Time For Awake People To Be Awake

The Darkness Around Us Is Deep:

Thoughts on the Significance of Knowing & Being Known

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If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.

 

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dyke.

 

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

To know what occurs but not to recognize the fact.

 

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider –

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

 

For it is important that awake people be awake,

Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

The signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –

Should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

– William Stafford

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William Stafford was a 20th century American poet and pacifist who possessed a quiet, straightforward style of speaking to matters of the soul. He reflects on the ordinary facets of life, illuminating them with his sober eye, his steady presence and a rapt, liberated attention.   Stafford speaks about the simplicity and the importance of knowing and being known, by the people that matter to us.

Let’s dive further into his particular poem entitled “A Ritual to Read To Each Other”. I feel this poem providing an opening to embrace a fundamental, hard-wired truth about humans being social animals. This poem serves as a ‘signpost’ that points us towards a way of living that is vital and essential, especially in these disruptive and uncertain times.

Joseph Campbell once said that a ritual is simply a myth being re-enacted. By actively participating in a ritual, we take our place in a living myth, something truer and more alive than basic information and historical facts. The function of myth is to awaken in us the realization that we are all manifestations of the powers and possibilities that hold all of life. A vibrant, living myth calls us to re-make ourselves, in the words of Campbell, transparent to the transcendent.

A ritual also helps to move us beyond the ordinary functions in our lives. It invites us into a deeper, more attentive and more expansive awareness of that which lies beyond the most familiar and routine aspects of life. It offers us an internal space where mental thinking turns back; where the wordlessness of wonder, awe and mystery can come forth and be expressed in a body-centered, lived experience.

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This past August, I was hiking in the High Sierras of Northern California. I found myself becoming grounded and moved by the simple act of walking on a hiking trail. I was immersed in the vastness of blue sky and sunshine, absorbed by the silence of stark mountain terrain. In and of itself, walking in nature felt like a sacred act.

From that way of being, I found myself being a part of a larger setting, with occasional hikers crossing my path. Meeting the glances and brief gestures of greeting from fellow passersby felt like a communal ritual, a momentary ‘commoning’ with one another that counted for something. The same silent exchange was also happening with the mountain range itself – with the shining sun, with the blowing wind; with the pine-scented trees, and with the sheer grey-brown rock formations.

My hiking experience was brief. It only took the morning, and it was simple. Yet it was effortful and real; what I would define as ‘holy’. Moving my body steadily through nature provided me with a sense of ‘encounter’ that felt nourishing to me. It was a wordless way of connecting to all of life. By walking on the same ground as others, in a vast cathedral of mountain peaks and ranges, I was provided with a sense of comfort, a way of knowing and being known only as fellow travelers following a same path. Food for the soul.

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All of our latest scientific studies in body-brain research verifies what common sense already tells us – that meaningful connections with others are essential for health and wellness of being.

Researcher and psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps The Score, states “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health”. He goes on to say “social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”

I see this again and again in my clinical practice. Those that seem to suffer the most struggle with the capacity to hold others in their own minds, and to also know and feel how they are being held in the minds of others.   This ability to know and be known is one of our most valuable human resources. What makes us struggle so much with making use of this way of knowing and being known?

Let’s walk further into each of the stanzas from the Stafford poem now:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.

Who among us doesn’t honestly long to be deeply known and understood?   And how many of us are starved to be with people who are willing to reveal the realness and aliveness of their inner worlds? Giving and receiving this kind of speaking and listening is like being fed, nourishing for both parties involved the exchange.

Yet our wounds and fears, shaped by the powerful forces of conscious and unconscious experiences from our past, deaden, distract and discourage us from an essential hunger for meaningful communication and connection.

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With the constant availability of social and news media attention, we can now live more than ever in ongoing, public view – on display, if you will – and many of us are pulled in to the conveniences and distractions of the rapidly emerging ‘publicizing’ of our private lives. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and ShapChat (and all the outlets I haven’t even heard of yet) allows us to be ‘always on’, but also never quite fully present with what is there in front of us.

Are we pulled towards these ways of displaying ourselves because we are all as hungry (and as deprived) as ever to connect to one another? And are we being adequately fed by these technologically advanced communications?

