My Journey: The Call

“This is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang, but a whimper”
– T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

“…that’s just the trouble with me. I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”
– Alice, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

I vs I

I stared at the ink drying on the pink, paper fish in my hand. So small it barely stretched across my palm, four simple words were scrawled on it’s tiny body. Help Beth find God.  Tears gathered behind my eyes, everything that had led to this moment pressing on me from behind like a long and heavy trailing shadow.  Quickly, I tied the ribbon to the net of prayers and walked away to compose myself.  In his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell indicates that, “…one of the ways in which the journey can begin…. A blunder… reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood”[1]. And so it was with me.

It’s a common enough story, really.  Separated from my boyfriend by an ocean and time, in a new place surrounded by new people, I found myself unable to resist engaging in a flash-in-the-pan sort of one night stand with an acquaintance of the time.  I blundered, and as is the case so many times, it wasn’t worth it. “As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance.  They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts.  They are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep – deep as the soul itself”[2].  I didn’t tell my boyfriend, of course.  It had been a horrible mistake – besides it had been a few kisses, some uncomfortable (and unwanted) groping – it’s not like I slept with the guy!  At the time, I wasn’t yet aware that everything we do reverberates energetically into the universe.  It doesn’t matter who we tell or don’t tell; we know, and that knowledge both affects us and leaks out into the Ether like pus from a festering wound.

We have all sorts of narratives for the triumph of the victim, the underdog, the one who has been wronged.  More often than not it is only critical eyes we cast in the direction of the accused.  They were weak.  They should have known better.  How could they not have known this would happen?  But while the victim may not be in a position of “physical” or “emotional” strength during their trial[3], they are, at least usually, in a position of moral strength; not so, the perpetrator. So what is the narrative for the person who thought they were “good” but, in an unguarded moment, loses their moral high ground? The curtain closes on the tragic hero when his flaw is revealed, but the story doesn’t end there for most of us.  Campbell uses the story of the Frog Prince to illustrate that this is just the  beginning of the journey, noting that, “the frog..the rejected one is the representative of that unconscious deep… wherein are hoarded all the rejected, unadmitted, unrecognized, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws, and elements of existence”[4]. Like the princess, we were skipping along happily with our golden ball (or moral compass) only to unfortunately and recklessly lose it and find ourselves face-to-face with a horribly ugly frog (or piece of ourselves).  To secure it’s retrieval, the frog forces us to recognize and reconcile ourselves with its existence, but we are so happy at the return of our golden ball and so desirous to escape the frog that we flee in earnest, leaving our amphibious herald behind in the dust.  Little do we know that the frog, once unearthed, cannot be forgotten and hops along after us.  Frogs are slower than people, so it may take a while to catch up, but the upcoming reckoning, however and whenever it manifests, is unavoidable.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall…

If we allow it to happen, it is in this space, coming face-to-face with a piece of ourselves we abhor at first sight, where the deepest transformation can begin; where the light is cast on how things have come to be the way they are for us. But, in reflecting on our life, we often want to hide from or explain away our part in contributing to our own circumstances – instead choosing to focus on the reasons others have done the things they have done that led to our mistake or fumble.  Unfortunately, without the recognition of our own role, complete understanding is lost and we may doom ourselves to repeating the same situations over and over at different times with different people until the missing piece falls into place.  When this finally does happen we are left with two choices; to either be as hard on ourselves as we have been on others, or – recognizing all the complicated motivations and desires that have led to our own blunders, we can extend the same sympathy we have for ourselves to everyone else; realizing that those who have wronged us may, also, have wanted to do the right thing but had it turn horribly wrong.  They, too, may have fallen into a trap their subconscious left waiting, hoping to trigger engagement with the deep self. Choosing the path of understanding and sympathy opens the way to an intense awareness of our shared human experience and – as Campbell indicates – can start our active walk on the spiritual path.[5]

But this understanding was yet to come for me.  I was still the thoughtless, fleeing princess when I stumbled upon that old English church on a crisp, Spring afternoon.  There wasn’t anything particularly significant or unique about it; doubtless one of hundreds, maybe more just like it dotted the countryside. I hardly remember enough to form a sufficient description.  Vague impressions come to mind of it being rather dark inside; dark wood, dark brick.  In contrast, draped over a statue towards the altar was a net peppered with colorful paper fish covered in writing.  On a nearby table lay a pencil and a basket full of similar fish, empty of wishes and prayers.  It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I began to actively walk my spiritual path, this certainly isn’t the earliest chronological event that happened along my journey, but I choose this one to represent the start because it’s the point where I was brave enough to admit to myself just how lost I was.  It also represents the point where I recognized the need to ask for directions.  There is no point more vulnerable than when we must ask for help from a position of moral weakness. So I put my heart on paper and my faith in the unknown that day as I took my next step into the future.

