Over the past few months, I’ve posted the first four installments of my unpublished book, THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL. These have been the first three chapters and then a free-standing essay that the character, Andy, goes inside to write at the conclusion of Chapter 3. Now, for your weekend reading, here is chapter 4.
The overarching question with which THE RIVER AND ITS CHANNEL is concerned might be stated: Is there something that we can trust to see that what unfolds in our lives and in the world is as it should be, or are we wise to try to impose our will and intention to make things happen as they should happen?
The book itself works by weaving together two levels: the telling of a story and the exploration of ideas. How the story unfolds is in itself organically connected with how the ideas get clarified.
The earlier installments can be found at:
Chapter 4: THE BLESSINGS OF THE RECEPTIVE MIND
It did not escape my notice that it was not when I was pushing hard to get something together that my creative muse had given me my graven images piece, but rather when I’d set my task aside and turned to tend my garden. I thought there was a lesson in there someplace, one I might wisely apply to my sometimes overwhelming “unfolding” project. Pushing to get it to fall into place may well be self-defeating, I ventured. With that in mind, and because my creative muse and my internalized Taskmaster were respectively fulfilled and appeased, I decided I’d stop the pushing and just see what happened.
As it happened, life continued to bring me grist for the mill. And at least at the outset, I was content simply to unload the grist and store it in a dry place.
It’s Later than You Think
“Yeah, but will it pay the rent?” It was my friend Murray, on the line with me from Washington. He was agonizing over whether to make a change in his work-life. For a handful of years, he’d been making big bucks –or big bucks by our somewhat countercultural standards, anyway– doing public relations for a major professional association. But he felt that he was frittering away his life-energy in tasks that had, for him, little meaning. Mere means to ends. Something inside him was calling on him to chuck that and to follow his own considerable talents. As he approached his half-century mark, Murray felt it might be his last chance to follow his calling.
Murray is a natural comic. Once in a great while, he’s had chances to practice his art. Quick with a funny comeback, Murray can stand in front of an audience engaging with them in an improvisational repartee that makes people laugh. For years, he felt that he should be doing comedy –performing and writing– full time. But he held fast to the well-paying position he grew increasingly to hate. Over the months of his mounting frustration, we’d played with that funny line –born in the 1980s, as far as we could recollect– “Don’t quit your day job.” But our humor with the line was not the same as that in the original joke but, on the contrary, derived from the way that joke didn’t fit his situation. The usual joke is funny for its indirect way of saying “You don’t have the talent.” But for Murray, the lack of talent was not the issue.
“I keep hearing my father’s voice in my head,” Murray was telling me, on the phone. “‘Murray,’ Pop says, ‘you gotta keep your nose to the grindstone.’ And then he finishes up with a line it seems like I’ve been hearing all my life. ‘Be prepared, boychick. It’s later than you think!’”
“‘Later than you think’,” I repeat. “What the hell does that mean?”
“He means, ‘You won’t always be able to work. You’d better provide for yourself. You could end up with nothing.’ Pop’s not one for taking chances.”
“What about taking the risk that, at the end of your trail, you’ll regret never having gone for what you love most?”
“That risk doesn’t compute,” Murray replied. “The idea of doing something you love doesn’t figure much in this thinking. You know, I don’t think he enjoyed his work a day in his life. ‘Keep breathing. Keep eating.’ That’s success.”
“Did he have any gifts, anything that really called to him, like you and your comedy?”
“When he was young, I think he loved to sing. But it wasn’t practical, so he didn’t pursue it. By the time I was a kid, he’d pretty much stopped singing, even at home. Sold the piano, if I recall, when I was in fourth grade.”
“How did he decided on his career?”
“His uncle told him, ‘Irv, I want you to take over the business,’ and so that’s what Irv did.”
“And you, did he want you to take over the business?”
“No, for me he wanted something better. Meaning more money. He wanted me to map out a career that would take me to the top, and to stick with the plan. I’ve been something of a disappointment, never really climbing the ladder they way Pop would have wanted. But if now I threw over a good-paying job –even if it’s not at the top– he would think I should be certified. ‘Murray, are you crazy? You’ll end up with nuthin’!’”
“So, Murray, that’s what you hear your father’s voice saying. What have you got to say?”
“I’ve been saving half my salary for several years, thinking it could serve as a grubstake as I take off prospecting for gold in the comedy business. You know, Andy, a mine is a terrible thing to waste.”
“A mime’s a terrible thing to waste, too.”
“Yeah, watch this new gesture I’ve worked up,” Murray rejoined. A few seconds of silence. “Pretty good, huh? Guess it doesn’t work so well on the phone.” Then, changing tones, he continued, “But I get the feeling that no matter how much I saved, it wouldn’t feel like it was enough. It would always be later than I think.”
