Part I, Chapter 3 - The Journey Home
I suspect that most readers of this book in progress have long since entered adulthood – and long since “recovered” from the fall from grace as I’ve been speaking of it so far. By that I mean that we’ve adapted to or become acclimated to the sense of separation that accompanies what is generally considered the healthy ego development and individuation of growing up. Acclimation, however, does not mean that all is well; it simply means that we’re surviving. True, some of us manage to survive well enough that we live out the remainder of our days in this state of acclimation, having become so suitably oriented to our sense of separation that we never even think of anything being awry, but others of us are not so “lucky”. Others of us become all too aware over the course of our adult lives of the negative aspects of the separation of which I speak.
The separation that I’m speaking of likely means different things to different people. The fact that I’ve so liberally invoked the metaphor of the fall from grace will likely have many from the Judeo-Christian traditions thinking in terms of separation from God. Indeed, one definition of the word sin relates to “a vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God.” Others who embrace the wisdom traditions of the East might think in terms of our separation from our “true self” – the purest and freest essence of being that we might realize. Those who embrace Native American or earth-centered spirituality might think of the separation of which I speak in terms of separation from the natural order of life itself or of being out of balance with some optimal or more harmonious way of being. Which of these ways of thinking about our separation do I mean? In fact, I see no reason to exclude any of them from consideration. They each have something of interest to offer to the discussion.
What then do we do once we’ve begun to realize our separation? Are such feelings destined to be a part of life forevermore once they’ve arisen or can we somehow make things right again? Can we rise up from our fall? Can we make seamless that which has been torn? Can we regain our balance once again after getting out of kilter? All religions offer hope in this regard. However, it often seems to be the case that we interpret the journey back to wholeness as a journey toward the attainment of greater intellectual or spiritual knowledge or toward a more perfect self or toward a state of more complete adherence to some ideal way of behaving. In other words, the solution to the problem caused by our developing such a strong sense of self is often taken to consist of the enhancement or perfection or refinement of the very selfhood that is the problem in the first place. What I hope to offer, then, is a new way of looking at whatever spiritual practice the reader might be engaged in. Rather than thinking of spiritual practice as the attainment of something new and shiny and different, or as mysterious and difficult and arduous for that matter, think of spiritual practice as the remembering of that which we already know.
Consider, for instance, a story from the Buddha’s journey of awakening: After renouncing his birthright as future leader of the Shakya clan, the man first known as Siddhartha Gautama took leave of his princely life in order to become a mendicant holy man. He took to wandering the Ganges watershed, living off the fruit of the forest, travelling from town to town, begging for food and engaging in meditative practice. As occasions arose during the course of his wanderings, the young seeker learned from various teachers how to reach ever deeper stages of meditative absorption. Despite such expert instruction, however, the future Buddha remained unsatisfied that his quest was over. It was then that he took up ever more extreme ascetic practice – six years of which left him perilously weak and depleted, but no closer to his goal.
Near death, he recalled a childhood memory of going out into the countryside with the rest of the Shakya royal family and its entourage in order to take part in the annual plowing festival. He remembered his nurses getting so caught up in the festivities that they wandered off, leaving him alone in the shade of a rose-apple tree. Left to his own devices, the youngster settled spontaneously into the meditative absorption that he would only “learn” much later. Of course, the rest is history. The future Buddha regained his strength and, inspired by the recollection of that which he already knew, commenced to sitting as he had as a young child – albeit, one with unprecedented insight and determination.
Consider also a story told in the Gospels of an incident that occurred in the course of Jesus’ teaching. People began bringing their children to him in order that he might bless them. Perhaps thinking that little children would only distract Jesus from his teaching of important truths or otherwise be incapable of understanding his message the disciples tried to keep them away. It is then that Jesus is reported to have said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
What are we to make of these two stories? Are they unrelated tales that merely serve to add a bit of color to the overarching message conveyed by these two great teachers? Or are these stories, in fact, both central to the teachings of these two respective individuals and also related? It should come as no surprise that I find the latter to be true!
What is not obvious from the aforementioned story of the Buddha’s journey to awakening is that much of the work related to learning and navigating the stages of meditative absorption that the Buddha learned relates to dismantling the strong sense of self that we expend so much energy creating in the years and decades after our fall. We might paraphrase the poet T.S. Elliot in saying that at the end of all of his exploring the Buddha arrived at the meditative state of his childhood and knew it for the first time. I would tweak that sentiment just a bit and say that he finally remembered that which he already knew.
We tend to forget that part of the Buddha’s story, don’t we? We’re more inclined, instead, to think of him as a meditation practitioner of extraordinary accomplishment, a disseminator of a vast store of acquired wisdom. We see in him that which we adults can relate to, the ceaseless quest for the perfection of wisdom and of being, the struggle to persevere and overcome – those things that we’ve come to value subsequent to our fall. The simplicity of a child spontaneously entering into peaceful meditation doesn’t make the headlines – either in this world or apparently the one in which the Buddha lived. It’s far too easy.
Jesus likewise had a reputation, at least in part, of being the wise answer man. Pose a question to him related to Rabbinic Law and he would turn it on its ear. No riddle could ensnare him. No query could stump him. Indeed, the Pharisees tried their best – firing questions at him that they might detect the flaws in his logic, the weak spots in his scriptural understanding, and the limits of his spiritual acumen. Jesus understood, however, that conceptualization and intellectualization cannot bridge the gulf that forms between us and that which some call the kingdom of God. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Please don’t construe what I’m saying here as anti-intellectual. There is definitely a time and a place for study and questioning. But there is also a time to set aside those things and simply be. Some might consider this ‘simply being’ the process of meditation; others might consider it receiving the kingdom of God. Perhaps you call it something else. However, I suspect that whatever you call it encompasses bridging, healing, overcoming, transcending, etc. the separation that we’ve come to experience in the wake of our fall.
Man overlooking the Grand Canyon via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank