Remembering The Oil

Unfortunately, it’s been WAY too long since my last post.  I was reminded of this on Monday from a great friend with a simple email…subject heading:  No More Blog Posts?  My response was to tell him how busy I’ve been — pulled in several different directions at once, looking at a whole list of commitments and self-imposed responsibilities I haven’t gotten to yet.

Then, yesterday I was in my car — leaving work, and on my way to “the next thing.”  I got a call from someone and they had the presence to ask me not, “how are you,” but “WHERE are you?”  He didn’t mean physically — he meant mentally, and he was right, I wasn’t where I should be — all in the future and nothing in the present.  Made me think about a great parable from “The Alchemist” about a perfect life lesson — a key to enjoying the experience of life…

*        *       *

“A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The lad wandered through the desert for 40 days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.

Rather than finding a saintly man, though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity: tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention.

The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours.

“Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something”, said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill”.

The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.

“Well”, asked the wise man, “Did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”

The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world”, said the wise man. “You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house”.

Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.

“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man. Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.

“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you”, said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

*        *       *

The first time I read the book, and this parable, I took it at face value — a little lesson about being mindful of your surroundings, exploration, curiosity, and how it all leads to enrichment.   I think this is why some have this great urge to “travel,” a need to fit it all in and SEE everything while there’s still time.

Then, I remember the second time I read the book, and again this parable…and now I was struck with a deeper personal understanding.  Whether my impression is right or wrong is debatable — like any great story or lesson it’s full interpretation is up to the reader — there is no absolute answer.  This little life lesson, and the messages of good friends bring me back to this understanding.

The oil on the spoon is the self. 

For me, the first time this boy goes through the wise man’s house he’s purely focused on not letting the oil spill, symbolically — he’s only pre-occupied about himself — completely self-conscious and focused on the task he’s been given.  He wants to follow instruction, achieve, and impress.  It makes him careful, cautious, and tentative because he doesn’t want to make that one wrong move.

But being this way only leads him to failure.  The wise man reminds him of this, how he missed everything around him.  So he sends him back, reminding him that this time — he needs to pay attention to all that surrounds him.

Again, the boy takes the great wise man’s advice and sees everything there is to be seen.  This time he’s only focused on what’s around him — loose, casual, directionless, and purely experiential.  He doesn’t care about the spoon, in fact, he forgets about it.  And when he returns, the spoon is empty. The wise man explains to the boy again that he “missed” something just as great on his second tour.

“The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon,” he advises.

My takeaway from this:  it doesn’t matter where you go or what you experience, if you don’t know yourself you’ll always miss the lesson, fail to find the true fulfillment.   It’s a lesson on being present, and being aware, of who you are.  If you don’t know who you are then you’ll always miss what’s around you.

So, the next time I get asked — “where are you?”  I hope I can honestly answer…”I’m here.”

~ by Dan Fabrizio on May 12, 2011.

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