“Just follow in your father’s footsteps,” I suggested, in a sardonic tone. “You’ll be a success. After all, he’s still eating and breathing isn’t he?”
“Yeah, and would you believe it, he’s been doing it for ninety-one years. See, it works!”
“Yeah, I’m impressed.”
“He may not have lived much along the way. But hey! It’s a hell of a long way he’s managed to travel.”
“As it turns out, it probably wasn’t nearly as late as he thought,” I jested. “Well, do you think he’s content with the life he’s led.”
“It’s like that joke about the guy with two complaints about the restaurant: the food’s terrible, and the portions are too small. At least Dad’s had a good sized portion of his grim life.
“You know,” Murray continued, “I’ll tell you about how my father keeps score in life. When he and my mom sold the place in New York and went down to Miami for their retirement, it was important to him to have a place right next to the beach. That’s the definition of a ‘nice place,’ and he’d have to have a nice place. Well, when I was down there last month –it was my first visit since Mom’s funeral– you know what I found out? He’s never walked on the beach! Doesn’t even spend time looking out at the ocean. It’s the idea of the beach that mattered.”
Answering the Calling
“Yes, Andy, I’d really like to know what you think I should do.” It was Murray again. A couple of days had passed since our conversation about the internalized voice of his father telling him to stick with prudence and punt his comedy.
At first I steered clear of giving outright advice, trying instead to help Murray become clearer about his own desires. Today he’d told me about some ways he was giving his job less than his best effort, and ways he was running afoul of his boss. He speculated that he might be engineering the situation to get himself fired, so that the decision would get made for him. I hoped that whatever way he went, it would be with more integrity than that: one way or another, I hoped, he would act of a piece, creating and choosing his life, accepting whatever costs and risks it entailed. But his coming to such clarity did not seem imminent, and he pressed me for advice.
Two or three decades ago, I was readier to give such advice. I had made my own transition from the “do your assignment” to the “follow your energy” mode of living, and I was prepared to suggest to those still in the harness that they try making the same shift. Give it half a year, I’d say. And then you’ll get comfortable with being your own compass. A space will open up inside you, in time, and you’ll hear the voice of your calling. Answering that call is what your soul –and maybe God– wants for your life.
I’m a good deal less confident about such sanguine counsel now. Setting aside how less certain I feel that my way of finding and living my calling can be generalized to others, there’s the sobering reality that even if I found my own right path, it’s been a lot tougher than I expected.
When people ask me about what I do for a living, I sometimes answer that I can tell them about my calling, but it would be pressing things to call it a living. By the time I hit my mid-thirties, barely surviving economically, I generally kept my mouth shut rather than give the sanguine advice I’d offered in my twenties. I could see there was something to be said for day jobs.
Some people, I knew, followed their daemon and, unlike me, were quite successful in material terms. But a lot of people, I imagined, had slimmer chances than I of surviving by following that inner voice. If I looked at what I’d had going for me that had made even my own bare survival possible –native talent, access to the best of educations, an inability to accept defeat, resourcefulness in formulating strategies– I felt far from sure that it would do people any great favor to advise them to follow their own creative calling.
Hey, you’ll love it if you love a steady diet of rejections and have a hankering for the challenge of making a decent life out of poverty-level income.
But just how important is it –how much is it worth sacrificing, or risking– for a person to follow his or her calling? Just what does a “calling” amount to?
Maybe it can be seen as a matter of, “It’s what I’m best at.” Or perhaps a matter of “It’s what I enjoy doing most.” But either way, perhaps the excellence and the enjoyment signify something beyong themselves, Maybe they are some kind of message from– wherever. The life-force, maybe. Do people gravitate to their area of comparative advantage simply because it makes them look best, competitively speaking? Maybe, but I am not content with that explanation. A kid with a great throwing arm seems somehow born to throw, and would be born to throw even if, somehow, he were transplanted into a colony of even better throwers.
A line comes to my mind from the film Chariots of Fire. The young Scotsman, Eric Lydell, is a great runner, but his sister wants him to give up his running to do the Lord’s work as a missionary back in China. Lydell accepts that God wants him to serve in China, but he refuses to accept his sister’s plea that he give up his running, or her argument that it is somehow inappropriate for a godly man to pursue such an activity. “God made me for a purpose,” he says to his sister. “He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
When a person has a “gift” for something, when he or she is especially good at an activity, it seems as though God or the life-force or whatever wants to express itself through that person’s fulfillment of that gift.
Not only the excellence, but also the enjoyment seem to me to be signals about how, by the nature of things, we should direct ourselves. I’m not thinking of enjoyment in the crasser sense of “fun” of the kind our consumer society peddles to us. Rather, I’m thinking of the deeper gratification implied by Joseph Campbell’s famous suggestion, “Follow your bliss.” Campbell’s injunction is not, I think, intended as just a recipe for pleasure. It also seeks to point toward where our true nature would wish for us to go.
