where it’s being boiled.
“Why are you doing this to me?”
The cook knocks him down with the ladle.
“Don’t you try to jump out.
You think I’m torturing you.
I’m giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.
Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this.”
—Jalaluddin Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)
An intense late-winter rain had fallen, and then the sun came out. Walking in the woods I came upon a pile of soaked logs bathed in light, and releasing a cloud of vapor. A sharp-angled beam of sunlight illumined the steam, giving it the appearance of a halo, or a radiant shroud. Though I had my camera, I put it aside, for there is no photograph that can capture such living brilliance.
It is visions such as this that give the pauses we otherwise won’t give ourselves in the midst of our busy-ness and overtired efforting. And yet we have to be available to receive them. The Koran says, “Take one step toward Allah, and He will take a hundred steps to you.” The nature of this step is the openness to receive the gifts the abundant world hastens to impart.
But not all of that abundance feels like goodness. It is as though our lives are a series of events specifically designed to increase our capacity to be a vessel for fullness. It is an excruciating process only when we are too full of self-will to relax and let our lives work us over; too full to practice receiving the good and bad experiences with the same openness. Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “The truth comes as conqueror only because we have lost the art of receiving it as a guest.”
I spent over a decade with a sometimes harsh teacher. This is the case with most real teachers—they push for students to demonstrate a fuller understanding of their subject in ways that are necessarily uncomfortable. We students were required to rise daily before dawn for meditation, often following evening events that lasted into the wee hours. We spent days digging ditches and building structures. The “cooking” was a result of both this general discipline and also personal direction.
My teacher constantly guided me to take the more difficult path, to make decisions that I didn’t have the will to make on my own. Decisions like staying in a relationship or job a little longer than was comfortable, for the sake of learning to love consciously, or learning to persist. It was only after many such events that I realized that my teacher was giving voice to knowledge that was already present in me—the still, small voice that could be called conscience.
Once it was clear that the purpose of the teacher was to help make the connection between that inner voice and action, that same voice told me that the time for being the student of a man had come to an end. It was time to be the student of life. For though life is always, already teaching, it requires a disposition of receptivity—studentship—to be truly useful. And graduating from work with a teacher is not the end, but the beginning of even more arduous work.
We are here to fulfill a mission, but we don’t know what it is. A Zen poem says, “If you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it. When you walk the Way, it is not near, it is not far.” The task of engaging our instrument to refine the stuff of life is a mystery that can only be plumbed in the moment. In making this effort to say yes to whatever arises, we strengthen and grow. It is not only our own lives that are uplifted, for all lives are connected. Buddhists call this capacity compassion—the ability to “suffer with” other sentient beings—to aid in the digestion and assimilation of the universal psychic detritus and serve as a living agent of transformation.
True fulfillment comes from openly receiving both what is sought and what is shunned. What we think we seek may not be what we need, but in making use of whatever comes, we may find our heart’s desire.