This is the third in our series about the old Buddhist story of two arrows. The first arrow is the necessary suffering of loss, impermanence and death. None of us, no matter how “lucky” we are, escape the first arrow. The second arrow comprises unnecessary suffering of complaint, blame and bitterness that arise from response to the first arrow.
To the Buddhist story of the two arrows, I have added a third. The magic number three is the number of movement and creativity. It is the number that permeates the old stories: three wishes, three sisters, three chances… Three creates movement– it breaks up the stasis or duality of two. Or, as Jorge Luis Borges once said: Two is a coincidence, three is a confirmation of ternary order, a divine confirmation.
The third arrow does not inflict pain. It is about taking aim: pointing yourself in a certain direction. You begin by accepting what is presented (the pain of the first arrow) and releasing the second arrow.
The question that the third arrow asks is:
What is the coherence that transcends chaos and impermanence?
This is the perennial question. It is behind the deep longing to be near, to feel continuity in the midst of chaos, and to leave a trace, a footprint, a song– it is what impels makers of all kinds to turn to “praying with their hands”.
Richard Powers, in his book, The Overstory, describes a character named Nick, who sits for a year a couple hundred feet up in the canopy of an ancient Redwood. He is an artist wishing to save the forest and the primeval wisdom of trees. He sketches bark, flying squirrels, and even fish that live in high puddles– small ponds of moss.
“At the end of the book, Nick is engaged in an enormous environmental art project, arranging downed tree trunks in a boreal forest to spell out a word on the forest floor. The word he spells out is “Still.” To hold still is to shift postures from dominant to accommodating, to trade use and mastery for looking and receiving. And when a person holds still and looks, all the agents and emissaries of the meaning out there begin to look back and start talking.” –Richard Powers
I will say the last sentence again, as it is a perfect mirror for makers, and for the creative pattern: When a person holds still and looks, all the agents and emissaries of the meaning out there begin to look back and start talking.
The entity that looks back and begins talking is sometimes what makers refer to as the
muse. This is the moment when your will is no longer involved in the making, and
there seems to be an effortless exchange between the object coming into form and the
emissaries of meaning.
To find the third thing, the sense of Other, the presences of all kinds that hover,
something is required of you: Stillness. Listening. Work. An assumption that you have
something to give back to this World that you have been given. The conviction that something is being asked of you. A choice that is more than what to make for dinner, or how to become a success, or how to win….
We are in danger of falling asleep in vagueness, in anxiety, without a purpose beyond our own small world. Vagueness and anxiety are supported by busyness, by hopping from one information node or entertainment to the next. It is an untethered condition, without meaning or direction.
Freedom from the tyranny of the noise, distraction and seduction of our culture demands that the presence to the self includes something other than the self. Our reference point has to expand and include something other than us humans and our conceits. We have become severed from the knowledge that without trees, animals, streams, air and oceans, there will be no humans.
You must position yourself in something larger for your work to blossom and have roots. It must become something that is more than you, your world (small “w”), your success or your failure.
This is what Joseph Campbell named the call to adventure. It is the hero’s journey
because what you are asked to do seems impossible and fraught with insurmountable obstacles. This is the nature of the thread of impossible tasks that run through these stories… Psyche must sort the chaos of a room filled from floor to ceiling with seven kinds of seeds. The Handless Maiden must find her hands, and Odysseus must find his way back home.
Another thread in these stories is that help comes from unexpected places and unknown entities. Psyche, exhausted, falls asleep, and wakes to find the last of the ants crawling out of the room, having sorted each seed. The Handless Maiden reaches into the water to save her child, and finds her hands. Circe assists Odysseus on his journey home.
The hero’s task does not have much to do with what seems practical, or even doable, the heroine sets out in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. She LISTENS. Her ability has nothing to do with age, talent, intelligence, money or gender….it breaks through the false ceiling and authority of our human-centered rationalism.
It is a radical idea to accept that we cannot save the earth, or anyone else, but perhaps we can save ourselves.
The third arrow is a plea, a prayer to your soul to answer the call to adventure. It demands of you something you think you don't have. The third arrow is a map. It brings the sense that you are a part of something bigger, and a path to find your way back from illness, depression or loss. It is never too late.
The call to adventure, to be heard, arises from stillness. There is the sense that a change is gonna come. That life demands something from you, and is asking you to pay attention.
“What we can’t bring about in no way changes what we must bring about. Awe and wonder are the first, most basic tools involved in turning toward and becoming attentive to that meaning above and beyond our own. Life wants something from us… There’s something you need to hear.”
– Richard Powers
What if you, and each one of us, is being called? What if we all have a third arrow, waiting to be released?