The root of the word “calling,” as meaning a course one might take in life, suggests a profound link with the idea of “unfolding.” The root suggests there are paths to which a person is “called” from a source beyond himself, by a voice not commanded by one’s will. It is a voice that tells us, “This is what you were meant to do.” And the idea connects with “unfolding” in that it suggests that we should not regard ourselves as the captains of our own ships –or perhaps the metaphor should be that we are the caretakers rather than the designers of our gardens– that there is another source not commanded by us to which we should look for guidance.
Originally, the voice that did the calling was understood as coming from God. In my own following of my calling, I’ve continued to use that word– God. “What does God want me to do now?” I ask myself at intervals, despite my enduring uncertainties on the whether and the what of God. And when I take stock of my life, and feel the satisfaction that feels like bedrock under all the anxieties and unfulfilled ambitions, what I say to describe my sense of fulfillment is, “I feel I’ve done what God wanted me to do.” Meaning, I’ve done what I was meant to do.
The notion of a “calling” puts the agent in a receptive position with respect to the overall course of his generative life. One is called. One follows one’s calling (or one’s bliss). One asks for guidance. However active one is on the playing field of life, one goes into the huddle to learn what play has been called in from the sidelines.
In such a life, there is room for an abundance of plans and strategies and such accouterments of control. But at a deeper level, the work is an expression of what one has received. Letting it flow on through. One seeks to become the master of one’s tools, but at bottom one understands oneself as the instrument.
We Americans see ourselves as engaged in the pursuit of happiness. But it has often been observed that the greatest happiness is not something that’s gained through pursuit. It comes, rather, according to this perspective, as a by-product of a less self-serving approach to life.
The kind of consciousness that puts one’s will and willfulness in control of one’s worklife may not be the one that brings the greatest fulfillment. How do I get to the top? How much can I get for myself of the goodies that the world has to offer? My own ambition –older in me than my understanding of the spirit of unfolding, or its manifestation in my following my true vocation– gives me plenty of experiences of this willful kind of consciousness and its fruits.
And so, with all this in mind, I felt ready to say something to Murray.
“I can’t tell you what you should do, Murray. Of course. And even if I could, who’d listen, no?”
We joked a bit about this, and then I continued.
“It’s not as though the voice of prudence that your father represents is pure bunk. I mean, lots of people have had to do whatever it takes to make a buck, just to survive. In some lives, the idea of finding a labor of love can’t realistically even arise. So– security must be taken into account. Can I survive doing this? Will this lead to a financial disaster? All good questions. And these questions have to be weighed against the other kinds of goods that come from being true to oneself, giving expression to who and what one essentially is– all that good stuff.
“As for how to weigh the two sides, I feel able to say only this: in different frames of consciousness, the different goods appear to have different magnitudes.”
Murray asked me to explain, and I tried to by giving a “frinstance”:
“I remember an afternoon just a couple of months ago. I’d received a rejection by phone that day– it was for something I’d really hoped for. And I felt miserable. Some of it was pure disappointment. Some of it was absorbing once more the world’s regarding me as nothing of all that much value. It’s a feeling I’ve had many times during my adult life, and it really hurts.
“That afternoon I spent some time dwelling in that place– one where the whole world seems dark and hopeless –and feeling like a piece of crap deposited on the sidewalk of the Big Time, where other people get goodies, like TV appearances and big book advances, that I don’t get.
“After a few hours, I remembered an idea that I’d been hatching, and I went in to see if I could do something with it. Bringing a dismal spirit to the task, at first I just piddled around. But gradually, the work started to seep through those layers of disappointment and depression, trickling into where the real stuff –the good stuff that wants to express itself through– lies. I got into the groove, and by the time I got up several hours later I’d really started to fly.
“Here’s the punch line. Once I’d dipped into the river from which the creative juice comes, the whole picture shifted. I looked at the rejection and all that it signified and wow! everything had changed size. Compared with earlier in the day, it was like I was looking at that presumably devastating blow through the fat end of the telescope. All those goodies I wasn’t going to get seemed so much smaller than they had before. They seemed unimportant– because I’d tapped into other goodies that put my empire-building operation into a wholly different perspective.”
Then it struck me how this experience of mine connected with a vivid image Murray had told me the other day about his father.
“You know, to a person who never walks on the beach –if you’re so constricted with anxieties that the stream just can’t get through to nourish your spirit– no amount of security will ever feel like enough. But the real stuff makes so many of the other ‘goods’ seem much less important. You still need something from that realm, but you need a whole lot less than you think when fear has closed you down.
“So sure, you need to eat. But when you are with your beloved, a little bread and cheese seems like a feast.
“Do your weighing, is my advice then. But don’t use your father’s scales.”
