“A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions and discontinuities
that assault us everyday might conceal a hidden unity.”
– Lawrence Kushner*
Stories, in the form of long-held beliefs, thoughts and behaviors, have fascinated me for many years, and lately I’ve been watching how some of my own stories have faded away like smoke disappearing on the wind, and how others seem to have a half-life similar to nuclear material. The last few weeks I’ve been touched and inspired by mind-stretching information about the extent of our cultural stories, an interview about the mystical life of God*, and the movie Queen of the Desert .** I took the featured photograph last month in Mendocino—struck by the way the light illuminated the darkness—it too has woven itself in and amongst all of the above, and has become the doorway through which I’ve stepped onto this page.
Each of us carry voluminous stories that added together become scrawled narratives upon our innermost tabla rosa, gathered in order to make meaning of circumstances since our earliest memories—especially our young place in events and our relationships to people that inhabited those events.
According to the field of Intercultural Communication, around 95% of these stories—behaviors, emotions, and the ways we choose to navigate everyday life—are learned from our particular culture during our childhood and become deeply embedded in our bodies and unconscious. We experience what is going on around us through our senses, and we soak up behavior patterns, language, and ways of thinking like the eager-to-learn beings we are at that age. “This happens, and I do that. That happens, and I do this!”
So embedded are these behavioral stories that we take them for granted and give them a universality that can later clash with other’s stories (children raised in two or more cultures and/or people trained to be sensitive to cultural difference have a distinct advantage over the rest of us—they are at least aware that their own ways are not the only way). This leaves an unsettling statistic—the majority of us have some semblance of control in only 5% of our lives.
In a cultural context, each country’s “national culture” contains numerous diversities that affect each individual within that nation, such as family, education, religion, neighborhoods and friends, ethnic group/race, sexual orientation, gender, profession, physical and psychological makeup, and socio-economic position. Add these variables to each of planet Earth’s 196 countries and the 7.4 billion plus individuals alive as of this writing, and the volatility of the planet becomes something to be reckoned with. As Intercultural Communication and Cross-Cultural Training expert Mary Ellen Colón poignantly stated during a recent class, “Intercultural sensitivity and adaptation is now a matter of human survival.”
Our innate need to make meaning by creating stories comes hand in hand with the seemingly opposing need of expanding, revising, and rewriting those same tales. This requires the light of awareness, a quick mindfulness, curiosity, and a powerful willingness to sit in the midst of this paradox, to be compassionate with yourself, and to be compassionate with everyone around you, as they —just like you—see the world through their own stories and culture that make meaning of their particular circumstances. And remember, these stories contain hidden tentacles of cultural influence that without knowledge and awareness are not easily accessed by our consciousness.
Often we carry one or more stories that have at their center an impenetrable Darkness—this is the story that takes over one’s usual intelligence and composure when the ever-changing arrow of life is pointing to High Stress—when a few words, tone of voice, or look can set off a screaming fight or frigid silence with those we love most, or perhaps even more alarming, with complete strangers. My dark story is "terrible things always happen and I am powerless to do anything." My reaction? It used to be silence and a hiding-away from life, then it morphed into anger. With the experiences of six decades and counting, I'm much wiser than I used to be and know the world is both dangerous and unpredictable, and beautiful and generous. I don't hide from life anymore, yet put me in a situation where I sense danger and an ensuing powerlessness, and my hackles rise up (I'm working on this part). Can you get a sense of your own dark story?
To bring awareness to such moments, to literally and figuratively “switch on the light” in the midst of drama and reaction is tough. Nearly impossible sometimes, you may be thinking, and you’re correct, to a point. It is hard, though not impossible. Even as stories have been, and continue to be, the greatest carriers of knowledge for the human race, stories are also prone to obsolescence. They can seem ageless in one moment, and on closer examination, become useless in the next.
We embody our inner mystic when we consciously become mindful that we are in over our heads emotionally, and/or that events are out of control and the knowledge to handle those events are not in our realm of knowing—when as Lawrence Kushner says, we feel those discordant, broken, contradictory, and disconnected assaults, and know something else is pulling the strings.
Awareness of this helps one to step back from the situation as much as possible, and pause. Yes, pause. Instead of continuing the fight, demanding to be right or justified, or otherwise adding fuel to the heat of the moment, we utter an apology, offer to talk about the issue the next morning, or bring in an objective third party. Maybe we won’t remember what we said or did, or have the words to describe it later. What remains is the fact that we initiated an alternative that changed the energy of the situation—and ourselves—for the better.
In my experience, it is important at this point to not forget, not to walk into the future as if nothing happened. Instead, actively, compassionately look for the light switch of awareness that will reveal some story that (obviously!) no longer works for you and those around you. It may take time—know it is invaluable, well-spent time—and ask yourself: “How can I revise this old story, this old belief? What new ways of relating to others reveals a wider view, a more generous perspective, a kind step forward, an open acceptance of others?”
Be brave enough to perceive as best you can the what, why, where, how and when of your reaction—the many nuances of this story that has the power to kindle unrest and disagreement because it’s so good at hiding in the dark. And if it happens again, feel it again. And again. Until you are (more often than not) able to turn off that inner switch of ignorance, or fear, or stubbornness, or judgment, or pride—whatever keeps you in the dark. In the interview I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story behind the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, or the Repair of the World. She tells it the way her grandfather told her, and in the end she says, “…when the Light of the World shattered it fell into all events and all people…we are here to find the hidden light in all people…it is not about doing something huge...it is about healing the world that touches you.” *
When stories no longer permeate our behavior with reactions, assumptions and outdated reasoning, we are free. Free to continually find, and live from, the “hidden unity” within us all. Which isn’t about our similarities, as I’ve begun to see since spending time with Mary Ellen. Humanity’s hidden unity may be as simple—and challenging—as bringing open minds and hearts to our countless, awe-inspiring differences and embracing them with respect and goodwill. May it be so.***
* “Kabbalah and the Inner Life of God,” an interview between Krista Tippett and Lawrence Kushner (with Rachel Naomi Remen) on the radio program/website On Being. http://www.onbeing.org/program/lawrence-kushner-kabbalah-and-the-inner-life-of-god/6309
** The movie Queen of the Desert is about the life of Gertrude Bell, an English woman who explored the vast desert regions of the fading Ottoman Empire before WWI, mapping the area as well as becoming an indispensible source of knowledge about the area and its people. A great deal of her understanding and empathy with the desert people came from the poetry of 13th century Persian poet Rumi, a Sufi mystic. She was overshadowed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) during her time, and mostly overlooked in historical accounts.
*** While checking on the phrase “May it be so,” I came across this traditional Scottish blessing song on You Tube. Listen, in the spirit of cultural richness, and let its soothing words calm you.