“You are not living life. You are life.”
Plants and animals act from a natural grace—each according to its kind. Your cat feels no need to justify its existence. The oak tree in your yard doesn’t believe it must correct its deficiencies. Our neighbors in nature simply allow the energies of life to move through them unimpeded, without struggle, angst, or morality. That oak tree isn’t trying to do anything. Yet it accomplishes tremendous feats—giving oxygen, shade, and beauty to people, and all manner of benefits to other living things. Each tree fulfills itself by just being itself. An oak tree would not be served—nor serve the ecosystem—by trying to be an apple tree. Nor does it look over the fence and try to imitate the oak a yard over. It twists its limbs without regard for fashion; it wears its wounds without shame.
Humans, for the most part, do not believe they have that natural grace—that unquestioned connection to life itself. Do you walk through the woods like a squirrel or a tiger? Do you enter a room like a weather system? Are you a natural feature the way a mountain or a river is? These questions may sound absurd to our ears. That’s telling. We humans feel ourselves apart from life. According to Merriam-Webster, ‘nature’ is by definition “that part of the physical world that is removed from human habitation.” We’ve got all the same parts as a squirrel—heart, brain, eyes, guts. We breathe the same air. We live under the same sun. But somehow the squirrel is part of nature and we aren’t exactly.
The Catholic Church has always believed there’s a good reason for that uneasy feeling that we don’t quite belong. They call it original sin. And while we may intellectually reject the idea as absurd, most of us still imagine a version of it lurking somewhere in our past. Our sense of having made—or of being—a mistake may not have a graphic explanation like the story of Adam and Eve. But the very vagueness of the feeling’s source can supercharge its power, allowing it to cloud almost everything we think and do. The deer glides into a clearing, alert to the moment—responsive to every newborn sight and sound. But we humans can’t give the rooms we enter the same kind of attention. We experience the world through the haze of inadequacy. The idea fogs our vision so pervasively it seems like part of the landscape itself: “There’s something I need to prove. Or improve. What don’t I like? What’s not up to snuff? What’s wrong here?” We may not believe in redemption through Christ, but we’re almost always seeking redemption.
Even if we’ve never read a line of scripture, and don’t ever want to, we’re bombarded by the gospel of proving and improving. Its preachers come in the guise of parents, schools, bosses, spouses, and all manner of other moral and intellectual experts. Each outside opinion has a different version of what tendencies must be condemned and what virtues imposed. In school, a child’s desire to move, explore, talk, and laugh is often the problem, regardless of how “enlightened” our new language to describe it. (The teacher of my friend’s first grader emailed my friend to say his child had gotten upset in class and used “vocabulary manipulatives.” I think that means he swore.) Take an improv class and now it’s your inhibitions that are the issue. In a marriage, one spouse is too emotional, the other too uncommunicative. Politicians and social reformers on both the left and the right lead the faithful in heroic charges against greed, laziness, lust, or offensive language. Scientists tell us our genes program us for behavior that we must overcome or guard against. But the most powerful voices often come from within us. We look at our bank accounts, our accomplishments, and ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves poor, subpar, and ugly. Many of us live in a near-constant acid rain of internal criticism.
That sense that something’s wrong—that mistakes have been made—doesn’t just apply to ourselves. We sense there’s something wrong in general—with, kind of, everything: our environment, our government, our schools, our spouses. Our actions are typically re-actions: a defect rears up before us and we must condemn and then correct it. This is usually both well-meaning and automatic. So automatic that it’s hardly ever noticed. Like fish in water, our minds are awash with judging and fixing.
Not so, it would seem, in the natural world. Earthworms don’t hold rallies to protest poor soil quality. If they had fingers, they wouldn’t point them at anyone. They’re not motivated to increase the aeration, infiltration, and nutrient content of the soil. They just do it. When we build houses on raccoon habitat, they don’t scream obscenities at us from our backyards. They just start eating our garbage. Problem? What problem? Seeing errors, deficiencies, injustices, evils, sins—call them what you will—appears to be an exclusively human habit. And the noble effort to overcome them is central to Western culture.
