“We are all broken, that’s how the Light gets in.” Ernest Hemingway
For those of us taken up with our psychological and spiritual maturation, Light often becomes a sought-after entity. It’s easy to decide that more Light means the more we are on the right path. However, how we carry Light may ultimately determine the nature of the path. And who knows, remaining an apprentice of Enlightenment may be considered the optimal expression of Light.
What is Light?
We can consider Light that which we enjoy bathing in. It may be those energies reflecting an open heart, invitations to deepen our connections to ourselves and others. Expressions of Light seem to welcome us to make peace with our humanity. Light brings us hope. Light opens us to new and deeper meanings. Some expressions of Light might be kindness, courage, wisdom, compassion, peace, joy, mercy, generosity, love, grace, wonder, awe, inspiration and gratitude.
The poet David Whyte reflects the Light of gratitude. “Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things must come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.” Whyte’s words not only carry the Light of gratitude but also the Light of art.
It may be worth considering certain qualities of Spiritual Light as well as a metaphor for the above qualities. We could say that the Light in Whyte’s poem is a lucid Light or a Light that facilitates understanding. The Light of wisdom or gratitude might be described as a radiant Light or a Light bringing joy and celebration.
Carrying Light & light
We can carry both forms of light by remaining an apprentice to enlightenment. Let’s first explore ego light. Just as there are different shades of Spiritual Light, there are different shades of ego light. Some expressions of ego light might be recognition, attention, acknowledgement, approval, acclaim, compliments, admiration, and praise. This level of light is fine and more limiting than the energies of Light sited earlier, in as much as they are not meant to serve. The hope is that we all get some of this light and can be described as sparkling, reflecting excitement, eagerness, and tantalizing. Ego light is naturally accompanied by numerous seductions.
The Seduction of Ego light
Ego light can be extremely seductive. Praise and recognition not only temporarily affirm the sovereignty of the ego, but ego light can also massage old cramps of self-contempt and shame. This light easily feels more appropriate and entitled when we believe it to be driven by divine inspiration. The ego knows how to feed off of this light by maintaining its hunger and attaching to power, vanity, and greed. I refer to these sources of seduction as the Three Amigos. When the Three Amigos are energized, the ego can step into a feeding frenzy. Why settle for a little when a lot feels so wonderful!
The Three Amigos and the ego make a deal. They whisper to the ego, “We don’t really have any control over you”, with the ego responding, “You’re right. I’m a good person who would not be driven by power, greed, or vanity.” Once that deal is finally brokered we have agreed to be taken hostage by at least one of the Amigos. Once abducted by an Amigo, it can become quite difficult to remain focused on the Spiritual Light we intended to serve. Ego light is meant to serve us, and it can be a blinding light.
The seduction of ego light can be quite unmanageable when we see ourselves making valuable offerings in the world, especially if we decide the offerings are divinely inspired. We might be bringing something restorative, healing, and sustainable to individuals, organizations, or the environment. Our praiseworthy efforts become justification for getting deeply seduced by ego light.
We remain self-serving when obsessed with power, vanity, or greed. An old definition of the word power is “to be able”. As we notice our ability to transcend our old, alleged limits, greed easily enters the story with its voice, “You can do a lot, make a lot, acquire a lot and therefore you are a lot”. An old definition of the word vanity is “empty”. Vanity is empty of genuine self-love. Its strength is its capacity to generate a looking good presentation. Why struggle to secure authentic self-appreciation when some cosmetic showing can elicit varying degrees of positive attention.
There is a memorable scene in the film, The Devil’s Advocate, starring Al Pacino. Portraying the devil, Pacino has failed to seduce a young attorney with temptations aimed at arousing his greed. The devil reacts to his defeat by claiming, “Now, I play my ace: Vanity.” The power of Vanity should not be minimized. However, vanity represents a vacancy of love and condemns us to be defined by the whim and capricious reactions of others. Vanity has us betraying our essential goodness in favor of seeking a hollow gesture complimenting the mask hiding the authentic self.
The lure of the Amigos is laced with a false promise to connect us to something larger than ourselves. They don’t. They connect us to a ravenous hunger, emptiness and an endless stiving to prove we’re able to do something impressive.
