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Gurus on the Mountaintops

By Theresa Willingham
January 2010

For much of 2009, as I have for much of previous years, I trundled along the ordinary path of my ordinary life, plying my non-lucrative writing trade, helping my grown and growing children negotiate their increasingly independent lives, partnering along with my husband of three decades in the day to day of life and living, making meals, doing laundry, paying bills, catching a movie here, taking a hike there, enjoying a family vacation, trying to unravel the whys and wherefores of economics and politics and everyday moral ambiguities, enjoying time with friends and family – all the little ordinary threads that make up the tapestry of an ordinary, safe and comfortable life. A life wonderful precisely for its ordinariness; a life of seemingly undeserved good fortune that I still marvel at daily, given a childhood far less privileged in every way.

What did I ever do, I wondered,  to deserve three great kids, a terrific husband, a home I love in a community I cherish with abundant friends, a nice dog and, a quirky but generally decent extended family?  How lucky I’ve been, I’ve always thought.
And then,  in the last quarter of the year, things changed: An elderly parent moved in with us, bringing all that another person with a lifetime of personal culture and habits can bring, with the flotsam of three decades of sometimes awkward shared history, and the jetsam of muddled old age – stirring up an inner maelstrom of emotions that ranged from love, warmth, heartache and sympathy, to guilty resentment and irritation.   It wasn’t a life threatening change, by any means, but certainly a life altering one, replete with family angst and moral dilemmas, and new questions without any obvious answers.

Life is always changing, of course, sometimes in more desirable ways than others; sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.  It’s the degree of change that confers importance.  The death of a loved one, a serious illness or injury, the loss of  a home put minor changes like a leaky pipe or a flat tire in perspective.  Having household dynamics change drastically can be one of those major degrees of change and it was jolting. And so I looked for rhyme and reason.

But whether there’s any rhyme or reason to the paths our lives take is open to debate.  Lucille Marsden, the heroine in Allan Gurganis’ hefty novel with the equally hefty title, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, has experienced more than her fair share of hardship. She maintaines that the events in our lives are random until ordered in shared narratives that then become the stories of our lives.  This was a new chapter in my life, and trying to place it in the context of “my story till now” proved complicated – but also instructive.

I found myself examining questions of old age and age old questions of life on Earth, looking at forgiveness,  compassion and understanding, considering relationships, routines and habits.  What is my role here? I wondered. Where do I begin and end in the tightening concentric rings of my family? How should my life intersect with the lives of others? How do I preserve the little circle of myself in the complicated Venn Diagram of my world?

Even as the answers eluded me, the exercise of asking the questions was instructive.  And I realized that without the complications that inspired the questions in the first place, I’d never have asked them, or at least never have examined them with such a vested interest in wanting to understand them. It occurred to me that I was learning from a teacher who never intended a lesson, but who taught many simply by virtue of forcing me to consider life under new circumstances.

“Guru” is a Sanskrit word often translated as “teacher,” and refers to someone with great wisdom and authority.  The implication is that the person is highly learned in some spiritual lore or knowledge that is then imparted to eager seekers. In Vedic astrology, guru also refers to Deva-guru, a divine Hindu figure believed to exert teaching influences.  It’s safe to say that my accidental guru wasn’t particularly well versed in spiritual lore or knowledge, nor was I actively seeking any, but my guru was, in fact, exerting teaching influences.

Slowly, I began to muster sufficient balance and acceptance and to settle into the new pattern of my new life. I made pointed and measured progress in finding some new and healthy routines. I  found successful ways of “being” in my new life, and began to feel a sense of satisfying enlightenment.   My personal mountain journey began to take on a comfortable rhythm and I thought my unknowing guru had taught me well.

What I didn’t know was that I had only scaled one mountain. As the year wound down, the challenges in my life escalated at seemingly absurd levels:  There was a car accident – no injuries, but no longer any car, either; there were troubling health problems among three of the now six people living in our home,  and I was falling further and further behind on a crucial work deadline. It was downright crowded and stressful at home, as we learned to coexist in new ways with the added difficulties now presented us. Trying to find some reasonable balance between everyone’s needs and preferences, and my own,  I felt under constant physical and emotional pressure.

I was taking people to doctors’ appointments constantly.  I was making meals or cleaning, or doing laundry or assisting in endless small and tedious ways.  All these people. All these needs. Why was I doing all this again?

Because it needed to be done, because it was the right thing to do, out of guilt, out of charity and kindness – and if out of charity and kindness, then why was I feeling put upon?  Hadn’t I agreed this was the best thing to do? What was in it for me? Was that a fair question to ask? Did there have to be something in it for me?  Was there something in it for me that I was missing?

I kept trying to stay focused on the bigger picture, to look for the deeper lessons, but, frankly, I was feeling cranky, and very uninspired and my fall from enlightenment seemed imminent.  New questions presented themselves as the old year waned.

* Were my heart and mind still open enough to find grace and charity in the things I faced on a now almost daily basis?
* Did I still have a grip on that all vital perspective?
* Was I growing too jaded, mean and bitter to be able to exercise any sort of helpful introspective?
* Was I becoming just another example of who not to be?