Paradoxically, the central figure of Western culture encouraged the opposite attitude. The idea of original sin was loaded onto Christ’s shoulders only in the minds of subsequent Catholics. Jesus himself didn’t so much trudge as saunter. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he tells his followers. “Just like cats and squirrels,” he might have added. The gospel song goes “We Shall Overcome.” But Jesus wasn’t dancing to that dirge. He wasn’t trying to overcome anything. He never played the martyr card. He encouraged the opposite of what we’d call responsible behavior. In Matthew, Jesus advises,
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink… what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin… If God so clothe the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you?”
Jesus was closer in spirit to a coyote than a clergyman, often ignoring dusty traditions or proper behavior. He gets kvetched at for picking corn and healing the sick on the Sabbath; he refuses to condemn an adulteress; he drinks wine with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus navigated the conventional morality and rules of his culture like those raccoons amble through a housing development. Unencumbered by problems to fix, he allowed the spontaneous pulse of life itself to animate his step and guide his actions. People noticed. Matthew tells us that “he taught like someone with authority and not like the legalists they were used to.”
There’s also nothing in the gospels to suggest Jesus believed in the protestant work ethic. Or any other work ethic. Instead, the stories told by and about Jesus favor, if not quite laziness, a kind of divine nonchalance illuminated by love. Luke reports that Jesus
entered a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. She had a sister, Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she came up to him, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her to help me.” Jesus answered her, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed.”
The brothers James and John are in a boat helping their father mend their fishing nets when Christ calls to them, whereupon “they immediately left the boat and their father behind and became devoted to him.” Imagine a modern version of that story: two sons helping their dad fix the tractor on the family farm suddenly walk off with a charismatic itinerant who happens by. ‘Not cool’ would be our near-unanimous response. In one of Christ’s parables, the owner of a vineyard hires workers at one denarius for a day’s work. Later, with only an hour left in the workday, he hires more workers for the same pay. The first workers gripe: “You’ve made those latecomers equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The owner reminds them, “Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius?... Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
Generosity. Abundance. Gifts given freely. Cares and worries let go. This is Jesus’s message. The father forgives the prodigal son while the responsible son grumbles. Nowhere do we read of Jesus grabbing a shovel to help his fellow peasants dig a ditch. He blesses the poor and lowly not for their noble toil or struggle against injustice, but for something they already possess as a birthright. “The kingdom of heaven is within,” he proclaims. And elsewhere, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes.”
Christ points to something original, but it’s not sin. It’s something that was revealed to all of us before we learned the word sin—or any other human concept. We all began as babes. We all began, like the creatures of nature, wanting what we want, doing what we do, and being what we are. We all began by creating the weather—flooding airplanes with our wailing or illuminating living rooms with our laughter. Like earthworms and coyotes, babies haven’t gotten the memo about original sin. Some people love babies and some don’t. But babies don’t care. Adults have to teach them that.
If we believe—as most decent, well-meaning people do—that seeing wrongs and making moral efforts to overcome them is necessary, we don’t find support for that lofty endeavor in the other creatures of the earth, in the central spiritual authority of our culture, or, apparently, in our own original nature.
Jesus wasn’t the only adult human to sing praises to a younger, wilder wisdom than most adult humans dare trust. In the late 1700s, the visionary English poet William Blake wrote with intense compassion for the poor of his native London—the orphans, prostitutes, soldiers, and others forced by circumstance into dangerous or miserable lives, and all but ignored by the Church of England. But Blake didn’t advocate stricter legislation or harsher penalties. He believed knee-jerk morality was not the answer but the problem. Blake’s counterintuitive antidote to chaos both hearkened two millennia back to Jesus and gazed way ahead of even our own time: more freedom. He looked to the harmony of nature for role models: “The wrath of the Lion is the wisdom of God.” “The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.” “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.” What Jesus called the holy spirit, Blake called Energy. And Energy, wrote Blake, “is Eternal Delight.”