Breaking New Ground
“Why’s creativity important?” This caller came on during the last half hour of the show. “I run my farm– same farm my father had, and my grampa, too. I’ve been listening to you, and it’s interesting and all. But I’m wondering if there’s something in this creativity business that has anything to do with folks like me.”
My friend and, on that occasion, co-host Phil Llewellyn had decided to do this program on creativity with the thought that the subject was indeed a meaningful one for everyone, and not just for guys like us who’d put creativity quite deliberately at the center of our lives. We had not intended this to be an elitist conversation, and so this call from this local listener told us that we had not yet succeeded in our purpose.
Not all the calls to my Sunday show are from locals. Each week, I also put out word about the coming show via e-mail to a couple dozen people I know around the country. (Because they come from outside the area, I call them Non-Areans.) These are special people, many of them favorite interlocutors of mine accumulated over the years. If the topic for the week catches their fancy, they can call up during the show for a little conversation– making more or less anonymous “guest appearances” on the show. And on the occasion of this show on creativity, the majority of the people we’d talked with had indeed not been locals.
In responding to this local caller, Phil and I started out by talking about creativity being about more than creating works of art and the like. The thrust of our comments paralleled some of my previous thinking about process-vs-product, from when I was trying to conceive that book about Living Creatively. At first our emphasis was on spontaneity as a manifestation of creativity in our daily lives. Without spontaneity, Phil suggested, a person is also less alive.
Think of what life would be like, Phil suggested, if every word you uttered, every move you made, were completely predictable, or just a repetition of what you’d said or done before. In fact, didn’t we know people pretty far in that direction– people with whom every conversation is a “been there, done that” kind of thing? Phil asked. And don’t we describe such people as “deadly” dull, and instinctively shy away from them just as we instinctively find the smell of death repulsive?
I then carried Phil’s idea about spontaneity into the domain of the “New.” Creativity, I said, means allowing the energies in us to unfold into new territory. The way the water in a river is always moving onward towards the sea. Or the way you can never step into the same river twice. If the water stops moving, it becomes stagnant. If you do step into the same river a second time, something must have dammed it up.
Take clichÃ©s, I said, warming to the topic. A clichÃ© is not a bad idea. It’s just an idea that’s done its service, and now it’s time to move on. Once upon a time, the clichÃ© was a creative breakthrough. “He’s not playing with a full deck.” “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” “Wake up and smell the coffee.” When such images are first born, they cause delight by revealing something fresh and bringing some piece of our experience of the world to life. But in time, the creative becomes the hackneyed, and it loses its ability to quicken us. The river has moved on, and someone’s going to have to bring us some fresh way of seeing for us to recapture the delight and sense of aliveness to spring forth again.
That’s creativity, I said. It’s that letting life present itself to us newly, and expressing that discovery of new bottles for containing the new wine.
Our caller seemed to get something out of Phil’s and my responses. He talked about his excitement at trying to raise llamas after all his years at doing the usual livestock, and about how he and his wife redid the design of their flower garden every year. And he said good-bye, while I expressed my gratitude for his calling to encourage us to do better at connecting our topic with the realities of daily life.
After that caller left just Phil and me on the air, I mentioned to Phil something I’d heard from another friend of mine, a physical therapist in the Philadelphia area. He’d written to me about a practice he’d undertaken in the past year: trying every day to move his body in new ways. He said that by continually trying to explore with his body, he was able to get rid of some of the low back pain he gets episodically from the repetitive exercises he does in the weight room. And he finds that new ways of thinking and feeling come with the new body movements, conferring on him a feeling of greater vitality.
Phil suggested then that it was probably a property of the life force to be continually finding its way into new territory, creating new possibilities beyond the forms life has taken before.
We were by then near the end of the show, at which point another local caller showed up. He called to challenge the notion that newness was any big deal. As far as he was concerned, the tried and true was where it was at. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, he maintained.
“The tried and true has a lot to recommend it,” Phil said, “but if that was the approach that life had taken the last few billion years, we’d still all be one-celled creatures floating around in the seas, and would never have evolved into the creative creatures that we human beings are.”
“That ain’t how it happened,” the caller pronounced.
And with that, we were only seconds from the top of the hour, no time for anything except for me to thank the caller and to thank Phil for joining me in the creative endeavor of doing the radio show and then –with an image in my mind from the scene in Inherit the Wind where the people fighting the teaching of evolution are singing “Give me That Old Time Religion” (“it was good enough for my pappy, and it’s good enough for me”)– I bade good-bye to the audience until the next Sunday.
At mid-week, I decided to take some quiet time and went to a spot about as flat as we have in our little orchard-on-the-slope, a spot where the carpet of green moss seems sensual and luxuriant, any time that the rains have kept it moist for a while. As the week had been rainy, this was such a time.
