“You ask whether your verses are any good,” Rilke replied, with tenderness. “You ask me. You have asked others before this . . . I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.
“No one can advise or help you—no one,” he added. “There is only one thing you should do. Go inside yourself . . . and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer . . . You couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.”
In his little monastic handbook, The Book of Hours, written a few years earlier, Rilke had astutely observed: “We come of age as masks / our true face never speaks.”
Franz Kappus was in danger of donning other people’s faces, the masks that so many of us put on not only as we come of age, but, sadly, as we continue to age. Until one day, the masks have become fused to our faces. We no longer know, or show, our true selves.
“Little by little,” writes autobiographer Frederick Buechner, we “come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.”
The paradox of the human condition, he explains, is that “what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
Which is why, Buechner concludes in his book Telling Secrets, “it is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are.”
Poet May Sarton cries out: “Now I become myself!”—confessing, with evident chagrin, that it has taken her much pain and many years to arrive at the place where she can finally accept what comes only from, what Rilke calls, a “vast inner solitude.”
“Now to stand still, to be here,” Sarton exclaims, “Feel my own weight and density! . . . All fuses now, falls into place . . . My work, my love, my time, my face . . .”
If we spend our youth and growing years becoming what others need, or simply want, demand or expect us to become—our parents, our teachers, our bosses—we must, eventually, if we are to become ourselves, begin removing all the masks. Allowing our true face, first, to be seen. And then, at last, to speak. If, indeed, we can find our voice again.
Over the past decade, as I hurtled down the highway toward the big six-oh, I began peeling off my own masks, layer by layer, strip mining my face, as it were, attempting to expose the secret of who I really am, as Buechner says, “little by little.”
I am getting closer to the bone.
Five years ago, for example, I published a little book on the existential crisis that followed my devastating loss of faith in God, after spending some 35 years on a deeply committed, increasingly contemplative Christian path. As it came time to finalize the subtitle of that book, I thought long and hard about the implications of Google.
An earth scientist by training, I have been for over 25 years a respected writer in the oil and gas industry, a rather conservative and very technical place with little patience for the “touchy-feely” side of things. I knew that potential writing clients would Google my name, if they wanted to check me out. Sure, they would find my freelance writing website and my professional profile on LinkedIn (which at the time was still pretty sanitary).
They would also find my new book, The Secret Sorrow: A Memoir of Mourning the Death of God (iUniverse, 2010).
Was I okay having that pop up like some crazed jack-in-the-box? I mean, could I let me true face say something like DEATH OF GOD out loud? After agonizing over the pros and cons, after sweating bullets—and nearly chickening out—I realized I had no choice. Why publish a book like that if you’re not going to come out of the closet, so to speak?
Since turning sixty a year ago, things have begun to accelerate. Like coasting down the far side of a steep hill I spent years laboriously pedaling up.
Back in February, I sat down one day and out of nowhere penned one of my most-read posts on LinkedIn: “Why It’s Time To Leave The Oil Industry.” I had invested my entire adult life, I admitted, in an industry where I had never actually wanted to work.
So I tore off that mask, told the truth about how I felt, about who I am.
Well, frankly, I was terrified to press the Publish button. Hovered over it for a full minute before I punched the damned thing. Surprisingly, however, within hours colleagues, old friends, clients and complete strangers on the other side of the world began responding with support, encouragement, even admiration.
Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because I said something most of us are afraid to say. Or to admit. To ourselves or anyone else.
But I wasn’t done yet.
About three months ago, I sat down with the small contemplative men’s group that meets twice a month in my home in Longmont—a place where we’ve agreed to allow one another to be exactly as we are, without pretense or judgment—and I made another confession.
“I don’t have a metaphysical bone in my body,” I said, gulping.
Everyone else has strong metaphysical inclinations, which would be no big deal, normally, except that, as time went on and I never explained where I stood, I began to wonder what they would think. If they knew. I felt false. So, finally, I had to come clean. Kind of like I’m doing here.
“I listen to you guys,” I said. “And I hear you talk unselfconsciously about gods and ghosts, past lives and invisible dimensions that are simply not part of my worldview. I’m concerned that you assume I am metaphysical too. But I’m not. By nature and by training, I’m a scientist. I no longer hold any supernatural or metaphysical beliefs of any kind. To believe something, I need evidence.”
Since God died, I explained, I have called myself a “contemplative naturalist.”
That’s a person who accepts, who believes, the grand narrative of cosmic, terrestrial, and biological evolution bequeathed to us by several hundred years of scientific blood, sweat and tears. Yet, I added, I embrace this awe-inspiring Epic of Evolution, as E.O. Wilson first called it, with much the same “religious” or “spiritual” feelings that others have for God, or metaphysics.