Overly Attached to Your Gifts – Another common outcome an ego light seduction is an over attachment to your gifts. Such an obsessive connection to your strengths and talents is characterized by an excessive involvement with them. An extreme amount of time and energy is devoted to developing your gifts, endorsing them, promoting them, and manifesting them.
Such an entanglement often yields varying degrees of self-neglect. Developing meaningful relationships is easily sacrificed. Scheduling needed medical and dental appointments easily go missed. Eating and resting properly are lost in the maze of mayhem regarding the best way to package and deliver your gifts. Time to play is simply viewed as a waste of time. Extreme examples of being overly attached to gifts are reflected in numerous famous entertainers, such as Jimmy Hendrix, Janice Joplin and Judy Garland, whose obsession with the gift likely led to an early death. It may be that relationship with what has been called Shadow enables us to carry Light creatively and healthily.
An over-attachment to your gifts can easily lead to overwhelm especially if you are living with the voice, “The world expects a lot of me, desires a lot of me and therefore I am a lot.” This formula easily unfolds when the world applauds what you produce, create, and inspire. Let’s look more closely at the costs of overwhelm or what the research refers to as “cognitive overload”.
- Feeling overwhelmed is typically accompanied by increased stress and a sense of urgency. The former is very capable of compromising your health and the latter moves you briskly out of the here and now.
- Overreacting and irritability. Feeling overwhelmed easily weakens how we emotionally cope. Overwhelm creates a sense of pressure placing you in a reactionary mode rather than responding from a degree of resiliency.
- Numbing. Living from a sense of urgency and pressure disallows for a mindful, felt-sense of emotion.
- Poor boundaries. It becomes increasingly difficult to say “No” since requests and invitations simply seem like more opportunity to demonstrate that “You are a lot.”
- Isolation. Because you are caught in the web of demonstrating and delivering your gifts, there is not time for rapport building and attending to important relationships.
- Almost impossible to be a conveyor of Light. Your very purpose is easily derailed as you have allowed your gifts and their alleged power to take you hostage.
Life would have it such that it is natural and normal to get lost in the maze of ego light seduction. What’s important is to remain curious and attentive to how it is we can find our way back to truly carrying our gifts in service to something larger than ourselves. Working with Shadow material is a very viable way to sustain a devotion to being an apprentice to enlightenment and a conveyor of Light.
What is Shadow?
The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) introduced the idea of Shadow. We can best understand Shadows as parts of our personality deemed unacceptable and unable to procuring social approval. They are parts of us defined as possessing no credibility, making no favorable contribution to our self-esteem. They may be comprised of feeling states such as anger, envy, hatred, vindictiveness, desperation, and fear. Or behaviors such as obsession, cruelty, sloth, dependency, and bullying.
However, sometimes Shadow is comprised of some positive traits that we decide might either hurt someone we love or create a rift between us. An example is as a teenage athlete I decided an appropriate athletic persona did not include academia. Hence, I studied as little as possible, reading only one book during the four years of high school. Much to my chagrin, the results of a placement exam for the University revealed I had scored in the top 2% of the verbal portion. My father, well aware of my academic prohibition, accused me of cheating. To make matters worse, two years later I fell in love with the study of philosophy. It would be many years later before I realized that my educational protest was for love of my mother. She had finished her schooling after the 8th grade and was likely unnerved by her oldest son continuing his education.
I tend to view Shadow characteristics as having a mind of their own. It is as if they know they are part of the psyche and want to contribute to our wholeness. The old cliché seems to fit, “What we resist (deny) will persist. Curious enough, psychological Shadows seem to resemble astronomical shadows. The earth’s Northern hemisphere is three million miles closer to the sun, on or around January 3. On June 21st a person 6 feet tall cast a shadow approximately six inches long. While the same person on December 21st cast a shadow 12.5 feet long. We can say that Shadows are the largest when the sun, or the largest source of light in the galaxy is closest to our planet, creating particular angles. So, it is with psychological Shadows.
