Read an Excerpt
The Inward Voyage
Through the torn paper screen,
the Milky Way.
When we were children our days were full of wonderthe world unfolded itself and ourselves at the same time. In such an eternal afternoon the grass hums, the ball flies into the blue, and the girl sings the skipping-rope song:
Cindereller dressed in yeller
went upstairs to kiss a feller;
made a mistake and kissed a snake.
How many doctors did it take?
imagining the time when she will be bitten by a life that is still being dreamed and has not yet arrivedthough it is clear to her father, watching, that life is here for her now, utterly complete.
Beneath or inside the life we lead every day is another life. This unseen life runs like a river beneath the city, beneath work, family, ambition, beneath our pleasures and griefs. "There is another world," says Paul Eluard, "and it is inside this one."
In the helter-skelter, in the rush to get an education, to make a career, to make a family, to find material success, to hurry, to do, to survive, this interior life is often subjugated or paved over. The life that in the child is something vivid and whole goes further inward in the adult, where it usually slumbers until it is called forth. But this life beneath or within our ordinary life is irrepressible, unstoppable: it comes up in loveliness like jonquils out of fallen snow, it rises in supplication like hands out of gratings in a pavement in India, and it bursts upward through our chests as the fountain of shock that is our reaction to evil news. It appears in dreams, revery, memories of childhood, in what we find beautiful, and in what we find uglyas a gargoyle, and appears too when we fall in love, when we fall ill, when we are lost on dark paths. It touches our pleasures with melancholy and intermittently pierces our desperation with joy.
I have always loved to think of the old navigatorsthe small bands moving to a new continent over land bridges made by the ice age; the Polynesian canoe masters, sailing into the vastness with a coconut shell half filled with water, observation holes drilled into it near the rim; James Cook, who rose through the ranks to command the ship Endeavour, carrying Joseph Banks to botanize through these same Pacific islands; and my own ancestors, transported in chains to the desolation of Botany Bay.
Whether or not our travels may eventually extend to the stars and those brave, hard-pressed voyages be repeated in some new form, our frontier now is the inner life. In this book, two great lineages of inward exploration are brought together. The first is the Asian tradition with its long devotion to the arts of attention
and to a spiritual understanding based on inquiry and experience rather than dogma. The second is the Western method of work with the soul, with exploring the life of feeling, thought, and the stories and legends that the soul likes to tell, stories in which we trace our destiny through pain and joy, to find out what happens next.
The inward voyage and the outer both have an heroic aspect. Outer voyages make new connections by which human beings achieve many endsadventure, trade, conquest, and love. The inner voyage also makes new connections: it plunges us into an initiatory space, the way young boys were once thrust into the forecastle of a sailing ship; then, as the world we have known disappears, we are rocked and whirled around until the ship anchors once more in a harbor. We step ashore in a land that is not externally new but that our eyes, being changed, see in its primeval freshness. The interior voyage overcomes loneliness by offering us a place in the universe, where we can know ourselves in the midst of all changes.
If we respect the inner life, we find that it is also possible to reverse the whole relationship between inner and outer, beneath
and above, and make the inner life come first, as a garden that is tended for the tending's own sake. To cultivate, to know, to love this vast inscape is the only way to be free in any circumstances, the only way to mend the poverty of wasted years. We explore the interior realm because it is what we humans are forconsciousness, the marvelous voyage.
Much of the journey is about the ways we work with our attention, because attention gives us more life. It expands the register, bringing us to notice more of the vividness and consolation of our dark lives, so that we can exist in our true range, and not go around missing things, as if we knew countries only from their airports and hotels. Attention is the most basic form of love: through it we bless and are blessed. When we attend to the interior life, we also connect with what surrounds usthe espresso machine hissing, the skipping rope with its two red handles in line and the rope curling lazily out and back, the green points on the snowdrops nodding over the cold ground. What was matter and merely inanimate becomes family, and we, the children walking, walking, walking home. All wantingfor love, to be seen for who we are, for a new red caris wanting to find and be taken into this mysterious depth in things. And it is this inner connection that resolves the problem of who we are and makes us at home in the world. For the interior life sweetens the humblest thing. It opens for us the magic in ordinary life.