And then  I recalled a story about Wendell Holmes, the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes,  told in the Louis Menand’s book “The Metaphysical Club.”  Near death as a result of injuries sustained during a Civil War battle, Holmes decided, wrote Menand, to “road test” his beliefs.

Lying in a hospital on Harrison’s Island, watching his comrades dying around him and hearing rumors that the building was about to be shelled, he interrogated his philosophical convictions in order to discover whether there were any he now might wish to revise.  He was undergoing an experience of terror that nothing in his life had prepared him for, and he decided to solicit his own reactions to it.”

What a remarkable idea!  To stop in the middle of the most difficult challenges of your life, and take stock of your convictions.  His convictions, in the 1860s, were decidedly outside the norm, and the “civilized world, “wrote Holmes, “declared that with my opinions I was en route for Hell…But then I said — by Jove, I die like a solider anyhow – I was shot in the breast doing my duty up to the hub — afraid? No, I am proud – and then I thought I couldn’t be guilty of a deathbed recantation.” Something he and his father had discussed before and were agreed “that it generally meant nothing but a cowardly giving way to fear. “

No,” wrote Holmes, “I am to take a leap in the dark – but now as ever I believe that whatever shall happen is best, for it is in accordance with a general law – and good and universal (or general law) are synonymous terms in the universe.  Would the complex forces which made a still more complex unit in Me resolve themselves back into simpler forms, or would my angel still be winging his way onward when eternities had passed?  I could not tell. But all was doubtless well…”

He had found, said Menand, that he did not require a religious faith. Uncertainty – “I am to take a leap in the dark” – turned out to be all the certainty he needed. The assurance that he had done his duty was a wholly adequate consolation.

What a great way to look at and use challenges – as road tests for our beliefs. And so I stopped, and took a leap in the dark:  What did I believe? Was I applying my beliefs, living my convictions, as I climbed the mountains set before me, or was I trudging, head down and unseeing?  I took a deep breath and looked up…

The test of a belief,” observed Menand, musing on Holmes’ experience, “ is not immutability but adaptability. Our reasons for needing reasons are always changing.”

If we can’t adapt to the changes in our lives, find new reasons, the challenges simply become immovable obstacles, and nothing is gained.  But if we use them as opportunities to solicit our reactions to the circumstances of our lives, to see what there is to see, learn what there is to learn, then each new challenge can be transformative in ways we might not have foreseen.

Suddenly, I saw gurus everywhere!

Life is a work in progress. A good and healthy state of mind can be a constant effort when under constant assault by taxing realities. It’s easy to find peace of mind in peace time. But it takes conscious effort to stay centered during the inner turmoil of personal earthquakes.

It requires focus to keep the sense of perspective that makes it possible to keep moving forward, to keep caring, to stay compassionate, hopeful and humorous, and thereby helpful, to keep finding the joy in life that makes life possible to enjoy.

It requires keeping a wide field of view, constantly refocusing on the bigger picture and not getting bogged down in the details of short term inconvenience. It requires seeking insight from hardship and seeing each obstacle as part of the path to enlightenment of some sort or other.  Life, I’ve come to believe, has only the meaning with which we invest it.

Whether that’s true or not doesn’t really matter. My obstacles might just well be obstacles; nothing more, nothing less. The irritants in my life could just be irritants, and I’m just too clueless to rid myself of  the inconveniences holding me back from actually accomplishing anything. Maybe I’m just sugar coating bad medicine, looking at the world through rose colored glasses, whistling into the wind while I work. Maybe I’m making too many bad analogies. But seeing difficulties as possible life lessons, as leading to new knowledge, lends an intentionality to how I handle them.  It makes it possible for me to lead my life, rather than to be led by life.

There’s a joke (one of many) in a wonderful book by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein called Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar. It goes like this:

A man stumbles into a deep well and plummets a hundred feet before grasping a spindly root that stops his fall. Dangling at an indefinite but surely deadly height from the bottom of the well, his grip growing weaker by the minute, the man calls out desperately, “Is there anybody up there?”

As he looks up at the distant circle of sky above him, the clouds suddenly, part and a beam of bright light shines down on him. A deep voice thunders, “I , the Lord, am here. Let go of the root and I will save you.”

The man thinks for a moment and then yells, “Is there anybody else up there?”

I love that joke! With only a tenuous hold on life, our clumsy protagonist wants a sure hand rather than the doubtful promise of an irrational miracle.  He’s leading his own life, even if it leads to the bottom of the well. He’s in charge. He decides. Life or death on his terms. Maybe if the thunderous voice had produced a rope…

Cathcart and Klein use the story to help examine epistemology, the theory of knowledge that places reason over spiritual revelation. Descartes, they explain, has been misunderstood over the ages.  He did say, “Cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am. But he was referring to his thought experiment of doubting the existence of the world and himself.  “He could have saved himself a lot of misinterpretation”, say the authors, “if only he had said, “Dubito ergo sum.” – I doubt therefore I am.”