I wanted a quiet time to restore something in me that the previous couple of days of taking care of business had drained away. What it was that needed restoring, I couldn’t say, except that it seems to get used up whenever I engage in a lot of intense purposeful activity. So I set aside purpose to become more like the moss.
A happy discovery. Amid the oak leaves, which lay in a sodden mat, a plant had erupted, and as I took a look at its stem, and the shoot coming up behind one of its leaves, I realized it was a jack-in-the-pulpit. I’d always liked these wonderful little plants and, despite trying once tried to transplant one from the woods where I’d come upon it, had never had one grow on my land before.
I lay back on the moss, which was dry enough that at least it did not make me cold, and I let my eyes close. Soon my mind started slipping into work gear, and I decided to set such thoughts aside and let my rest continue. Then the thoughts returned, but again I rejected their task-orientation. I tried then using the mantra I’d been given when I was initiated in Transcendental Meditation, a practice I’d not kept up with much in the years since.
The people at TM describe the mantra as having special power because of its particular sound qualities, even when spoken silently in one’s mind. Having used these practices for millennia, they must know what they’re about. But I think of the mantra as something to distract the mind, like a piece of meat that one might use to divert a guard dog so that one could sneak into the house. Here, mind, chew on this, so that other things can happen while you’re not watching.
Soon, on the moss, I do indeed steal into the house, or at least it’s a decent tool-shed. Sometimes there are no thoughts at all, and sometimes pieces of my ideas float in, but in a richer form than usual, seemingly rooted down deep into a place where images and feelings and light hold equal sway with words and concepts, and dance together until they entwine inseparably.
My Taskmaster threatens regularly to spoil the fun of that dance, like somebody interrupting a concert to talk about the music. Fortunately, my fatigue makes my Taskmaster easier to hold off. Which is a good thing, even for my Taskmaster. Even after all these years, I think on my moss bed, he still doesn’t seem to get it: that the real work gets done better in his absence.
The thoughts involved in the dance connect, fittingly, with the notion that some of our greatest capabilities are not commanded by our taskmasters. The image of the well wells up– a place to go to where fresh water from beneath the surface of the earth can be brought up for drinking. We’re 75% water. I float a while longer, hovering hypnogogically on the edge of a nap. A glowing golden cloth blows in a mental wind, bringing to my mind the ancient image of the muse (or maybe it’s some Victorian rendition of the ancient image). She whispers to the artist.
The art of listening.
I start getting more activated as the smell of this golden intellectual and spiritual honey rouses my worker bees to rise from their hive. Listening with the third ear, the psychoanalyst W…Reik called his book. Listen loosely, he said to those who would follow in his profession, in order to hear better. You’ll understand what you don’t understand. (Later I go to look up his words, and find him talking about “secrets” that are revealed “like doors that open themselves, but cannot be forced.” Reik goes on to say, “You will understand them after you have ceased to reflect about them.” )
I haven’t given up on resting yet, and so I attempt to cease my purposesful, directed reflection on these matters, and just let my consciousness unfold of its own. But I find that, like Orpheus losing his Euridice by turning around to look at her, I am losing the blessed state into which I’d fallen.
The purposeful mind has its limits, I then reflected, as well as its uses. The mind directed by will is likely to find what it is looking for, but miss what it is not. It’s the kind of mind that would be attracted by Holiday Inn’s old ad, “The best surprise is no surprise at all.” It’s the kind of mind that creates maps, which are good for many things, but tend to be flat.
Gradually, I accepted that my sojourn near the springs of my soul is over. I was back under the sway of my usual boss. For now. It’s OK, I told myself. I have been reminded of where the real direction comes from.
We’re taught to equate our minds with our conscious will. To solve a problem requires pushing one’s way on through it. It is an act of conquest. We are taught to act on ourselves and on the world around us like conquerors. We approach the rivers of our world like the Army Corps of Engineers: pouring concrete to channel, to dam, to get the river where we want it to be. It has made us mighty, but we are also in some ways strangers in our own country, alienated from the territory in which we dwell, like Murray’s father who bought his beachside place but never hears the ocean’s roar.
I recalled a line from a book on creativity that I’d recently been reading. It’s about a poet named Gyorgy Faludy, who writes his poetry only when a “voice” tells him, “Gyorgy, it’s time to start writing.” The poet says of this director of his work, “That voice has my number, but I don’t have his.”
That’s the kind of relationship, I’d say, that we have with a great deal of what is of value that comes through us. It’s a relationship where we’re told, “We’ll call you, don’t you call us.” If we’re too insistent on being the boss, we’ll never hear the call.
Getting Back Intuit
After my sojourn on the moss, I returned to the house, my head teeming with thoughts. I greeted April, assured her that indeed I’d get the bread baked, including the pumpernickel rye she loves so much, and went to my favorite rocker, the one with a view through the window across the valley, to jot down some notes.