Blake believed that condemning the flow of desire chokes it off. To damn is to dam. The stagnant pooling of those waters “breeds pestilence.” Feeling thwarted and constrained, we become the finger-wagging moralists who try to thwart and constrain others. Ironically, human suffering results not from our natural urges, but from our exhausting efforts to dam up those urges: “Prisons are built with the stones of Law; brothels with the bricks of religion.” The modern poet Langston Hughes pointed out another problem with our dams. They tend to break. In his poem “Harlem,” he asks what happens to a “dream deferred.” Does it dry up, fester, crust over, stink, or sag? he wonders, “or does it explode?” Blake believed that left alone our desires are, like ecosystems, self-regulating: “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” He was as serious as a heart attack about the importance of allowing the flow of our native Energy. To put it across, his metaphors could be deliberately shocking. “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle,” he wrote, “than nurse unacted desires.” (How often this line got him laid is not known.)
Lao Tzu, the philosophical founder of Taoism, also advised synchronizing with a natural flow, unaccompanied by pontification or censure. In the Tao Te Ching, he writes, “The highest good is like water. Water gives life… and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.” Zen is nothing but the art of rafting that river. Harmony arises not from fighting the current, but from appreciating its moods and seasons, its quirky swirls and eddies. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense.”
All these teachers tell us that something larger—and more natural—than our ideas about good and bad can be trusted. The grandiosity of our moralizing is a pale stand-in for the grandeur of Life itself. When we stop barking orders, order comes out to play.
And yet we keep barking. The idea drives us like the bass drum in a marching band: “A lot of things are bad and it’s our duty to oppose them.” Conservatives and liberals, friends and relatives, husbands and wives—we all think that right action requires judging. Even the church built on the name of a man who explicitly said, “Don’t judge,” judged the hell out of people for centuries. Whoever we are, we imagine Christ wanted someone else to stop judging.
But let’s not judge ourselves for judging. It is, after all, what the cool kids are doing. Declaring something unacceptable is a presentation of credentials in our culture. It bestows gravitas and establishes piety. It gets attention: “I stand against…” (I saw a book in an elementary school library called The Anti-Racist Baby. Infancy seems awfully young to start recruiting humans for causes, however noble.) Even if we don’t go in for puffery, we mostly believe it’s part of our duty as fully-functioning, responsible adults to make moral calls. A belief in some deeper harmony sounds ridiculous when someone just stole your car. Jesus, William Blake, raccoons, and babies are all well and good, but here in the real world, surely, we need to be able to cry foul if we are to bring order to whatever game we’re playing. Otherwise, all hell breaks loose. Right? Stores get looted, the environment breaks down, and I eat cake until I can’t move. Surely, children need to be curtailed and taught. Surely greed, anger, and lust need to be restricted; and kindness, love, and hard work imposed. Calling something bad and then striving to stop it seems like the only way to ensure at least some good. It just feels “responsible.”
And “responsible” just feels like who we are. Thinking of ourselves as good—or at least striving to be good—feels like part of our identity. To recognize my outline as a good person, I need the contrast with something else that’s not good. “It’s all good” sounds not only ditzy but hazy—as though we might just dissolve into grooviness. We want to be somebody definite; and we want to besomebody good.
For most of us, identifying with good is probably less philosophical than practical. Being good seems to be the reason we have whatever it is we have: our spouse, our friends, our income, our sense of belonging somewhere. And it seems to be the reason we may be given more of all these things in the future. Being good may be our identity, but perhaps deeper than that, being good is our security. It’s the job we do to deserve the salary of everything we have. Unless it springs up spontaneously, being good is toiling all day in the vineyard. It’s how we earn our denarius.
But how much does a denarius buy these days? Which is to say, are we satisfied by all our striving to overcome wrongs? Are we really getting what we want? Does all this working work?
The collective saga of the human race doesn’t lend itself to controlled experiment. We can’t run history for ten trials where we struggle to be good and ten trials where we don’t. Whether the constant human struggle to “overcome” is the best approach to life is a question we have to answer in a different way: on our own. I can’t control how “society thinks.” Society isn’t even a thing apart from all the individuals that make it up. I may have some great ideas about how it should look, and those ideas may be inspirational to others. But when the rubber hits the road in each actual moment of my existence right here and right now, the only question that matters is not what should they—or even we—do. The only question is what should I do?