The more Light and light, or the more productivity or creativity accompanied by recognition and admiration, the greater the psychological Shadows. And the more we see our work driven by divine inspiration, the greater the Shadow. It’s not that there is something wrong with a spiritual perspective, however, it does entail enrolling the ‘big guy ‘or the ‘big gal’. (God) It simply means we are closer to more Light. More Light – more Shadow.
Jung reminds us of the importance of welcoming the Shadow, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”. Looking toward Shadow may certainly help us become ready for more Light. Let’s explore other benefits supporting are readiness for more Light.
- Less susceptible to being excessively seduced by ego light.
- More likely to remain grounded with less temptation to embark upon an Icarus flight
- Less overwhelm, less tension, more peace.
- Greater self-awareness and self-kindness
- Becoming more present
- Greater capacity for emotional intimacy
- Enhanced ability to track and interrupt what we project to others
- Deepening a felt-sense of humility
- Greater understanding of what it means to lean into wholeness
- Diminished likelihood that we unconsciously have someone carrying our Shadow for us
Because our Shadow qualities have been exiled to the unconscious, it is not a simple task to bring them to the surface, which is a prerequisite for welcoming them. Connie Zweig reminds us in her book, “Romancing the Shadow” of the arduous nature of Shadow work.
“The shadow is a demanding taskmaster: It requires endless patience,
keen instinct, fine discrimination, the compassion of a Buddha.
It requires one eye to be turned out toward the world of Light,
while the other eye is turned in toward the world of darkness”.
There are at least three ways to access Shadow material:
- Reviewing our dreams
- Tracking what we project to others
- Leaking out of the dark cavern of the unconscious by unintentionally acting out
Reviewing Dreams – Our dreams often reveal Shadows as sinister, menacing, and threatening figures. Amanda, a client who was feeling troubled by a recent dream seemed to be accessing Shadow material in her dream life. In her dream, Amanda is preparing to teach with her notes and instructional material being scattered about chaotically. She sees a small worm on one of the pages of her notes which gradually transforms into a large, venomous snake which she described as “threatening and willful”.
We then spoke of the lack of order in her notes possibly indicating some ambivalence about going forward to teach”,
“Amanda, I’m wondering how you feel about being willful,” I asked, curious if her unconscious might be making a Shadow offering.
“Oh, I don’t want to be willful. I mean how would I ever remain feminine while being willful! People would certainly view me as extremely controlling. No one likes a willful woman,” she offered, sounding convinced that being willful could not possibly support building relationships based on trust with anyone.
“Tell me more about how being willful turns people off so much,” I urged, more confident that a Shadow was banging on the door.
“Well, it really doesn’t allow others to have an opinion of their own, you know, their own voice”, she explained, with her voice quieting and her eyes cast downward.
“Amanda, I think you’re talking about being dogmatic and self-righteous. You can be willful, in fact, passionately willful, and invite the voices of others”, I offered, noticing her chin lifting and a spark of curiosity in her eyes.
We spent the rest the session talking about being willful as an expression of her Shadow and how willful did nothing to diminish her femininity. I pointed out that there are really only two expressions of personal power being willful and surrendering. Amanda began making a sincere investment in supporting her personal power by developing more discernment regarding where she needed to assert her will and where it served to let go and surrender.
Working with projections. Let’s look at a situation where the role of a projection revealed the presence of a Shadow. Recently, a 72-year-old woman who is an acquaintance, developed a romantic relationship with a 27-year-old person. My wife asked what reaction I was having to our acquaintance’s unusual liaison, and then reminded me that our acquaintance may never have felt loved and chosen by a significant other. Not wanting to be quickly dismissive, I took some time to reflect upon our acquaintance’s involvement. However, my truth was that I felt disgust. At first, feeling self-righteous and embarrassed, and then remembering how much disgust a herald of the Shadow can be.
My disgust began to reveal my Shadow, the desperate need to be loved, which I was projecting to our acquaintance. My projection was asking me to make peace with my desperate need to be loved. I knew it was true and I was willing to take on the psychological task feeling a bit smug about my alleged emotional intelligence. Well, the disgust continued to roar rather than simply allow me to settle into my task. Then, it dawned upon me, our acquaintance wasn’t possibly just feeling a desperate need to be loved, he was also making it public by introducing the relationship to numerous friends. And that was my Shadow gold. I could not imagine allowing anyone to know about my desperate need to be loved as a tight jacket of shame kept the story hidden.
