We are all fundamentalist fanatics at heart. We are all literalists at heart. We hate ambivalence and ambiguity, and want things to be nailed down, spelled out, clearly defined. We want things to be black or white, right or wrong, cut and dried, one way or the other—and to stay that way!
We want to know what’s what. We are sure there are rules, and we want to know what they are. There is a certain way that things are, and are to be, and they cannot some other way as well, and it is important that everything be what it is!
We can buy the Buddhist idea of the illusory nature of reality up to a point, but we believe that behind the illusion, there is A Reality that is unchanging and rock-solid, actual, tangible, literal, absolute, and unalterably real. We believe there is A Way that things are; A Way that things are meant to be. A Way individuals are, and they cannot deviate from that and still be true to themselves. Even scientists look for the organizing principle of existence—for the unalterable laws of nature which undergird the framework of reality.
I’m here to tell you that it’s a matter of perspective and chance all the way down.
Life is an optical illusion. You look, and things appear to be one way. You look again, and everything appears to be another way. Which way are they really? All they ways they are capable of being is how they are!
There is no infinite, eternal, unchanging, immutable, inscrutable will or some ultimate reality that is the source and ground of everything, willing everything to toe the line, walk the straight and narrow and be what it is supposed to be!
The heart of the Gospel that Jesus came proclaiming is: Sometimes it’s like this, and sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes you do it this way, and sometimes you do it that way. Sometimes, Jesus raised the dead, and sometimes, Jesus left the dead to bury the dead. Sometimes, Jesus would forgive a guilty person, and sometimes, Jesus would curse an innocent fig tree. Sometimes, Jesus would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and sometimes, Jesus would say, “You can’t have any of our oil for your lamps—go into town and buy your own!” And, “You have to work things out for yourself! Who made me your caretaker?” And, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?”
Each situation is unique unto itself. While there may be strong similarities with other situations, the time and place of this situation, and the individual natures of these participants, and the specific contingencies impinging upon this particular moment, create nuances and subtleties that require mindful, compassionate, awareness regarding what is happening, and what needs to happen in response, and how our gifts, imagination and genius might best be used in the service of the good, here and now. And, even then, it is a matter of luck and timing and the way the cards fall. Chance and perspective are at the bottom of it all.
Upon what does perspective depend? Why do we see things as we do? Why do people think the way they think? We can’t answer that, but we think we can get to the bottom of why things are the way they are. Who are we kidding? How good is the good we call good? How bad is the bad we call bad? And how will time change the way we evaluate good and bad?
We have to consider the apparent well-being of the apparently real. We might not know what The True Good of the situation might be, but we can focus on making the apparently real as apparently good as it can be, because appearances are all we have to work with in any situation.
We are here to make things better than they would be without us. Better in terms of what? Better in terms of the best we can imagine at the time regarding what is good—and noble, kind, compassionate, charitable, generous, commendable, worthy… Better in terms of our sense of how things ought to be—our understanding of justice, fairness, equality, grace, mercy peace—in each particular moment of our living, knowing it may all change in the next moment, or in some far off future moment, of someone’s living.
And here I will wax as eloquently as I know how on “how things ought to be.” Says whom? Says each of us in each situation as it arises. Morality is what we bring to the table. “The Good” is our idea. The Good is where we come in! Lions and tigers and humpback whales leave things exactly as they find them. Human beings say, “We can do better than that!” And we swing into action. Our gift to the world is Ethics! Morality! The Good, the True, and the Beautiful! And we work to make things like we think they ought to be, for the true good of all concerned.
“Every mountain and hill shall be made low, all the swamps and marshes shall be raised up!” This is our idea! And we are here to work in the service of the best we can imagine, and striving to make the best of things as we find them. It is our contribution to the way of things.
