And yet, as I was sitting today, a thought came up about how much more I have enjoyed seeing people in these few days since the end of retreat than previously. I see them as manifesting God, in unique ways. Some are joyful, some mean, others cool, aloof, clueless, wise, caring. I love "subway practice," which usually takes the form of choiceless awareness, combined with a dropping of the self on the one hand and an allowing of the mind's curiosity on the other. I love looking at people's clothes, imagining what they are doing, sympathizing with those who are stressed out or who look unhappy, loving when a group of kids come on, with their crazy, unruly energy. (Luckily they're not my kids.) Subway practice depends on dropping my own story – where I am going, how pissed off I am at what happened an hour ago – and it doesn't always work. Particularly when I am running late, I am too anxious to quiet down, and so I give up, reading something on my Palm Pilot instead, or playing a game. Maybe with deeper practice, I will be able both to drop harder stories, and to allow those stories to be watched as part of the parade of life/God passing by at this moment.
How different is subway practice from "see the good in everybody"? Seemingly, only one letter different: "good" has an extra ‘o.' I don't really mind that I have come full-circle to the advice columnist in Reader's Digest, but it is very curious.
Or, more banal wisdom: I had a lot of fears about how things would go with my family. But it has gone much softer than I expected. Maybe, slowly, over time I will indeed learn to trust that things rarely are terrible. Except when they are, which worrying doesn't help in any case.
I suppose there are some differences between me and ‘Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.' I don't really enjoy talking as much as I used to, so it's not as if I want to make sparkling conversation with people. (Of course, given how egocentric much of my speech is, this could just be a balancing out to ‘normal.') And the no-self piece is a crucial, radical one. Then again, no-self is just a more extreme version of "don't think only of yourself."
Another important difference is internal. I actually feel and believe where I am coming from. It's not "oughta compassion" – it's natural compassion, or interest, or openness. If I had to sit and repeat to myself "be nice, be nice, be nice," I would not be very nice at all. And I am trying to watch the times when I don't want to be nice, and act as skillfully as possible to respect my own feelings while at the same time not being an asshole.
Probably the most important difference between where I'm at and where the supermarket books are at is: You can also not sweat the small stuff and yet not look too much inside either. Then you lead a life that may be destructive, or selfish, or, and I guess this is the least important, not quite fully human.
Does the ordinary, plain, good-people world cause suffering? Yes, but it is subterranean. "Just part of life," they say - but it isn't.
Now, I don't think that pantheism is absolutely necessary for the world to save itself - but it would help. I was a radical environmentalist before I was truly a pantheist, although even then it really came from the experience of the ‘impulse from a vernal wood.' Spirit in nature, not quite the same as spirit manifesting as nature – but close, and close enough to want to excoriate Bush for destroying the Tongass in Alaska.
But if all we are doing is relaxing and feeling good about ourselves, this suffering will continue. We constrict into our selfish needs, which we relax about, and go on hurting the weak, the brown, the planet. If we are being fully open to what is, we will experience the Ground of all being, which radiates compassion, and so we won't go to war unnecessarily or spray everything with pesticides or warm the planet so the forests die. We won't make an idolatrous god out of convenience. That is the most important difference, then, between really relaxing and opening up into truth, and relaxing like you do at the beach: when you get back from the beach, are you acting to alleviate suffering in the world?
My wind chimes are ringing on a clean winter day, and I've just noticed a few buds coming from a plant that I was sure had died.
All these programs, executing within the mind of God. These hands, clapping in emptiness.
At the school where I teach, a teacher was trying to teach something about a point of Jewish law, and the kids were misbehaving. They are full of energy. So he got a little upset at them. I suppose if you trace it back, the point of Jewish law eventually leads to God. But those kids, with their energy, were God. It was as if people argue about and puzzle over and declare the absence of exactly what they are at the exact moment they are denying it.
God Likes New Things
Abraham Joshua Heschel
You are God in Drag
Davening with Joe
Josh almost gets cancer
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From previous issues:
Trembling Before You
Are the Ten Commandments Really Carved in Stone?