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What's In A Gift?

by John Patrick Powderly 5 months ago in Short Story
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A Spiritual Story

A Mandala (GDJ on Pixabay)

A New Life

This life has been quite different from previous lives. Where before I found myself as a monk in a monastery, a hermit in a cave, or a nun in a convent, I have lived this life in the heart and bustle of life.

Rather than using isolation and separated communities to deepen my appreciation of the hidden and more refined realms, this time I have chosen to walk a spiritual path through the forest of lessons pregnant in the everyday. Work, family, travel, friendship and other ordinary opportunities have become seeds for the extraordinary.

As pre-ordained, I discovered a learning community a year ago that operates in this world but not of it. Meeting with other companions and being mentored by someone who is a few steps ahead of me, often, I pause to review where I have been, where I am and where I am going before immersing back into the cauldron of humanity.

And, I have just discovered that I meet with the teacher and leader of this School of the Soul once a year and I am on the way to see her now.

After a very private conversation that cuts to the core, the teacher says, "One year has passed since you changed direction, started to look within and to move beyond your everyday senses, and I would like to give you a gift."

As she hands me a wrapped, cube-shaped box, she says, "This gift will reveal how far you are along your spiritual path. Open it before you sleep this evening and meditate on the contents."

Later, I unwrap and open the box slowly, consciously trying not to be too excited, but there is nothing inside! Hope morphs into deep disappointment. Fanned by a breeze of shame, I commit myself to do better and fall into a troubled sleep, thinking that I have learned nothing and this was my teacher's way of revealing the tough, humbling truth.

Another year passes and the story repeats itself, except for a slightly more detailed pattern on the gift’s wrapping. And again, I am asked to meditate on the contents before sleeping.

With anticipation, I open the box and it is empty again! Devastated, I breathe in a way that I have learned recently and consciously calm myself. Then I look at the wrapping again. Not just random, abstract shapes, I realize that the discarded paper held intricate pictures and delicately handwritten words.

Amazed that I have not noticed this before, I absorb the messages. Like a scroll of my life, the wrapping highlights my experiences and heartfelt lessons over the last twelve months.

I smile and sleep well.

Moving Beyond

The annual ritual continues. Each year the tapestry of images and writings on the gift box becomes even more refined than the previous year. Also, no longer a perfect cube, the shape of the present slowly changes, looking much more organic and natural.

I continue to learn how to learn from everyday life, seasoned with regular conversations, physical exercises, and contemplations set by the School of the Soul. And the anniversary gift synthesizes all this into one intricate, handcrafted collage.

And there is still nothing in the box.

It is difficult to admit, but this repeated exercise starts to feel boring! In contrast to my growing appreciation for an interior view of the world and emerging insights into the way the universe works, the empty gift seems a little same-old-same-old; just confirming and affirming what I know already.

It reminds me of those long, tiring car journeys as a child, where you know you are moving forward and getting somewhere, but you feel weighed down by the lack of something truly new.

I appreciate the effort that goes into producing this timely gift, but it also reminds me of a nagging sense of doubt that normally stays behind the scenes. Something is missing and a growing sense of emptiness becomes associated with this present-that-is-not-a-present.

As the years pass, I start to value the negative feelings, as well as the revealing highs — a gradual, grudging appreciation for the human side of my nature that rarely stands in the limelight.

I recognize that the apathy, frustration, grief, fear, confusion, exhaustion, and disappointment mark the perimeter of my understanding. Like wearing a blindfold in a room that you have never seen before, these energy-sapping emotions show me the limits of what I know and start to clarify what I do not know — the first step of wisdom.


Before the twelfth anniversary of receiving the gift, I decided to reframe this annual milestone and prepare even more consciously. Similar to tuning a radio to the right frequency, I have been learning about the art of receiving, so I want to prepare myself to receive the gift with full awareness.

First I need to honor the feeling of being bored because I know it could be a doorway to Truth. This approach stems from my increasing need and ability to set my own challenges and to not over-rely on those set by my mentors.

