehistoric times.  We work in the dark, seeking something beyond us, something that cannot be known by us.   And yet, there are inklings what we seek is closer than we assume.  There are moments when we realize meaning is just waiting for an opening, a break, a space between the stories we tell ourselves about how limited we are or what we can hope to achieve.  As Mother Teresa once told a Cardinal of New York:  “You have to give God permission to enter your heart.”

7 thoughts on “Cave Quest

  1. –A grammarian fell into a well one day and had difficulty climbing up the slippery sides.
    A little later, a Sufi chanced by and heard the man’s cries for succor. In the casual language of everyday life, the Sufi offered aid.

    The grammarian replied, “I would certainly appreciate your help. But by the way, you have committed an error in your speech,” which the grammarian proceeded to specify.

    “A good point,” acknowledged the Sufi. “I had best go off awhile and try to improve my skills.” And so he did, leaving the grammarian at the bottom of the well.


    I offer that Sufi story fully aware that in what follows I may end up sounding very much like the stranded grammarian.

    Tracy, in your most recent blog entry, you liken Michael Harner’s descent into a cave to your editorial team’s quest to make Parabola “a resource and refuge for seekers of all ages and traditions.” As a Parabola reader since the 1990’s, I have been—and continue to be–impressed by your magazine’s commitment to the deep and adventurous search for meaning. Indeed, I do not know another magazine quite like Parabola. As you say, “If not through vessels (caves?) like Parabola, where?”

    Nevertheless, after reading Cave Quest, I find myself sharing the view that fellow Parabola reader Margaret expressed about your essay Throwing Fish: “[T]he editing errors distract from an otherwise insightful and beautifully imagined essay.” There are a number of errors in Cave Quest, and one error (it would seem) has made it into Harner’s published article.

    You write: “Harner describes afraid of dying in the dark, a victim of his own ‘presumptiveness.’” The word “presumptiveness” does not carry the suggestion of over-reaching, of arrogance. It seems clear that what he intended was the word “presumptuousness.”

    Have I, like the grammarian, fallen into the well and am here to stay? Are such matters of grammar and clarity trivial—the husk and not the substance of meaning?

    Or is a continual commitment to using precise and nuanced language—even in the informal venue of a blog—essential to a writer’s “search for something impossible…to quantify or describe.”?

  2. I’ve been aware of Parabola for decades, and have subscribed from time to time. The intent of this publication still presents to me a mirror for many of my own feelings and perceptions. Thank you for that. My fav book of all time is Rene Daumal’s, Mount Analouge. Being able to order back issues with mentions of that adventure is priceless!!!!! (PS I belong to a group of artists, connected for the most part via the internet, who are continuing Mr Daumal’s unfinished story. It’s an adventure of the finest kind! Lot’s of illustrations– anyway it’s posted on a blog which has been in existence since 2010. Life is what you make of it.

    1. Thank you, Mara. Yes, all of our back issues, even those long out of print, are now back in print! You can order them via our online store.

    2. What an amazing artistic project, Mara. Your blog helps to fill a real gap in my knowledge. I had never heard of Rene Damaul’s unfinished book, let alone the “exquisite corpse” technique for creative collaboration. I will return to the blog again for a deeper look in the days ahead. Are your contributions to the project easy to locate? I’ve only scratched the surface of what is there to see!

      1. Thanks for the comments! Just scroll through the chapters and look at the images.. each image is credited to the artist. To follow the story… well…. I think it was more the fun of adding to it and the interactions between the climbers that a story line to be followed. It’s dreamlike. Cheers!

      2. Mara, your collaborative project at metaclimb is starting to take shape for me, and, of course, I now see each artist’s contributions and the dervish dance of your interactions with each other. Each artist you work with brings such a distinct style to the climb! Might there be any chance you know the artist Larkin Higgins? She’s a friend of mine who lives and works not far from places where your bio says that you exhibit. She teaches at Cal Lutheran and once studied at Otis. And as you do in some of your works, she too finds interesting ways to integrate words and imagery.

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