How to See in the Dark

Is it good news if it hasn’t been snowing where you are? Is this bad news if it has? Many of us are eager for the levity of spring to relieve this burden of dark and cold which has weighed us down for some time now. But maybe if tulips suddenly appeared, there would be opportunities we would otherwise miss.

It’s easy to feel disconnected or lonely when we’re called to stay indoors, but
it may be the only way we allow for reflection and inward delving. I heard a lovely teaching this morning, credited to Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master of the forest tradition, that offered encouragement for our predicament:

We need the balance of calm and insight to wake up. It’s essential for us to establish and maintain a quality of stability to allow us to truly let down and relax. Without calm, we cannot heal physically or mentally, and there is no container for inquiry.

Inquiry alone can spin us in circles, chasing our own tail without relief, “Why am I like this? Why are you like that? Why does life feel this way? What am I doing wrong?”.

Ajahn Chah compares this concept of calm + inquiry = awakening,  to a candle and flame: if we have a candle but no fire, there is no growth, no chance for illumination. The candle just sits. If we only have a match or book of matches, they can stay lit for just a moment, and we merely catch glimpses of insight. When we have the deep reserve of candle-calm as our internal attitude, we can sustain the flame-like teachings and personal insights for growth. Both are needed to ferry us across the remaining winter days.

I love the wisdom of devoted practitioners and also the eternal lessons of ancient stories. Here’s a Chinese tale that illuminates our silliness around ideas of good luck and bad luck.

There was once a poor farmer who had only one son and one horse. They toiled together, sunup to sundown, just to get by.

One day their horse got spooked and ran away. Devastated, the son cried, “Oh, what bad luck! What will we do?”. The father replied, “Good luck, bad luck. It’s too soon to tell.”

The father and son continued to work the farm and one day the horse returned. Their fine steed came back with six other horses. The son exclaimed, “What great luck! now we have all the horses we’ll ever need!”

To which the farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. It’s too soon to tell.

As the father and son began to work with the new horses, the son was thrown by a particularly difficult one and his leg was broken. The son cried out, “Oh Father! I am so sorry! Now you will have to work the farm by yourself. What terrible luck!”.

As you may have predicted, the father said, “Good luck bad luck. It’s too soon to tell.”

Soon after, a civil war broke out in the country. All of the able-bodied young men were sent off to fight. The farmer’s son, having a broken leg, was forced to stay at home.

After the leg healed, the father had the only farm around with a son to help and seven horses to boot. They worked the farm and prospered.

My take away from this tale is the inspiration to practice detachment. While the son was alternately dazzled and devastated, the father stayed steady. He neither scorned nor encouraged his son’s exlaimations.

Long ago, my husband worked for ebay, which meant we had a lot of stock. For the first several months, we watched the reports of the stock market, and when it was up, we went out to dinner and celebrated! When it was down, we suffered shame for having overspent! All this while, the money wasn’t even really ours.

Eventually we learned this same lesson, having to let it go or feel jerked around way too often by the ever-changing nature of life.

An important piece of detachment that’s easy to miss or misunderstand: it’s not saying that you don’t care, but deciding that you’ll be OK either way.

We can use this stance all day, every day. I’ll be OK if it keeps snowing and if it gets super hot.


I will find my way, and I won’t know what that means until I get to that next place along the road.