If that’s the case, I’ve never been more alive!

Yet even as I doubt myself, I’ve felt the adamance of our man in the well.  Nuts to you! I’ve thought, when I’ve begun to feel bogged down, “you” being fate, lurking gods, my own shortcomings.  Reason leads me to believe that I can dig myself out. Life will be as good as I decide!

I like feeling that I’m in control of my life, even when circumstances might suggest otherwise.  Giving in to a sense of being overwhelmed by responsibilities or apparent demands seems a sure way to drown in them. But turning situations around, and looking at them from different angles – road testing my beliefs from different perspectives —  helps put me back in control, resolves the doubt, and can lead to some exciting insights.

On New Year’s day, I took on the task of making a rather time consuming and elaborate  meal.  Midway through the effort, while taking a short break to watch the Rose Bowl Parade, I wondered what it might be like to actually sit down throughout an entire holiday, be called to a dinner someone else prepared, and then go sit back down afterwards while others cleaned up.  Must be nice I thought, a hint of bitterness creeping in darkly, when I thought of all the other things I’ve been doing lately.

But as I admired the most magnificent pot of Hoppin’ John I ever did see, and became dizzy over a fragrant kettle of collard greens and the heady aromas of a honey baked ham and a sweet potato casserole, all foods that I had made and truly enjoyed creating,  I suddenly realized I’d done exactly what I wanted to do.  There was nothing better than conjuring an edible opus of herbs and spices and stocks and broths, while chatting with family and friends about everything under the sun, and then sitting down to enjoy together something delicious and nourishing that I had made.  I had truly enjoyed making that meal!

Then it came to me with sudden clarity: We’re always doing what we want to do — or at least doing what we  choose to do.  If I hadn’t wanted to cook the meal, I’d have bought everything prepared and just heated it up, or pressed for more help. Come to think of it, which is exactly what I came to do, everything I did, I chose to do – and then sometimes complained about it. But why, when I chose to do it?  Was it, I wondered, because I wasn’t paying attention to my choices, and mistaking them for chance?

And then, that night, we all sat down together to watch a lovely film called The Answer Man and there, astoundingly acted out before me, was my very same epiphany.

Why,” asked one of the main characters, “can’t I do the things I want to do?”

The trick,” said the Answer Man, who’s actually adrift in a sea of his own making, but has answers for everyone else, “is to realize you are always doing what you want. Always. No one is making you do anything.  Once you get that, you see that you are free and that life is really just a series of choices.  Nothing “happens” to you. You choose.”

I won’t get into prioritizing the requirements of our lives here, but am moving forward from the premise that the chaff has been discarded and all that remains are the hard choices, the sometimes heartbreaking ones, the ones you sometimes have to drag yourself up to face.

Now obviously, we don’t choose to be in a car accident, or to become ill or hospitalized or jobless.  But what we do when those things happen is our choice.  Acquiescing to my conscience in changing our household dynamics was a very conscious choice – that it is a difficult and occasionally exhausting experience is a byproduct of that choice. But how I handle those difficulties is not something anyone else makes me do, and therefore, by default, something I choose to do, and therefore “want” to do (because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t).

So how could I have come to such an epiphanous conclusion standing over a pot of black eyed peas, only to have it articulated for me a few hours later almost verbatim in a movie I’d never heard, on the first day of the new year, while dealing with some of the hardest struggles I’d faced in recent memory?  Did that just “happen” to me?  What are the chances of that?

That was a question for the Answer Man, too: “Destiny or free will?”

“Free will, “ he answers, “Moving toward or away from a purpose.”

It’s just a movie, sure, and everything that’s happened to me over the course of the last few months are just beads on the string of life.  Neither have any more or less meaning than I invest in them. I decide. I see what I want to see, learn if I want to learn, hear if I listen.

I’m throwing my lot in with free will. If there’s no free will, our choices, moral or otherwise, aren’t ours to make.  But I think they are, and that there is no “fate”, only what happens, with any number of choices about what to do about it.

19th century Pragmatist, William James, said we choose our truth by what difference it will make in practice.

Eleanor Roosevelt put it another way: “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

The Gurus on the Mountaintops aren’t sage old men in loin cloths, but the everyday obstacles and challenges we face. Overcome them – get to the top of your personal mountain with an open mind and a charitable heart – and there’s knowledge aplenty for you!  Like any good journey to enlightenment, though, it doesn’t come cheap or easy, and the path can be treacherous and narrow.

You balance what you have to do with what you want to do by choosing to want to do what you have to do. Only then can you live with an open and happy heart. That doesn’t mean you give up who you are or what you believe. That means investing your being and convictions in the requirements of your life.

Raise your head as you climb and the vista can be breathtaking. When I remember to look up, everything I see and hear teaches me something, touches me in some way.  I may have to work to keep my head up, to keep my heart and mind open, to meet my accidental gurus’ eyes and smile, but without the new paths they’ve opened, I’d never scale the heights to see the greater view.
Namaste! In this new year of hope and promise, I wish you the gifts of the gurus in your life.


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