Michael Meade writes of the need to understand the difference between being

well-known’ and being ‘known well’.   Being ‘well-known’ fuels desires for ambition, fame or celebrity status, where our public personas can be on ever on view for others to see. Being ‘known well’ satisfies our need to be more intimately connected to our own true nature, and to share the authenticity and richness of who we are with the people around us.

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Besides the patterns being made by the rise of social media platforms that reinforce a kind of celebrity culture whereby we are often ‘seen’ and on display, and thus more ‘well-known’ – we also must look inward to become aware of the power of unconscious patterns that can prevail, when we do not make the effort to know each other well, when we don’t make our shared lived experiences real enough, or as Van Der Kolk says, reciprocal enough.

We are most vulnerable to our deepest held beliefs and our earliest experiences of living, especially when they operate in the shadows of our awareness, where they are free to play out in unconscious ways that distort or cloud the lenses of our perception.

The patterns made by our early life experiences can easily be denied; none of us like to believe we are limited or controlled by our past. It also makes us uncomfortable to think that we may still be profoundly influenced and shaped by things that happened long ago, by matters that operate outside of our field of awareness. This is a big blow to our conscious ego.

In addition, we all like to believe we are always seeing the total picture of our experiences, all the time. It is reassuring for us to believe that the way we tend to see things is typically the right and best way to see. And yet this is often only always partially true at best; or perhaps not at all true, at worst.

As a young child, I often had the perception that most of the adults in my world were often pre-occupied with the things of their adult world. From that habitual perception, I formed a belief, all on my own, that much of what happened in the world of my childhood didn’t seem to matter much to the adults around me.

Of course, I had lived experiences to back up this belief. In my view, adults only seemed to have real conversations with other adults; kids just happened to be around. The ways adults typically spoke to us as children involved directives or patronizing retorts. I could rarely feel anyone actively thinking about what I would saying or feeling.

Thus, through my perception, I came to believe that adults were people who were more or less around me, but not really interested in knowing me. They served as solid providers and good caregivers – they fed and clothed and instructed us willingly and well – but in my mind, they were occupied with concerns more important than what I was living through.

In my view, adults were also ever-looming referees, preachers and ‘policers’. They could help out with the typical ‘doings’ of life – they could mediate daily conflicts among us kids, and making sure we were meeting our responsibilities – but for me, adults were not people who entered the meaningful and intimate ground of my internal world.

As this belief went underground, I began to shape my living in a certain way – acting as if I were on my own. I rarely turned to adults for advice or assistance; I just assumed it was up to me to figure things out. On the one hand, I developed a sense of initiative and self-agency, and from this, esteem. I never asked my parents if I could go out and get a job as a kid: I just went out and did it – from the time I was eight years old, onward.

To my benefit, no one discouraged or stopped me from the pursuit of these endeavors. By the time I was sixteen, I had made enough money to purchase my own car, even before I knew how to drive. I bought a royal blue ’67 Pontiac Le Mans right after I got my driver’s license. I viewed this sense of autonomy as a very positive thing, and took satisfaction and pride in my endeavors.

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On the shadow side of this view of reality, I could often grow despairing, especially when I felt the depth of struggle it took to reach the goals I quietly set for myself.   I didn’t understand that I lacked the feeling of being actively supported. In times of struggle, I often sensed life itself didn’t have my back. This would create in me a generalized anxiousness, which would in turn cause me to become even more self-directed – a closed and self reinforced loop. While in many ways this strategy seemed to ‘work’, simply because I could make sense of going about life in these ways – it came at a significant cost to my peace of mind.

In addition, due to the belief I carried that nobody of significance was really paying attention, and due to the subsequent worldview I developed, I often would fail to notice when other people would actively attempt to support me. I can look back now on my early years to see that there were adults who did take interest in me, and I simply wasn’t noticing, or wasn’t able to let it matter when it was happening.

When I did notice people taking an interest in me, I then wouldn’t understand why. They inwardly could become suspect in my eyes. Or I might even recognize that I indeed wanted their interest in me, but I just didn’t know what to do with it. I would inevitably find myself gravitating away from their attention, one way or another.

This is a personal example of following a pattern (or a belief) that was shaped by my perception of how the world worked (or didn’t) when I was a boy, a pattern that came to prevail in my operating system, and for a long time I followed the wrong god home. It also almost caused me to miss my own star.

