31 August 2007

Pictures: Big and Small

Carlton referenced the I Ching teaching on "The Taming Power of the Small" in a recent conversation. The teaching includes gems like

...the force of the small--the power of the shadowy--that restrains, tames, impedes...

...a configuration of circumstances in which a strong element is temporarily held in leash by a weak element. It is only through gentleness that this can have a successful outcome...

...The situation is not unfavorable; there is a prospect of ultimate success, but there are still obstacles in the way, and we can merely take preparatory measures. Only through the small means of friendly persuasion can we exert any influence. The time has not yet come for sweeping measures...

...an individual, in times when he can produce no great effect in the outer world, can do nothing except refine the expression of his nature in small ways...

...the power of disinterested truth is greater than all ... obstacles. It carries such weight that the end is achieved, and all ... fear disappear[s]... (excerpts from Richard Wilhelm's and Cary F. Baynes translation "I Ching: Or, Book of Changes")

Carlton's reference was timely. Yesterday, beneath the weight of accumulated frustration, I collapsed into a tirade. The situation was precisely as the I Ching describes--"a strong element ... temporarily held in leash by a weak element"-- with me as the weak element. I was anything but "disinterested" and my "unrefined" expression only served to produce fear and disapproval in most of the witnesses.

The concept of "seeing the big picture" has also come up in recent conversations. In the various gatherings of people engaged in the Gulf Coast recovery, impassioned speakers often take the floor to advocate for their point of view. We are like the proverbial blind men standing around an elephant, each touching a different part of the great beast and taking it to define the whole. For a variety of understandable reasons, we lose sight of the larger picture, the larger story in which we are all players.

Within minutes of leaving the scene of my explosion, my perspective on the situation broadened and I recognized that I had "done it again": blindly clinging to the part of the elephant closest to me, I hurled my vehemence.

swing back and forth along a continuum of sightedness: one moment suffused with epiphanous insight, in the next we begin the gradual slide toward blind ignorance. And Ego guides us to staunch inflexibility at every point between these poles. Awakening to the inescapable limitations of our point of view is an aspect of transcendence; maintaining this awareness promotes evolution of consciousness--my own and the greater Consciousness that breathes all life, what I think of as The One Story or The Big Picture.

My own ability to stay focused and responsive to the Big Picture seems to diminish the longer I am in direct relationship with people or places. Intimacy and familiarity seem to behave somewhat like narcotics where consciousness and cognition are concerned. The longer I know a person or place, the more likely I am to become focused on "small pictures," to take things personally, to obsess or drone on particularities.

An arguable blessing is the capacity to remember, to step back (or "out"...or "up"....) into an awareness of the inescapable limitations of my perspective--a capacity eternally compromised by Ego. Sometimes I remember on my own. This is not precisely true: always there is the Big Hand, the ancestors, the deep-running "still waters" of Mystery guiding and inspiring me into wholeness. And even while intimacy and familiarity sometimes produce psychic dullness or short-sightedness, often enough I find a reminder or encouragement toward a return to wholeness in interaction with familiar others.

We are a symphony, each playing our part. Through our impassioned focus--oboe and cello and drum, violin, cymbal and bassoon--the marvelous, elaborate composition is expressed. Song of the universe, song of Time. The unique harmonies and vibrations of Life, from Forever to Now to Tomorrow -- a cosmic chorus that holds, informs and sustains us all.

When experience is viewed through an egocentric filter, we fall out of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic alignment with the great song. We hear cacophony and mistakenly believe it comes from outside ourselves but in fact the dissonance originates in our myopic subjectivity.

How do we avoid this straying? Or, if it is impossible to completely avoid it, how do we find our way back to harmony.

We touch the tail or hoof or tusk of the elephant and integrate our learning on that level. We know what we know. And we remember we are blind. We listen. To the voices within and the voices beyond. To the song within and the surrounding song. And then beyond that to the Song into which all songs flow. We feel our song flowing into the Song. And we remember we are blind.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your insightful and thorough post, Alex –

    So much to pick up on, I will just touch on a couple of threads.

    How do we avoid straying? This is a question you asked and I often ask myself. For what feels good and positive and life-affirming is what I want to hold on to at all costs. How ironic is it that in the very moment I think that thought, ask that question, I am already attached to an outcome. The idea of clinging to a path seems to make that path what it was not intended to be … an absolute.

    And then, leaning more into the teachings of the Tao, I remember that “the Way that can be ‘wayed’ is not the true way.” For me, what I find hopeful and life-giving is a belief that there is nothing outside the Way in its deepest meaning. The path emerges where my feet fall, and not where they don’t, regardless of how well-worn the route to my left of my right is. This is why I mostly don’t panic when I’m driving and get turned around (unless I’m running late). For me, part of the process of getting to know a place is to understand it in relationship to the places that it is not.

    Mostly these days, I try not to avoid straying, but instead to factor straying into whatever I have planned for the day, month, year, etc. Right now, I could be working on meeting today’s word count for my novel. Instead, I am responding to my friend’s blog. Am I straying? Perhaps. Or is this the warm-up, so that when I do start working on the novel, the ‘pump’ is already ‘primed’? Perhaps. I like the latter, so I’m going to run with that possibility.

    Straying. For me it conjures my attempts to do what’s right instead of what’s wrong, what’s good instead of what’s bad, what’s socially acceptable instead of what’s unacceptable. Back when I was growing up, some of my devout Christian relatives and friends would refer to someone who was once saved having become a “backslider” – they had done the right thing because they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then they messed around and did the wrong thing, because they started drinking, cussing, smoking, fornicating, whore-mongering again. There was only the straight and narrow way.

    I read an article recently in a magazine that was drawing the distinction between religion among people in the ‘working class’ and religion among people in the ‘professional’ class. The author was saying that in his working class/conservative upbringing, what his father had to offer him was a proscribed ‘path’ as a way of having a good life, along the lines of you go to school, you get a steady job (whether the work inspires you or not), you get married, you join a church, you have some children … Religiously, the path might be you go to church, you pay your tithe, you go to confession, you do what the priest/minister/pastor says … In the professional class, the path is you find something you love to do, and that will give you the advantage over others. Religiously, the professional class/liberal message is you can go your own way.

    Sometimes, the only expression of love our fearful loved ones can offer us is their fear, i.e., You better stay in school, or you’ll end up out on the street. Inside a world where the stakes are very high, and your survival hinges on doing what ‘everyone’ knows is the right thing (For Southern blacks, Don’t look white people in the eye, until the 1960s or so), there’s a practical imperative not to stray that is justifiable.

    In matters of what seems deepest and truest in my spirit, however, I rest in the assurance that I can never be ‘off’ the Way, and even more transcending, that I’m not separate from the Way. Even if something happened to me that looked disastrous to anyone who observed it, somehow, that would still be a part of the Way.

    It is possible to live a life of misery and at the same time have every material and social advantage conceivable. It is possible to live a life of great happiness and fulfillment with only the barest of necessities. These and everything else are just manifestations of the Way.

    I close out with a piece by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet who availed himself to be a channel of timeless wisdom:

    The Guest House

    This being human is a guest house,
    Every morning a new arrival.
    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.
    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    Thank you, Alex, for this opportunity to share.
    Now to novel-writing.
    Deep peace to all sojourners, now and forever.


What do you feel about what you just read?