I’m still working out how to carry my desperate need to be loved and interrupt my shame with more acceptance and compassion. I can see how much my projection is asking me to make peace with my humanity. I’m able to tell the story to friends and even write about it here. It feels like the beginning of offering full welcome to my desperate need to be loved, thanks to an informative projection.
Several weeks after writing this piece about my projection of a desperate need to be loved, I was awakened shortly before 6:00 AM by a booming yell of my name “Paul” that filled the entire bedroom and shook me to my core. I quickly discovered no one was in my bedroom and it wasn’t lost on me that I was getting a wake-up call, literally and metaphorically. However, I held the faith that my attention was being summoned, but to whom or to what? I remained open and vigilant to the possibilities.
Suddenly, while playing with our dog, I was aware of another person who appeared to being making choices from a desperate need to be loved. Although, I held less disgust, there was in me a propensity to pathologize the behavior I witnessed. Obviously, I still needed to emotionally distance from my own desperate need to be loved. I then thought, ‘A desperate need to be loved is universal and it behooves me to consider how I carry my own such need and relate to that particular need in others’. I began the inquiry by concluding that any inclination I had to pathologize the desperate need others have to be loved, was simply an invitation to continue making peace with my desperate need. I remain curious and open to where this way of viewing myself and others will bring me.
A Shadow Leak – The third way Shadows reveal themselves is by leaking into our conscious lives.
Liz and Frank came in to see me, Liz claiming that Frank’s anger was very out of control. Liz didn’t strike me as a person prone to exaggeration, so I decided to ask Frank about her perception of him.
“Frank, how do you feel or think about Liz’s perception of your anger?” I inquired, wondering if he would simply write her view off.
“I respect how Liz see things. She’s intuitive and kind. But I just don’t get this idea that my anger is out of control,” Frank submitted, glancing at Liz softly hoping not to offend her.
“I can give examples of your anger, if that helps”, Liz spoke up suggesting that she would simply offer data, with no need to indict Frank.
“That might be helpful. But I’m interested in your relationship with your anger, generally, Frank,” I offered, wondering simply how Frank carried his anger.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be angry, especially for men. I mean, my father regularly raged and sometimes pushed my mom around. I decided I would never be like him”, Frank revealed, his jaw tightening and his eyes watering.
“Frank, I hear the decision you made not to hurt those you love with your anger, like your father did. I want you to consider that it wasn’t your father’s anger that was the culprit. It was how he decided to unleash it. You, too, have a choice of how you want to carry your anger”, I offered, noticing I had Frank’s attention.
“I thought I was doing a good job. I’ve never hurt anyone with my anger”, Frank insisted, looking toward Liz with more intensity.
“Yes, that’s true and it is also true that your wife is reporting she experiences your anger as somewhat out of control”, I added, hoping he could see that he wasn’t exactly like his father, yet his anger was negatively impacting his wife.
I asked Frank if he might be willing to come to our next session alone in order to do some anger education. He agreed and we spent several sessions exploring how he likely repressed his anger, relegating his anger to Shadow in order to not be like his father. Fortunately, he was very open to seeing his anger as possibly leaking out of Shadow. We also explored suppressed anger morphing into passive aggression which can be as toxic or more hurtful than aggressive anger.
Folks who take their personal growth seriously will sooner or later be curious about attaining enlightenment, or in my words, be able to carry more Light. I’ve come to believe that it is simply naïve to think that the ego will be or should be somehow banished from the journey to enlightenment. I recommend considering that the ego will have its way. It is simply not into being exiled and in fact when we strive toward such a maneuver the ego may easily show up is some compensated way. The thing to do is kind of like throwing a wild creature a piece of meat in order to settle the beast down in order to deepen a relationship to Light.
I appreciate the words of Thich Nhat Hanh regarding enlightenment. “Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment”. I believe Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to be wise counsel, suggesting the consideration of simplicity when wondering about enlightenment or being able to carry more Light. The quote implies the value of mindfulness of gratitude. It may also be useful to let go of the what of enlightenment, but rather approach the how’s of enlightenment. Here are some possible how’s. The following will also support carrying ego light:
- An ancient definition of the word simplicity is “resisting the artificial”. Simplicity helps the ego resist any opportunity to grasp at something grandiose, which guarantees falling into a seduction of ego light.
