Learning to see in the light.
Writing’s been difficult these days, in queer, self-obliterating ways. Neither avoidance nor blockage are the problem; I’m confident in my ability to show up daily and churn out volumes of meaningful prose. There’s plenty to express and the more I write about anything, the more I write about everything.
My frustration lies, rather, in culling my stock into digestible portions. Ideas seem uncontainable. They clash and cross-pollinate. It’s as though I’m desperately consolidating a personal scripture from antithetical scrolls, on futile pursuit of an ever elusive thesis, an overture-cum-coda.
The wealthy Count Pierre Bezhukov, Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical protagonist of War and Peace, spends the bulk of the novel flailing about the aristocracy, his naive aspirations for spiritual fulfillment endlessly diverted by estate management, social expectations and epicurean indulgence. He yearns to make his mark on history, (specifically, to personally assassinate the usurper Napoleon), but his efforts to achieve “great man” status render him ever pathetic and useless. In the novel’s final epoch, as a consequence of some sloppy, spontaneous vigilantism, Pierre finds himself a destitute prisoner of the invading Napoleonic army. In his newfound privation and bondage, he is struck with a spiritual epiphany:
The satisfaction of one’s needs—good food, cleanliness, and freedom—now that he was deprived of all this, seemed to Pierre to constitute perfect happiness [whereas] a superfluity of the comforts of life destroys all joy in satisfying one’s needs.
Material abundance, much like creative abundance, can breed dismay. Superfluity complicates and confuses. It fucks with the scale of our value map and distorts salience. Months ago, when my creative spigot opened, I felt reborn, deeply satisfied that I was producing any material at all. Now, I struggle to irrigate the flow and prevent myself from drowning.
Marianne Williamson is best known for her (epic presidential run and) poem Our Deepest Fear, (oft misattributed to Nelson Mandela):
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. / Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. / It is our light, not our darkness / That most frightens us.
This opening verse bothers me. It’s hauntingly true, but lacks vital nuance insofar as…
1. …it downplays our fear of inadequacy + darkness, which can be quite a bitch, in itself. Our FOI is only slightly (if at all) shallower than our…
2. fear of light (ie fear of talent, wealth, influence, love + joy), which is actually another FOI— fear of inability to effectively and responsibly maintain and manage said power and / or meet the internal and external expectations it provokes.
Our deepest fear isn’t personal failure, rather, our deepest fear is a high-stakes, high-arousal, major league, all-over-twitter, nuclear grade breakdown. Of course light seems scary and dangerous: it’s an extroverted and expulsive hydra. However, it’s not so much the light, but trying to control it, that’s most hazardous.
Our light is a powerful psychedelic. It’s not a tool or weapon to be mastered, but a metaphysical helper. When we’re distrustful of light, it’s distrustful of us. Attempt to control it and it lashes out. Reach and it can’t be grasped. Identify with it and go mad. Control is illusory. Instead, we must negotiate and collaborate.
To effectively dance with light, we must enter a different, lighter mode of being. We must “trust, surrender, receive,” as the MDMA healer’s mantra goes. Elizabeth Gilbert puts it:
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity get serious with us.
Again true, but deceiving. Playfulness isn’t a toggle switch that grants us sudden access to creative bliss. It’s not so much a skill, but a pragmatic process through which we cultivate trust. Once trust is established we can surrender to the flow and receive the good stuff. But trust is a three-way street:
1. We need to trust light.
2. Light needs to trust us.
3. We need to trust ourselves.
Through play, we discover the boundaries between teasing and bullying, pushing and shoving, affection and encroachment. We get comfortable with light and light gets comfortable with us. The contradictory assignment here is in maintaining a playful spirit and, at the same time, discerning oversight. We have to be both the child and the parent — we must trust ourselves to provide proper set, setting and dosage.
Befriending the light, like befriending anyone, is an enduring process of gradual exposure. Sometimes we get too forceful with it. Sometimes it takes us by surprise and knocks us on our ass. Sometimes we flake on each other. Poet David Whyte, in Consolations:
Friendship… can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses, as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.
Faith, whether it be in each other, our light, or God, has a paradoxical nature. It is simultaneously an indignant attitude and a rational, evidence-based one— a self-fulfilling prophecy. Light is a good, forgiving guy. We can’t take it personally if he goes MIA or gets a little radical sometimes. If we keep showing up for him, he’ll show up for us. We must test, validate and grok the essential goodness of ourselves, our light, and our relationship to it. Then, we can let go of control, surrender to the process, and accordingly enjoy periods of both privation and abundance.
In the epilogue of War and Peace, Pierre is released back into the aristocracy. But, thanks to an attitude shift, he finds neither the superfluity of comforts dismaying, nor his responsibilities so suffocating. Freed from his desperate pursuits of extrinsic happiness and personal triumph, Pierre becomes an effective and adored patriarch. Once he’s learned to delight in his fundamental existence, to know divinity in poverty, he can begin to recognize and trust the light everywhere: in his environment, himself, and others.
Pierre’s insanity consisted in not waiting, as he used to do, to discover personal attributes, which he termed “good qualities,” in people before loving them; his heart was now overflowing with love, and by loving people without cause he discovered indubitable causes for loving them.
Everything is starkly illuminated. Slowly but surely, we must learn to see.
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