What I do—or don’t do—arises from how I think. If I think I left my cell phone in my car, I’ll go look for it there. I won’t spend any time looking in the house. If I think you’re going to attack me, I may run, hide, put on some armor, or attack you first. But I won’t give you a warm hug.
That our thoughts affect our actions in this immediate way is a no-brainer. We are also used to changing our thoughts at this level. If I suddenly remember that I had my phone when I walked in the house, I’ll start looking in the house, not the car, and be infinitely more likely to find my phone. Changing our thoughts about people usually comes more slowly, but we’ve all likely done that too. If my experience reveals that you don’t attack me, but are generally kind and understanding, I will approach you differently over time, and our relationship will almost certainly become more satisfying and enjoyable.
Our ideas, in other words, place us in certain landscapes where only certain actions are conceivable. And if only certain actions are conceivable, only certain outcomes are possible. The deeper our ideas, the more radically they affect our landscapes. Changing our very deepest ideas can transport us into whole new ecosystems.
Think of original sin—the sense that we and the world are flawed—as a desert.
If you live in a desert and you want water, you will dig in the ground or trudge around looking for it. Whatever you do, water will come hard. You live, after all, in a desert. Your search for water is premised on the scarcity of it. A premise of judgment works the same way. It immediately locates us in an environment where the result we want must come hard, for it seems the good thing is out of sight—over there, somewhere beyond the bad thing we’re seeing. Disliking our bodies, we force ourselves to diet. Finding our spouse too selfish, we wheedle them into paying more attention to us. Disapproving of a foreign dictator, we muster an army and invade his country. In all cases, we see something wrong, sigh, and begin trudging somewhere else. Overcoming flaws is a grind.
And, like water in a desert, our successes in this noble slog come only in dribs and drabs. Humans, for the most part, have learned to live on those dribs and drabs—the little oases of victory in our wars against things that shouldn’t be there. We lose a few pounds. Our spouse acts nicer for a week. We topple a dictator. In all cases, it seems, the forces of good have overcome some evil, or at least some flaw or mistake. We’ve found a little water.
But we gain the weight back. Our spouses resent us. And terrorists fill the political vacuum. Always, more enemies appear. We’re still, after all, living in the desert. There must be mostly no water. There’s no other possibility. Nothing that emanates from an idea can be radically different from that idea. If we fundamentally believe in wrongness, we must encounter wrongness everywhere. That foundational belief will pull us like gravity back to a flawed and menacing landscape—back to the need for redemption, back to justifying and correcting. You can’t overcome what you believe is inherent in reality. Original sin is also middle and ending sin. Original sin is sin all down the line.
Culture v. Nature
Our ideas about being good don’t just automatically separate us from what we want. They also automatically separate us from nature. This is so regardless of whose version of good we may subscribe to in Western culture. The Christian church has tended to cast nature, along with the physical world generally, in the role of a fallen, morally inferior realm: The devil walks on goat feet, while angels barely touch the ground. The “good” of Western philosophy—or that which merits serious consideration—is whatever can be articulated by language, thus excluding the input of our wild and wordless neighbors: The chirping of sparrows is not an acceptable submission to the American Philosophical Quarterly (though for all we know, birdsong has done more good than all philosophical treatises combined). For scientists, nature may be fascinating and beautiful, but fundamentally it’s “red in tooth and claw”—a brutal Darwinian battle for survival that any decent humanist must resist or overcome: The mother grizzly cares for her cubs only because they contain her DNA, so the thinking goes, whereas many a biologist is willing to adopt a kid.