- Committing to welcoming Shadow. As outlined earlier, this apprenticeship significantly supports carrying Light.
- Healing Shame. Shame is so often what supports hurling some aspect of the personality into Shadow. I recommend John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You. It’s a wonderful orientation to shame which typically has a way of being stealth.
- Accepting there is no arrival. Contrary to the ego’s strongest aspirations, there is no arrival at being enlightened. The very essence of enlightenment requires enough humility to remain a life-long apprentice, as captured by Parker Palmer, “If you are not at some beginning, you’re dead.” I continue to be amazed how relentlessly instructive the Light can be. I am currently asked to learn to feel deeply hurt without either deciding someone is terribly wrong and/or defining myself as a victim. I believe I have enough curiosity to remain steadfast. It’s the necessary humility that has me strongly questioning if I can remain loyal to the apprenticeship. Maybe it means simply being will to begin rather than being dead.
- Apprenticing to giving and receiving. Moving into a devotion to serve depends upon some understanding of giving and receiving, that is, how to do them. An ability to receive deepens a capacity to live with gratitude and learn to give, especially anonymously, gives rise to authentic generosity.
- A desire to know. An old definition of the word enlightenment is “to bring knowledge”. An old Hebrew definition of the infinitive to know is “Yada”, which means “to know sensually, rationally, imaginatively, and intuitively”. Such a knowing is intimate. The knowing of enlightenment is also intimate, not simply the result of objective observation.
- Exercising discernment regarding the nature of a Call. Teachers, healers, gurus, and an assortment of other guides will issue a Call. Of course, the Call can either be to ego light or to the Light. If you are carrying unaddressed shame, the former call can be very seductive as it offers a temporary massage for the torment generated by shame. It’s noteworthy to remember that a genuine Call is never issued directly to Enlightenment, but rather indirectly, to something ordinary, simple, and often, not highly desirable.
- A Devotion to serve. We can understand a devotion to serve as a faithfulness to meet needs. However, it is not always easy to identify who is actually being served. When it’s intimate, the one we intend to serve is being served. Here’s a story that reminds me to be more mindful when I step into service. John, an old mentor of mine was an Anglican Priest who managed a bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire back in the 60’s. One cold, rainy night just before closing, a young man entered the store appearing anxious, and abruptly asked if John (my mentor) was a priest. John responded in the affirmative, the young man, explaining that he thought his mother was dying, asked John to come with him to attend to her. John agreed and followed the young man in his vehicle, thinking along the way that he was glad that he had recently completed a comprehensive Kubler-Ross Training addressing what it meant to accompany the dying. Eager to apply his new acquired competencies, he followed the young man into a small home where he encountered an elderly woman lying in a bed with eyes barely open and experiencing respiratory distress. He gently approached, dropped to one knee alongside her bed and asked, “How can I help you?” The woman responded, “Cup of soup, Father, a cup of soup”. When John told the story he included the lesson offered at that woman’s bedside, “I simply did not know how much of my giving was devoted to serving my ego”. I continue to renew John’s lesson in my own life, recalling that very simple offerings can be a service to something larger than myself. Here’s a short piece on Cup of Soup.
Cup of Soup
Who’s being served and what is the service
easily remains veiled behind a façade of
compassion and an unbridled eagerness
to make some offering. The chance to serve
yells, “Do it now!”, “Show your stuff!”,
“Let the world know what you’ve got”.
Might there be a pause, a quiet letting me
know the world is simply not that interested
In my aggrandized delivery. Maybe, there
Is simply a call for a cup of soup. But, that
can’t be all that is desired. I have so much
more, more to fill the need and maybe
maybe even leaving a lasting impression.
What of the reputation I might have
suggesting I can deliver some most
desirable offering? Are the needs of
the recipient actually more worthy
then providing evidence that my
reputation is all that it’s cracked up
So many seductions cling to reputation,
ready to endorse an ego’s vision of
Itself. What will it take to remember
the reason I’ve come to this moment,
to this individual? Pausing, in the hope
I might quiet the ego’s readiness to
demonstrate its alleged mastery.