We don’t have the last word on much of anything. There are no absolutes. There is only the apparently real, and our way of seeing has to take that into account. We never see all there is to see about anything, but we must act as though we see enough to guide our actions. Which may not be so.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You can’t beat that for the “Ground of Being.” Even when it means sending them back to town to buy their own oil, which is exactly what you would have them do for you, if the situation were reversed.
We are perfectly capable of determining what the good is on our own. We don’t have to sit, hoping someone who knows more than we do will come along, and reveal it to us. We are not too stupid to figure it out by ourselves. Water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, rest for the weary—these things are good. They aren’t the only things that are good, and we have the capacity to figure the rest of them out, and enlist ourselves in their service. And, we can be fooled even by that. We can do 10,000 things thinking we are doing the right thing, and be wrong about each one.
We know immediately when we are being treated well. We know the good when we see it, when we experience it. Ah but, you knew there would be a catch. What’s good for one is not necessarily good for another. What’s good for me may not be good for you. Everything does not work out for the best of all concerned. Who’s best is the question. Within what time frame is the other question. And how can we be sure we won’t regret today’s good tomorrow?
We may whiz around in our scoot-a-bouts thinking how good it was of the dinosaurs, and all the flora and fauna of their time, to die out so that we might have fossil fuel to burn (even at $4.00 or more a gallon), but the dinosaurs (and the flora and fauna) would have a different take on the matter. And the impact of our scooting around on global warming transforms completely our glee at the deaths of the dinosaurs (etc.), which were the precursor to our own demise, and that of the planet. Things that work out for the best of one, often work out for the worst of another, or even for the one, but we have no problem seeing which is which. We are well equipped to determine what is good, and what is not. Even though it is all time-limited. With enough time, everything goes over into its opposite, and then where are we?
Right where we have always been! Working in the service of balance and harmony! Working to even things out and match things up, and bring good to light and to life in the world! This is always our work to do and it is never done. “The harvest is bountiful but the laborers are few!”
Whose good is going to be served by when, is the question. How much for me, how much for you is the question. Where do we draw the line is the question. Who is going to sacrifice what for the benefit of whom is the question. When my good is your bad, and vice-versa, what are we going to do then is the question. And there is not some absolute, external authority to take the weight of decision making away from us. We decide. We choose. We say. And live with the consequences of our actions.
What guides our choices? In light of what do we live? How do we know what to do when? The burden is too much for us. And, we all turn into fundamentalist fanatics frantically seeking The Rules! We need guidelines! We need principles! We need a policy! We need someone to tell us what to do! We need an authoritative, definitive, set of rules to go by! We need something to make it easy. Someone to hide behind! Mamma! Help!
The Buddhists say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” How’s that for the prescribed way for dealing with external authority? They could have said as easily, “If you meet your mother on the road, kill her!” We don’t need to have anyone taking our place, assuming our responsibility for deciding for ourselves how to live our life. We need to do our own living, and our own deciding. We need to grow up, and be what the situation is asking us to be. Which is exactly the Buddha’s realization under the Bo Tree. “I am the one!” We live by our own authority, and let the outcome be the outcome, for better and for worse.
We are the ones who say so. We say what’s what. We say how things ought to be. It is never more difficult than being our own authority in all matters of faith and practice. It is never more difficult than deciding for ourselves what is good, and what we will do about it. We are the ones who have to decide what choice we will make every time we need to make a choice. There is no one here but us. It all comes down to us. We are as ultimate as reality gets.
When our daughters entered adolescence, they questioned every parental decision we made. “Why this? Why not that?” With each one, we would say, “Listen, it is like this. We are the parents, and we are responsible for making these decisions. And we don’t know what we are doing. We have never been the parents of adolescent daughters, and are learning how to do it as we go along. So, here’s the deal: We will make what appears to us to be the best decision in the moment a decision is required, and then we all—parents and daughters—will evaluate it over time, and the next time something like this comes along, we may well decide differently. But for now, this is how it is.”