What I wanted to get started was an exploration of the idea of “intuition,” the human ability to arrive at ideas (or images, or understandings) without conscious command or awareness of the process by which we come to them. Surely this is an important part of “listening to (our inner) reality,” and one to which, in my exploration of the blessings of allowing things to unfold, I’d not yet given explicit attention. On reflection, I could see that my thinking about unfolding had repeatedly assumed the existence and value of an intuitive faculty, and that my own method of proceeding relied heavily on intuition.
I made a note to myself to see whether there were resources available on intuition –in the library, or through a search of the web– that would help me discover more about how unfolding works, at least along that stream of it that concerns the workings of our minds.
Where in people’s lives is intuition most useful? The image came to my mind of how we form our impressions of one another, as when we first meet. The instant liking, the inarticulate suspicion, the sense of being kindred spirits: we take in such a vast range of cues of all kinds –body language, facial expression, conversational style– and, without even being aware of them all, process them into some gut feeling about the person.
Gosh, I wondered, is intuition just a form of data processing that we do without being able, afterwards, to recollect what information we attended to and the inferences we drew from it? That is, is perhaps intuition just the usual straight-forward way of collecting evidence and drawing conclusions except that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing?
Then I wondered, is it even possible to proceed without relying on mental processes that just unfold on their own, beyond our conscious direction and awareness? That is, do we ever really command our minds to move even from point A to point B, or do we always find our way to point B by getting an intuitive sense of B while we’re at A, and then following our intuition.
It then flashed through my mind that perhaps intuition is identical with, or at least intimately connected with, that idea of “felt sense” that Eugene Gendlin promulgated and used in the development of his “focusing” technique. So I made a note that perhaps I ought to get in touch with Gendlin again –would he remember me, a mere graduate student, and from thirty years ago?– or perhaps with someone else in the focusing movement.
From there my associative train took off for a depot where I’d spent some time the previous week, exploring some of the writings by the people at the Shaleem Institute. My Methodist minister friend, Merle, had helped me find this institute so that I could learn more about the practice, in his Christian tradition, of contacting and being guided by the Holy Spirit. In their materials, I’d come across intriguing images like “leaning back into that Larger Presence with a willing mind,” and “opening” one’s mind to “whatever is showing itself.”
The Holy Spirit, as I gathered from these writings, speaks in silence– meaning not only that it is important to quiet the mind in order to make “a spacious place” for hearing the divine guidance that is available to us, but also that the guidance comes generally not as a voice –like the one that told Joan of Arc to save France, or like the one that asked Paul “why persecutest thou me”– but as a silent coming to one’s awareness of thoughts from somewhere beyond the command of the recipient.
Which led me to a question I found intriguing. If one group of people calls the uncommanded emergence of wise thoughts “intuition,” while another group is calling the wisdom they get –when they become quiet to allow something beyond their own conscious and willful ego to speak to them– “guidance from the Holy Spirit,” are these people just giving different names to the same thing?
So I made a note that I might get in touch with someone at Shaleem and ask them the question: What is it in the experience of your prayerful state that makes you interpret it as coming from a God rather than from somewhere in your own mind, such as intuition?
After those several days when I’d put the unfolding project aside, I now felt back into the process. My moss-backed time on the slope had floated me back into the current of that exploration, and I felt hot to trot.
Dealing with What You’re Dealt
Later that same afternoon, the breads were rising for the second time when an unexpected knock at the door roused me from my work. (I was making some additional notes about the blessings of the receptive mind.) At the door I found my friend Carrey, one of those rare people of my acquaintance who stubbornly maintain the practice, even into adulthood, of the unannounced visit. A visit from him was a reminder of college days, when a guy might just take a break and go to a buddy’s room down the dormitory hallway. But Carrey lived an hour and a half away. By car.
“Up for a walk, Schmodeler?” Carrey inquired, using as a nick-name for me one of the common ways my name is misspelled on mail addressed to me, particularly when the mailing list got my name off my messy signature.
I took stock. Really, I wanted to work. Also, the yeast has its own schedule. But there was Carrey, and I’d long since decided both that I valued his friendship and that I wasn’t likely to change his ways by teaching him any “lessons.” And hey! wasn’t I in the business these days of saying that it’s wise not to be too guided by one’s own agendas but rather to go with the flow?
“Sure, why not?” I replied. “Let me put my breads up for their final rise, and then we’ll have a decent stretch of time before I need to tend to them again.”
Carrey and I went on a bushwhacking kind of walk, not the path-and-road kind of walk that April and I usually do with our visitors. Carrey is not much one for the road more traveled by.
