Thich Nhat Hanh believes that we should eat an orange in a certain way in order to be mindful of the experience of eating the orange. You know by now that mindfulness is the cornerstone of my approach to life, living and being alive. “Mindfulness leads the way.” I use that phrase as much as I use “in the situation as it arises.” Being mindful of the situation as it arises is the key to being able to be who that situation needs us to be—the key to being who we need to be in the situation. We cannot be too mindful! But. We can be mindful of eating an orange in whatever way it suits us to eat the orange.
Thich Nhat Hanh recommends—that’s too light a word, insists—that we eat an orange one section at a time, because “that’s the way the orange comes,” and to eat two or three sections at a time would be to do a disservice to the orange, and miss something essential about the experience of eating it. Well…
An orange also comes with seeds and peeling. An orange comes with a tree attached. At some point, you have to draw a line. You have to say this is how I am going to eat an orange. Eat the orange the way you would eat the orange, with as much mindfulness as you are capable of administering, and stop following instructions—including this—about how you should eat oranges. We can become so caught up in doing mindfulness correctly that we forget to be mindful at all. The same principle applies to all of life. Don’t be so intent on living correctly that you forget to be alive to the moment of your living.
There is only this moment, right here, right now, and doing what needs to be done with it, about it, in response to it—and we have to be mindfully aware of the moment in order to know and to do. Too much of spirituality is about doing it the way someone in authority tells us to do and how to do it. The search for spiritual truth, too often, is the search for the latest greatest guru—you know, the one who has been on Oprah most recently. We want to be given the authoritative road map to the spiritual realm. We don’t want to be figuring out anything for ourselves. But. Only we know what is right for us, and what is wrong. Only we know what is life for us, and what is death. No Authority who ever has been, or will be, knows that much. And, it is all we need to know.
The measure of a belief is how well it connects us with, and enables us to live, our life—the extent to which it assists us in being alive in our life in the time left for living. Believe anything you want to believe as long as it deepens, expands, enlarges the life that is truly your life, and propels you into living it! A belief that fails to bring us to life in the fullest sense of the word, within the context and circumstances, and the time and place, of our living, needs to be left on the rack, while we look for one that brings us alive.
Beliefs, generally, don’t have much to do with life, with being alive. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for instance, doesn’t cause us to leap out of bed each morning, filled with zest and gusto, ready to get into the day, and to do there what can be done with it. Whether God is three in one, or how God is three in one, or why God would want to be three in one, doesn’t translate smoothly into an attitude, or perspective, or way with life, which blesses us, and all those around us. Don’t believe anything that doesn’t improve the way you live—that’s my recommendation. Evaluate every applicant for belief in light of its capacity to infuse your life with life—that’s what I say. Does this belief work? Does it help us to live the life that is ours to live?
Does it help us live in the service of the good? Does it help us deal with the disappointments, failures, defeats, and losses that we incur along the way? Does it help us envision what needs to be done, and live toward it through all the events and circumstances of our life? Does it enlarge our perspective, and enable us to laugh? The laughter test may be the key. If a belief doesn’t encourage laughter, don’t have anything to do with it.
In light of what do we live? What beliefs do we need to believe in order to live well in light of them? What are the organizing, directing, principles of our life? How do we want to have lived at the end of our days? What will it take for us to be proud of the way we dealt with what came our way? Maybe we didn’t get the breaks. Maybe things didn’t go as we wanted. Maybe we missed out on the caring parents, the devoted partners, the well-paying jobs, the successful careers, and the loving, nurturing, friends and neighbors. How did we handle that? How did we work with it? What did we do about it? What response did we make? What response would we wish we had made? What beliefs would have enabled us to make that response? What beliefs would have enabled us to live the life we would want to have lived?
In order for our beliefs to guide us into lives worth living, they need to be affirmed and sustained by the right kind of community. We do not do well without the right kind of relationships. We cannot be healed, and whole—we cannot be at peace with ourselves—we cannot be good company, or any fun to be around without the right kind of community to welcome us, receive us, make a place for us, and love us into to life. Living takes the life out of us, and the right kind of community loves it back into us. The right beliefs can help us survive between loving experiences with the right kind of community. But, they cannot replace, or serve as substitutes for, a secure place in the lives of the right kind of others. Think of the craziest people you know. My bet is that they don’t have a secure place in the lives of the right kind of others.
Healthy beliefs help us find healthy relationships. The right beliefs help us see one another in the right ways. The right beliefs are essential in creating the environment, the atmosphere, that is necessary for living well upon the earth. They guide us through the mess of life, direct us toward the best we can imagine, and enable us to live rightly, in light of that which we believe. We can’t be the right kind of community without believing the right things, and living lives that are aligned with them. It’s a circle: right believing, right relationships, right living. It’s one thing. How we think and believe is how we live. It’s a unit. It’s a whole.
Sitting still. Being quiet. And reflecting on these things as a part of our regular, routine, on-going spiritual practice opens the way to The Way, and therefore is The Way opening up before us, calling to us. How we respond makes all the difference.