Photos by Ryan McGinley
Giving thought to certain virtues such as gratitude is always a good idea, but cyclical beings that we are, we tend to only become intensely aware and focused on certain virtues according to the season, holiday, occasion… Summer’s culmination and Fall’s initiation always leave me invariably reflective and conscious of HARVEST and GRATITUDE. It’s an emotionally transformative time because many things are coming to an end... (death’s theatrics), and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can really be relished. But harvest time encompasses so much more than the plucking of edible sustenance; it’s the time of year we harvest knowledge and experiences.
If you’ve had a drink with me at all over this past year you’ve most likely heard me refer to this year as my gathering phase. While we are always in inadvertently absorbing sensory experiences and hopefully edification as well, there is something huge to be said about the shift in becoming intensely and consciously aware … In the light of that awareness, we notice innumerable synchronicities, messages, and lessons. It can be overwhelming and scary, but there are special beings who are more than willing to guide. This past year, I started for the first time in my life really asking these light beings for help. The prerequisite to this being, knowing what I wanted in the first place; (very important). What I received was a beautiful abundance of the most nourishing words, support, stories, means… This was a big step but it would have meant little without knowing how to receive all the gifts and love directed at me, which was perhaps the hardest part.
The Buddhist concept of “Dana” came to mind, which led me to an essay by Maria Papova “The Art of Not-Having-to-Ask,” wrote as a postscript to the paperback edition of Amanda Palmers book (which I have not yet read).
“We are embodied spirits who need raw material, both physical and spiritual, to create. But we forget that we are also social beasts who need not slash through the bramble of those needs alone. In Buddhism and other ancient Eastern traditions, there is a beautiful concept connoted by the Pali word dana (pronouncedDAH-nah), often translated as the virtue of generosity. But at its heart is something far more expansive — a certain quality of open-handedness in dynamic dialogue with need and organically responsive to it. The practice of dana has sustained the Buddhist tradition for two and a half millennia — monks give their teachings freely, and the lay people who benefit from them give back to the monks by making sure their sustenance needs are met. In a sense, dana is the art of not-having-to-ask — a natural and intuitive recognition that the energies poured into creating meaning (and what is art if not the making of meaning?) must be replenished in order for that stuff of substance to continue flowing through and fertilizing the ecosystem of interconnectedness in which all beings are entwined. In the modern West, governed by the invisible hand of tit-for-tat mentality long before Adam Smith articulated its grasp, we’ve had to master the art of asking as a coping mechanism making up for our intuitive but atrophied mastery of the art of not-having-to-ask. It is always the artists who crack open society’s self-imposed shackles and return us, over and over, to the naked truth of the human spirit, to the intuitive knowledge sold short by the ideologies we’ve bought into — something Henry Miller did beautifully in one of his love letters to Anaïs Nin, penned in the thick of WWII, in which he contemplated precisely this atrophied understanding of the natural osmosis of giving and receiving. Arguing that asking and receiving require at least as much grace and generosity as giving…
Such is the way of life indeed, but only if we are nursed on an early and steadfast security in asking: The hallmark of great parenting is unconditional love, in the warm embrace of which the child’s needs are met, often without having to even ask; and when she does ask, the parent doesn’t shame her for asking. Thoreau (per Amanda’s anecdote [in the book]) seems to have been the product of such parenting, for he clearly had no reservations about accepting the Sunday donuts his mother brought him — she simply assumed that this was what her son needed, and he simply received them. Thoreau was unashamed to devour the donuts in his cabin while he honed his spiritually enlightened, unmaterialistic definition of success:
In our judgmental black-and-white culture increasingly incapable of nuance, we might be tempted to dismiss this duality as a special form of hypocrisy that discredits Thoreau’s creative legacy. But make no mistake: It was, in fact, a special form of wisdom that only adds to his genius — the wisdom of recognizing that the art of giving and the art of receiving are compatriots in the kingdom of creative culture, absolutely vital to each other’s survival. The magic of our own era — 2,500 years after the dawn of dana and a century and a half after Thoreau and many decades after Miller and Nin and Stein — is that the average person probably interacts with more people in a single week, online and off, than the average Buddhist monk or transcendentalist philosopher or even socialite writer did over the course of a lifetime. In a sense, we are being constantly reparented by one another, our needs incubated in the collective nest of culture. It’s magical, and also scary, but mostly magical to be able to ask complete strangers for those soul-nourishing donuts — and to be able to offer one another these allegorical donuts of dana as we unlearn everything our transactionalist culture has taught us about “the market,” relearn our natural open-handed generosity, and slowly remaster the art of not-having-to-ask”.
Driving around windy roads with the foliage coming down like confetti and all of this on my mind, new meaning was revealed in “Ballerina” from Van Morrison’s album “Astral Weeks”. We can’t do everything by ourselves. The sun doesn’t shine for its own sake. Receiving can be a beautiful luminous thing.
“But if it gets to you
And you feel like you just can't go on
All you gotta do
Is ring a bell
Step right up, and step right up
And step right up
Just like a ballerina