The two lanes of traffic streaming past each other on roads and interstates seem unrelated to each other, except in the sense that some of those vehicles may return the way they came at a later time. But other two-way flows, especially those on which our very lives depend, are clearly fundamentally integrated circular movements.
An example of this integral wholeness is the cycle that embraces water as it evaporates from the oceans, is carried by wind until it falls on mountain tops as rain, and then flows through streams and rivers across the land until it is back in the sea once more.
Water and air flow inside our bodies in similar cycles: what we inhale and drink feeds billions of thirsty cells before being expelled back into the world again.
Recently, I had a thought about another kind of two-way relationship: the arrival of spiritual teachings into our western world from traditions that are very different from our own. A hunger for those teachings–similar to the thirst that draws water and air into the cells of our bodies—is necessary if they are to provide nourishment to living minds and hearts. And just as the cells of our heart and lungs need water and air before they can deliver them to the rest of our bodies, so individuals raised in western societies need to be touched by ancient wisdom before they can share it with others in our society.
The phrase “when the student is ready, the master appears”, has a counterpart: “When the master arrives on new shores, students appear who help adapt ancient understanding to render it accessible for a new culture and time.”
Just as mountains catch moisture that has crossed a dry desert and transform it into living rain—representatives of western society are capturing wisdom that has crossed the great ocean before reaching them. Otherwise, like clouds that merely blow on by, who would receive and share these new ways of understanding? Who, but those who live in our world, can teach the teacher how to talk in ways that we can understand?
In an earlier time in my life, I worked with people afflicted with MS and ALS. Witnessing what happens when neurological pathways–necessary in order to walk, talk, and breath—stop flowing freely, I learned to appreciate the miracle of my own body’s functioning. With ALS, motor neurons (the efferent half of the neurological circle) stop delivering messages to muscles. The other half are the afferent nerves, which report back the results of movement. With MS, both afferent and efferent nerves deteriorate because the immune system attacks the myelin sheaths that insulate all the nerves.
When the neurological system is healthy, the neurons that generate effects and those that affect us through sensation work harmoniously together. This integrated flow is clearly just as important as the flow of air and water for the functioning of our bodies.
Air, water, and neurological messages link us to the global circulations of Planet Earth, as surely as the ground holds up our muscles and bones. The intimate wholeness of inner and outer, subject and object, mental and physical stands witness to the miracle that there is no separation between the twin flows of all the elements of life.
When a sound delights us, perhaps a sudden gust of wind blowing through the branches of a Ponderosa Pine, there awakens in us a longing for deeper connection with all that is. In such moments of delight, as our minds and hearts reach out to the waving branches, do we not feel an enlivening spirit arise into awareness; a quality that is necessary even through it is ordinarily dormant? Does the one who looks up into the branches and hears the symphony of the wind played on millions of pine needles, not find something answering from deep within? Perhaps that is when we most recognize that a deep being is present in us and all around us. Perhaps that is when we feel most at home in this world and forget to wish that we could be somewhere else. Perhaps this echo and response, between our private being and an all-embracing Being, is the two-way flow in whose current all the others (air, water, fire and earth) are being carried along.