Exploring a personal, eclectic path by looking at the intersection of three great traditions.
A Bowl of Milk
I picked up the letter with a smile. Inside, I knew, would be a note of support from a yoga school friend. We’d written each other small appreciations during our training, planning to send them a few weeks after we got home. By then we might need something to encourage us as we returned to “normal life”. Hopefully, she’d said something nice.
I opened the envelope, unfolded the paper. One sentence leapt out: “I see how hard you push yourself.”
That struck me. Pierced me through, actually.
My friend had seen something I had not. I suspect I would have tried to hide it if I’d known it was showing. Or denied it, joking about my laziness. But she had my number. She’d seen my struggles and named them.
And now I could admit them too, with a mix of self-compassion and rueful pride. Strangely, it was an incredible consolation. One that I might have foregone if it had been offered in person.
There is a tendency we all share, I think, to turn away from the thing that will heal us, that will both expose the wound and bind it. Self-loathing is not too strong a word. Sometimes we just don’t want to be ourselves. Oh, we want to be our “true” selves, our “best” selves, our “higher” selves. Just not THIS self, lonely, addicted, suffering, bored…struggling.
We want that self to disappear, and we’ll go pretty far to make it happen.
Buddha was no different. Driven from luxury by his own unease, he threw himself into spiritual austerities designed to overcome his human weakness. Repeating his own early bereavement (he lost his mother), he abandoned his wife and child, bereaving them in turn. When meditation failed to provide lasting relief, he began starving himself—with a vengeance. It’s hard not to see the aggression in his determination to continue until he was like a “stick of dry wood”, kindling for the sacrificial fire.
But then, on the brink of death, he had a memory, almost a daydream. A small child, he was set down under a tree to observe the spring ploughing. Tiny ant families were being scattered by the plough and the tiny child felt their grief. The simplicity of that sorrow, unsullied by fear or judgment, brought with it a tender openness that somehow made the scene before him—the rich earth, the clear sky— poignantly beautiful. His natural compassion, opening to both joy and sorrow, gave him a profound sense of peace.
Now he asked himself why he was the only person for whom he failed to feel compassion. And If the capacity for peace could be found within his ordinary human self, then why did he seem intent on destroying that self?
A woman approached with a bowl of milk. Like the mother he must have missed and mourned, she offered him sustenance. Breaking all his vows, he took it. Climbing down from his angry attempt at godhood, he allowed himself to be in need, and to be consoled.
Like Persephone, who accepted the pomegranate seeds that would bind her to Hades, Buddha ate, accepting his involvement in this imperfect world, in the hope that it held the seeds of his joy.
So, promise me—even if it’s awkward, even if it’s painful, accept the next consolation, the next bowl of milk, the next recognition that comes your way. We are all Persephone—and we fulfill our destiny to the exact degree of our willingness to be our human selves.
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