Gratitude—if not now, when?

“If we are fortunate enough to be exposed to a variety of influences, we may realize that the reality we take for granted has not always been here, that change is a constant. We learn new ideas and explore new ways of thinking or feeling. Perhaps we investigate more deeply philosophies or belief systems that seem attractive or match up with our own expanding sense of what is true and good.
. . .
We continue to look to others for guidance, unsure that we are doing things the right way or thinking the right thoughts. We crave acceptance from those whose approval has become important to us. Perhaps we give our allegiance to a new set of friends, guides, and teachers, or perhaps we continue to follow the lead of those who helped make us who we are.”
Tarthang Tulku, “Dimensions of Mind”, Dharma Publishing, 2016

As we enter the later chapters of our lives, we may not be launching into new “belief systems” or ready to “give our allegiance to a new set of friends, guides, and teachers”. At this point in our lives, we may be content to “follow the lead of those who helped make us who we are.”

But was there a time when the question of who we were and who we were going to become hung in the balance?

For me there was such a moment. It was in the late 1980’s and the place was Zoglio, a wonderful little village in the Swiss Alps, a few miles from the Italian border. When I arrived, Eric, who had opened my eyes to a wider world when I was 13, was already there, as well as his wife and my mother. Since their move back to Europe 20 years earlier, our times together had been precious opportunities to reconnect with the man who had rescued me from the doldrums of life in the Canadian suburbs—introducing me to Western literature and history and inspiring me with a love of knowledge that survives to this day.

Within an hour of my arrival, on our first walk around the cobbled paths of this beautiful mountain village, it came up that I had discovered a new interest in Eastern spiritual traditions. It quickly became clear that he did not share this interest. He told me that I was making a serious mistake; and when I asked him why, he looked at me and said,

“By looking at you, Michael, by looking at you.”

I took this to mean that he saw in my face someone who had become dreamy and irresolute–led astray by some fashionable Pablum for the weak-minded. I was stunned into silence.

We didn’t speak of this interaction for the remainder of the trip. And when we were sitting side by side as the bus wended its way down the steep mountainside and made its way up the valley to Saint Moritz, he told me that he felt terrible. But I must have closed down by then, because I thought he was referring to his physical system. It wasn’t until I met Buffy years later in Montreal, after Eric had passed on, that she told me he had felt terrible about our interaction in Zoglio.

For many years, I would find myself turning to him in my mind, whenever an insight struck me as especially luminous–wanting to share it with him, wanting to finally receive his recognition that he had helped me to see what I had needed to live life fully.

But such gestures remained locked in my mind, until one day, during seven days of silence at a retreat in northern New Mexico, I caught myself turning to him in my mind so often that it became painfully clear how caught I remained in a pattern of thought left over from this incident. I was then able to finally thank him and let it go.

What relevance do such remnants from our youth have for us? Perhaps they are letting us know that it’s time to thank those who have helped us understand, even if inadvertently, the meaning of our lives. Eric not only introduced me to the riches of the Western world. In his inability to acknowledge the value of Eastern spiritual traditions, he allowed me to recognize their deep value for myself.

The newest title from Tibetan Lama Tarthang Tulku, “Dimensions of Mind”, from which I quote above, provides a lively, conversational introduction to a stream of wisdom that has remained important for me, ever since I stood, stunned, on the slopes of the Swiss Alps, three decades ago. And I believe, more than any of his earlier books, Dimensions has the power to reach others who might have found those earlier books difficult. Perhaps someone reading this will care to have a look:

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