Compass and Lamp

I started this blog in June, 2010, after a daylong blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. I was trying to write a fantasy novel, and popular wisdom at the time was that in this 21st century, aspiring writers needed to learn self promotion, which requires an online platform. I dutifully created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and TheFirstGates. Fortunately, blogging quickly took on a life of its own.

Almost from the start, I broke every rule the teacher of that blogging class presented, chief among them, the “one topic per blog” rule. He had eight blogs. The mere thought of that makes me tired! Though clearly an A-type, I am blessed with a strong laziness instinct, which often saves me from creating extra hassle for myself. A firm believer in Hillman’s model of the “polytheistic psyche,” I give most of the personalities time to roam around here.

 The day I started this blog, however, I registered one other blog, called “Compass and Lamp.” I thought that someday I’d use it to write exclusively of topics related to contemplative spirituality.

The “Lamp” part of the name came from “The Hermit” in the Tarot, a clear image of a seeker of wisdom and truth.

The “Compass” has a more personal meaning. My mother died of a stroke, at age 52, two days before Mother’s Day, when I was 25. The following Christmas, when Mary and I were in New Mexico, my sister sent me a little wrapped package with a note. At the back of my mom’s closet, she found a gift my mother had wrapped for me the Christmas before, but had somehow misplaced. Inside was the compass pictured at the top of this post. There was a practical point to the gift, as I was spending time camping and photographing in remote places, but the metaphorical import of my mother’s last gift to me was stunning – we use a compass to find our way in the wilderness…

Although I occasionally post here on spiritual topics, I have not yet done so on this dedicated blog, for a couple reasons.

For one thing, I don’t like preachy people and I don’t like it when I slip into that mode.

Also, Paramahansa Yogananda warned his students not to casually discuss or make a big deal of experiences or realizations they gain in meditation or spiritual practice. Doing so, he said, can drain the power or meaning from such events. Jesus told his followers much the same thing: those who indulge in public displays of piety have their reward, and it isn’t worth very much.

Another reason comes from occasionally looking through some of the journals I’ve kept on and off since I was a kid. When you do this, you realize that reading entries from even a year ago can be like reading letters from  someone you used to know but have lost track of. The most profound spiritual practices (which are often the simplest ones) aim to move us beyond the discursive mind. There’s a great temptation in the west to  think we can think our way into enlightened states, forgetting that if it were possible, someone surely would have done so by now.

One of the classic exercises some teachers give is asking questions that the ordinary mind cannot answer, knowing that when its efforts are exhausted, our pure awareness, sometimes called “the clear light mind” can shine through. Everyone has heard of the “sound of one hand clapping” koan. The renowned Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi, would sometimes give students the question, “Who a I?” After coming up with a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand answers, the truth can dawn that there is always something without a name, much larger than any concept we can concoct. What is THAT?

An interesting, and far gentler question was posed recently by someone I have posted about before, Edward Espe Brown. Ed studied with the great Japanese master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center. He has written a number of books and directs The Peaceful Sea Sangha in Fairfax, CA. He frequently gives  daylong teaching and meditation retreats at the Sacramento Dharma Center, most recently on April 20.

He began the day by repeating one of his constant themes – “No one in this world can tell you how to be you.”

He then went on to reflect that when he was a student, he thought that when he was finally ordained, he would at last be able to make a difference in the world. He then noted that the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a Zen priest was September 11, 2001 – “So much for thinking I could make the world a better place,” he said.

He then went on to pose an interesting question, reflective of his theme for the day, “Coming Home.”

“It’s a crazy world,” he said, “and you’re not going to be able to fix it. Jesus couldn’t. Buddha couldn’t. You can’t. So how do we make ourselves at home, now, in this body, in this mind, in this place, in this time?”

It’s a good question to chew on, like a koan, only not as formal or uptight a practice, for there is no one who is going to be checking our answer, though the question is more important than one hand clapping – it prompts us to aim for honesty in an era of lies.

Meanwhile, I am thinking once more of starting up the “Lamp and Compass,” blog – at least after I untangle the mess I made of it while experimenting with other visual formats. I will close by sharing this cautionary poem by the 14th century person poet, Hafiz, that Edward Brown often quotes:

The 10,000 Idiots

It is always a danger
to aspirants on the Path
When they begin to believe and act
As if the ten thousand idiots
Who so long ruled and lived inside
Have all packed their bags
And skipped town
Or died.

6 thoughts on “Compass and Lamp

    • He actually made a living in Silicon Valley with his blogs, netting some 50K – 80K hits a month, and to do so, he was all business. He was, among other things, an Evangelical minister, who had lived and done missionary work for 20 years in the east, so he spoke Japanese, Hindi, and Chinese. So he had an evangelical blog, and separate blogs for Japanese, Indian, and Chinese people living or working here, and a blog about blogging and three others. He’d get up in the morning, scan the online papers from the various countries, and post brief accounts of 250 words each. That, he said, was the “magic number” in that search engines tend to ignore shorter posts. He gave some examples, like an account of how every train in India stopped running during a championship World Cup match as all the crews were glued to TV’s in the terminals for the duration of the game. So, his goal I guess, was 4000 words a day and he managed to pull it off. I wouldn’t want to, but…


    • I still need to get a more precise idea of what I would do there. A single example: I’m reading an interesting book that suggests the roots of our current national and international confusions and crises relate to “soul loss,” on the level of both the individual soul and the World Soul, or Anima Mundi – an ancient concept, revived by Jung and Hillman. To write about this means trying to define the undefinable “soul” in it’s imaginal sense, and shamanic sense, which is significantly different from the “immortal soul” of churches. It’s an interesting idea and would take a series of posts, but belongs here rather than on the new blog. A lot of issues like that to get clear on first…


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