A man is lost in the desert. Ahead of him he sees something incredible, a soft drink vending machine. It must be a mirage. But what else is there to crawl towards? He drags himself over the dunes until he reaches the vending machine. It’s real! And in his pocket: exact change! He scans the selections eagerly. Then the terrible truth arrives—all the choices are Coke. But for many years the man has only drunk diet. Bitter, bitter, and feeling that life plays with him like an inexpensive toy he continues on his way.
The part of me I don’t see isn’t me. It’s in a file marked “Someone Else.” Yet it’s still here. When I’m out on the street it’s always coming towards me, irritating or scary or even something wonderful that I know can never be mine. I see it again and again, everywhere I go. Like Christopher Lee’s Dracula in the old movies—I’ve gotten rid of it once and for all so many times but it keeps coming back. What does it want with me?
There may have been a time, long ago, when you suffered. Part of the suffering was that no one was there with you, no one came, no one knew.
Now, all these years later, you can change that.
Return to that time.
Sit with yourself. Be witness. Bring compassion. Plant understanding of what happened like a tree that will grow through your life bearing fruit and giving shade.
The one you were waiting for is you. Arrive.
He’s being punished down in the Greek underworld. Thirsty, he’s up to his waist in sparkling mineral water with a twist of lime. He scoops it up in his hands and pours it into his mouth. It disappears, not even a drop goes down his throat. Famished, he stands under a tree on which grows every type of fruit. Apples, Queen Ann cherries, those pears they ship in from Korea that taste like caramel. Also hot wings, tri-tip, really good Thai food– you name it, it’s growing on the tip of a branch just over his head. He gathers it by the handful and crams it into his mouth. It vanishes before he even gets a taste. He’s empty and stays that way. The pain is continuous, the craving never fades.
Meanwhile up in the sunlit realm of mortals he has difficulties with relationships. He’s nice looking, has a great sense of humor, dating is no problem. But once things get serious he tells the story of how no one has ever met his needs—no one’s even recognized them.
Naturally during the honeymoon period his partner goes all out to make a difference. For some reason this doesn’t work. The story doesn’t change. Partner tries harder, partner shows Tantalus he’s got his back, here’s that tabletop hockey game you always wanted when you were a kid that no one ever got for you. Same song. Sooner or later the partner begins to feel unappreciated, then depleted, then a little invisible. He packs his share of things and vanishes. Tantalus grieves over his unmet needs.
Contrary to the myth Tantalus hasn’t done anything to deserve this. On the other hand he’s not chained to that tree. He can leave tree, underworld and weird repetitive punishment anytime he chooses. But it’s hard to walk away from something he’s never had. As if the not-having is the closest he can get to it, and yes it hurts but it’s better than giving it up all hope and expectation. Isn’t it?
You’ve met him before, the snake with his tail in his mouth. He comes to us from alchemy. There he stands for the circulatio, a process that continues itself. The material on which you work in its closed container, responding to gentle persistent heat, sublimes and rises, condenses and falls. Repeat as necessary.
There are matters in our lives in such process. “Why is this bothering me again? I thought I already dealt with it,” we think. We’re right, we did. But it needs more work. When we’re the material the work takes a lifetime.
Alchemy isn’t about being done with things. It’s about change. Each time the material cycles it incorporates all of your previous hard-won insights into itself. Gradually it transforms. Look at the image of the ouroboros. As he changes, so does his diet. As his diet changes, so does he. He’s neither what he was nor what he’ll be. He’s traveling.
One day as a man is walking along he trips, stumbles and falls into hell. Being hell it’s very unpleasant—the worst place the man’s ever been. In fact he can’t bear it, it’s that terrible. He peers back up the way he came but he can’t even see it. He looks all around. He’s desperate.
He spots one of the birds of hell. It’s huge, filthy, has a nasty-looking beak on it. All the man sees are its powerful wings. He approaches it boldly. “Can you fly me out of here?” he asks.
The bird sizes him up. It’s always hungry. “No problem,” it assures him. “But what will you give me?”
“Whatever I’ve got,” the man promises. “Whatever you want.”
“Well then, every so often I’ll have a little bit of you. And then maybe a little more.”
What would you do in these circumstances? “Done,” the man cries, climbing onto the bird’s back. It unfolds its wings and soars up into the air. Soon hell is hidden from sight under clouds of smoke.
But the distance back to the surface is far, and what the bird failed to mention is that it can only get part of the way there. When it reaches the halfway point the bird levels off and begins flying in a circle, around and around and around. Every so often it turns its head over its shoulder and has a little bit of the man, gives the matter some consideration, and then has a little more.
The man doesn’t care about this. As long as he’s out of hell he’s happy. Or if not happy, at least he’s not in hell.
There were, as there often are, three brothers. They walked along the road on a cold day and the wind whipped around them.
“It’s freezing,” said the first brother. “I’ve got to do something about this.” He knew that warmth comes from the sun. So he called up to the sun, “Sir! Please give us more heat!” He begged and cajoled, genuflected and bowed. But the sun paid no attention. The brother was still cold, and he felt terrible because the sun had ignored him.
The second brother said, “I’m cold too, but you’ve got it all turned around.” He knew it was the wind-chill factor that was the problem. He turned to face the wind directly. “Stop blowing right now,” he commanded. “Just settle down!” To show that he meant business he beat his arms against the wind and pushed it back with all his might. But the wind just slipped around him on all sides. Soon the second brother had worn himself out, and he was colder than ever.
The third brother put on a jacket.
This is one of the Buddha’s teachings. He was making the point that some suffering occurs only in the mind—fictions made of thoughts and nothing else, with no corresponding object out in the world. This was part of a talk he gave in the Deer Park. After the talk he passed out a brief multiple choice quiz.
1. Which of the following will not help you prepare for an earthquake?
a. Put together an earthquake readiness kit that includes bottled water, a renewable battery-powered radio and about 200 dollars in small bills.
b. Establish a central meeting point for friends and family.
c. Plan a route out of the area that doesn’t make use of bridges, which may be collapsed after the quake.
d. Worry about earthquakes.
The story you tell isn’t finished. Being unfinished it’s alive.
Much hasn’t been lived yet, much else was missed the first go-round. Even episodes you’ve told many times change as you change, though they seem so stable, like stakes pounded into the ground to which your idea of who you are is tethered. There are chapters waiting to be told so they can stop happening, and move gratefully into the past. Others, told again and again and again, would like to turn out differently this time.
The story is more than the sum of its chapters. Like you it’s made of subtle soul-stuff or the volts and chemicals of neural pathways, plans written in heaven or quark-driven chance. Like you the story is a mystery that seeks to know itself. Is it yours or do you belong to it?
Sometimes it’s bigger and older than you, the tale of your family or your people. Sometimes someone else entirely rises through it, Orpheus or Odysseus or Cinderella. Gradually you learn to recognize its profile.
Sit with the story. It will tell you everything you need to know.
Sometimes there’s just a lot trash. There’s always some, even if only a little. It’s hard for any of us to live in such a way that everything’s valued, everything’s made use of down to the last scrap. But some families, some cultures, have more they need to get rid of than others. If you belong to such a one it may be you were given the task of receiving what wasn’t wanted, what there was so much of, and taking it out of the house. That means you spent more time outside than the others. An outsider. A not-really-one-of-us. An oddling.
It’s the most natural thing in the world to think that what you’re given must be yours. But that’s not always the case. Let’s look through what you’re carrying to see what came from who, whose it really is. But first, let’s get it off your back.