“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down the from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” – James 1:17 KJV
“…we turn from attention to inattention and back again until we feel surrounded by shadow, surrounded by things we have not paid our full attention to and thus haunt us with their incompleteness.” – Me, 2016
“The Truth waits for eyes not clouded by longing.” – Unknown
So here I am. I began this blog seven years ago, wrote a long first post, never published it, and so this page and that draft post languished unseen and forgotten in the digital nether, until today. Reading through the paragraphs I so thoughtfully put together, I could not help but smile at how far I have come, or really, how much has changed. What follows below is my real first post, written from where I stand today, 32 years old, married, a formal student of Zen Buddhism, coming to terms with my chronic suspicion of certainty. In this post I look back at my unpublished essay, and muse on what has changed, and what has not, about my perspective as I look down the length of my life, the Path we all walk.
Some context. When I tried to begin this blog at the age of 25, I was in the strange throes of considering myself to be a Christian. I say strange, but really it’s not that strange. It’s the way I was raised. By “strange”, I mean that it felt strange to me then. Up to that point I had studied Zen and Buddhist philosophy as a college undergraduate, precipitated I think by my early (high school) experiences with psychedelics. In my original post I wrote, “I [had] seen this place, where words mean nothing, effort dies before it is conceived, and identity is expanded until it is no more, while at the same time being tied in a never-ending knot with no feasible escape.” Sheesh. That’s big stuff for any 17 year old, to be sure. My friends were either atheists or Jewish, sometimes both, and as my college years went by I felt I had no one in whom I could confide my longing to contextualize my experiences within the Christ-stories that decorated my early life. So I made the connection on my own. In my mid-twenties I thought, “Maybe I’m a Christian”, began attending a Quaker meeting, and started a blog with a very Biblical title, The Shadow of Turning.
Now, 32, I find myself in a different place. My mid-twenties was a time of upheaval, change, debauchery, loss, and eventual gain (in the form of the blessing who is my wife). I was confronted, as many are at the outset of their truly adult life, with a profound reorientation of what’s what, as it were. In the midst of this, I found that when I had nowhere else to turn, sitting down and shutting up was the best move. Sometime in the cold, early months of 2019, on a ratty, green meditation cushion I had received as a gift years before, I settled down and settled in, resolving to sit every day from that day forward, in the meditation posture I had learned in college. What I have experienced since then has not been any great cosmic intrusions upon the soul, but rather the endlessly mundane turnings of the mind, punctuated at times by experiences of a deep and abiding stillness that leaves its mellow fragrance in the air about me. This has been enough to bring me back to the cushion every day, this, and the people I have met who, like me, have found some nameless place to stand, or sit, in the midst of this constant turning.
What struck me, as I read through the post I had intended to publish here seven years ago, was that much of the language I used to convey my sense of what takes place on the spiritual path, words like turning, light, shadow, and attention, to name a few, still resonates so deeply with me. So maybe not that much really has changed. I was and still am a lover of words, and the thrust of my original post is really driven by that love. So before I share a portion of it below, I must acknowledge that while some of the words I use to express my place on the Path of life have indeed changed, words like God, grace, and salvation, to name a few, some have not. But as I wrote in 2016, “To take the signifier, the word, for the object signified is to misunderstand the full scope of our words.” In other words, I would like to suggest that perhaps it is not the words themselves that we ought to be hanging our hats on, but what lies just past them. Now, try hanging your hat on that.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”
If in the spiritual source of light, there is no variation or shadow, why is it that we can so often describe our predicament of life as vague, murky, shrouded in the shadows of doubt and haunted by the specter of the fear of death? Here is the crux: our predicament is shadow, and at the spiritual center where light is born, there is no shadow, nor is there variation. If that doesn’t make us feel hopeless, nothing can. Indeed, our spiritual predicament feels very much like the opposite to what James describes as the source of light. But, it must not be forgotten that James calls our attention to the gifts in our life, the good things, the perfect things. I do not think it is fair to say with cynical certainty that there are no good things, no perfect things, nothing which attends to a particular need on a given day. Admittedly, as we are all mourners of our own predicaments (life is hard; I don’t know where I am going or what I am doing; my life is an uphill battle; nothing is as it should be), we fail to see the tiny moments when our needs are attended to. We mourn constantly that which we think are our unfulfilled needs, while turning a blind eye to the little things we cannot mourn, for they are already taken care of. James calls these things “good gifts”, “perfect gifts”, which are born from the spiritual seed of light.
Where then, does the shadow in our lives come from? While in the source of light no shadow of turning is to be found, our own lives certainly exhibit the quality of shadow, of the unknown, of doubt. James calls it a shadow of turning. Turning from what? And to what? It might be that the author, being human quite like us, had a similar understanding of what it means to be human, that it is to be always turning from that which is good to that which we believe is not, and then turning back again, turning from that which we have to that which we do not; to be always turning in our minds from idea to idea, feeling to feeling, identity to identity, wardrobe to wardrobe; to be eternally turning, in the words of Kristoffersen, “from the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse” — our lives are a turning, and perhaps the turning casts the shadows we see around us. Perhaps our turning from this to that, here to there, him to her, actually is what casts about us the shadows of uncertainty, of doubt and the gnawing ambiguity which defines our days.