By profession –or by calling– Carrey is a photographer. He’s a photographer solely as an artist. Totally unwilling to hire himself out to practice his craft, he ekes out a living doing handyman kinds of things –fixing fences, weeding gardens, things like that. His concept of his art has a purity about it: he’ll never do anything to “create” his picture, never move any objects, never even bring in artificial lighting. (I’m not sure whether or not using a flash attachment is kosher according to his particular Leviticus.) He roams the world with his eyes wide open, and when he sees something that he feels will say something important or beautiful when rendered on a flat sheet of photographic paper, he takes the picture.
He’s done some really stunning work. On occasion he’s gained national, even international recognition for some of his pictures. Not that such glory ever brings him more than a pittance in material terms rewards. He’d had opportunities to convert the recognition of his achievements into a position shooting pictures for some big-time publication like Newsweek. But he’d declined, saying, “For me, at least, that path does not have heart.” (Carrey, like me, was smitten back in the late 1960s with Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, and, unlike me, he still makes a number of references to that teacher —whom I now presume to be fictional– the Yaqui shaman, Don Juan.)
We decided to head for the stream at the bottom, to choose when we got there whether to go up- or down-stream, and then to circle back through the woods to my place, all presumably before the breads started to sag from the fatigue of the cavorting little yeasties.
As we passed though a copse of hickory pines, as yet undevasted by the beetles that have invaded the area, in answer to Carrey’s asking, “Whattya been thinking about lately?” I responded by starting to tell him about a piece that I felt –intuitively, as I noted silently to myself– Carrey would really connect with in some way. I say, “some way,” because with Carrey, I never was able to predict just how he’d respond to much of anything. I told him some of my thoughts about how so many people don’t follow their calling because they cannot prudently quit their day job. Then I expressed a lovely thought: “What would the world be like if everyone followed his calling, and was best rewarded for doing so?”
“Yeah,” Carrey agreed. “That’d be great. Like the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ with the lion lying down with the lamb. A vision of perfection. But….” And he was silent for a while. “On the other hand…..” Again, silent. I gave him space to work it through. But then after about maybe half a minute, I broke in, “What other hand?”
“I was just thinking, you know that expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’” I grunted an affirmation, and he continued: “I’ve heard it often enough that it’s become a clichÃ©. But still, it does say something. The idea is, you might get it.”
“So why should that be a problem?” I said, knowing how that could be a problem in a lot of cases, but not seeing how it would be so in this matter. Then I added, so as to signal that he didn’t have to start at square one: “I don’t know about you, but I still do wishing. And when I wish, I really want my wishes to come true. It’s like I’m pretty sure I know what’s good for me.”
“We’re all pretty sure. And besides, how can you stop wishing– unless you’re Buddha? But still, we’re also subject to what I call ‘The Midas Problem.’”
“Yes, I remember when I got a lousy brake job from them, and I had to send a threatening letter the corporate headquarters before they’d give me my money back. I wished I’d never gone there.”
Carrey gave me a look. “The dude who wanted everything he touched to turn to gold, Schmodeler. It was a disaster.”
We were down to the rocky place where the stream coursed through. The soil on the banks showed how much higher the level had been during the recent rains.
“OK. But what are you saying? That it wouldn’t be good for people to get rewarded for giving the world the best that’s in them?”
“Bear with me. I’m not sure I’d go that far. But there is a phenomenon here, something that goes on with people, where scarcity can serve them better than abundance. No, that’s not it exactly. Let me see, just what is it?….I don’t know, there’s more, but let me start with this abundance business. Have you ever known people born to great wealth? Always had everything they wanted? Never had to wonder how they were going to be able to keep body and soul together? Not an unmixed blessing, was it?
“I mean, you and I have probably wished at times that we had a checking account big enough that our checks would never bounce. Right? It would be great to have the energy freed up from worrying about survival, and then we’d have all that much more to pour into our creative work.
“But a lot of the rich kids I know don’t provide supportive evidence for that prediction. Having it easy can take the energy out of you, it seems.”
“Your idea is bigger than this example, isn’t it?”
He twinkled me an eye. It was at such moments that he remembered why he liked me.
“You grew up in Minnesota, right?” Carrey continued. “I was in Buffalo during those same years. So we both know blizzards. No one wants a blizzard, right? All your plans go out the window. Everything becomes difficult. You can spend days digging out. Whole neighborhoods come to a stop, with everyone helping everyone else get their lives freed from the immobilization nature has inflicted on them. Everybody loves it. Nobody wants it, but it turns out to be a peak experience.”
“Yes, I see what your getting at.”
“I’m sure you do. Remember, I read what you write. And one thing I remember from Living Posthumously is that you noted how it is often the experiences we would least choose that provide us with the wisdom that we most value. Like with the heart attack survivor who would never have chosen that trauma –would have paid anything to avoid it– but because of this ‘misfortune’ he turns his life around, starts to live it more fully.”