Welcome to Wonderland

I think it was no accident, then, that a few days later, while meandering the streets of Canterbury, I ended up in a bookstore.  Even though I love to read, I hadn’t gone to bookstores at all since my term started.  Due to the pound / dollar exchange things in general, and books especially, were more expensive in England and I had earmarked almost all the money that wasn’t designated for eating (rather sparsely I admit) to travel.  However, this particular day, I happened upon a small corner store with a door wide open and friendly lighting spilling out into the street. I was just noticing that it was a bookstore and thinking about turning around, when a turquoise spine caught my eye, “The Religions of Man”.  I confess, the title made me think more of a work of anthropology than religion, and that appealed.  In flipping through the pages, it seemed to be a survey on the major religions of the world. Certainly, religion was a subject I struggled with, but was interested in. It seemed too good to be true that I could learn about a religion from someone not trying to convince me to join up. A quick glance at the price made me wince.  I was almost at the end of my current finances[6], but I knew I had to have this book; I could feel it.  So, of course, I bought it.

It started with the chapter on Hinduism, “if we were to take Hinduism as a whole,” Huston Smith writes, “and compress it into a single affirmation, we would find it saying ’you can have what you want’. This sounds promising, but it throws the problem back in our laps, for what DO we want?”[7] Riveted from the first page, the book raised questions for me that I had never seriously asked myself. What DID I want? I’d always considered myself a fairly reflective person, but for the first time it occurred to me that most of my reflection had been directed outwards – towards understanding the external world and others.  I had spent almost no time trying to understand myself, who I was, why I did the things I did.  I spent the rest of my days in Canterbury listening to Ben Harper croon “I’ll Rise” while walking contemplatively around campus and town.  Although to the outside observer it probably didn’t look like I was doing much of anything, my body had become a cocoon – setting the stage for a deep inner transformation that was to come.  If I were to step back, now, and ask myself, what did I really do during that time?  I visited a random church, wrote down a prayer, and a short time later (days? weeks?) I bought a book.  Part of the beauty and mystery of walking the Spiritual Path is the sudden ability to view the incredibly mundane through a transformed lens of deep, personal meaning.  The church, the fish, these we’re just what I needed at the time and the words of Huston Smith felt as if they were meant just for me.  While undoubtedly the words were not written for me, if we are willing to pay attention – our soul, heart, higher self will point us to the things we need to see.  We will be guided by this same, also, to the right place and the right time for what we need to experience.

Joseph Campbell writes of a Native American tale about a girl who chases a porcupine up a tree to get it’s beautiful quills, “…looking down she saw her friends craning up at her and beckoning her to descend, but under the influence of the porcupine and fearful for the great distance between herself and the ground, she continued to mount the tree, until she became the merest speck to those looking from below, and with the porcupine she finally reached the sky”[8].  Like the girl of the story, the first part of the transformation had already happened to me.  The blunder had led to a place where I could clearly see the distance from the safe world I had left.  The unknown world stretched ahead. Although the old existence was over, a new one was opening. Flying terrifies me for reasons I won’t enumerate here, but on the flight home a tremendous sense of peace filled me.  I felt myself suspended between the recent past, in England, which had been so internally tumultuous and returning home to Chicago with a very uncertain future.  Unbeknownst to me, my little frog was hanging out on the wing – waiting for the right moment to hop back into the story.  Soon I would learn that we cannot get around the consequences and pain of our own actions, the only way out is through.

[1] Campbell, Joseph The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 1972)
[2] Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 1972)
[3] Here I am not referring to an actual courtroom trial, but the more colloquial definition of ‘trouble or grief’
[4] Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 1972)
[5] This is not the only way to the Spiritual Path of course, it is a way that some people, including myself, happen to stumble upon it.
[6] I actually ran out of money, quite literally, while on Scotland – and had to live my last two weeks on the equivalent of $130.00… which, lucky for me I had some essential things pre-paid for (like a roof over my head) so it wasn’t a horrible crisis, but needless to say it definitely curbed the last-minute souvenir shopping
[7] Smith, Huston The World’s Religions (formerly known as The Religions of Man) HarperOne; Rev Rep edition (August 16, 1991).  The reason I quote this newer version, instead of the original one I bought in England is because, like so many of us do, I lent the book out to a friend and it was never returned.
[8] Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 1972)

4 thoughts on “My Journey: The Call

  1. life is a journey and destination at the same time but we take them separate ….. so many crossroads we search for directions and some time can not decide which road to take …… totally helpless …… Help Beth find God…….. fine description of a journey alone to all one ……. love all.

    • Thanks – totally agree that ‘life is a journey and a destination at the same time’ – that’s a great way to put it :). Yes, there are lots of crossroads – and sometimes it actually doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things which road you take, but it matters a lot to you at the time – so that can make it doubly challenging 🙂

  2. truly your blog is a value for time …… feel delighted to go through your wisdom words and silence between them …… with greetings and gratitude …… ram

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