When we get it wrong, and we often will, we will know it in time. Then, we have to stop, and start over again in a new direction. This is where all the rest of us come in. We cannot just listen to ourselves. We cannot just listen to those who agree with us, who tell us what we want to hear. We have to pay close attention to the opposition. We have to be guided by the collective experience of the species—and even then, we hope for the best.
We are back to the William Blake statement: “Without contraries is no progression.” It is perspective (and chance) all the way down, and one person’s perspective is enlarged, deepened, expanded by the perspectives of those who see things differently. Humor, for instance, puts a different spin on things. We think we are seeing one thing, and it turns out, with the punch line, that we are looking at something else entirely. The perspective shift is the source of humor and life, understanding, enlightenment, revelation, peace, wholeness, satori, growing up and becoming who we are—and also are. Perspective shifts cannot happen when we come together and repeat the same things we have always said, and think the same things we have always thought, and do everything we can to get everyone to talk and think like we do.
We are not fundamentalist fanatics at heart, and we are not here to take things literally and absolutely. We are here to embrace ambivalence and ambiguity, dance with contradictions, befriend conflict, and work diligently and intently—consciously and mindfully—with it all.
Ann Cornell has said that wisdom is not found in what is well known, and often quoted, but in the emergence of what is coming to be known. She advises us to learn to appreciate, even cherish, the slow movement of that which is coming to be.
We have to stand apart from what we have always assumed to be so if we are to grow in our awareness of how things are, and how they are coming to be. The source of creativity, or one of them, is what we might call “cross pollination,” where the perspective of one discipline influences/impacts the perspectives of other disciplines. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said that creative people are always listening “across the fence,” to what their colleagues in other disciplines are doing, as a way of getting a new take on their own field.
It comes down to conversation, to dialog! We have to speak with one another from the heart about things that matter—not arguing for our point of view, but struggling to articulate, with clarity and precision, what our point of view is, while enabling others to do the same with their point of view. In the context of shared points of view, miracle happens. A new reality emerges. We all see more than we saw before we started talking. We shape together a new way of seeing, and we are all changed—enlarged, deepened, expanded—by the process of speaking honestly, and listening intently, honoring and respecting the perspectives that are being expressed.
And we can take this approach and apply it to our inner dialogues with ourselves. Sit still, be quiet, and wait in the silence watching for what emerges, appears, arises, occurs to us of its own accord—appearing out of nowhere, unbidden, un-thought, unconsidered until it pops right into our consciousness, from where we do not know. It comes from Psyche, from Soul, from our unconscious (So called because we are not conscious of it).
We have to develop our ability to dialogue with the unconscious side of ourselves. With “The Other” whom Carl Jung said, “lives within, whom we do not know.” We have to come to know The Other, and create a relationship that is a source of comfort and guidance along the way.
But back to sitting in the silence. We sit and wait, watching for what emerges unbidden, and pay particular attention to what catches our eye, and look closer at that, allowing it to lead us where we have no idea of what is going on, but trusting our Inner Guide to know more than we know, and see where it goes.
In all of this, we shape, we form, we create, modify, adjust, reevaluate, transform (And perhaps scrap it all, and start all over) our idea of what ought to be, in conversation with one another and in dialogue with ourselves. We decide for ourselves what is right, and revise that in light of our experience—of our expanding understanding, our deepening perspective, over time. We grow in our comprehension of the good, and in our ability to serve it.
We realize, for instance, that after a point, making more money, and having more stuff, don’t equate with more happiness, contentment, and enjoyment of life, and we stop paying the price to make more money—and begin to use what money we have in the service of what does make for happiness, including advancing the happiness of others. We become greater sources of good in the world over time when we are engaged in conversation that enlarges our perspective, and our heart, and changes our view of what’s important. And that changes everything.
It’s shifting perspective and chance all the way down—and changing our mind about what is important is one of the requirements of the process of maturation, and of the spiritual journey. All of which go on forever.