“Yes, sometimes it seems we’re better off for not being able to order all our experiences from off the menu.”
“That’s the Midas problem. Our little egos are not the font of wisdom, you know. So if our will-driven ego gets to design our lives, we may find that we’ve impoverished ourselves by our too-narrow sense of what the riches are.”
“OK, I follow you so far. We get caught up in what I call ‘building our empires,’ and our blueprint to protect ourselves can shut out the real stuff of life. But we started out by your having some reservations about how great it would be if the world rewarded us all for working within the niche to which we were called. I still don’t get how this connects with that matter of following one’s calling, and fulfilling one’s creative gifts?”
“Right.” He stopped talking for a while, as we worked our way upstream. Mentally, I was charting the implications of this course for how we’d get back to my place in time to get the breads into the oven. “OK. Here’s at least another piece,” Carrey then resumed.
“A while back,” Carrey said, “I read a book called Free Play. Interesting piece of work, about improvisation and the creative path.” I made a mental note. “In this book, the author says something like that an artist often does better when he lacks resources, when he can’t get everything he’d like to work with, when scarcity compels him to be resourceful and inventive, to go with what he’s got. Something like that. So in other words, hardship is not necessarily a curse. And having everything provided is not necessarily a blessing.”
“So the heart attack that makes you take a deeper look at what life’s about, and the world’s not supplying you with everything you wish for– they’re both cases of how maybe the ‘ideal’ is not the ideal. Am I getting you?” I asked.
“I’ve given this stuff a lot of thought,” Carrey replied, answering me, apparently, by indirection. “Should I curse my fate –having to struggle to make my life as an artist– or embrace it? I did plenty of the cursing sort, complaining about what the world dealt my way, and what it didn’t. Then I made a shift.”
“It seems to me there are a few distinctions to be made, here,” I ventured. “Bitching and moaning may be an unwise posture to take toward what the universe is dealing you. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best of all possible worlds, does it?”
“Right. Let me start by saying that we’re best off dealing with what we’re dealt. A kind of welcoming of whatever comes as resources out of which we fashion our lives. Like an artist who doesn’t have the big bucks to order from the metallurgists just what he envisions for his sculpture, but takes off into the junk yard on a journey of discovery, to find among all the scraps of the world’s refuse the ingredients for a sculpture he hasn’t yet fully envisioned. Hasn’t fully envisioned because he doesn’t really know just what the universe is going to deal him to play out his hand with.”
“I think of this in terms of receptivity,” I rejoined. “Being in a dialogue with reality, with the world, in which one listens with an open mind and heart. Not closing them off with resentment. Or with fear. I read something recently that said that a common teaching of the various religions is ‘Be not afraid.’ Let go of the fear, and you’ll draw greater nourishment from the opportunities the world’s presenting you. Am I getting you?”
“Yeah, and I’d like to take that a step further. One reason for having an open heart, for welcoming the cards we’re dealt is that –at some level– the dealer can be trusted to give you the cards you need. If the hand you’re dealt ain’t the one you’d have taken if you’d been allowed to stack the deck, think of that discrepancy as a message about how little you understand about how things are supposed to be.”
“Sorry, Carrey, I’m not sure I can go that far with you.” What popped into my mind at this point was Anton Berg’s comment about how deadly an unplanned approach to travel would be for someone on an Apollo 13 kind of journey. “I certainly can concur that, whatever happens to you , you might as well make the most of, might as well treat it as an opportunity rather than just kicking ‘against the pricks,’ in Shakespeare’s now obscene-sounding phrase. But I balk at your imputing to the universe such benign solicitousness about our needs, that it’s a place that moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Some people get dealt some pretty terrible cards,” I concluded, thinking about the cards my friend Anton Berg and his family were dealt, during the Holocaust, not to mention the daily diet of horrors to be seen on the nightly news.
“Maybe it’s a happy dream,” Carrey replied. “I don’t altogether believe it myself. Over the years, I’ve been put off more than once by some conventionally religious person’s assuming that all that happens is according to God’s plan. ‘I guess it wasn’t God’s will.’ ‘God’s testing us.’ That sort of thing. So it gives me the willies, in a way, when I hear myself suggesting that we get the cards we need.
“But Andy, if you’re going to write a book about the celebration of the wonders of unfolding, aren’t you presuming some such faith?”
This time it was my turn to be silent for a while, as we bushwhacked back around through an understory of wild blueberries, in their various stages of turning the corner from pale pink toward the lucious blue that meant that they were ready for our grazing. ‘Ripening by the providence of God,’ I jested to myself.
“I don’t know,” I said momentarily, indicating that my moment of silence had not yielded any breakthroughs. “It seems that I’ve undertaken this project to express my faith in something, but I’m not sure what. And I don’t know whether, in order to have faith in Something, I’m compelled to have a faith –like yours– in Everything.”