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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.”