Read an Excerpt
The World is a Waiting Lover
Desire and the Quest for the Beloved
By Trebbe Johnson
New World LibraryCopyright © 2005 Trebbe Johnson
All rights reserved.
The Leap of the Flame
THE SOUL'S LONGING TO THRIVE
Longing draws us toward what we have never known and will recognize instantly. We yearn to be a part of the world. We long to be at home wherever we go, to enjoy fearless, passionate relationships with the people we meet and the things we do. We yearn to express our true self, the essence of our being that has too long flickered inside us like a timid flame. We ache to move in joy, as a dancer does, or a musician in ecstatic dialogue with his instrument, as an athlete running for her life. We want that pitch of commitment. We want to smell and taste the world we're passing through, as we shape it with our hands, our being, our delight. We long to be embraced by wonder, to be imbued with the Mystery that pervades all things, to be swept off our feet by a world that falls in love with us, over and over, because we are who we are. We long to be welcomed by the world because we have something to offer that has been sorely needed for a very long time.
Every now and then we have heeded the longing and given license to the flaring of that flame: when we spoke up, despite our fear, in the face of an injustice, or raised our arms in exultation at the beauty of some wild landscape, or done some unrehearsed and generous thing. We have felt it when we set out to make something — a painting, a garden, a wooden spoon — and lost ourselves in a pool of unself-conscious enchantment. The flame of authentic passion leapt up even in the face of death, illness, or loss, when, huddled in a ball of unspeakable grief, we recognized ourselves as part of something eternal and undimmed, and felt fortified as a result. In these moments we glimpsed the possibility of living so intimately with our own possibilities that our blood and the world's huge, incomprehensible currents flowed as one.
Too often, just when those moments of brighter burning began to warm us, we've been tempted to quench the flame. Such intensity seemed dangerous. As if chastised, we jerked ourselves back to the more familiar view that we are but puny and helpless things. How, we asked ourselves, as if to justify our tampering in potential greatness, could such passion survive in the world anyway? Living it, we would go crazy, would we not? We would die in exile, abandoned by all our friends. We would be ridiculed for our foolish presumption.
Each thing, Spinoza stated in his Ethics, "endeavors to persist in its own being." Trout and paramecia, dinosaurs, oaks, and dandelions, polar bears, chimpanzees, human beings, and red-winged blackbirds — all busy themselves zealously in doing what they must do to thrive. Being alive is not just surviving and making do, it is living with zest and glory. Even a quartz crystal, "growing" in the dark earth at the rate of two millimeters a day, accretes each of its glassy molecules in a pattern of angles and planes distinctive to it alone. Life strives, wrote deep ecologist Arne Naess, to perfect itself. You could say that each entity on earth seeks union with some possibility of itself that it can hardly conceive yet to which it nevertheless moves resolutely closer.
I MYSELF HAVE HEARD THE VOICES OF BEINGS striving to persist in their own being as I've sat in circles of men and women who struggled to find words to express what has compelled them to undertake a vision quest. "Vision quest" is the name anthropologists of the nineteenth century assigned to a Native American rite of passage that has counterparts in cultures worldwide. It is the practice in which a seeker leaves the community behind and ventures alone into the wilderness to fast and pray for guidance, that she may return with some insight into the most personal, specific, and crucial way that she can practice her own self-perfection while contributing to the self-perfection of her people. The vision quest is a mythic journey. Battling demons (rain, heat, bugs, boredom, fear of the dark), accepting the wisdom of helpful allies (a hummingbird, a face in rock, a dream), facing old anxieties and deep longings, and emptying the heart, the seeker suffers spiritual death that she might be reborn into her higher, beckoning self.
Spiritual leaders of many traditions have sought — and found — God in wild nature. Jesus, after his baptism by John the Baptist, consigned himself to the desert and there toughed out temptation, fear, lust, and vainglory until he could accept at last that he was born to preach to his people a theology of forgiveness and love. Muhammad repeatedly climbed to a cave on Mount Hira for twenty-three years to meet with the angel, who transmitted the Koran to him in snatches of song so unforgettable that the human messenger could easily chant the verses to transcribers each time he went back down to Mecca. The resolute but not always patient Moses twice trudged up and down Mount Sinai to receive Jehovah's commandments. Sitting under the bodhi tree, the Buddha flailed at all the distractions of past and present lifetimes until he sank into the peace of nirvana and grasped the Four Noble Truths. King Minos of Crete, it is said, retreated to a cave on Mount Ida once every four years to review his rule with the gods and to take their counsel for the years ahead. The most recent narratives of the vision quest belong, of course, to the Plains people of North America, whose tradition of solitary fasting and prayer has remained unbroken (if severely challenged) for many generations. The selfless, sometimes apparently foolhardy paths of action (such as boldly prancing on a war-painted pony before an army of aimed rifles) that Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Black Elk, and other spiritual warriors took in an effort to protect their land and people from white control were often revealed to them while they fasted in a sacred spot.