What of the request for a cup of soup?
Is it really an insult to all I’ve cooked
up? Who will remember the offering
of a cup of soup? Maybe it’s me, me
who needs to remember the day I
stepped away from the grand gesture
of making some noble offering and
A Story of a Call to Light
I received a call to Light forty-two years ago at the age of 33. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what was really transpiring. Initially, it merely seemed like an interesting confluence of events. It took some time before I could consider what happened as a call to Light.
It was August 1980, John and I were on our way to a Trappist Monastery in the Genesee Valley, NY. Our friend, Henri Nouwen, who was a major spiritual voice at the time, was celebrating his 20th anniversary in the priesthood at the monastery. Henri was the only non-Trappist to ever be allowed to live amongst the monks, and wrote a book entitled The Genesee Diary about his experience in the monastery. I was looking forward to possibly meeting some of the monks Henri wrote about, especially a baker by the name of Brother Christian.
The outdoor celebration truly honored Henri’s clerical devotion, and I had an opportunity to meet several of the characters in Henri’s book. I was especially impressed by the Abbott and Brother Christian whose eyes seemed to elicit beams of light. As we drove out of the valley, I turned, maintaining my gaze out of the rear window, appreciating the setting sun draping an incandescent light over the monastery. The site filled me with a warm sentiment of gratitude for all I received from Henri and John. I turned to John and joyfully shared, “I really liked meeting the Abbott and I could imagine working in the monastery for him,” I offered, confident that John might have a vision of a job suiting my gifts.
“Hmm, well, what job do you imagine he would have you do?” John asked, leaving me feeling understood by his curiosity.
“I’m not sure, but I think some kind of adviser,” I beamed, confident that John would agree since he knew me quite well.
“An adviser! Oh, I have trouble holding that vision. I feel strongly that the Abbott would make you the dishwasher,” John jabbered, leaving me feeling he must be kidding.
“Come on, I’m being serious. I can really imagine having an important role in that monastery. You’ve said that I’m quite intuitive and I could use that in service of the monastic community”, I added, in the hope that John would take a more appealing position regarding my role in the monastery.
“You are intuitive, and that would only add to your dishwashing prowess. My sense is that the Abbott was a good judge of people and how someone like me could best serve his community,” John, contended, with no hint of jocularity, leaving me angry and disappointed.
“Okay, I think I’m getting it. You’re really into this shit about me being a dishwasher,” I grumbled, not hiding any of my intolerance for his choice to rain on my monastery parade.
“You know, it’s not always easy for the ego to appreciate what the soul might be asking for”, John instructed, leaving me willing to let go of this conversation for now, and picking it up later when John came to his senses. By the time we reached home, I felt more accepting of the fact that my mentor had briefly lost his mind.
Two days later the Dean at the college where I taught called, asking me to come in for a meeting. When I arrived at the Dean’s office, he appeared uncomfortable, shifting in his seat, and clearing his throat as if what he was about to say had somehow got stuck on the way out.
“Due to budgetary considerations, we need to make a change in your job title. We want you to teach philosophy half-time and be the night administrator half-time”, he uttered, looking away, as if he did not want to see the impact his words would likely have upon me.
“You want me to do what?” I exclaimed in disbelief.
“Teach half-time and be the night administrator”, he reiterated, as if repeating it would somehow gain more of my receptivity.
“What the hell does a night administrator do?” I inquired, with a tone implying whatever the task is, it’s not suitable for my professional status.
“Well, you would be available if any problems arise with students. Get urgent phone messages to students in classrooms, and lock up at 10:00 PM”, the Dean outlined my duties, with an air suggesting that the proposal was not negotiable.
I left the Dean’s office knowing my time at the College was nearing its end. The next day, John called to see how I was doing since our ride home from the monastery. I told him about my meeting with the Dean and my new nightly duties.
“Oh my God! How prophetic of me! He made you the college dishwasher!” John howled, taking some time for him to settle down and hear how angry and disappointed I was about the direction of my professional career.
