A number of years ago, my favorite singer/songwriter/poet released an album called Stealing Fire. It chronicled, among other things, his travels in Central America at the height of the Iran-Contra madness. He came away from this Road Trip inspired by the innate spirit of the people, a spirit undiminished by war, injustice, torture and persecution. In some of the songs, he captures the sense of rejuvenation he experienced as a result of seeing their dignity and courage.
But, being the multilayered poet that he is, he also explored a more poignant side of the trip in the album's title. On his return to Canada, he felt a new sense of inspiration, of his own reconnection to hope and courage and light, but also felt a sense of ambivalence about it, because he knew it was borrowed. The fire he had seen in the people of Nicaragua and Guatemala had reminded him of his own inner fire and rekindled it, but in a sense it was their fire he was experiencing, not his own. Being the deep-thinking Christian that he is, I believe he related this experience to his relationship with Christ: on the one hand, a deep sense of gratitude to Him for all the spiritual fire He had brought to his life; on the other, a knowledge that sooner or later he would have to learn to develop that same fire himself.
I have been thinking about this phrase - stealing fire - a lot lately. It captures perfectly for me the sense of ambivalence that many of us who have spent time around charismatic and inspiring human beings can feel after a few years. It strikes me that many of the basic traditions of both Eastern and Western spirituality are centered on this notion of stealing fire. We meet a charismatic teacher or saintly individual or hear an inspiring story about them. We become inspired, because embedded in the moments we witness or the stories we hear is the light that enabled the person to become a charismatic teacher or a saint. We can feel the fire. We metaphorically warm our hands in front of it and feel the warmth seep into our inner being, where it reignites our own.
Perhaps this phenomenon - the rekindling of our own inner fire by contact with a brighter flame - involves a true transfer of power, a spark jumping from flint to tinder. The entire concept of empowerment or transmission is based on this idea. Then again, perhaps it's just a low-level function on the level of the underlying operating system of the cosmos - you meet someone who embodies more of your essential nature as light than you do, and the recognition of that light is what reignites the same light within yourself. I don't know. I try not to think about it too much, because it's one of those conundrums that leaves you weary from pondering while revealing nothing.
But one thing is certain, at least for me. Whether empowerment per se exists or not, it can't get you to enlightenment without some assistance from your side. Enlightenment is not a gift.
All the teachers I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with, no matter how adept they are at inspiring and empowering others, have always attempted to balance the empowerments with a reminder that the rekindled inner fire you feel in their presence is a loan. To get where we want to be, to live in a permanent state of enlightenment, each of us has to learn how to generate that fire from within ourselves.
The analogy that Rama used to use to explain the value of empowerment or of meditating with someone who is better at it than you are was that of climbing a mountain. For the high mountain trekker, after some time trudging up the trail - hour after hour, day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime - it is possible to become discouraged and begin to wonder whether there is a top to the mountain, or whether we will ever get there if there is.
At this point, if a teacher can metaphorically snatch the trekker up in his or her talons and fly them to the top - even for a moment - they have done the person a great service. For an epiphanal instant, those who are fortunate enough to have been flown like this can rise above it all, can see what the fire of sunset looks like from the summit. But we can't plant our flags there. That honor is reserved for those trekkers who make it to the top under their own power.
The last few years, trekking through the smorgasbord of seekers and sanghas and former seekers and former members of sanghas that dot the landscape of alternative spirituality, I have encountered many folks who have experienced such epiphanal moments. Some treasure the glimpses of the summit that these free rides afforded them and use the memory of them to inspire themselves in their own trekking. Others, however, seem to have gotten caught up in the flash of the rides themselves, and spend their lives in a perpetual search for more of the same. They flit from teacher to teacher, from empowerment to empowerment, looking for another free ride, another hit of ecstasy. With an embarrassing lack of Buddhist compassion, I tend to refer to such folks as following the Beam Me Up Scotty path to enlightenment.
I freely admit that these folks may be onto something, and may be taking advantage of resources that I do not. On my solitary trek up the mountain, I may someday crest a ridge and catch a glimpse of them far ahead of me on the path, and feel really, really, really stupid.
But it's just not my scene. I'm into trekking solo right now. The teachers I have worked with have afforded me enough glimpses of the summit so that I know it is there. And they have taught me techniques of climbing that allow me to conserve my energy and keep on truckin' even when the going gets tough. So these days I just try to focus on the walking, step after step, and try to learn to burn from within.
Some days the fire is pretty darned cold, and the path is...uh...not well lit. But every so often it is just on fire with light, and that's way cool. I don't experience these moments as often as I did when I was taking advantage of Rama's Garudabird Helicopter Service, but when they happen I know that it is my moment, my fire so to speak, and sweeter somehow because I managed to find a way to ignite it myself, without having to bum a match.
It is in these moments, strangely enough, that I feel the greatest gratitude towards Rama. By sharing his fire with me, he revealed to me that same fire within myself. But he also gave me my own flint-and-steel kit to carry with me on my treks. Now that is a gift. It's a tricky thing, trying to start a fire the old way with flint and steel. Sometimes I sit there in the dark, scraping away, failing miserably. But occasionally I get it right - the sparks fly, the tinder catches, and the quest for fire is realized. So I think I'm going to keep playing with it. With any luck, someday I may succeed in mastering it and make a complete ash of my self.