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In oneself lies the whole world, and if you know how to look and learn, then the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either that key or the door to open, except yourself. -J. Krishnamurti
“Mom, I can’t sleep. Can you tell me a story?” my 8-year-old daughter Anika asked, clasping her hand in mine and leading me to her bed.
Pulling the covers over us, she tucked her hands between her chin and pillow, and looked up at me. When I hesitated, unsure which story to share, “I’m ready,” she said and reached up to move my lips with her fingers, “You can start now.”
“Okay,” I said laughing, “Once upon a time there was a…”
“No, Mom,” she jumped in, covered my mouth with her tiny hand and asserted, “not the creepy one about Oedipus Rex, you know the guy who burned his eyes so he could see. That’s going to give me nightmares. And not the one about Eisik, and the treasure, and the journey we’re all on. I’ve heard that one too many times.”
Moving out of her reach I began again. “Once upon a time there was a man named Nasrudin1. Some thought he was a very silly man. But if you ask me I think he was very wise and didn’t even know it himself. One day Nasrudin was outside his house. He was on his hands and knees frantically searching for something under a lamppost when his friend passed by and asked him what he was looking for. My key he said to his friend, I lost the key to my house. His friend being a nice person also got down on his hands and knees and tried to help him look. Some time passed. Eventually it was so dark they could barely see each other, when his friend asked him where he had lost his key. I lost it inside the house Nasrudin replied. If you lost your key inside the house, his friend asked him very confused, then why are we looking for it outside? Because Nasrudin said with a gleam in his eyes this is where the light is.”
Suddenly lifting her head off the pillow, Anika asked, “Ummm…so Mom, I’m kind a confused too. Why would he look for the key outside his house when he lost it inside? No offense but that story makes no sense. Who would do that?”
Her question took me back. Some years before Anika was born I was determined to move to California. I was in the final year of my Ph.D. program buried in books, while NYC was buried in snow. “I’m sick of the weather here,” I had insisted as I discussed post doc opportunities with my supervisor. “The winters are too cold, the summers too humid, and the people always grouchy. But even more importantly I can’t meditate here. California is the only place I can.” I had grown up bi-coastally with holidays spent with my extended family in Southern California. In my time there I had come to believe Huntington Beach, California was the only place I could meditate and that my spiritual development hinged on moving. Unswayed by my questionable reasoning my supervisor cautioned, “You can move to California, Dana, it’s beautiful there. But the only problem is you’re going to take yourself with you.” He was right of course. I can’t meditate here either. The problem wasn’t the noise in New York City, but the noise inside my head, and unfortunately I took that with me.
Likewise, my patient Christine an MFA student at Chapman University said to me last week, “I have to move to Chicago. I’ve got so many ideas but I can’t write in Orange County. It’s so plastic here. It’s an inspirational wasteland. This place has sapped all the creativity out of me. Besides, what’s the point in even trying to overcome my writer’s block? No one is going to want to read what I write anyway.”
“It’s true,” I replied, “Orange County can feel that way. But what stays with me are your words, ‘No one is going to want to read what I write.’ I wonder if you aren’t writing with an audience in mind rather than writing what you love, which is likely to get in the way of your creativity. It reminds me of a song by Macklemore called Make the Money in which he says, ‘This is my job I will not quit it, sure I questioned if I could go the distance, but that’s the work regardless of who’s listening.’ In your case that’s the work regardless of who’s reading. The work of believing in yourself, that you’re producing something valuable, is about your self-worth, and that’s likely to be present irrespective of where you live. In the song Ten Thousand Hours also by Macklemore he says, ‘I stand here in front of you today all because of an idea, I could be who I wanted if I could see my potential.’ It’s not a question of the skyline you see when you look outside your window, it is a question of the terrain you see when you look within, and unlike Macklemore you don’t see your potential.”
“I’m fascinated,” Christine said smiling, “by your ability to relate most things back to a Macklemore song.” Pausing she added, “And in helping me see the path to feeling good about my writing lies within, not 2000 miles east of here in Chicago. I might still wind up there, I hope. But it won’t be to cure my writers block, it will be because I really love it there.”
“I love your stories, Mom, but I really don’t get that one. Who would do that?” Anika asked again bringing me back.
“Do you remember the episode of Jessie in which Jessie gets stuck in a trap Zuri and Ravi place to catch burglars? Ravi pulls Zuri to the side and asks her if he can have a word. ‘I hope that word isn’t key,’ she says, ‘because I don’t have one.’ The point of Nasrudin’s story is that in life we all have the key, or the answers, but we look for them in the wrong place. Like when I lived in New York City I felt I had to move to California, I thought life would be better here. No snow, no winter coats, happy people year around. But that’s not really true. We have rain, we have earthquakes, and if everyone were so happy I wouldn’t have a job. And for some reason I thought I would be able to meditate here when I couldn’t in New York.”
“What’s meditate Mom?”
“What Nana does when he says ‘Ommmm’ loudly.”
“You meditate Mom? I’ve never seen you do that.”
My dad had asked me the same question recently. “Do you meditate? Your mom and I have been attending a meditation group on Friday nights. The leader was talking about how important meditation is to spiritual development.”
I was beginning to feel haunted by my inability to meditate. But not being able to do so has led me to realize as important as it is to look within for answers, it is also important to remember the answers that are right for one person may not be right for another.
“I imagine Dad there are many paths to spiritual growth. When Joseph Campbell the mythologist who wrote The Hero with A Thousand Faces and whose work movies like Star Wars are based on was asked a similar question he said he underlined sentences2. I feel a little bit like him. What helps me to grow is reading and relating. I grow most spiritually in relationship with others, not in isolation as some Buddhists and Indian priests advocate through meditation and seclusion.”
‘In the middle of the journey…I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of…but…in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw…’ commences Dante’s journey through the dark sinuous woods of hell, in which he plunges the depths of darkness to find the light that shines throughout. William James, the 19th century philosopher and psychologist, has referred to such people as twice born, those who are willing to enter the woods and look at the things they need to change in order to live a life awakened, not crushed, by adversity3. But too many of us, like Nasrudin, stay away from the darkness, eventhough it is only in entering it that we face ourselves, our demons, and find what has been with us all along, the key.
Where have you been looking for your key?
Do you even know that it’s lost?
1In Sufi stories Nasrudin is often depicted as an amalgam of foolishness and unparalleled wisdom and stories about him use humor to convey life lessons. His actions reflect the confusion we all feel, while revealing the deeper wisdom seeded within each of us.
2From SAGA: Best New Writing on Mythology edited by Jonathon Young
3From Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser