The Light and the Lampshade
by Gary Rosenthal
Dear Reader, a former, rather brilliant teacher of mine once said that we humans possess a marvelous light—that is often covered by a disgusting lampshade. But my teacher’s brilliance didn’t save her from the less savory elements of her own lampshade. And brilliance alone won’t save any of us—as other teachers have told me--and on more than one occasion. We’re still going to have to deal with that lampshade.
But before we go any farther, I should probably mention something about the guy starting to talk to you. I’m a poet, a mythologist, a psychotherapist—and in my better moments, no one in particular. Or as a truly wise man once said, “Love tells me I am everything. Wisdom tells me I am nothing. And in between my life flows.”
But what does it mean to be nothing, or no one in particular? And what does this have to do with wisdom, or love-- or the metaphors of light and lampshade? So glad you asked. But as another teacher of mine once said, “don’t tell them, be it, and show them.”
About 17 years ago, I was very much someone in particular--and most of the time. I was quite definitively a person with a public speaking phobia. And at this time, equally definitively—at least in my own mind-- I was a poet. In fact, 17 years ago I’d just had published a book of ecstatic love poems called The You That is Everywhere. The poems had come to me in a torrent, yet so effortlessly, with almost no editing necessary. Like taking dictation from a really great Muse. And a Muse like that is hard to find!
Soon something problematic arose—my lampshade. But first, famous authors offered back cover blurbs. Book reviews confused me with Rumi. The book began to sell, and at a rate uncustomary for a debut collection of poetry. It sold out its large first print run of 2500 copies in the first 90 days. 3,000 more were rush-ordered from the printer.
However, along with these fortuitous happenings, a book tour had also been scheduled. And due to my lifelong fear of public speaking, rather than being stoked about the book’s initial success, I became a man shaking in his boots.
The love that seemed everywhere had become the terror that seemed everywhere. I tried to meditate it away. It didn’t work. As soon as I got off my meditation cushions, the fear was waiting for me as my unbidden and constant companion.
I did therapy on it, but the demon of my fear seemed stronger than the words that I or anybody else seemed to know. I did EMDR sessions to dissolve the terror. This gave some initial relief, but the terror kept coming back, and cycled on itself. As the reading tour loomed closer, any hopeful winds had fallen from my sails. I began to feel drained and hollowed out, like a shell of myself. It got so bad I was seriously thinking of calling the book tour off.
But the possible relief that course of action offered had its own darkness. For I realized that if I ran away from the fear by calling the readings off, the odds were slight that I’d ever fully realize the calling of being a poet.
Being a “wounded healer” seemed a workable banner of identity for doing psychotherapy with people. It kept me in touch with my own vulnerability, and in so doing, helped open my heart to the vulnerability of others. But having a fear of reading your poems in public seemed the absolute crushing shits for the life of a poet.
I also sensed that I had actually written something—at last—that wouldn’t soon feel outgrown or dated; something that felt like it had integrity, and the beginnings of poetic maturity. And I didn’t want to sully the integrity of the poems that had been given to me by reading them in such a terrified and debilitated condition.
I felt caught on the horns of what seemed an impossible dilemma. Caught in the tension between what I most deeply desired--and what I most feared. God had me by the short hairs. That’s what it felt like, a divine agony.
Even though I was nominally a Buddhist, and rarely thought of a “God,” I cried, I prayed, I railed at the source of my life: Why would you give me these gifts, this talent, and then surround it by so much fucking fear!
In truth, life had given me a true, natural koan. One that seemed more inescapably and personally meaningful than those I’d encountered in a rather unremarkable Zen career. It was a blessing in disguise--though I didn’t realize it at the time.
What I did come to slowly realize was that there did seem to be some kind of initiatory experience in the offing here. But also, that I didn’t seem to have the kind of personality structure that was right for the job life was now nudging forward. So if I’d be willing to walk through some kind of initiatory fire, it would require finding something inside me that was different from the structure of my ego, quite different from whom I was taking myself to be.
I also clearly saw that if I went into the readings trying to impress people, or make sure they saw me as some kind of idealized figure—you know, an ecstatic poet –that this was not going to go well for me.
The guy who’d experienced the love affair and written the poems may have been ecstatic at times, but if I tried to pass myself off as that rather whoever I was when delivering the poems to an audience, I’d feel like a fake version of myself, a self-conscious, and probably publically exposed fraud.
But somehow it came to me, that if I changed the terms of engagement here to something radically different than how I’d been holding it, this might be endurable, and perhaps even with some possibility of success, though the terms of success needed to be re-framed as well.
So what I hit upon was this: Rather than trying to wow people, or fear the terrible crash if no “wow” ensued, I decided that my game plan would be that of simply saying “yes“ to each moment that I was on stage, whatever it contained—even my terror. I re-framed the readings to be an experiment in embodying a radical kind of self-acceptance, a radical kind of allowing-- rather than trying to manufacture any other outcome.
I began to practice this in my daily life as the first reading became more immanent. And as I did so, I began to see something interesting about all my fears and hopes that hadn’t occurred to me before.
They all had the quality of “future tripping.” That is, these hopes and fears all pertained to the future, and if I opened instead to what was actually coming through the pipeline now, if there was any problem here at all, it was at least greatly diminished.
I began to see all anxiety as a case of losing one’s grounding in presence—in becoming seduced by “coming attractions.” It seemed that presence for human beings is like water to a fish. It’s the natural “environment” for the soul to flourish, in fact to awaken in this dream we call “waking life.”
This was really Buddhism 101, of course. But sometimes you have to learn things from your own life to really know them in your bones, and not merely from the teachings of perennial wisdom. Only then does the perennial wisdom live in you, in your being, not just in your head.
I practiced letting go of everything not here, and saying yes to everything that actually was. And if what was here was fear, I said yes to that too. In this way everything arising seemed a portal to presence itself. And when I was living from this sense of presence, nothing was really “missing,” and nothing in excess—and there was nothing inside me that I needed to fear, nor anything to resist or suppress.
A kind of “basic trust” began to enter my awareness, replacing my fear. Admittedly, this trust at times seemed to come—and then become temporarily eclipsed by the lampshade of my conditioned mind. But at least I intuited it was always potentially available, and the better stance to have towards life.
Some kind of barrier wall between me-- and the unfolding of reality-- became more permeable, or loosely held, and thus more subject to deconstruction. This was very good news. Something had also begun to shift in my sense of will. Rather than trying to will what I wanted into existence, or trying to will away what I didn’t want, this new sense of will was more like “thy will be done.” And I noticed that this altered sense of will actually provided a subtle sense of support, like the image in that song, “the air beneath my wings.”
As this transformational perspective was entering my awareness, a new poem came to me, a kind of dharma talk to myself, I suppose. If you, dear reader, find it useful, then the creative spirit—which is quite communicable-- will have hit more than one bird with the same stone.
Like a vast and gracious Host, welcome
and say "yes" to this
"yes" to this and "yes"
to every this
Your true life arrives constantly
when you've set up your little shop
at the intersection of Now and Yes
Recognize all things as Emissaries
and Manifestations of a greater and mysterious Will
and all that is as a form of support
(though what is being supported may not be your ego)
When you welcome each present moment
unendingly, time ceases, and you yourself
become part of It, the Divine Presence
This Presence is subtle and buoyant,
and supports your awareness effortlessly
the way water holds up a boat
So let your awareness be vast and inclusive
as if the whole world is taking place
inside your mind. Hear everything,
see everything, feel everything
with this simple greeting on your lips
By the way, those poetry readings went very well!