Awakening with Doris Lessing

If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn in ways you do not want to learn them. ~ Doris Lessing

Travel with us and learn.

Why have you done this to me?

Jane Mooney wrote to Doris Lessing after reading Shikasta, a science fiction novel with spiritual overtones and themes. Mooney would later say,

Shikasta had the most astonishing effect on me. I just thought, “That’s it now. Everything is different. I don’t know how I can leave the house tomorrow.” And that was really frightening, and I felt very angry with her, for having written a book that took everything away. So I wrote her a letter saying, “Why have you done this to me?”


Lessing’s reply begins, “I am not a teacher. It is very important that you understand this.” She goes on to implore Mooney to continue reading books, even offering to send her some if she cannot afford them herself. Lessing ends the letter with,

“If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn in ways you do not want to learn them.”
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.

The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
     give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
     can you be truly yourself.

~ Laozi, The Tao te Ching, Chapter 22
Stephen Mitchell, translator

Yes. That is how awakenings sometimes come. Sudden and brutal. World turned upside down, emptied of its previous meanings. You sit bolt upright in bed and realize the life you’ve been living was merely a dream. And, no matter how hard you try, you cannot go back to sleep.

Shikasta took everything away, so she could have everything.

My own awakening was much more gradual. A number of books in my twenties opened my mind to other ways of thinking and being, but Shikasta … Shikasta opened a channel of spiritual resonance. It chipped away at the scientific world view to which I had been clinging for years and immersed me in a mystical and metaphysical cosmology more familiar to Eastern mystics. In ways that I cannot explain, it rang true in my core.

Yes, a book considered to be science fiction gave me a firm nudge from science to spirituality. I had been clinging to the belief, given time, science would answer every question. More than any other book, Shikasta gave voice to questions science had not answered. The most interesting questions. The most important ones. Questions about love and being, spirit and manifestation, goodness and light; questions about meaning and purpose. How did I get here? Where do I go when I die? What is consciousness? What is spirit?

The more I considered these questions, the less amenable to science they seemed. Physical and social sciences have their place, and I rely on them heavily. For the art of living, for understanding the true nature of my being…

I travel with Laozi, Buddha and Jesus, and those like Lessing who travel with them.
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