|Taken this morning, about 6:30AM, Sunday, March 6, 2016|
“In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow,
this is the time for storytelling.”
first line of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kemmerer
A story opens, “Long ago on the Yellow River, the people loved racing on swift horses . . .” Not surprisingly, DocHorseTales gets captured by these lines. In the way of true stories, it is my own, our own story. Yet to realize how this tale translates into our lives takes some diligent imagination. This past week when telling Kuan Yin, I wanted to bridge the long-ago with the contemporary.
Our world, the one along the Potomac River, not far from our classroom, and the world of our campus culture, like most of our country, risks falling off the fast horse in our compulsive chase to claim “We’re #1.” This craze is obvious in sports, but it’s also the insidious power-drive radiating from Capitol Hill. It’s the power-drive that endangers the potential goodness of politics, business, and academia. The craziness gets mirrored in the barely conscious, racecar madness, experienced everyday, especially when driving on the Beltway.
That’s how I see the Yellow River’s obsession with swift horses reflected in our Potomac River culture as well as in this wider land we call our country. I still love us, and for the most part I’m impressed by our athletes who serve as ambassadors for our university. But too often I hear of Heisman winners who are charged with domestic violence and “heroes” who model dependence on performance-enhancing drugs or alcoholism instead of authentic heroism. Then my hopes turn to the Yellow-River Kuan-Yin story for a cure.
The positive side of this dangerous racing probably adheres in the value given to passion, strange as it may seem. As developed in the Kuan Yin story, even though this compulsive activity exposes the culture’s “darkness of the heart,” it also invokes the god/dess of compassion. Might compassion only be reached through the fires of passion? Remember the scripture says, “Be hot or cold—not lukewarm!” Yet, keeping with the nature of redemption, we should expect that the visitation demands evolutionary change. To develop a compassionate heart looks likely to require a life-changing experience.
Why should we expect guidance into the deeper levels of love to come from a story? Both ibn `Arabī and Rumi assert that the discourse of definition doesn’t know love; instead, look to the tales for the phenomenal. William Chittick (Sufism, p. 77) translates the guides this way:
Those who define love have not known it, those who have not tasted it by drinking it down have not known it, and those who say they have been quenched by it have not known it, for love is drinking without quenching. (ibn `Arabī)
Someone asked, “What is loverhood?”
I replied, “Don’t ask me about these meanings—
When you become like me, you’ll know;
When it calls you, you’ll tell its tale.” (Rumi)
The gift of story suspends around listening, not semi-present attention, but full-fledged engagement with receptors tuned to resonance. Reception of the gift, of the present that is brought in that immediacy, depends on the teller’s attunement as much as on that of the other participants during the story experience.
While I was telling the Kuan Yin story this past Tuesday, my receptors picked up a disturbance near the opening. It happened when I was trying to bridge the long-ago with the now. I offered an aside suggesting a connection between Yellow River racing on swift horses and our chasing after balls with clubs and sticks. When saying this, my glance focused on student athletes from our golf and lacrosse teams.
In the next days, I returned to consider the disturbance that I’d felt and began worrying that my brief comment might have been taken as an unintended devaluation of our student athletes. So in the moments before the next class, I checked with persons I thought might have been offended and found that my reference to their sports had not been taken negatively.
I wondered, instead then, if the vibration I picked up was a direction telling me to return to the dangers attending collegiate sports. I followed this lead and developed a sample plan for a digital media production as a model for an upcoming assignment. The next major project for our class organizes around a “big question” that consolidates points of resonance each person has felt in the stories. The digital media production then amplifies and translates the big question into personal and social applications. The big question I shaped was:
How do we make a positive balance in our culture so that the lavish attention on sports enriches the world?
I don’t know if any of these college students might go somewhere with that question. It will be interesting to see if any of them pursue it in their individual digital media productions. As I’m about fifty years older than them, my perspective on the question perhaps involves looking backwards more than they will and should. But I still value this question, and I feel very strongly that the advance most needed in my life and in that of our culture, the advance for our individual and our collective consciousness, centers on the movement from passion to compassion.
Looking back, I sense that my mid-life crisis, at least one of them, had a passionate experience that was attenuated by riding fast on swift horses and ducking under low-hanging branches over the woodland trail. Fortunately, before serious injury, this craze was translated into safer riding through the discipline of dressage. Embodied knowing, or perhaps it’s knowing through the body, recalibrated passion into compassion. I realized that I really cared about the health of the horse, not just about getting a rider’s high.
With the help of patient horses and coaches, I accepted that those mad dashes were really bad riding and poor horsemanship, and yet I acknowledge that they did serve to hook me on horses. Perhaps in a rough analogy to the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin’s visit, Rhiannon worked through horses turning wild passion into natural horsemanship, balanced riding, and care.
As just suggested, in addition to experiences with horses, my work/play with teaching-stories also guides the translation of passion into compassion. In amplifying the swift-horse riding of the Kuan Yin story, I took in Rhiannon from the Maginobion as well as Luis in “Buried Treasure” and the “Water of Life” stories. In the Grimms version, the arrogance and presumption of control shown by the two older brothers is sharply contrasted with the humility of the youngest who listens to the small voice. By the end of the story, he is able to ride the gold road because he’s not distracted by self-centered desires but rides with clear focus on the beloved.
Another amplification comes in the Arabian Nights variation on the Water of Life showing the youngest sister’s ability to propose a strategy to deal with the “voices” that overpower anyone not connected with the authentic ruler.
When I translate my question into the local level looking for applications in history, I’m drawn to one of the earliest sports involving horses. Rumi says “Kings play polo” to show the people their military prowess. It's “like an astrolabe for the serious business of fighting” (Chittick, Sufi Path of Love, p. 326). The astrolabe represents the connection with “inmost consciousness” and reminds me of the youngest brother’s “small voice.” The “inmost consciousness” guides the path of love, the way of compassion.
The local-level example of playing polo informs my big question by suggesting that in order to rebalance our contemporary passions (such as the sports culture) we need a dedicated attention to developing the inmost consciousness. How do our sports direct us to our “serious” business? Once again, I believe that the vital need for our culture and consciousness points to the development of compassion.
And to develop that, yes, we need Kuan Yin, Rhiannon—we need increased devotion to our higher powers, like the stories teach. In our telling of Good Stories, we’re asking for their help as we braid together the strands of our passions with the traditional tales, weaving with and toward our inmost consciousness.