Monday, February 12, 2007

Sacred vessels

Tree, New Mexico


Some will recall that in an earlier post I mentioned the first significant thing I ever really understood about our actual nature is that we are vessels into which the world flows.

Today I will offer a few further insights into that matter.

The idea of that which is contained, and that which contains it, is a common theme in sacred traditions. Vessels play important roles in many rituals, whether it's bull's blood in a clay bowl or the holy grail. Often the vessels are just as important as what they contain: they have to be made of certain substances, in certain shapes, in order to qualify for their contents. In other words, it’s not just about the stuff in the vessel; it’s about the relationships.

Three things are important to this set of relationships, container and the contained: the first two are what things are- that is, the essential nature of their being, their meaning- and where they are. We cannot make anything our own without an understanding of those two elements. If we do not know where something is- location-, we cannot find it, and if we do not know what something is- meaning-, we cannot use it.

The third relationship that is important in terms of vessels is conservation. Vessels confer a magical quality upon their contents: the contents become self. The intervention of the vessel’s walls distinguishes between what is inside and what is outside, and it conserves what is inside, keeping it pure. So, if for example we have a perfume that is placed in a sacred vessel, it is not just any perfume, it is that specific perfume, separate from the world and unique unto itself.

Evidently there is a lot going on in this idea of vessels and their contents.

So, we take man as a vessel that contains the world. As impressions flow into us, these three characteristics are defined for them: they acquire a location - within us- they acquire a meaning- what they consist of- and, in their containment within this vessel we call a body, they acquire an identity, a definable separateness.

What struck me about all this today was the following:

We are responsible not only for containing our own lives within this vessel as we receive them, but also the lives of all those we encounter.

That concept struck me around noon as I was pondering my relationship to my parents over a cup of coffee, staring out the window at a winter sky.

My parents are getting elderly, they are not as tough and invulnerable as they once seemed. I have lived for some time with the sense that they will not be with me forever, and it is sobering. Looking back on my life with them, I realized that their lives do not just belong to them- they belong to me as well, because as a container I have taken in their life from them, received the impressions of their being, and my container is holding that in the form of my experiences and my memories.

This is on the order of a very big idea. It is definitely not going to far to say that in doing this, we are participating in a sacred act. We become the custodians of the being of the individuals we interact with, because their being lives not just within their own impressions, but also in my impressions of them. The reverse holds true as well: what I pour into the vessels of others also enriches or pollutes the world of their vessel, according to my own effort.

Our life is not just our own: it is formed in equal part by other lives. Without that- what would we be? Not very much, certainly.

Upon realizing this I understood that there is a sacred responsibility incumbent upon us as the custodians of the impressions of others, both in giving and receiving. How do we take those impressions in? Do we respect them enough? Do we attend to them, do we cherish them? If we do a bad job of this our vessel will end up filled with stale and impure contents- and we all know how that feels. Understanding this idea better could truly help us to transform our relationship with others.

We are, for better or for worse, universally blended together, by our impressions, in a subtle brotherhood we do not even consider from day to day.

To know this better might be a step in the direction of what the Buddha would call right value. Somewhere within this understanding, I believe, lie the roots of the idea of Christ's compassion; the roots of Gurdjieff's practice of outer considering.

With all that in mind, let us better value one another as we ponder.

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