Even those inclined towards what they believe is a non-Western approach to life tend to disown “lowly” animal urges the way a mother bear ignores a runt. What passes for spirituality in our culture tends to involve a lot of forced smiles and very few fart jokes. Almost by definition, our spirituality is sexless, quiet, and bland: Eckhart Tolle, as far as we know, doesn’t climb trees or howl at the moon. Like any definition, this idea of spirituality is self-fulfilling. If being unassuming and unoffensive is being truly spiritual, then to be truly spiritual is to be unassuming and unoffensive. Once again, our assumptions become our conclusions. Eckhart Tolle is undoubtedly a master with much to offer our culture. But more irreverent masters like Osho, more severe ones like Krishnamurti, or more direct ones like Mooji haven’t “made it big” in the West not because they are any less awakened, but because they don’t fit into our spiritual boxes as comfortably. Their darker skin may also play a role in a culture with a long history of equating whiteness with goodness. According to Osho, there are many awakened humans alive today who simply go unrecognized for various reasons, including their inability or disinclination to articulate what they know through the clumsy medium of language. It’s worth remembering here that neither Socrates nor the Buddha nor Jesus ever wrote down a word or a note of their birdsong.
What if there are more than “many” awakened beings in the world? What if they are positively swarming us? What if every sparrow, oak tree, and mosquito is a teacher in a league with Tolle, Buddha, or Jesus? The powerful spiritual master Osho tells us in his little-known autobiography:
I simply think of myself as just an ordinary human being who was stubborn enough to remain independent, resisted all conditioning, never belonged to any religion, never belonged to any political party, never belonged to any organization, never belonged to any nation, any race. I have tried in every possible way just to be myself, without any adjective. And that has given me so much integrity, individuality, authenticity, and the tremendous blissfulness of being fulfilled.
Western culture, especially since the internet, can feel like a blizzard of blowhards—from rigid ideologues to narrow intellectuals to self-help gurus to the tweeting millions who believe that every ill-informed generalization that pops into their heads deserves the same attention as a papal edict. Osho’s words suggest that Nature offers us an antidote to our collective insanity: humility.
But not what we often think of as humility. Not the kind where we just stay quiet or discount our value. Not the kind that suppresses or whitewashes. True humility. The stubborn kind that Osho describes. Fierce humility. The kind that fully accepts one’s own unique nature without regard for the party line. Jesus may have said the meek shall inherit the earth, but he also advised removing the basket from your candle to “let your light so shine before men.” Roses, redwoods, and rhinos may know their place, but they also claim their space. They’re not holding back. If Nature is our guide, true humility could look like the explosion of magenta on a bougainvillea bush, a massive oak erupting in the middle of an otherwise treeless field, or the boundless energy of my friend’s dog racing up and down the hills on one of our walks.
We might not even use the word humble at all for these role models, were it not for their utter lack of presumption. Redwoods don’t lecture roses about how much sturdier they should be. Neither do lilacs urge pine trees to try to be just a bit more purple. None of them dams themselves nor damns another. The humility we find in nature consists of being exactly what you are, with neither apology nor reproach.
Nature’s humility isn’t about being well-behaved, but well-satisfied. And yet without a glimmer of smugness. The squirrels that run along the fence outside the window where I’m typing this sometimes stop and look at me. Their gaze is intensely squirrelish but also intensely curious. They radiate both uncompromising squirrelnitude and unconditional openness to the moment. It’s a potent blend that in humans we call charisma. Every creature in nature both fiercely remains what it is and casually rolls with what is. This is the kind of divine nonchalance Christ spoke for. But most of its practitioners are having too good a time to talk about it.
Paradoxically, human humility requires an audience—someone to be humble in front of. But poppies spring up in the middle of remote fields, unaccompanied by webcams or like buttons. The poet Gary Snyder imagined the whole earth as such a flower “by a gulf where a raven / flaps by once / a glimmer… / A flower / for nothing; / an offer; / no taker.” But if we believe Osho, there is nothing sad or lonely about all this useless beauty. He reports the opposite result of his stubborn individuality: “the tremendous blissfulness of being fulfilled.” William Blake wondered if all of nature feels this way: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” He imagines that even “the little winged fly” is “withinside wondrous and expansive; its gates are not closed.”
