The Light for Another

The Light for Another

In times of deep darkness, we not only need light — we need to be light for one another. That’s a message we must take to heart as we find ourselves lost once again in the all-too-familiar darkness of America’s culture of violence.

Who better to deliver that message than Mary Oliver, in a powerful poem that re-tells the story of the Buddha’s last words. Before he died, she tells us, “He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd” and said, “Make of yourself a light.”

We are the frightened crowd the Buddha looked into as he drew his last breath. We are the people who need to be light for one another.

There are many kinds of light. There’s the light that allows people lost in the dark to find their way home. There’s the light of compassion that comforts everything it touches. There’s the light of truth-telling about ourselves that allows us to see what we are doing — or allowing — that has helped bring this darkness upon us. There’s the light that shows us the way forward toward a better world. There’s the light of courage to walk that path no matter who says “Stop!”

No one of us can provide all of the light we need. But every one of us can shed some kind of light. Every day we can ask ourselves, “What kind of light can I provide today?”

The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire—
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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  • Michael D.

    Mindy: Thank you for your response to Being the Light! I like your phrase “being a broadcaster of good things rather than a receiver of darkness.” I would add the following: We must do what we can to avoid the darkness in the world; however, there are many times and places where we cannot avoid it and when in those places, it’s imperative to maintaining our wholeness to be fully consciousness, not take anything personal, not make assumptions or judgements and amplify our silent loving light-filled power to SHIELD ourselves from the damaging effects of the darkness projected our way.

    We can learn to be a witness to the suffering stories (darkness) others are living in and through rather than partake of those stories. See Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. MEANWHILE . . . ” It’s that MEANWHILE that holds the great mystery and beauty all around us, always calling to us “like the wild geese.” We always have a choice to turn toward that calling or toward the suffering call. The suffering call of others is generally not a true call for help; it is a call announcing their victimhood. A call that says, “look what THEY did to me/us. We must destroy them.” That suffering call is a continuum; some folks express it in minor ways while others express it in major ways. Wether minor or major, the media accentuates the drama stories, feeds off it; creates a Vortex that makes it nearly impossible to escape. This is why it’s so important to “edit out” all background drama/victim noise (radio/TV news, newspapers, blogs, etc.)

    In that same poem, she says, “You ONLY have to let the soft animal of your body loves what it loves . . .” That ONLY and the MEANWHILE are important portals to understanding how to allow “the world to offer it’s imagination to us . . .” and thus allow “the wild geese to announce our place in the family of things.”

    As a side note and related to the mainstream media’s pervasive, persistent and insistent demand of our attention to the negative (darkness), there’s a section in Chapter 31 of the Course in Miracles (Section IV The Real Alternative) that speaks to this. I’ll quote just the first paragraph of that section. I’ve used often over the years. You can look up the chapter and that section online if you so wish. The first part of the chapter is not for everyone; indeed, most of the Course is difficult for most people to grasp. I approach it and all other teachings as a miner. I mine only for this nuggets that speak to me and can serve my ultimate good and discard the rest.

    Here it is:
    “There is a tendency to think the world can offer consolation and escape from problems that its purpose is to keep. Why should this be? Because it is a place where choice among illusions seems to be the only choice. And you are in control of outcomes of your choosing. Thus you think, within the narrow band from birth to death, a little time is given you to use for you alone; a time when everyone conflicts with you, but you can choose which road will lead you out of conflict, and away from difficulties that concern you not. Yet they are your concern. How, then, can you escape from them by leaving them behind? What must go with you, you will take with you whatever road you choose to walk along.”

    One last note in terms of speaking about “discarding” what doesn’t serve me. That skill requires the ability to discern and is not an easy skill to develop. There are so many competing voices out there seeking attention. Again, we must learn to do what the character in Oliver’s poem “The Journey” did: we must “leave those voices behind” so that we can hear a new voice “which we slowly recognize as our own, that keeps us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.”

    Here’s the quote written by Dinah Maria (Mulock) Craik (1826-1887) published in 1859 in her book, “A Life for a Life.”

    “Oh, the comfort—
    The inexpressible comfort of feeling
    safe with a person,
    Having neither to weigh thoughts,
    Nor measure words—but pouring them
    All right out—just as they are—
    Chaff and grain together—
    Certain that a faithful hand will
    Take and sift them—
    Keep what is worth keeping—
    and with the breath of kindness
    Blow the rest away.”

    And the quote in context from Chapter 16 (or Volume II, Chapter III) of the novel can be fond at Project Gutenberg)