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In my adult life, I have made great strides in no longer following a childhood pattern that others made; I know quite clearly that I am now on my own track.   But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t remnants still lurking from this early pattern, established by that flawed belief system spawned in my youth. Let’s go back to Stafford’s poem now:

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dyke.

I am still vulnerable to not recognizing nor adequately believing in the value my own capacities. Despair for the realization of my true potential can still visit me. But two fundamental changes have occurred in my awareness.

First, I now know the function of my despair: It serves to help me become more whole by clearing me, bit by bit, of my lingering childlike illusions. A visit with despair is now more like revisiting a mourning for old childhood fantasies that can never be. I am also aware that my despair is a harbinger of a new beginning that I can’t yet see; it is a kind of foreshadowing, a threshold guardian that says ‘bear me but don’t succumb to me, and I will show you the way to your next boon’.

Second, I realize that I now have many bright and capable people in my life who are interested in who I really am, and affirm that what I do that matters – no matter what I tend to think in any given moment. I see that I’ve built my own steadying life raft of support, and I can look to and listen to the objective minds of people close to me, especially whenever I realize my own subjective thinking is of not much use.

Because of this shift, a pervasive and generalized performance anxiety holds much less of a grip on me. I find myself more and more liberated, staying with the pursuit of what brings me bliss, less caught in the trap of thinking that it will never happen.

So now I know that whenever I tend to indulge my despair, or fall into an old, familiar sense of smallness and irrelevance, I am still following the wrong god home.

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And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

To know what occurs but not to recognize the fact.

The above passage from Stafford’s poem reminds me of the day-to-day diligence needed to stay connected to those who can help keep us true to our own particular path. Learning to hold on to the minds (and sometimes, the bodies) of others who are capable of knowing us is an ongoing ritual, a practice of keeping close to those who can re-calibrate us and re-direct us towards a life that is ours – meaningful, relevant and worthwhile.

To do this, we need to know the difference between a disabling posture of being passively dependent on other people in general, and an empowering posture of being actively reliant on the particular people who are able to help us live forward.

I wonder how many of us still carry an ancient belief that relying on others is a sign of weakness?

The longer I live in this world, the more poignantly I become aware of how much I need other people. At times, I can feel quite vulnerable to this fundamental human reality. This is especially true as I live into these days after both my parents have passed, and when many of the people most important to me live in other places.

Out of these circumstances, I feel how I have to now lean more and more on the people I was born for – the people I consciously choose to help support me, and those whom I also want to be a support for. I can no longer simply lean on the people I was born into.

I notice what tends to happen to me when I don’t stay connected enough to the other ‘elephants who are heading for the park’ – those particularly kindred people I am connected with who are capable of following their own bliss.   My wandering away from them casts me adrift; my life then lacks a sense of purpose and adventure; I start to feel somewhat hollow and aimless in my pursuits.

I am acutely aware of the times when I feel connected and engaged with the world, and how this contrasts with times when my inner orientation towards life drifts and becomes more vague, wispy and lacking in meaning and presence. So each day, I strive to find some way to ‘hold an elephant’s tail’.

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Some days, I only need an internal orientation. I will choose to read the writings of people who bring me alive to myself. William Stafford is currently doing this for me in his quiet and sturdy way. I lean on the wildness of Mary Oliver from time to time.   Sometimes, Mark Nepo’s humble articulations are what I turn to first thing on a weekday morning; Richard Rohr is another early morning Christian contemplative favorite. The writing of Joseph Campbell is never far away; and always on standby. The poetry of Rumi and Rilke are givens. I am always looking for fresh sources to rely on for awakening: the poets Marie Howe, Billy Collins, Jack Gilbert have come through nicely over the past few years.

Other days, I need external engagement, particularly when the inner light won’t come on so easily, and doesn’t reach critical mass. Brief, pre-dawn ‘morning drive’ phone calls to a few close loved ones; simply hellos and social chat with fellow morning longtime gym members; making the effort to engage in friendly banter with the cashier at the local Trader Joe’s. These little acts now matter to me, when once they didn’t seem very relevant.