The contemporary variation on the practice began in 1974, when Steven Foster and Meredith Little, two suicide-prevention hotline volunteers working in Marin County, California, began to meet after hours. As they were falling in love, they were also speculating on how a coming-of-age rite of passage might benefit the young people whose despair they attended to every day. They began to take teens, then adults, out into the California desert both knew well and to support them through the process of self-acceptance and even the first stirrings of sensible self-love. They consulted Native American elders and other indigenous spiritual leaders for advice and support. Often, those they had guided or "put out on the mountain" returned, begging to be taught how to introduce the work into their own communities. The Fosters started an organization called the School of Lost Borders that combined vision quests with the training to lead them, and people from all over the world came to learn. Currently about 150 people and small organizations offer wilderness rites of passage in the United States, and there are even more in Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Russia, and other countries.
A seeker who embarks on a contemporary vision quest might be graced with any variation of the metaphysical experiences that enlightened her forebears: a moment of oneness with all creation, a clear understanding of the path that she must take, a poem or song emerging whole and perfect and searingly true, a healing, an acceptance of her whole self with all its marvelous, messy parts. Quite often it is not a single, blazing moment of truth that occurs, but a kind of layering: some ray of insight, which seems to be immediately and directly magnified by a natural event — a hummingbird hovers before the eyes, a boulder leaps down a mountain, a spruce branch grabs hold of an arm — which, in turn, illuminates another aspect of the self. "There was no difference between me and what was happening all around me," a schoolteacher from Michigan once told us upon her return to base camp. "I finally stopped trying to figure out what was me and what was outside of me, because I realized we were one."
On the wilderness rites of passage my co-guides and I lead, the group meets for a few days before each individual goes off to sit in solitude for three days and three nights. On the first evening of the journey, as twilight dims the borders between what is known and taken for granted and what is mysterious and unknowable except through soulful exploration, we form a circle and, one at a time, the questers tell a bit of their story. Almost always, what they say reflects their longing to feel the heat of that inner, too often timid, flame.
"My life is devoted to God, to spirit," says an Episcopal minister. "I know what I do is valued in the community. But I feel like I'm working from the organized body of the Church, rather than from my soul."
A successful songwriter admits, "I've got a reputation for writing hard, tough love songs, but somewhere inside of me there's another kind of song trying to get free. I want to know my own heart so I can write the songs that have never been sung."
A woman whose husband left her for another cries, "I feel as if I have no home, as if there is no place for me in the world. Maybe on the mountain I can find my true home, which I know is within me."
A physician says, "I've been a doctor for thirty years. What I really want is to become a healer."
A successful businesswoman weeps, "I have money, a beautiful house, prestige. But I have contributed nothing of value to the earth."
Such longing pierces the heart. Awakened, it hurts even more than when it is allowed to sleep undisturbed. Tears flow in this first circle, not only from the eyes of the speakers, but from the eyes of others as well, for everyone's ache for a life of meaning, authenticity, and passion is gouged deeper by each consecutive voice. They would do anything to find the antidote to this holy yearning. They would do anything to embrace the joyfully self-perfecting soul, the authentic nature that they were born with and that keeps titillating yet eluding them.
The year I turned fifty, I sat in one of those circles in a ranch house at the foot of a solitary peak in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. As I listened to the voices of the people who had come on an Animas Valley Institute (AVI) quest led by the Institute's founder Bill Plotkin and me, I congratulated myself on having attained, at least for the present, some relief from that fierce longing. I was doing the work I loved. I was married to the man I loved. I was postmenopausal, my red hair was whitening, and even though I had begun to stop thinking of myself as a sexual being, I was fired with energy for bringing myself into the world. I looked forward to becoming less a hungry flame and more a lantern, steadily burning to guide the searches of others.
In any tale, such smugness is an invitation to the Fates to create a little chaos. On this particular vision quest Bill and I had welcomed as an apprentice guide a handsome thirty-five-year-old psychologist from the Puget Sound area. Lucas would gain experience in the practical and metaphysical aspects of leading a wilderness trip devoted to enhancing one's relationship with the soul, the unique and particular essence of the self, as he helped out with cooking, setting up base camp, counseling individual questers, and undertaking such random yet specialized odd jobs as digging the pit for the ceremonial fire of sacrifice, helping questers tie their tarps tight against thunderstorms, and drumming for ceremonies.