It would take months before I had any inkling that what felt like an unfortunate calamity could actually be a call to Light. I spent my evenings reading, getting messages to students, helping students search for something they lost or access a ride. After several weeks of pouting and adorning a fictitious smile, I was sent a deliverer offering my debacle a redeeming quality.
The evening janitor, Hank, introduced himself and suggested we should play backgammon. With somewhat of a snobbish demeanor, I quickly let him know that I never heard of the game and obviously didn’t know how to play. Wasn’t it bad enough that I was in this low-life job, but possibly hanging out with the janitor? Hank promptly assured me that I would rapidly acquire the necessary skills, especially under his tutelage, which left me wondering if he might be eager to take down a local professor.
In any case, the games began. I found Hank to be an amiable fellow, willing to let me know who he was as a father, a husband and a man devoted to his custodial work as bringing care and order to the campus environment. The joy he took in winning our games was palpable, always accompanied by reassurance that my backgammon expertise was surely evolving. I began to relax in the belief that Hank had little or no need to discredit my academic status. I eased into looking forward to my time with Hank as our time together became a reprieve from the innocuous details of my job.
I’m not sure what enlightenment came to me as a dishwasher or night administrator. I have come to believe that we can’t choose enlightenment, it chooses us. It took months for me to get over feeling humiliated and embarrassed. A friend would call me when I was on duty and say, “Are you still popping popcorn in the foyer of the college?” It took some time before I could laugh.
Did any real illumination come my way during those chats with the janitor, running messages to students, sitting at a front desk feeling like I was in a foreign country rather than singing the praises of thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, and Jean Paul Sartre? My guess is that there was at least a minor ego adjustment, as I was learning about acceptance and becoming a bit more interested in what life may be asking of me. Instead of being a muse for philosophical inquiry, I was building rapport with a janitor, serving the basic needs of students, and learning what it meant to be in an identity crisis.
It would be some time before I was able to see my tenacious grip loosen around my professional persona, which operated as an artificial scaffold bracing a scared and lost young man. As my gasp loosened, I found a man drinking too much, a father lost as he parented a disabled daughter, also a youngest daughter whose needs would largely go unmet, and a husband trying to have a marriage alone. Maybe that’s what happens when the Light chooses us, we can let go of what is propping us up and drop into the depths of being a more vulnerable human being.
I can now look back with mentors like John, who knew much better than I, how much becoming a dish washer can support holding Light and Shadow. I saw John in those days as a bright, caring ordinary Anglican Priest. However, several years after our trip, he announced that he felt a strong call to go to Norwich, England and sit in the chapel cell of the Mystic, Julian of Norwich. John returned home and established the first monastery in North America in honor of Julian of Norwich and became its first Abbot.
Not until I sat here writing this piece have, I wondered how Henri and John, two spiritual titans, impacted my spiritual life. At the time, I saw them as friends and mentors, offering support and companionship as we wondered down countless philosophical, spiritual, and psychological inquiries. Of course, my ego nudges me in the direction of believing I belong to an exclusive spiritual club. When I resist the ego’s summons, I hear the word “dishwasher”. Although I do enjoy doing dishes, the word no longer refers to a particular task. It has become as state of mind and heart, one holding reverence for the sacred ordinary and the generous moment.
The dishwasher metaphor holds an invitation for a large apprenticeship, including humility, simplicity, surrender, compassion, and courage. I’m reminded of Hemingway’s counsel, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master”.
I likely will not gain some immunity from the seduction to be something allegedly larger. However, the opportunity to sit with friends and telling stories of succumbing and avoiding the lure to rarified air, leaves me with more levity and a robust welcome to my humanity. Maybe the dishwasher mantra has been the gift I received from these tow highly devotional spiritual men.
I’ll pause here with another quote from Connie Zweig captures the spiritual task of being a conveyor of Light.
“To live with shadow awareness is to turn away from
the peaks toward the valleys, away from the heights
and the rarified air, toward the depths and the dark
and the dense. It is to turn toa the unpleasant thoughts,
hidden fantasies, marginal feelings that are so taboo.
To live with shadow awareness is to move our eyes from
up to down, to relinquish the clarity of blue-sky thinking for
the uncertain murkiness of a foggy morning”.