Sunday, August 7, 2011

fairy tales

I grew up sitting on the couch next to my mother as she read me fairy tales before bedtime. Tales from the brothers Grimm. "At the Back of the North Wind." "The Secret Garden." And later the whole of "Frankenstein," all 900 or whatever pages. My father, on the various occasions when I saw him, read me Dickens (which made me cry) and told me made-up tales of Googlamont and the White Knight. Googlamont had a magic ring which -- when he said "whisk! whisk! whisk!" -- allowed him to disappear. The White Knight was his sidekick and the two of them had vast and magical adventures ... stolen largely from Greek or biblical mythology I think.

I was enfolded and enthralled by such stories. When you don't see stories on a screen, when your ears and mind are the only tools available, the limitless qualities rise up like toadstools after a rain. I was taken to faraway places and granted, as I imagined it, unimaginable powers and skill. Since kids are largely helpless when it comes to understanding their universe, it was nice to be granted power, however ephemeral, while sitting on the couch.

What brought this to mind was a jolt of sympathy I felt and feel for those inclined towards spiritual endeavor. Not that vast and mystical vistas are wrong or naughty or bad, but they contain the same magnetism a child might feel for a winged horse or a blazing sword or a magical ring. In the far, far away, out there and up ahead, lies an "unconditional realm," perhaps, in which everything, all cares and quandaries, simply cease to have relevance. It may be a perilous and energetic journey, but there are rewards to be had ... vast, ineffable rewards. Imputing those rewards to others is part of the tale that the children of spiritual life indulge in because if others have entered a mystical and perfected je-ne-sais-quoi ... well, hell, it's true! Higher and higher the realms spiral. Brighter and brighter the light shines. Until, until, until ... well, ahhhhhh!

I wouldn't gainsay those who have spoken of such heights and encouraged others to strive for them. Some of those speaking seem to be honest brokers doing their best to express what cannot be expressed. And I am sympathetic to those who listen and strive and, yes, dream a bit.

But I am really grateful not to be part of a spiritual enthusiasm that can do no better than hope or belief. Yes, hope and belief for starters, for inspiration, for building a fire under an often inactive ass. But then ... well, enough is enough. Believing in heaven or hell can only take a person so far. Eventually it is time to get off the dime and enter heaven or hell -- to investigate the experience of heaven or hell.

Zen is pretty good about that: Sit down, erect the spine, sit still, shut up, and focus the mind. Never mind the inspiring tales -- they are far too limited. Never mind the holy men and holy women -- they have their problems, I have mine. And Gautama put it succinctly when he suggested, "Better your own truth, however weak, than the truth of another, however noble."

Sure, the fairy tales are true ... as true as they are untrue. But without finding out, people just wind up on the couch, relaxed and safe and dreaming. I figure it's OK to feel sympathy for the fairy tales of others. I am less comfortable being lazy about my own.

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