Spang in the middle

Spang in the middle

Haj Ross
English Department,
University of North Texas

I have tried to make a case for the claim that the “place” where one must be in order to tap into the deepest learning is the same as the “place” where one goes in the process of inner work, work that one undertakes in order to:

be clear
be fearless
be wise
be kind
be most truly oneself
be at peace

It is of no relevance, I feel, how a person goes about this inner work. It may be through prayer, through any one of the countless types of meditation that have been worked out by different groups or cultures all around the planet, it may be through running or other types of athletic activity, through music, through parenting, through any kind of art, through love – the list has no end. One of our jobs, if we feel drawn, inexplicably, towards this inner work, is to explore some of these myriad possibilities, to try to find the ones which are right for us.

It may make no difference how we get to this mental “space,” but let us look briefly at what some of the qualities of mind are that we will find there.

One will be humility, and as an outgrowth of that, if we are engaged in research, a total honesty about how fragile is any understanding we may have come to. The anthropologist Paul Stoller, in a class of mine that he visited and in which he gave an indelible lecture, pointed out that there are two stances that one can have towards the relationship between one’s study and one’s knowledge. The first is that the more one studies something, the more one knows about it. And the second is that the more one studies something, the more one sees how little one knows about it.

For the novice, it may be that no question will seem very deep. But for the person with more experience, who has found there to be many more sides to any question than there originally appeared to be, it will become more and more clear that not even the simplest question can ever be finally resolved. One tries to clean the lenses of one’s vision as best as one can, to come as close as it is given to one to come to some ultimate, and unattainable, truth, and one bows down before one’s own limitless ignorance. And yet there is great peace in having done one’s humble best, as we hear in Aristotle’s words:

The search for truth is in one way hard and in another easy –
for it is evident that no one of us can ever master it fully, nor miss it
wholly. Each one of us adds a little to our knowledge of nature,
and from all the facts assembled arises a certain grandeur.

Another property of this space, paradoxical though it is, is that it both requires immense amounts of effort to achieve it, and in it, no effort is possible, or even allowed. Once we are in the flow, everything seems to happen by itself.

And opposites seem less irreconcilable there, and what we used to see as unbridgeable boundaries between ourselves and every other being, every other thing, they begin to fuzz out, to fade into a great distance. To be visible from one perspective, but to lose importance in the vastness of the perspectives that now appear.
And who are we, there? How strange, preposterous: the more we are an invisible speck on a blue-green speck orbiting an unknown star in some galaxy or tother, the more we are simultaneously All That Is. Nothing and Everything become each other.


At this point in the “story,” the one assigned the job of working up the Cosmic Audience holds up the fabled placard



And we hear more clearly what Mahatma Gandhi tells us: that there may be very little that we can do, but that it is very important that we do it.

And we feel in our deepest heart the truth of what Vaclav Havel said (Fritjof Capra quotes it at the beginning of his book The Hidden Connections – A Science for Sustainable Living):

Education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections
between phenomena.

And what do we conclude, then, if we want to find our way to such a paradoxical space, and also to help others along their way? Well, one great piece of trash to heave cheerfully out the window is the popular distinction between student and teacher. The Sufis say it the pithiestly:

Even the stone is a teacher.

So to help our sisters and brothers find their path to Here is to help ourselves too, tra-la, so all formalities like saying Dr. or Prof. to anyone or bowing down to their great knowledge are going to get in the way, unless entered into in the spirit of good clean fun, in which each Student-Teacher bows down at the same time to the “other.” Keystone Cops background music accompanying this ritual will be most helpful.

So I wish myself and all my friends who are wanting to get on with our journey to where we are already, namely Spangville, Happy Trails! Remember that a journey of no miles also begins with a single step.

Haj Ross

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