With full consciousness, I allow myself a few more seconds before sitting down by my respected teacher. I can see the wrapped present and I smile. A genuine, warm smile grows from my need to respect the occasion. Like always, her eyes say a thousand words and a sense of peace descends. My teacher says the same words again, "Meditate on the contents of this box" and the repetition soothes rather than irritates me this year.

At that moment, everything seems a little brighter and my heart beats a little faster, as my body indicates the rising of a beautiful new insight. Meditate on the contents. Meditate on what is in the box. Meditate on an empty box. Meditate on the space with nothing in it. Meditate on nothingness…

The recent insight from the annual ritual of receiving a gift still resonates deeply within me and shines a light on the growing sense of emptiness I have felt over the last few years. Where previously I feared that I have been losing my strong sense of commitment, now I realize that feeling empty foretells an impending new phase of spiritual growth.

After all these years, I have received the gift — truly received it.

I received the messages on the surface all these years, but I had not received the full, deeper message. Now, I realize that my teacher has been trying to encourage me to value the space within the gift.

And within myself.

To do this, now I need to empty myself of all assumptions and expectations again and again and again. Rather than following a spiritual path, it is time for me to create my own way and to lead myself.

Letting go of fantasies, hopes, illusions, and delusions, I focus consciously on the ground beneath my feet, embrace the unknown and let the next step emerge within my heart. Moving beyond thoughts, senses, and feelings, I clear a space within and open myself up to receiving something fresh and refreshing.

I am the space within the gift.

I am not above or below.

I am not here or there.

I am not still or in motion.

I am no thing.

I am nothingness.

As I immerse into this contemplation, everything slips away and I am just left with the experience.

I am soundless, but not silent.

I am shapeless with no boundary.

I am infinite.

I am.

This silence behind all musical notes and this blank canvas behind all paintings presents itself as a vibrant, palpable whiteness that surrounds me. Not sure how I know, but I know that consciously observing this endless light enables this nothingness to exist. And the nothingness allows me to exist.


It has been quite a year. My mystical experience still resonates strongly with me, even though my daily routine and life have hardly changed. It will be interesting to see how my annual gift from my teacher portrays my inner transformation over the last few months.

Unusually, my teacher asks me to meet her outside in the garden, rather than privately inside. Walking through the trees on a cool, sunny day helps me to stay alert. I see my smiling mentor ahead, with the gift on a small table. Something seems different, but I cannot articulate the change until I am nearer.

As expected, the shape of the gift has changed a little more and the images on the box are even more subtle. And I think I can see hints of a golden thread in the tapestry. The patterns and pictures are even more refined, but my eye is drawn to one area that has been left untouched and plain. Interesting.

But the big difference is that the gift is bigger. From a distance, this is not so evident, but up close the gift box is definitely larger. Intriguing.

Not surprisingly, I am asked to meditate on the contents of the box. Like every year, I open the box before I sleep, wondering if there will be nothing again, just a larger space. To my surprise, there is another box, similar to the normal size I receive each year, but this one is not wrapped. It is plain like virgin snow.

I open the second box and there is nothing inside.

Like normal, I meditate on the contents, but this time my focus is an unused, unwrapped box as if I am starting all over again. No, I am not! But I know someone who is starting very soon. Intuitively, I know that I have to give this box to someone else — a new student. It looks like I am starting to mentor and be a tutor for someone else. I will spend the year producing a collage of images and words for my novice. Already, I am learning that the best way for me to learn right now is to teach and to care for someone else’s spiritual growth.

Deeper within consciousness I sense a living timeline and I am one moment on a continuous chain of teaching passed consciously from one human being to another. The form of that teaching changes in accordance with the times, as the current generation receives the perennial wisdom and feels inspired to create something new, yet rooted in something very universal and old.

The living oral spiritual tradition continues.

Short Story

About the author

John Patrick Powderly

An interior view of the everyday. Spiritual explorations. Psychological insights. Transformational experiences.

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