The universe is not some cold, empty place, void of meaning. To me, Nature is sacred. It is that vast and mysterious Something larger than myself, like God, from which I have emerged, to which I will always belong. If only my atoms.
“I still consider myself ‘spiritual’ too,” I said, “but I understand everything in the universe—including seemingly immaterial things like spirituality, love, and consciousness itself—from a purely naturalistic, you might say, materialistic, perspective. No metaphysics. Just physics.”
As I wrote once on my LinkedIn profile: I’m a scientist with the heart of a poet, the soul of a psychologist, and the spirit of a monk.
I’m not just one thing. And I realize this may be confusing to others.
Well, it was an awkward moment, there in the men’s group. But, as each of them began to say what they thought about what I had just revealed, I felt a subtle interior burden begin to lift.
Now I become myself, I thought, sensing the poets smiling down on me from wherever they are, ensconced in the literary heavens.
Finally, on a roll, I took a sabbatical from the Buddhist community in which I participated for almost three years.
After I lost my faith eleven years ago, I had turned, initially, to Buddhism—a non-theistic, yet contemplative path which, for me, was largely about psychology, or philosophy, a way of living and working mindfully with difficult emotions. It wasn’t a religion. And I have felt very little interest in either the historical or the legendary Buddha.
My favorite Zen aphorism: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
Learning to meditate, of course, meant going on silent retreats, listening to dharma talks. And, in response to my desperate, ongoing need to belong, somewhere, after leaving Christianity, eventually I “joined” the Insight Meditation Community—or sangha—that meets Tuesday evenings in Boulder.
The local sangha wasn’t like church, though. After volunteering on the service committee, setting up chairs, running the sound and recording equipment almost every week for years, I began to realize that I was, and would always be, an outsider.
One clue was that, often, as we chanted the traditional Refuges at the beginning of each sit, when we got to the phrase “I take refuge in the dharma, the teachings that awaken us to reality as it is,” I would think: For me, science is the dharma. The teachings of modern science have awakened me to reality, as it is. The dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, are so much smaller.
Egads, what am I doing here?
When I finally threw in the towel, I told David, the leader and dharma teacher, “I’m just not a Buddhist. It feels like I’ve been trying a bit too hard to be something I am not.”
I added that the only way I had ever really belonged to any community in the past had been by sharing my unique gifts as a leader, teacher or facilitator. In the sangha, I was essentially a technician, and spectator. I would never be authorized to teach or lead anything.
I wasn’t being who I am or doing what I am meant to do.
Sadly, yet with a palpable sense of relief, I peeled off the Buddhist mask. I’m sure I will continue to visit from time to time, but I’m not trying to belong any more.
So here I am. Doing my damnedest to discover what it means to be a contemplative naturalist with no place to call home—well, no place except for the Cosmos itself, the Ultimate Source of all things, and the Earth, the Ground of my being.
Science helps ground me in reality. It provides an unusual sort of existential comfort, at times a therapeutic intervention, especially when my highly evolved emotions, imagination and obsessions run away with me.
Sometimes I don’t even try to mindfully accept my fuzzy, fearful and flaky feelings, as the Buddha taught. I turn on my intellect. I resort to facts. And, yes, I feel better.
But hard science is not quite enough, as you might suspect. Even for me.
To nurture my softer side—my soul, if you will, my intuition, creativity and so-called spirituality—I turn, inevitably, to poetry. I read, ponder, and write about poems that strike me (which is how I started writing this particular reflection).
Often, too, I hike along bubbling streams in the Rocky Mountains.
And as I wander for a day through forests of pine, spruce and aspen, doing nothing and going nowhere, I find myself pausing spontaneously and bowing with reverence to these amazing living things all around me—the persistent plants, the shy mammals lurking in leaf-shadowed silence, the little birds fluttering among the branches.
I remember, from my scientific studies, that these are my evolutionary brothers, sisters and cousins.
As are all human beings, who emerged with my own ancestors, at one time or another over the past 50,000 years or so, from our ancient homeland in Africa. We know this now, without a shadow of a doubt, from our DNA, from the proliferation of fossils, from all the evidence we have amassed since the day Darwin saw the truth. And opened our eyes, if only we can see.
All life is one. Not in some dreamy metaphysical sense, but literally. Biologically. Scientifically.
I am stunned, humbled, and somewhat irritated that even the people I find so easy to despise are members of my own family. I try, at least, to peel off the mask of indifference and hatred that turns the other into something less than human— something I can dismiss, or destroy, without a hint of remorse.
I open, as best I can, to the beauty and mystery, the comedy and tragedy, of it all.
Little by little, like the poet, I become myself.
—Jay E. Valusek