It Comes Up in Loveliness
I'm not sure how I missed this book by John Tarrant, titled, The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life. It could be that it was first published in 1998, the year our daughter was born. Maybe I missed a lot of books that year, who knows. But I'm glad I came upon it now.
The book begins with an 'invitation to the journey,' which might make it seem like a typical new-age-y read. But it's not. It's a book that asks us to think about the hard questions about the darkness, about character and integrity. How do we love in the dark times?
In our one life, we lead many lives. Tarrant says: "Beneath or inside the life we lead every day is another life. This unseen life runs like a river beneath the city, beneath work, family, ambition, beneath our pleasures and griefs." He goes on to quote Paul Eluard, "There is another world, and it is in this one." This life might at times be hidden from us, it might slumber.
"But this life beneath or within our ordinary life is irrepressible, unstoppable: it comes up in loveliness like jonquils out of fallen snow, it rises in supplication like hands out of gratings in a pavement in India, and it bursts upward through our chests as the fountain of shock that is our reaction to evil news. It appears in dreams, revery, memories of childhood, in what we find beautiful, and in what we find ugly as a gargoyle, and appears too when we fall in love, when we fall ill, when we are lost on dark paths."
Central to the book is the discussion about spirit and soul. The loftiness and purity of the spiritual is ever in conversation with the earthly, tangible soul. "It is with our souls that we truly inhabit our lives, tasting the fresh black coffee, so delicious, so bad for us, and the kiss, so brief and full of consequences." (There are studies since the book was published that say coffee could actually be good for us, but we see the meaning here). So it is the balancing of soul and spirit, says Tarrant, that brings us to the development of character and integrity. As we move through life there will be darkness, betrayal, deaths, despair. Tarrant takes the reader through a series of tasks that lead one out of those dark moments.
For me, the book is worth reading for the thoughts on integrity alone. "Integrity is active," says Tarrant, "a practice concerned with motion, connection, and struggle." And he goes on to say, "a practice is different from a skill, because it changes us as well as the world." Integrity is deeply questioning and the "questions become a treasure in themselves." "Great questions get passed down as a sort of legacy, gifts for succeeding generations." Integrity lives through these great questions and pursues them doggedly. When we practice integrity, "our questions keep company with our grief and happiness: we carry them along with us."
It seems to me that the topic of character and integrity is a very dear and important one in the present political climate.
Lastly, there is a section near the end of the book that spoke to me particularly. Tarrant speaks of a writer's experience of surrender at the beginning of a new project after a period of resistance. He says, "When we step into a new moment or a new work, we do not have the abilities we need because we do not know what we need. We feel inferior, heavy, hopeless. We may think that we have no ability at all and indeed, that we never did have a genuine talent." We descend, he says, acquainting ourselves with this new dimness, before stumbling back to a state of awake. "We persevere - exhausted, despairing, slow, wading through mud." Eventually, "we are competent again. The air fizzes, the mountains are alive..."
Because I am at the wading through mud part of the book I'm currently writing, it was excellent to be reminded that (potentially) what follows is the fizzing air part.