For those of us who struggle with a word like soul, Mary Oliver writes “the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” But what might our constant turning do to the attentive nature of our inmost selves? I for one can very often feel fragmented, as if it might take some inhuman effort to really attend, be attentive, to one thing only, rather than allow my attention to fragment from one thing to the next. We can attend to a task, but it is only so long before our attention is dragged elsewhere, whether past or future, this worry or that, and so on, until we are never really doing anything as a whole creature. So we turn from attention to inattention and back again until we feel surrounded by shadow, surrounded by things we have not paid our full attention to and thus haunt us with their incompleteness.
I took as my original inspiration for this post an innocuous verse in a book of the Christian New Testament, called the Epistle of James. The verse, quoted at the outset, evoked something to me then of the mystery of light and shadow as I experienced it in my own more down-to-earth spiritual life. I was, and still am, stimulated by the imagery of turning that is invoked in the passage. God is described by James as the Source of Light, in whom there is no shadow of turning. Then what are we to make of our own shadow? Our own endless turning-about? James seems to establish quite a divide between God above, the unmoving Source of Light, free of any shadow, and us below, the hapless, benighted ghosts turning about in confusion. In my original post I wanted to offer a more poetic explanation for this divide, to assure the reader that it isn’t as wide as it appears. I write “to admit that we are the ones who cast our own shadows is a step forward on the path to light.” Turning is what we do; it is the source of our shadow. Nothing to be discouraged by, but simply acknowledged.
Another perspective I’d like to offer here is one of a Buddhist orientation. Turning is something that gets a lot of attention in Buddhist discourse. Upon delivering his first sermon after his Awakening, the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, is said to have set the wheel of Truth, or Dharma, in motion. The turning of the wheel of Dharma is an important image in Buddhist symbology, and signifies the activity of Truth in our lives. It is indeed something we do. To understand this more fully, it might be helpful to bring to the table another very important Buddhist teaching, that of dukkha. Commonly translated as “suffering”, dukkha might be better understood to mean anxiety, stress, discontentment, dissatisfaction, dis-ease, the not-quite-rightness of life. The Buddha suggested that, if we really pay attention, we might notice that we are accompanied at all times, in every moment, by dukkha. Wanting what we don’t have and having what we don’t want, in other words, grasping and rejecting, are like the twin engines of our dukkha, our discontentment. These are subtle and shape-shifting forces that are at work in nearly every waking moment of our lives. The Buddha says that we only need to pay attention to recognize the truth of it. When dukkha is seen through and thoroughly understood, what arises in its place is sukha, often translated as “happiness”, but better understood to mean ease, peace, contentment, tranquility.
Here is where it gets interesting. You may have noticed that the words dukkha and sukha have something in common. Quite right. Their etymologies reveal that they share the suffix -kha, which in ancient Indo-Aryan Prakrit languages signified the hole in the center of a wheel where it would meet with the axle of a cart, thus allowing the wheel to turn as the cart is pulled along. The prefixes su- and du- each respectively mean something like “right” and “wrong”, or “aligned” and “unaligned”. And so these words take on some depth of meaning. Our dukkha, our anxiety, discontentment, irritation, disappointment, can be compared to the wheel of a cart that isn’t turning quite right. Imagine riding on an oxcart in northern India sometime in the dusty years of the 4th century BCE. Imagine what it would feel like if the wheels on the cart weren’t affixed to the axle properly. They wobble, jerk side to side, making the ride supremely unpleasant. The Buddha says this is how our life is. Doesn’t it feel that way? Never quite right. And even when things go our way, there is always the anxiety of change, of losing what fortune we have. So this is the turning of our life. On the other hand, says the Buddha, the peace and ease we experience when we attend to our lives carefully is like riding on a cart whose wheels are true, turning in perfect alignment.
What I appreciate so much about this perspective is that it makes no value judgment on the turning of life. While James in his Epistle seems to qualify the turning as being the source of shadow, as opposed to the stillness to be found in God, the Source of Light, the early Buddhist perspective is that turning is the whole game, it’s just a matter of how we turn. So then what about all this light and shadow business? Well, we don’t have to be particle physicists to observe that the source of a shadow is twofold: an object, and… light! That’s right. We have the light to blame for all this shadow. Well, partly. What is doing the turning? And what is the light? Rather than try to put together anymore pretty answers to these important questions, I’ll let my 25 year old self have the last word.
It is almost as if our own attention is the light we seek, and when we allow it to fragment, it casts a shadow.