If it’s true that we each have to do our own “work on ourselves” – our psychological and spiritual work – how then do we deal with the flip side of that coin, that we have become a highly individualistic and even narcissistic society?
With that question, I feel a fear of loneliness and of eternal separation from others – each “just workin’ on ourselves.” Then one of my internal voices waxes nostalgic over the days when family and neighborhood were closer – people who cared about you were close at hand. If not in the same neighborhood, then a short drive away – an hour or two at most. My parents moved back to their home state because a four-hour drive to their parents, from the next state over, was just too much!
But that is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a prod to imagination but also colors reality in false shades.
As I look at my own life and my children’s, I realize that today we form different networks of support. We probably have more separate networks where one set of friends doesn’t know another set. But still the close circle, the people you would call when you’re having a major personal problem, is a small one. Possibly more friends and less family – but it was always true that there was a special aunt or cousin you could turn to, or on the other hand someone you would never turn to even in your own family.
So with spiritual work: It’s not necessarily the case that we are alone in our individual search for meaning and purpose. In fact, I would suggest we can’t be alone for long. The reality today is that, as with our family and neighbors, we aren’t required or expected to have the same group (e.g. the same church or even religion throughout our lives), the same teacher or mentor, the same personal companions on the journey, . And that’s good. When a group expectation is present, it’s difficult to avoid the traps of the collective ego, the voices that warn you are going “out of bounds,” that you’ve “crossed a line,” that you’ll make others feel uncomfortable.
But our fear of being alone often drives us to seek security in some kind of lasting commitment. So what do I mean when I reassure you that we can’t be alone for long?
We have a fundamental need to be seen, acknowledged, by someone else. We cease to exist unless we can look into the face of another and feel “seen.” My son told me yesterday that his four-month-old gets fussy if, when awake, he is left too long separate from the goings-on of the household. “He needs to be seen,” he said. Yes. From infant development, to achievement in school, to the discoveries we make, all throughout life, of who we really are, a blessing comes with each moment of being seen.
Depending on our temperament and how strongly and healthfully we are seen when we are young, we may feel more or less independent. Many of us need to be in the presence of a personal teacher; the Face gazing on us must be a flesh-and-blood person. Yet some can feel the presence of a teacher through words, through a voice or even through books. Some do not need an authority or expert so much as a friend, someone who sees us and gives us honest and loving responses. Some have teachers who are not living persons – they are guided by ancestors, angels, souls, or supernal guides conceived in different ways. Some can be in the presence of angels through art – sculpture, music, light and color. We often think we are seeing; but when the experience is deep, we are also being seen.
I like the teaching that each of us has an Angel Out Ahead.* This Angel is a force in the Imaginal world which we also inhabit (remember: imaginal is not imaginary; it is a real existence in a different form). When my children lived at home, I could sometimes perceive their angels. I learned that when one of them was having a difficult time, about to explode in anger or tears at the dinner table, I would focus on the faint luminous presence that was just in front of them, just above their forehead. Time stopped for a moment, long enough for the child to collect him/herself and move forward with more confidence.
So we are never alone. That light is always shining, just ahead, mysteriously seeing, absorbing who we are at that moment and illuminating the path forward.
That angel may be experienced in many forms. As a guardian angel that warns us, like the voice that told my husband, “Move!” just before a car hit him, so he was moving with instead of resisting the energy; it probably saved his life. Or as inner angels of kindness that remind us to slow down, relax, soften our prickles.
Is it one angel, or many? I suspect the latter – angelic dimensions of those around us in visible form, and invisible helpers, teachers and guides by the multitude. And we can now see camps of angels among whom we move on a daily basis, communities we chose or landed in, with whom we now share an interdependence. With good fortune, we may be in communities of people who agree to a rule of law, to basic respect for the bodily integrity and property of others, people who greet you pleasantly and serve you with a reasonable amount of grace at the market or the coffee shop, and whom you greet and serve in your turn. These fundamental forms of civilized behavior are also graces, from the Angels Out Ahead in harmonic vibration together.
When we encounter the dark, we often feel alone because darkness is the thickening veil of separation from others. But when we begin to see the light at the edges, when we see through the clouds, then we also learn to “see through” the opaqueness of the world and of other people. We can even see their angels. I learned that when we see a person coming down the street, we should imagine him or her accompanied by angels, chanting “Baruch Ha-Ba! Blessed is the one coming forth, made in the image of God!”
Bruchim ha-Baim! Blessed are the Angels in this world and in all their forms, who ensure that we will not be alone.
* The phrase “Angel Out Ahead” comes from the work of Tom Cheetham on Henry Corbin, who was adapting the Zoroastrian idea of the celestial “twin.” See Cheetham, All the World an Icon, chapter 4, section 4. The Talmud has a similar idea in the idea of guardian angels (which the Jewish Encyclopedia relates to the Persian idea also). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 10:6) extends this to the world in the saying from Rabbi Simon, “There isn’t one blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel in heaven who strikes it and says ‘Grow!” (Most internet sources incorrectly attribute this to the Talmud and change it to the angel “bending over and whispering” to the grass. The actual quote is a little more striking.) The word used for heavenly angel is mazal rakia, which would usually mean an astronomical constellation or star, which would have its unique quality. The word “strike,” while it at first sounds harsh, could be read as like striking a tuning fork, so the grass would vibrate in sympathy with its heavenly counterpart.