Free to See
Nature blossoms and teems with unnecessary extravagance whether anyone’s looking or not. When we do look at it, it’s up to us to choose our lens. When Darwin first encountered a tropical jungle at age 22, his reaction was like a poet’s. The effect of its “wild luxuriance,” was “like giving a blind man eyes.” He experienced a “sublime devotion” to “Nature’s God,” as he witnessed “the glories of another world.” Later, as he obligated himself to make rational sense of what he’d first accepted as divine revelation, Darwin’s attitude gradually soured. Nature’s profusion began to feel less like merriment and more like menace. The “chaos of delight” became more and more “wearisome,” until thirty years after his first encounter with the jungle, he wrote, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” I doubt, however, whether Darwin’s distress has caused even a single peacock to lose any sleep.
Darwin’s shift from childlike wonder to beleaguered dismay illustrates the power of our fundamental assumptions to saturate our experience—to place us either in jungles of joy or deserts of despair. Those assumptions mean the world—and make the world. Or at least the world we experience. Are we surfing nature’s waves or building dikes against them? One outlook makes for a fun ride, the other for a bad back.
Deer seem to be going with the ‘fun ride’ option. They positively glide up the steep slopes around me on my walks in the hills near my home. Meanwhile scrub jays land with pinpoint accuracy among an oak’s tangled branches. Bay trees bow and sway gracefully in the wind. Nothing struggles. Nothing seems tired or bored. Except sometimes me. If I wanted to join the party, what would that look like? How could I also humbly accept the splendor of my particular natural grace? If we humans are part of nature, what kind of creatures are we? Every organism has what biologists call its niche: its ‘place’ or role in an ecosystem. What’s ours? Are we the moral animal? The rational animal? The language animal? The tool-using animal? Squirrels radiate some essential squirrelness. What’s the human counterpart? What is the essence of being human?
Pico Della Mirandola thought he had the answer. In his 1496 Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called, “the manifesto of the Renaissance,” the philosopher declared that humans are “the most fortunate of living things… surpassing belief and smiting the soul with wonder,” because we “have a share in the particular endowment of every other creature.” Mirandola imagines God revealing the nature of our niche to the first human:
We have given you, Oh Adam; no face nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may… possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will… trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature. I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer.
What if what makes humans unique in the ecosystem is not our morals, or our language, or our big logical noggins. What if the essence of being human is our freedom? We are free to believe we are anything, from an earthworm to an angel. We have not only the instincts of animals, but intellect and imagination as well. We can use our intellect to convince ourselves that there is no meaning to the universe or that there is. We can imagine we are broken and inadequate, or imagine what our brothers and sisters in nature seem to be automatically assuming: Nothing at all is broken. Nothing must be fixed. Everything is perfect.
That last sentence may make you smile or roll your eyes. It probably depends on what mood you’re in. Surely, we can all remember a moment when everything felt perfect with the world. Perhaps as you sat by a pool in the sun while your children played in the water. Perhaps as you lay in the arms of a lover in bed. Perhaps as you stood in a forest clearing and took it all in. To feel the world—and you—are incredible, beautiful, perfect is to be fully in the world and yet transported. It is to leave the desert. Suddenly water is flowing everywhere. In such a state, the requirement to “be good” disappears like a mirage. It’s not an issue. There is no question of “having to behave” in any particular way. No one feels that kind of bliss and then says, “Hey, let’s go kidnap someone.”
If we’ve all been in that state, we mostly don’t stay. We tend instead to see these magical moments as just that: moments—sojourns in an oasis. They are the mirage, we think. ‘The desert that is reality must be returned to.’ But our feeling of being in a desert also occurs in moments. It’s just that, for most of us, there are more desert moments than oasis moments. What if we have the freedom to decide how many of what kind of moments we want to string together? If we imagine that all is perfect, are we stringing ourselves along? Or are we just stringing ourselves along in a different way than we usually do?
