Saturday, 17 May 2008

The Beauty of Something Small and Real

Lak Lake, central Viet Nam

A few years ago, I spent some months of rich learning with Malidoma Somé, a writer and educator from Burkina Faso. Malidoma’s ancestral people, the Dagara, believe that each individual comes to this world with a destiny; village elders meet before the child is born to divine his or her purpose in this life, and choose a name that reflects that destiny. Malidoma’s own name means “become friends with the stranger/enemy”, and he has done exactly that, sharing the wisdom of his ancestors with the people of America and Europe.

When I was a child, my parents, under the influence of the American dream of boundless possibilities, told me I could be and do anything. For much of my life I had no idea who I was, or rather, I had too many ideas of who and what I might be, and no clear notion of what I was cut out for.

Recently, my pal Pete gave me a book, “The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun”, by Martin Prechtel. It’s a Mayan teaching story, and after telling the story in his ornate and fragrant prose, Prechtel elucidates several layers of meaning. One of them struck me deeply. He relates that if our parents and our culture are proud of their own origins, and proud of us as extensions of their ancestral pride, they will consistently remind of us how immense we must become in order to live up to such grandness. Treated as something that big, we come to believe we are that big; seeing the world from those grandiose heights, our own subtle shape and unique abilities appear small and indistinguishable; any particular thing is too small to embrace. To become an individual, he says, means to fall in love with the beauty of something small and real, and we must find the courage and personal ingenuity to get back down to earth to be with what we love.

James Hillman says something similar in ‘The Soul’s Code’, where he speaks of ‘growing down’ rather than ‘growing up’.

This message came at me again last week when a sentence leapt off the page of Pema Chodron’s book “The Places That Scare You”, right into my face: “We stay with our own little plot of earth and trust that it can be cultivated, that cultivation will bring it to its full potential”. There it was again: “our own little plot of earth”. Something limited, something small, something real.

The hexagram that speaks of this limitation is Hexagram 60, which is formed of Water over Lake; the water is contained in the lake, which can hold only so much. The name of the hexagram is JIE, which means limitation, moderation. It’s the idea of boundaries, self-restraint, regulation: knowing when to say enough. Part of the character is the graph for bamboo: jie is the knot or node between sections of bamboo, and it denotes all sorts of key points of change. The ba jie, for example, are the solstices/equinoxes/cross-quarter days, the turning points of the year; jie can also refer to the beat in music.

So jie is the knot or node where something gathers and concentrates, before another surge of growth: the point where you come to a limit and something changes.

The text reads:

Bitter limitations do not invite commitment

This is a warning against excessive restriction. We need to put limitations in place, but they shouldn’t be oppressive.

The Rogue River Commentary on the text says, in part:

The world is far too big for one life. The options open to us are too vast and breed far too fast to act them all out. One person cannot even walk all of the possible paths through one tiny field. We cannot catch all the water in our miniscule pools, but we can choose what to keep and what to let pass.

When we try to be and do everything, we often end up achieving very little. But if we can define ourselves, or our endeavors, in accordance with what they themselves are asking for, this can serve to gather and concentrate our power.

It is often easier to produce a poem within a traditional form, such as a sonnet, than to produce good free verse; it is easier to play a sonata than jazz. Those who do produce good free verse, or jazz worth listening to, have internalized the rules of metre, or harmony: those ‘natural laws’ of structure that arise from the medium itself, rather than being imposed arbitrarily.

Boundaries mean fulfilment. We recognize the limits of what we are so that we may flower and reach fruition within those limits, rather than dissipating our energies; we set limits on what we do so that we may achieve success in our endeavors, rather than scattering our efforts.

The danger, of course, is not only that restrictions might be too severe, but that the boundary might be the wrong shape, riding some hobby horse of an idea rather than following the contours of our nature. I’d venture to guess that those Dagara diviners sometimes get it wrong, and hand down a name that pinches like a badly fitting shoe. We all have to find our own shape, and draw our own boundaries in the end.

And William Blake certainly had very strong feelings on the matter when he wrote “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.”

We, too, are minutely organized Particulars: unique, small, real, and beautiful.

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