Recently I volunteered at a Literacy Coalition event with a good friend of mine. Her mother, who’s put 20 years into the non-profit, was running the event and graciously arranged for all the volunteers to enjoy lunch alongside the philanthropically endowed guests. So my friend and I gently spread the rose-shaped butter onto our rolls while we politely listened to the guest speaker and presentation. When it was time to leave, we took the gift bags that crowned our place settings already knowing what was inside them for in addition to working the book sales table, we had also been part of the gift bag stuffing assembly line.
And this is how I came upon this powerful little story I’m about to share…
In the bag was a book subtitled Stories to Illuminate the Soul by an author that made me think of my mom’s favorite Disney cartoon Finding Nemo (which will become ironic after you read the story). His actual name is Mark Nepo (2011), and while diverging from my own beliefs with his clear New Age bent, shares some wonderful stories and great food for thought. Out of three-dozen or so stories, this one is my favorite. To me it captures a pervasive problem so many of us face in life today; something I have intentionally been trying to master for some years now.
A Sufi Master [spiritual leader] and his apprentice were traveling across the desert to a marketplace by the sea. Crossing the desert the apprentice didn’t see very much difference between himself and the master. To himself the apprentice mused, “it’s not as far to truth as I thought.” But once in the marketplace, the apprentice couldn’t take a step clearly. He saw a beautiful woman from afar and wanted to touch her. And wrestling with his desire to touch her, he stopped experiencing her. Now he was fishing in the break of his heart; mourning the last love he’d known, wondering where she was. The he saw an angry father strike his son and everyone else kept walking by. But he was now feeling his anger at his own father and was no longer experiencing the street. Then, beyond the fish peddlers, a snake handler was dancing his snake in the air and the apprentice was now caught in his mother’s fear of snakes. When the master reached for the young man, it was as if he were reaching through a dark fog. The apprentice was startled. The master held his face and said, “When you can walk the city like a desert and the desert like a city, the sun will be your heart above you and your heart will be the sun inside you.”
To me this story illuminates a very specific obstacle to ‘being present.’ And for those of you less familiar with this term, it simply refers to experiencing one’s life as it currently is, from the chirping birds to the smell of fresh cut grass and the person you are currently conversing with. Again, very simply put, the practice of being present is closely linked to one’s happiness, yet through a multitude of distractions and distresses (even as the story points out memories/associations) we are often ripped from the precious present, into the past, fictitious future or some distorted version of now.
I personally tend to most often escape reality via a state of ‘vegging’ (i.e. watching TV or half consciously thinking for hours) or dreaming up my future. And while these are enemies of the present, they have their place when kept in check. But there is one enemy to the present that I believe is only ever destructive and should have no place in anyone’s life –it is a subconscious degenerative tendency to link those experiences or people in my present life to those that/who have let me down in the past. As in the story, when we do this, it not only jolts us from the present, but can also ruin the beauty that could be in present relationships, or at the very least, keeps us from perceiving them as they really are.
Say for instance, that beautiful woman the apprentice saw also had a beautiful heart and a great sense of humor and could’ve brought a lot of happiness to the apprentice as his life partner. Unfortunately, in their very first encounter he quickly ceased to “experience her,” something that only has degenerative consequences down the road. Now say despite this they did get married, and suppose also that the apprentice had a very unloving mother. In such a case, while his wife may love him with all her heart, little random things she may do (such as baking bread or being scared of snakes) could remind him of his mother leading him to in turn treat her (and wrongly perceive her to be) as if she were unloving like his mother. Before long, the true love they could have shared would shrivel up and die having been completely overlooked in favor of a powerful past reality that instead stole the spotlight.
Now that you’re thinking you can’t relate, consider that these links to the past that trigger our behavior in the present are usually subconscious. Again, in the instance of the man and woman above, the man would not consciously think “my wife is making bread which reminds me of my unloving mother,” but instead he may simply get a pit in his stomach and experience a strong ‘knowing’ (false of course) that his wife did not love him. Perhaps you get a strong itch to leave your current job every other year, and while you’re convinced it’s because you are bored with your job or your boss is a jerk, really it’s simply because you are unwittingly repeating a pattern from childhood.
Then what is the answer to such a dilemma and what could the storyteller mean by the final quote: ‘“When you can walk the city like a desert and the desert like a city, the sun will be your heart above you and your heart will be the sun inside you”’?
I believe a huge part of the solution lies in forgiveness. I have taken pains in recent years to locate the source of ‘triggers’ (present realities that trigger powerful associations from the past) and forgive and ‘release’ (from any perceived dept I think may be as a result owed to me) the individuals who have hurt me knowingly or unknowingly. Since the problems are internal (re-experiencing the bad results of an event or past impression) it’s usually unnecessary to actually get the past offenders involved. I’ve found that simply making mental ascent of the forgiveness/release (and sometimes saying it out loud too) along with surrendering to God for the means for true internal change, are a good start to breaking that link to the past and freeing me to experience people as they truly are in my life today. And of course, just being aware of such a link and choosing to not respond out of the past, but rather force myself to respond appropriately to the present also takes me light years toward being present, though I’m not sure if this means my “heart” is “the sun above” me .
I’m not sure what the author’s intended meaning was in sharing those final words from the master to the apprentice, but I know what the words mean to me. To me, ‘being present’ would mean that the desert and the marketplace would actually be experienced very differently. However, success would be to personally remain the same, namely to be able to be present whether ‘triggering’ distractions are high (as in the marketplace) or low as in the desert. As far as the heart being like the sun “above,” to me this speaks of perspective. If the heart were as the sun above, the owner of that heart would see things clearly as they were. And if “the sun” were “inside” the individual, that individual would have an internal source of light not affected by the clouds of the past…
How do you interpret the last line of the story? What do you think?