The Jews had the sense to leave the desert after forty years, but most of us are still parked there. The culture is parked there. T. S. Eliot called it “The Wasteland.” We call it life. Eliot called it “stony rubbish,” “a heap of broken images,” and “fear in a handful of dust.” We call it another day. It’s what all our great art is about, from Philip Roth to Quentin Tarantino: no water, no water, no water, here’s a little water, no water, no water, here’s a little more, how to hold on to this water?, the water’s gone, no water, no water, give me water!, here’s some advice on how to live with very little water, no water, no water, spare some water?, go get your own water I worked hard for this water, no water, no water, if we get married will you promise to always give me water?, hey where’s my water!, no water, no water, no water…
Jesus didn’t talk about what a bitch it is not to have water, because he only lived in a desert physically. Experientially, where it counts, he lived in a land where water flows constantly. But how do you teach jungle-logic to desert-dwellers? For Christ’s teachings to make any sense, a person has to be willing to take a leap of faith, or at least a short drive out of the desert. Otherwise, his so-called wisdom just sounds dumb: ‘Ask and it is given? Really? Ever been to a grocery store?’ Some of you may remember Zeno’s Paradox, named after the ancient Greek philosopher who said nothing can ever arrive anywhere because it always has to first travel half the distance, then half the remaining distance, and so on—always another ‘half the distance’ to cover before you arrive. In a sense, Christ agreed—at least when it comes to human fulfillment: To get where you want to go, you have to already be there! This is why he didn’t preach trying to be good, but urged us instead to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect.” By recommending something that seems impossible, he wanted to startle us into an entirely new landscape—one where striving is as irrelevant to us as it is for an oak tree. No amount of striving will make us perfect. We have to believe we already are. And then see what happens.
The willingness to experiment with that premise—or any premise we want—is a manifestation of the unconditional freedom Mirandola claimed is our very human essence. To take that leap of faith—to try walking on that water—is to believe you are free to do so. But it’s a freedom at a deeper level than we are used to. Normally we think of freedom as freedom to act. But if you believe you live in a desert, you can act all you want and you’ll still be in a desert. The greater freedom lies in how we think. That’s where what we call miracles occur—those airlifts to new landscapes.
And when we get to that new landscape? What then? If all is perfect, do we just lie in a hammock all day? Maybe. But you’ve probably noticed that something always happens. A sparrow chirps, a friend calls, your heart beats, you get hungry. Things change. Water flows. Being perfect then, if it means anything, cannot mean being static. That’s not possible. Nor does it mean denying or resigning yourself to some unpleasant condition. What Christ called ‘the kingdom of heaven’ isn’t filled with the vacant platitudes of pot-heads or the submissive sighs of martyrs. Deer and squirrels show no signs of either attitude. They do display a trait that is miles away from any stoner or victim, as well as from most any other human. If deer and squirrels are perfect, they are also perfectly alert. Jesus encouraged this too. “Be prepared,” he advised his listeners. “Have your clothes on. Keep your lamps lit. Be like people waiting for the master to come back from the wedding party so they can open the door for him right away when he comes and knocks.” The most effort Jesus is willing to encourage is getting up to open the door.
Open the door to what? To some second coming of Christ on a flaming chariot? Sorry two-thousand years of Christianity, but no. Open the door simply to what is. Jesus is just talking about staying alert without judgment. The same way your cat is alert, but the human version: to the soundtrack of our thoughts, to our emotions, to whatever the moment offers. Jesus wasn’t trying to start an apocalyptic religion. He was teaching Zen. The very core of Zen is the same kind of cat-like aliveness to the moment. That tradition tells the story of an emperor’s minister who visits a Zen master and says, “Master, the people are unruly and difficult to govern. Please give me some wisdom. What should we do?” The master dipped his brush in his inkwell and wrote the word “Attention.” The minister insisted, “Master, what is this? Please give me something I can use.” The master dipped his brush again and wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The minister grew angry. “Master, you’re supposed to be wise. Why are you giving me this garbage? Tell me what to do!” The master considered the minister. Finally, after dipping his brush a third time, he wrote, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”
The emperor’s minister wanted a pat suggestion. But wisdom—like spirituality—isn’t a good idea. The master was urging the minister not to react but to respond. The former is rigid—the conventional human approach. The latter is supple—like a snake. To react is to try to impose the good idea—which has a tendency to double-down and become a brutal idea. To respond is to tune in—to glide into a clearing like a deer. It is to honor not an abstraction but something immediate and sometimes subtle: what Christ called the holy spirit, what Blake called Energy, what Lao Tzu called The Tao, what I’m calling natural grace. Christ’s urging to “be perfect” is to be perfect for the moment.
