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Continuing with Karen Armstrong

I’m still reading Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase. It’s taking me a long time. I read a few pages, put the book down, think, live, sleep on her words, wake, and read a few pages more. Armstrong is part of this moment for me, and I am as grateful to her as I am to my closest friends. She explores questions, like What is an authentic life? which have called to me for decades. She describes my own doubts and longings. Sometimes she sounds a little like Joseph Campbell, as here:

“The great myths show that when you follow somebody else’s path, you go astray. The hero has to set off by himself, leaving the old world and the old ways behind…. In the words of the Old French text of The Quest of the Holy Grail, if he wants to succeed, he must enter the forest ‘at a point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.’ The wasteland in the Grail legend is a place where people live inauthentic lives, blindly following the norms of their society and doing only what other people expect” (268).

I am slightly embarrassed by the shiver I feel, reading that. Kendall, I say to myself, you are a strange-looking hero. Your hair is gray and your neck is a wobbly mess. You have entered many forests and spent some time in wastelands. And yet here comes another quest: “retirement” (on less than enough to survive in this country) or whatever it is that is coming when I leave my regular salary and health insurance and leap into the void this coming December. No matter what I may think I am doing, the truth is that I don’t know. I need to learn by going where I have to go.

I met Jake at our usual coffee house yesterday to regale him with stories of the trip to Mexico he missed. He has a new art exhibit about to open, and although he has been applying for jobs in other places for as long as I’ve known him, he has stepped up the effort and is burning with the hope of leaving Texas. He was glad to hear I’ve decided that I’m no longer planning to become a Buddhist nun, not willing to surrender my autonomy. “You,” he said with his usual gentle understatement, “probably know more about how to direct your life and your spiritual development than anyone else, at this point.” True. Karen Armstrong found the same so. “But I predict,” he said, stroking his chin and gazing toward the ceiling, “that after six months of chopping vegetables and cleaning toilets, you’re going to be bored out of your mind.” We laughed. But part of my quest is to get precisely there: out of my “mind,” into a more expansive space than the limitations of mind allow. That is the core of the Buddhist tradition–to leave the mind and enter the boundless field of compassion (feeling-with); not to become stupid or mind-less, but to become mind-fully awake.

At this moment, I yearn for silence. Deep silence. A convalescent silence. I ache with exhaustion deeper than can be healed with a good night’s sleep. Armstrong again: “…gradually the enveloping quiet became a positive element, almost a presence, which settled comfortably and caressingly around me like a soft shawl. It seemed to hum, gently but melodiously, and to orchestrate the ideas that I was contending with, until they started to sing too, to vibrate and reveal an unexpected resonance. After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture…. Silence itself had become my teacher” (283-4). I want to sign up for THAT course. I imagine that in that silence, I will know where I need to go, or what I need to do, next. It may well be that the best place to go will be nowhere, to stay put–where? I’m getting way ahead of myself. Don’t know yet where I will go to hear that silence. Green Gulch? Upaya? I haven’t put foot on the land of either place yet. Voices like Jake’s and Karen Armstrong’s accompany me into the silence I yearn for, and I’m grateful for such good company. This blog is me, singing in the shower, accompanied by the echo. Once I had an apartment in New Orleans and could hear my neighbor singing in the shower–off-tune but wonderfully enthusiastic. I loved to listen.

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2 responses to “Continuing with Karen Armstrong”

  1. Christopher says:

    Advice / thoughts from Juan Ramon Jimenez (1881-1958):

    Space, time, solitude, silence.

    You find in solitude only what you take to it.

    “Silence is golden, silence is gold.” Silence makes everything fit. It is the great ring of gold.

    In silence I can have suspended–suspended in the instant– my entire day and even my entire life, in full synthesis. In noise I can only suspend the instant.

    There are days when life becomes concave. How things resound in her– the yapping of dogs, the barking of orders, the screams of children, the chirping of birds, the sighs of women. Other days it becomes convex, and nothing resounds at all. Or better, everything ceases to sound. And then, how terrifyingly deaf my life is!

    Silence does not waste time, it fills it. Yes. And the only thing that fills time is silence. So that time shared with noise is time lost. But silence conquers time, puts it back together, makes it whole.

    When it is noisy, don’t sing; draw or sculpt your thought.

    When a noise breaks into your silence, make it immediately a natural part of your silence.

    Hearing silence and seeing shadow, our life is more luminous and expressive and dwells more within the eternal– I mean, within the sufficient.

    O noises that do nothing to disturb the silence! Noises like thoughts, like meditations, like a huge force of inner concentration, when they seem to be listening to themselves, cloaked in their abstraction, in faded outline! noises like the verses of a poet, which hardly make any sound along the edge, with all the sound at the center; welcome, pleasant noises that I need and love: slow tolling of a bell, wandering little bird, falling beads of water.

  2. admin says:

    Breath-takingly beautiful. My favorite one of these: “Silence does not waste time, it fills it. Yes. And the only thing that fills time is silence. So that time shared with noise is time lost. But silence conquers time, puts it back together, makes it whole.”


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