All of the foregoing may sound very 'spiritual,' but it is subtly different from conventional spirituality. I think the best way to express this is to use a vulgar metaphor, so here goes. Religion tells you that if you act right, the shit won't hit the fan. Spirituality recognizes that the shit hits the fan, but tries to get it to smell good. Contemplation recognizes that the shit hits the fan, recognizes that it smells bad, but asks that you be okay with it smelling bad.
Kind of a vulgar metaphor -- but bear in mind that the shit and the fan are really sickness, tragedy, war, natural disasters, undesirable election results, and the ordinary sadness that all of us experience in our lives. So it's not a vulgar thought.
What I have observed, during long retreat practice and in other contemplative work, is that a miraculous confluence of spirituality and contemplation occurs without any stimulation from us. Simply put, when we quiet down -- just silence, just stillness -- and see things as they are, compassion, lovingkindness, and wisdom appear on their own. When you really get to who you are, underneath all the neurosis, alongside the deep wounds from childhood, you find yourself to be a compassionate person who, just like all the rest of us, simply wants to love and be loved, and to live life right.
At least, that's what I've found. And it's what, in near-unanimity, generations of other contemplatives have also found. Note, we're not finding "goodness" in any particular ethical or moral sense. I love the stories of Ikkyu, the enlightened Zen monk who, after his enlightenment, would carouse with prostitutes and get drunk. That's what he found, and he exasperated the more traditional authorities who had a set idea of what an enlightened person is supposed to look like. In reality, an enlightened person doesn't look like anything in particular. Like the much-overtold story of Zusya of Hanipol, the sage looks not like Moses or Jesus, but like Zusya. Like her true self.
This is really a radically different picture of the human soul from, say, the doctrine of original sin. If we are actually compassionate at heart, then the way to goodness is not through more rules and more Confucian-Protestant-Orthodox-Jewish moral laws, but through getting more and more in touch with who we really are.
The Fundamentalist Christian view of the self is: repress your deep, dark instincts, because they are evil, corrupted by Original Sin. The view I am articulating is: get in touch with your deep, supposedly-dark instincts, and bring them all to Light.
Now, on a societal level, we obviously need moral laws, rules, and the rest. It is not reasonable to expect everybody to go off on extended meditation retreats and get to know their true natures. Doing so is a privilege, conditioned by economic ability, as well as by the way our lives have happened to play out. (Many people call that 'karma.') Even if we have the ability to quit our jobs and sit in a monastery for three months, we may have children, or responsibilities to other people. My life is relatively free of such responsibilities, and yet it still took the willingness and compassion of dozens of people to enable me to sit for six weeks last autumn. Tragically -- and let's not underestimate the nature of that tragedy -- contemplative practice is not available to everyone. And, obviously, most people don't desire it either. So all the usual ethical rules and regulations remain in place, and in debate.
But what's really going on? What's really going on, I've come to believe, is that we are creatures with basic wants and needs, but that we have minds (some would say "souls," but I think that's spirituality-talk) that are capable of coming to see those wants and needs so that they no longer have to be served in quite the same way as before. This is what differentiates us from animals. We have the same kinds of wants and drives and needs, and there's nothing wrong with most of them -- there's no harm in eating hot fudge sundaes, in moderation at least. But other wants cause great suffering to others, and to ourselves. Those are the desires that we might just try to be with -- instead of trying to push them away by fulfilling them. If you can just allow yourself the sensation of wanting-to-tell-off-that-jerk-at-the-office, then it's not so important to get rid of that sensation by telling off the jerk. A fortiori (kal v'chomer) the desire to connect to God by settling His holy land, or the moral desire to purge the world of sinfulness and infidels. Or the desire to feel like a big caveman (or cavewoman) by owning a huge house and huge SUV to go with it, climate be damned. And so on.
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart
Whatever it Takes
The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
James Lee Byars & the number Ten
Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
Jacob said to an angel, Tell me your Name
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The I-Thou Circus
February 10, 2005
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Zionism and Colonialism
A Song of Ascents
Hiding your Sins