Chapter 8 (continued)
As I stated in passing in my previous post, The Jewel of Wonder, finding our way along the path of a particular spiritual tradition can be like orienting a map to the terrain. In orienting a map to the terrain we try to find a couple of landmarks that correspond to those on the map so that we might have greater confidence in its ability to help us find our way. Of course, the terrain in this analogy is our interior world and the qualities of our awareness. The map, then, is the aggregation of the teachings of whatever spiritual tradition to which we’ve dedicated ourselves.
Spiritual traditions usually have something to say about the qualities of awareness that they value in the figures that they revere. Unfortunately, if we don’t believe that we’ve ever experienced those qualities of awareness ourselves, then we might begin to doubt our ability to ever experience them at all. We might consider them to be the sole purview of the saints and sages, but not us ordinary folk. The danger with our placing revered figures up on pedestals, however, is that we risk turning them into little more than objects of our worship or devotion rather than examples that we might emulate. As a result, our spiritual practice might become one in which we’re always travelling, travelling, travelling (wandering?), without ever arriving at our “destination.” What a shame that would be, given the fact that our destination is this very moment!
What I hope to convey in the pages of this book is that we know more about the qualities of awareness of the saints and sages than we might think, and by bringing these qualities of awareness “down to earth” – by recognizing them in ourselves – we can begin to experience them with greater regularity. We simply have to recognize the landmarks. I spoke of wonder in the last post. To this we can add belonging, with more to come in future posts. Let me begin again with belonging.
While I’m out backpacking in the woods or hiking up in the mountains, it sometimes occurs to me that I’m a little bit like an astronaut visiting another planet. I have my meager supply of food and water, and gear enough to protect me from the elements, but my life-support system will only last for so long. After that I’ll have to go back to where I “belong.” Sure, if I were a better outdoorsman, I might extend my visit an appreciable amount. But even the best outdoorsmen eventually make their way back to civilization. It is a rare individual indeed who can head off into the forest to live indefinitely – as if she belonged there.
On the other hand, the plants and animals of the natural world always belong. Their very existence is proof of this. If a seed sprouts, it’s because conditions were right for it. It belongs. If an animal is born, it’s because its parents found food and shelter enough to bring offspring into this world. It, too, belongs. We modern humans, however, have a conflicted relationship with the natural world. We don’t just put down roots and reach toward the sun. We don’t just forage for food and burrow for shelter wherever we might find ourselves. We have more precise and complicated requirements than these – endlessly precise and complicated, it sometimes seems. Whereas wild things always belong, we humans struggle to belong even in those places that we’ve totally designed to meet our needs. We’ve grown too distant from the natural world in order to feel that we belong there, and yet our modern, manmade world too often fosters in us loneliness and alienation instead of the belongingness that we crave.
Our struggle begins the moment we venture from the cozy nest of belongingness that is our family home – the emotional template for what we will be searching for out there in the larger world. And even if our family home was a dysfunctional one, we nonetheless likely acquired some intuitive sense of what it was that we missed way back when – what our family life “should” have been like. Regardless, once we reach a certain age we each head off to school alone where we struggle to fit into at least one of the various groups or cliques that inevitably form there. We struggle to become educated in order that we might somehow fit into this complex and unforgiving modern economy. We struggle to get our foot in the door of some company that we might begin to work our way up the career ladder to the place where we think we will belong. We struggle to fit in with our neighbors and coworkers and fellow spiritual travelers. We struggle to find a partner with whom to raise a family or simply enjoy the intimate sense of belonging that such companionship can provide.
All our lives we struggle in order to feel that we belong, and every now and then we taste its sweetness. Ah, but then we get laid off, or transferred out of town. Our relationship with our partner comes to an end, or the one with our spiritual community begins to sour. And so our struggle begins all over again to carve out a place in the wilderness of modernity where we might feel that sense of belongingness once again.
But might there be a place where we always belong – no matter what has happened to us, or is happening to us, or who we have become? Obviously, I’m not thinking of any particular place where we might find ourselves. I’m thinking of a state of mind, a realization of who and what and where we really are. Forget everything about yourself that might exist in some file or database regarding your financial assets, or your credentials and qualifications. In the grand scheme of things such measures are little more than the tallies of petty parlor games. Forget everything about where you think you came from and where you think you’re going. These are mere distractions from this moment here and now. Forget your name and forget your face. For nothing that is really meaningful has anything to do with either one. In the vastness of the space-time of our universe you are an observing consciousness born of unique causes and conditions that will never be repeated. Like the wild animals born of their parents, and the windblown seeds that find a spot of earth in which to root, you belong. You are the universe observing the universe, and you belong.
Such truth went without saying when we were younger and without such complicated ideas as to who and what we are. We needed no coaching then in order to dedicate our entire being to observation and wonder. We belonged then without even trying to belong. But the stronger our sense of self became, the more focused we became on where our edges met the world, and the more easily we overlooked the fact that we arise from the world as opposed to being born into it. In other words, the more complicated we become the more difficult it was for us to feel that we belong. So much has to be just right. So much has to be just so.
So, what is the belongingness of your experience? Is it a childhood memory of warmth and caring and protection, or is it a sense of something missed? Do you feel it now within the friendship and kinship and spiritual groups of the life that you presently live, or are those the very places that you hope to find it? Is yours the belongingness of Christianity – the belongingness of the prostitutes and tax collectors and centurions and criminals, and all the otherwise “unwelcome” people who belong just as much as everyone else within the Kingdom of God? Is it the belongingness of Buddhism, for instance, in which everything is dependent upon everything else for its very existence? How can anything not belong when everything is so dependent on everything else?
Yes, there are many ways to think of it, and many ways to experience it. But if you need just a hint as to how to get in touch with it – belongingness in the deepest, inalienable sense – try finding that place on the grass once again… Lay back and gaze up at the sky. Forget what you’ve become, or whatever it is that you think you’ve done with your life. Become the child that you once were, without a past and without a future. You are the universe perceiving the universe, and nothing else is expected of you. This is your birthright. This is where you belong. Ah, but can you trust that it is so?!
To be continued…
Benary Cross by Wilhelm Benary via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank