Judging by how many impertinent questions I asked in childhood, I came into this world with an inquiring mind. But in some ways, I have only just become a seeker, and I am only now beginning to understand what this means.
I am trying to notice cues and signposts that come my way, with the result that several times each week, I discover a book, a video, or a podcast by a new teacher. I sincerely doubt I will discover a guru. For one thing, I am not seeking one. It isn’t much in my nature to follow or give over in that way. Periodically, I stop on the path of seeking to try on a particular spiritual discipline with its own boundaries, spiritual technologies and practices. There is always so much to learn; but for me, there is always a place where learning stops, and instead of remaining a seeker, one becomes a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, and so on.
I know that there are many people who find a path of continual opening within those bounded categories. I recognize that some will always describe me: I am a woman, a Jew, even a “Sixties person,” one of those ducklings who was imprinted with love for a unique moment in our collective social inquiry. But in the end, I always feel about seeking as the great James Baldwin felt about art, when he said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.”
I doubt I could reproduce the chain of events, but last night, my seeking took me to a talk on love by A. Hameed Ali (the creator of a spiritual path called the Diamond Approach, who writes under the pen name A.H. Almaas). The talk is slow going. He seems to rise out of his own fatigue, allowing himself to become animated by his subject. But I really responded to his depiction of spiritual seeking as analogous with love.
And of course, as is almost always true for me, it was through the lens of art that I saw his message most clearly. Almaas quoted Rumi’s Ghazal 1919:
This is love: to fly heavenward
To rend, every instant, a hundred veils.
In the fullness of love, our desire is to give all to the beloved, and to receive all: to know everything, to pierce each veil, seeking the heart of the matter, “to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” When that seeking is blocked, love transmutes to something else, an accommodation, a resignation, a kind of settling, or an end. Almaas’s talk is about loving truth, loving awareness, with the same insatiable curiosity, so that one faces life with that intense desire to know more, and more, and more, whatever comes. I am paraphrasing here, but at one point, he adopts the voice of the seeker to ask something very like this: How can I rest until I know what I am?
My early spiritual education, such as it was, consisted of weekly classes at a Reform Jewish Sunday school. Not many girls were bat mitzvah when I was young; that rite of passage was reserved primary to boys. But the Reform movement had borrowed from other traditions the idea of “confirmation.” At the last stage of Sunday school—if I am remembering correctly, my classmates and I would have been 15 or so when this ended—there was a sort of ceremony of completion.
The confirmation class at my Northern California synagogue was taught by a medical doctor with an interest in other forms of science. I imagine that if he was still around and curious in later decades, he would have reveled in the new spiritual literature grounded in advanced cosmology and physics, because his curriculum was one long, suspenseful monologue tracing the evolution of human life back to the Big Bang. In the theater of memory, I see that it was a set piece: his concept was to lead our young minds through a chain of events culminating (which is to say beginning, since he constructed his lectures as flashbacks) in a mysterious, inexplicable event that ignited the creation of the world.
That was my first experience in being expelled from something for asking too many questions. The sticking-point for me will be obvious to any bright adolescent: if God is merely an explanation for the first cause of creation, how did God come into being? The young mind wants orderly explanations. If we are to stake our understanding of the universe on the chain of causality, there has to be a plausible starting-point. I still have trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of a reality outside of time and cause, but I see its necessity. Back in confirmation class, though, my questions sent our poor teacher into a red-faced, sputtering fit, and I was invited to stay away on Sunday mornings, a prospect I greeted with mingled disappointment and relief.
I am certain that as a student, I was annoying beyond belief. But I also see that my teacher did not approach his task as a lover, but as one who had discovered a particularly attractive veil and had decided that it marked the end of inquiry.
What I am seeing today, more years later than I care to mention, is that somewhere along the road, I allowed myself to rest behind a veil too, and the veil is this: the acceptance that certain things are unknowable. Maybe I decided that the chain of causality did represent some ultimate truth, and that trying to find its origins was hopeless, even dangerous; for some people, that veil is called “faith,” a belief that soothes not-knowing. Maybe I was afraid of what might lie beyond the next veil. Maybe I got hurt by what I discovered along the way: there is no guarantee that what you find behind the next veil will be pleasure instead of pain, only that there will be another veil to pierce, and behind the last one, everything.
I am still a lover of questions, and I don’t think anyone else has the power to expel me from this school, at least as long as I draw breath. The choice to continue or to settle will be mine. And now I want to see what it is like to approach my search as if awareness were the beloved, rending “every instant, a hundred veils.”