And then for the next one. Since premises can only give us more evidence of themselves, perfect moments lead to more perfect moments. Perfection tends to branch and blossom like Christ’s proverbial mustard seed: “The least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” The more we accept the present as perfect, the more we notice its branches into perfect futures; and the more we can crawl along those branches like ladybugs or alight in them like scrub jays. The more we accept ourselves as perfect, the more we allow our unique capacities to help us navigate those futures. ‘Perfection vision’ notices ways to more perfection. Like any premise, it fulfills itself. Lao Tzu puts it this way in the Tao Te Ching: “Be really whole, and all things will come to you.” Six centuries later, Christ’s words seem almost like a direct translation of the Chinese: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
What does this mean practically? As many things as there are scenarios in which humans find themselves. A perfect approach to life wouldn’t be an abstract dictum to follow like a robot. We wouldn’t try to teach Calculus to toddlers. A perfect approach would talk to the locals, get the lay of the land. It would be adaptable to each unique situation and call forth each person’s best qualities. It would be a path of least resistance—the path that flowing water takes. We’d notice cracks we could trickle through. We’d celebrate the trickles.
But we wouldn’t damn the dam. We wouldn’t emphasize things we don’t want. If we wanted to get in shape, we wouldn’t focus, day in and day out, on how bad we think we look. We’d cultivate the habit of noticing things to like about how we look. Perhaps we’d imagine what it would feel like to look the way we want to look. When we imagine ourselves already where we want to be, we’ll notice things. Helpful things. Like ideas that have been secretly keeping us where we are. As we picture ourselves feeling more attractive, for example, we might find ourselves—in that imagined scenario—getting more attention from people. We then might realize that the prospect of getting more attention has been making us more uncomfortable than our current appearance! Or, say you want more time in the day to feed your soul in some way, but you’ve been saying to yourself, “There isn’t any time. I have too many obligations.” The first step in finding that time wouldn’t be to suddenly stop making dinner for your kids nor to bemoan your situation. It would be the recognition that the mantra, “There isn’t any time,” is—like original sin—a self-fulfilling premise. The thought itself is what keeps you parked in the reality. The next step would be to metaphorically drive somewhere else and see what happens. Take five minutes to ask yourself, “How is my situation perfect?” If that seems ridiculous, remember that every question points us somewhere. “Why is my life so chaotic?” points us somewhere too. If assumptions are conclusions, then questions are quests. And whether we realize it or not, we are always free to choose our quest.
“How is my situation perfect?” is a particularly powerful question. It makes moments even more satisfying than they may already be. And if we want to get somewhere else, it opens us to the most roads out of Dodge—along with the most secret channels and underground passages. When we don’t feel obligated to address some wrong, we are freest to go somewhere right. This approach can feel less like driving and more like floating. We drop ponderous concepts or self-images we’d been clinging to like life preservers. Ideas occur to us that wouldn’t have occurred to us before.
No one can say where the premise of perfection will allow you to go. Or whether—in your particular life, in your particular moment—you’ll float or fly. The premise is that mustard seed Jesus spoke of. We can all find five minutes in a day to plant it. We can all write the question in a journal or speak it to the sky and then sit somewhere and see what comes to us. Doing this the next day, and the next, is like watering the seed. What grows will feel organic and particular to you. It may even feel like your version of the kingdom of heaven.
The poet Rumi imagined this paradise not as the branches of a tree but as a clearing among the trees: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there’s a field,” he wrote. “I’ll meet you there.” Think of that field as an inner space you can enter from a thousand different paths. Or maybe it’s that literal vacant lot on the corner—the one you normally speed by—where, if you pause, you’ll notice just now an orange cat gracefully picking its way through the grass.