Simple and conscious exchanges, coupled with my daily intentions to keep connected to the thread of this world, can change my perception of the world from cold and distant to one that is warm, welcoming and friendly. I dismissed these simple, friendly gestures in my younger years, but I no longer look at social interaction as superficial, and thus not worthwhile. Ordinary acts of reaching out now count for a lot. They are the ‘game-changers’ on the landscape of my daily life. 

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Perhaps it is true, as Stafford says, that the root of all cruelty lies in the fact that we all know what occurs in our worlds, but we don’t want to pay attention to particular and significant threads of reality when they appear before us. We all know, more or less, what it takes to live a worthwhile life – one that is ordinary, one that has integrity, basic dignity, and purpose. We all have to come to understand that life has to be lived on life’s terms, and not on the pre-planned, indulgent terms set up by our personal (and often child-like) ego wishes.

Despite this basic fact of life, it is easy for all of us to ignore the more painful and unpleasing aspects of living, thus instead ever avoiding or retreating, or regressing inward towards the way we wish for life to be for us. When we withdraw from the world, we are absent from what is really happening with those before us. Then we become even more prone to projecting onto those around us what we are looking for; we lose the ability to see the people in front of us for who they really are.

Again – at times, we all revert to this posture, especially when we feel life gives us more that we can handle. We are collectively quite capable of wandering away from who we really are. Then ‘the circus can’t find its way to the park’; then we are more likely to repeatedly project, unconsciously, the cruelties we experienced in our childhoods onto others in our present day adult lives.

We will inevitably act out what was projected onto us as children, especially when we don’t work out our ‘unfinished business’ from our past consciously, with those capable of knowing who we really are. This keeps ‘the circus from finding the park’.

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And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider –

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

Here Stafford calls out to the soul of who we really are – those shadowy, remote yet important regions in our inner world – places where wildness and truth live, places where beauty and mystery reside. He calls us to the place inside where we can’t be fooled by the old patterns, beliefs or stories we tend to tell ourselves.

I find this guiding voice within me most often when I read the authors and poets I mentioned; I find a deeper awake-ness in me with I engage in dialogues with people capable of knowing themselves. I also come more alive in the presence of those whom I can’t seem to fool. Then the aliveness of our mutual parade, our shared walking, and our reciprocal ways of knowing each other comes forth, not obscured from view nor lost in the dark.

 

For it is important that awake people be awake,

Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

The signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –

Should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Today, as much as ever, it seems vitally important to become awake, and to stay awake to the pressing needs of this world. The beauty in life can awaken us, the truth spoken by others can awaken us, and most certainly, our experience of troubled-ness can awaken us. We can get there through life affirming as well as life-negating encounters or experiences. Inspiration or desperation; being uplifted or being dejected: Any form of disturbance, positive or negative, will do.

To be awakened to our most authentic and capable responses to the needs of this life, we will now have to stay connected to the ‘ensemble hero’ – those significant others who can inspire us, hold us accountable, participate with us, show us where we have yet to go. When we do not make regular and sustained efforts to be connected, we ‘break the line’ in the mutual parade; we become easily discouraged, we drift back to a lack of awareness, we fall asleep.

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I have been sitting with the last two lines of Stafford’s poem for days now. It is finally striking me to look deeper at the signals we give to the world we are a part of – the general attitude toward life we carry, the body language we display to others, the thoughts we carry that remain wordless, yet still send a message to the people around us.

I am practicing signaling ‘yes’ more wholeheartedly when I carry a ‘yes’ inside. I feel how ‘yes’ can propel me forward, how it gives a sense of pursuit to possibility and momentum to my life. In the same vein, I am learning new ways to hold ‘no’ more clearly and respectfully when I feel a ‘no’. I feel it as an important stopping current, a real limit, alive inside me. I am finding my way to a ‘no’ that, rather than negating or dismissing opportunities, allows me to become more available to re-direct, re-engage, or re-think my position. It is striking to feel my ‘no’ as a way to also feel alive without negating others, and help me to see or to adapt to new possibilities. In this way, ‘no’ can lead me to a newly found ‘yes’ to life.