Five nights after that opening circle, after our group had climbed two thousand feet higher up the mountain known to the native Utes as Shandoka, "Storm-Gatherer," Lucas had a dream. The next morning he joined me in the circle of seven spruce trees we called our "kitchen," where I was boiling water for tea on a camp stove. Fifteen feet above our heads, roped to a sturdy pole wedged into the forks of two trees, and inaccessible, we hoped, to bears, dangled four industrial-strength garbage bags containing our food for eight days in the backcountry. The early-morning air was clear and cool. Lucas and I were alone; the questers had left the previous morning for their three-day solo, and Bill was catching up on his sleep. I made the tea. As we grasped the hot cups in our cold hands, Lucas told me his dream.
He was making his way up the mountain to a tiny cave that he had, in fact, noticed as the group backpacked up the trail and that was visible from the meadow where he and I had strung our tarps. What lay below had faded away. He concentrated only on the ascent. Standing in the opening to the cave, beckoning to him, was a woman he recognized as me. A long purple scarf, printed with stars and moons, was tied around her head. The cave was her domain. He realized that she was singing to him, and the song was an invitation to join her there. She was singing him up to the far depths of his own heights, and he felt an irresistible pull to be united with her. And so he climbed. It was a very powerful, vivid dream, he told me, and he had awakened knowing that he must undertake the actual journey that very morning.
"Who is the Trebbe of yourself?" I asked him, following the theory that every character in a dream represents some aspect of the dreamer.
"She's the older, wiser inner guide of myself. It's that energy of yours that I have to claim for myself up there. There is something about you as a guide that my soul needs."
He prepared well. When Bill got up, they peered through binoculars at the slope, an obstacle course of boulders that had crashed down from the summit, and discussed the most feasible route. In a daypack he stuffed warm clothing, rain gear, extra water, and some trail mix in case of emergency. He resolved to be back at base camp before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.
He asked if I would send him off. I went to my tarp in the meadow and got out the purple scarf printed with moons and stars, which I had, in fact, worn the previous morning during the final ceremony for the departing questers, when, one at a time, they had stated their intention for the solo and stepped over a ceremonial threshold of stones into the adventure awaiting them. Now I stood on the far side of the stream that separated base camp from the long, broad skirt of the mountain's slope and bid Lucas good-bye, offering words (symbolic, now forgotten) to the tune of his dream. I played the part of myself as a part of him that he needed to embody. In short, I invited him toward his own calling. We hugged, and he stepped over the stream and began the climb.
At first the slope rose gently, a grassy hill punctuated occasionally by enormous boulders and tiny spruces. Soon, however, the incline turned sharper. The grass disappeared as the rocks became more abundant, so the slope, from afar, presented a design of a gray hand reaching down and a green hand reaching up to interlace fingers. The steep upper third of the ascent was a tumble of rocks.
I watched Lucas's journey until he reached the rocks and became so high and small that he turned into a mere symbolic figure, a shadowy movement on a mission to something remote and alluring. Standing below, I was a mirror of his dream image of me. Instead of watching his face come toward me from the cave, I saw his back move away. In his dream, I was the soul guide, drawing him up toward my high precinct with an inviting song; in the waking world, I was a mentor, pushing him upward and away from me, closer to his life's next step. As he approached the cave, I started to feel that I was spying on something that was none of my business, so I turned and headed back to our base camp in the spruces.
What happened to Lucas in the cave that day is a story that belongs to him alone. Suffice it to say that he encountered something sacred there, which seemed to have been waiting for him, and that he returned to base camp transformed, with a vision of how he would bring his work into his community in a new way. The being-there is his. The dream, on the other hand, belongs irrevocably to both of us, because the ascent he made was only the beginning of what it ignited.
TWO DAYS LATER, we guides got up early to prepare breakfast for the returning fasters: an avocado half, followed by a stew of yams, carrots, onions, brown rice, and miso. Before long they started reappearing, making their way slowly across the meadow from the slopes below or through the trees from the uplands. They were thin, sweaty, dirty, unshaven. The eyes of most were radiant. Some wept when we hugged them. Some could not let go. A couple, not yet ready for the shock of company, broke away from the welcoming embrace as soon as possible and went to sit by themselves. They ate slowly and with concentration. In late morning we gathered in a circle and began to hear the stories.
Excerpted from The World is a Waiting Lover by Trebbe Johnson. Copyright © 2005 Trebbe Johnson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.