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Painting by Ludwig Dettmann

“If the way to the center were easy to find — if it were capable of being captured in doctrines or were subject to human control — it would not be the genuine way. If the path that opens the heart and the mind could be found by simple belief, all the true believers would be opening the doors and windows of their hearts with gestures of true compassion. They would readily understand the common threads in the words “Jesus was right,” “Moses led me along,” and “Mohammed opened doors in my heart.” When the great way opens even for a moment the path between mind and heart widens. The heart begins to find the thought of unity buried within it and the mind begins to see subtleties that were impossible to grasp just a minute before. Finding the great way requires a willingness to surrender again and again, not simply a zeal for bowing one’s head in the same old way.”

- Michael Meade, “Why the World Doesn’t End”

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“It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free.”
~ John O’Donohue

As a person who will soon pass the eighty year mark on Planet Earth, I review my history of adventures and misadventures with a desire to locate the larger meaning in them. A common mistake young people make is to set up a dichotomy between spirituality and a natural life of the body. I puzzled over this conundrum myself, though I was not really tempted by any system that suppressed love and sex. I was, however, born into a Puritan tradition that took some doing to extract myself from.

Food, sex, pagentry and taking pleasure in the senses as a good and normal thing seemed to me more available in the old countries than in America. I naturally got on that path, although I never took an interest in the Catholicism which formed the bedrock of those customs. It did seem to me that Protestantism had stripped away too much of the beauty of human life with its attack on Catholic sensuality.

The rituals and customs around food and its pleasures was one of the biggest surprises I encountered in the old countries. I realized I had been brought up in a culture that valued quantity over quality, that overcooked everything, that eschewed anything alcoholic so that we never saw a bottle of wine at the dinner table. Alcohol was sinful. My father had an unholy fear of it.

I took to hiding out with the horses on Sunday so I wouldn’t have to put on my Sunday best and go with the family to be preached to at the Methodist church. I started growing away from my upbringing early. Over time my path carried me further and further away from my origins so that eventually I seemed to speak a different language than people I grew up with. A cultural barrier sprang up between us. Maybe it was always there and just became more manifest over time.

What is real life? I became a cultural hybrid trying to answer that question. I’m still working on finding the answer, but at this point the question has mutated to “what is the best life for me”? It comes down to love, beauty, creativity and the simple pleasures of life.

I don’t know why I couldn’t answer that question when I was twelve or twenty, but it’s probably because I had to divest myself of my family and cultural assumptions, which were completely unconscious at that age. My life lessons consisted more in identifying and letting go of things I took for granted than in adopting new ways. Living abroad created a neutral space for me to release the old without necessarily taking on anything new unless I examined and approved of it first.

It’s an unending process, becoming who you are. The advantage of living a long life is being able to get a vision of the process and see where you’ve always been going. These are simple questions with simple answers, so it seems, but answering them means growing beyond the confines of family and cultural history, which is so invisible to us unless we can remove ourselves from the context enough to see it.

We could all use some kind of mirror to help us see our smallnesses and grow beyond them.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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