Wherever I am not yet clear, I am practicing ways to lean into my ‘maybe’ with a more active and curious approach, one where I am not just immobilized by feeling lost in the dark. I can create inner movement by exploring both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ to a circumstance or a choice I am facing – by not oversimplifying things, or forcing myself into one position when it doesn’t fit the more complex, lived truth for me.

I am noticing that by bringing more awareness to the half-hearted ‘maybe’s of my life, I am finding ways to navigate the profound uncertainty I feel in me, and in the world today. This ability to lean into each ‘maybe’ a little more fully, giving attention to both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’, without forcing an answer, and without avoiding the anxiousness of the uncertainty that ‘maybe’ can bring – is perhaps more of the most useful things I can bring to my practice of staying awake.

Whether I am deciding about what to do with free time on a day off, or whether I am weighing a significant life decision, I know staying adrift no longer serves my life. In fact, this delaying tactic will set me up to follow the wrong god home, and I will be re-enacting the feeling that I am ‘missing my star’.

Finally, there is no question in my mind that ‘the darkness around us is deep’. In fact, the darkness within us is deep, as well. And beyond those depths, somewhere, awaits the light. All the ancient myths that have lived across time tell us so. Our task must be to live into the discovery of our own truth and beauty through this ancient, universal myth of the journey. We have to do this now, through the ordinary lives we are living.

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I am surprised to find how deeply affected I have been by the passing of two very unique and iconic artists and songwriters, Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen. Leon Russell was a humble man whose path took him to both ubiquitous fame and forgotten obscurity a number of times through his prolific career.

I was moved by watching his memorial service on YouTube, witnessing many reflections of his gentle nature and the vulnerability of his condition as he aged, and how in the end, he’d followed the right god home. This was a man who was not only well known; but rather, a man who was known well, whose star leaves behind a trail of love and regard.

Leonard Cohen’s ability to render into song, raw and real, the darker aspects of human nature within himself, is also something I have marveled at. His ‘Hallelujah’ song is a classic portrayal of how holiness is capable of holding both the light and the dark within us, and this song always opens something in me when I hear it.

But one of his verses from ‘Anthem’ is what lingers with me most. It sums up what is called for in dark times: it shows us a way to respond with authenticity and vitality to the ways of the world that do not bow to our wishes.

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack

In everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

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‘Ringing the bells that still can ring’ is another way of saying it is important that awake people be awake. Many of us know the truth of this for the times we are living in right now. So I want to speak to how I feel the call to be awake, and what my most authentic and useful response is to the darkness of our times.

For me, first and foremost, this begins with my willingness to reach out, to be known for who I am, and to know others as they really are – for me, these are the bells I can still ring – despite my own hurts, flaws, fears, and uneasy feelings of uncertainty.

Knowing and being known is solid ground for me, when I have enough daring in me to walk this way. This is to be done, always, with the smallest of gestures, by doing the do-ables, acts I would overlook or disregard before. I want to feel myself resonating to the ring of our shared humanity wherever I can, in its most simple and humble forms. It might just be my own personal ‘anthem’ these days.

Secondly, in addition to waking up, to reaching out, I am learning how to let go – forget my over-attachment to my idealized intentions, plans and ideas – all those things that I will always fall short in achieving. I want to be better at forgiving my judgments and disappointment in myself, whenever I fall short of my mind’s plans and agendas. My lingering attachment to perfection is a vitality-killer, for sure. Now, the new plan to simply offer, from wherever I am, in whatever ways I can, when I can. That’s it.

The willingness to extend and offer what I have to the life I live, as it unfolds and without attachment to an outcome, is now more important than my view of the value it may hold to others. I have finally cracked through to this.

I continue to come back to the most important aspect of my current awakening – the realization once more, that ‘the hero is us’. Only the collective, the communal, or the sangha can lift us up and carry us forward now, toward a future worth having, a life worth living, and meaning worth making.

It is truly the time of the ensemble now; all things heroic must emerge primarily from the ‘we’.

My task at hand is to simply take my place in the ensemble; to sing the song that I can sing; to ring the bells I still can ring. To do the ordinary thing, and actively stand by, readying myself for the opportunity to give from whatever I have to the needs of this world, and to stop myself from drifting away from life as it now is.

Let’s follow the crack in our lives, and see what today brings. Let’s watch for where the light may be coming in.

– Michael Mervosh

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