Awareness does not bring comfort. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: Awareness, letting something significant and disturbing develop between oneself and a symbol, comes more by being waited upon rather than by being asked.  One of the most baffling of life’s experiences is to stand beside one who is aware, one who is looking at a symbol and is deeply moved by it, and, confronting the same symbol, to be unmoved.  Oh that we could just be open in the presence of symbols that cry out to speak to us, let our guards down, and take the risks of being moved!

 The power of a symbol is measured by its capacity to sustain a flow of significant new meaning.  The substance of the symbol may be a painting, a poem or story, allegory, myth, or Scripture, a piece of music, a person, a crack in the sidewalk, or a blade of grass.  Whatever or whoever, it produces a confrontation in which much that makes the symbol meaningful comes from the beholder.

Once again Greenleaf reminds us, as have the ancients for thousands of years, that what is important when it comes to ‘awareness’ is being open and waiting; not asking.  What develops ‘between’ one’s self and a symbol is then ‘significant’ and ‘disturbing’ (remember, Greenleaf suggest that ‘awareness does not bring comfort or solace’ but more often brings ‘disturbance’).  And, what develops is not just any old thing, it is something of ‘significance.’

I have had the experience that Greenleaf refers to; in fact I have played both roles.  I have been the person who was deeply moved by a symbol while standing next to a person who ‘didn’t get it’ and I have been the person who didn’t get it – I was confused because the person next to me was deeply moved by the symbol.  How many times during my life have ‘symbols’ cried out to me and how many times have I not been open to hearing their cry?  Too many to count I think.

I love Greenleaf’s next statement: ‘The power of a symbol is measured by its capacity to sustain a flow of significant new meaning.’  I am sitting here recalling several such symbols – a few poems, Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ is one; a few quotations, Gandhi’s ‘Be the Change you want to see in the world,’ is one; the ‘lone cypress’ on the 17 Mile Drive is another.  There are also certain books that provide me ‘new meaning’ each time I sit with them and savor their message.

Gentle reader, what are the symbols that continue to have the ‘capacity to sustain a flow of significant new meaning’ for you?  What motivates you to be open to a symbol?  What might block or hinder your being open?

I remember Robert Frost responding to a person who wanted to know the meaning of a poem that Frost had written; the poem was a challenge for the person – ‘understanding’ it was not within the person’s reach.  Frost smiled – the smile of the wise that some of us have experienced – and told the person: Read it…Read it…Read it…Read it…it means what it says to you.

For certain symbols, ‘one reading’ is not enough.  It may take many ‘readings’ before ‘it means what it says to you.’  How many of us have this kind of patience and openness required?

All commend patience; few are willing to practice it. –Thomas a Kempis

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