There can’t be much to it. Why would it be complicated? Why do we think it has to be hard? Why do we think it has to be “out there,” “over there,” “up there,” “down there”? We think we have to go to India or China or Japan, sit past aching knees and sore rear ends, waiting for it. We think we have to be indoctrinated, initiated, inculcated, inundated. We think it could not possibly be free and easy. It has to be a secret reserved only for the deserving. Held back as a reward for those who have paid their dues, submitted to the regimen, and earned the right to be enlightened.
What is it that we think enlightenment does for us? What do we seek when we seek understanding? Oneness with the universe? Inner peace? Do you think inner peace would do anything about obtuseness in the White House? About being over weight and out of shape? The Buddha could have lost a pound or two. If inner peace keeps us from minding so much how things are—if that’s what we get out of it; if that’s why it is so attractive to us—why don’t we just chew peyote or smoke pot, drink beer and let the world go around?
What is it that we want? What are we after? To feel good about our life, and our place in life, and our lot in life? What would it take for us to relax and feel like we have it?
Here’s what I think. “Ommmmm.” Hear that? There is something innately right about it. You can’t improve it. It has it. “Whigggh!”, on the other hand, does not. The Ode to Joy has it, is it, chalk scraped on a blackboard does not, is not. There you are. We are looking to align ourselves with, to immerse ourselves in, what is right, and to distance ourselves from what is not right.
There are places, and people, and experiences, and thoughts, and ideas, and sights, and sounds that are right, and there are those that are wrong. We are looking for more of what is right and less of what is wrong. Gatlinburg is wrong, but the trail to Grotto Falls is right. We submit to what is wrong, sometimes, for the sake of what is right.
We yearn for what is right. For what is good. For the ought to be. We cannot get enough of it. It’s beautiful. Wonderful. Magnifique! That’s all there is to it. Simple as that. Become aware of it. Spot it. Name it. Love it. Spend time with it. Go back to it. Become it. Be sources of good, and beauty, and wonder in the world. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. There is nothing hard about it.
We only have to cultivate, as Jesus says, “Eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand.” We only have to develop “an eye for IT”; an ear for IT; a heart for IT. That’s all there is to IT!
And that, of course, is the problem. When we talk about knowing IT when we see IT, or hear IT, or sense IT, we move into the spiritual realm. We move into mystery. We cannot say what we are talking about. “Spiritual” is for “more than meets the eye.” How do you develop an eye for “more than meets the eye”? How do you see past the surface, into the depths? How do you develop “taste”? How do you cultivate an ear for music, and for truth? These are the questions we should be asking, and answering, in religious education classes. We should be talking about how to apprehend the reality beyond the apparently real, not discussing the doctrines and reciting the clichés and commonplaces of worn-out religion.
We have to figure out how to live with right-seeing, and right-hearing, and right-being at the center of our lives. There has to be some center around which we coalesce. It can be anything, but we have to form around something, around some idea of what is worth our life. Our lives take shape around our idea of what it means to be alive. Worthy lives require worthy centers, but already, with the idea of worthy, we have some sense of what shape that life should take, of what the center of that life should be. We are born with an incredible affinity for what is right. Amoebas know what is right, and what is wrong; what is good, and what is bad. Plants turn to the light. We can recognize where we belong and where we have no business being.
We can override That Which Knows. We can ignore the signals. We can “develop a taste” for things that are not good for us. We can live recklessly, carelessly. And, we can hold back when we should step forward. We can be inhibited, and intimidated, and fearful. We can refuse to “boldly go where no one has ever ventured.” We can be stupid. Shooting ourselves in the foot is what we do best. But we know, in Joseph Campbell’s term, “when we are on the beam and when we are off it.” We know that much.
It is crucial that we know what we know, and live in light of it—to the extent that is permitted by the nature and circumstances of our lives. Poets can do a little plumbing and serve on the city council or the school board, but they cannot think that they are plumbers or politicians and not poets. We cannot make sense of things in a cosmic fashion, but we can know what makes sense for us, personally. We can know whether it makes sense for us to go into the auto repair business, for instance, or to go to vet school.
What is worthy? Worth while? Worth our life? What is our life worth? We are going to spend our life in the service of what? The ultimate decision is a values decision. What are the values that will shape our lives? Where do they come from? How do we decide what is valuable and what is not?
Or, to ask the same thing in another way, “Who does the grail serve?” We seek what for what? We seek “the grail” for what? To do what with it? What is the point of our lives? We live toward what? Away from what? What is “the good” around which our lives coalesce? How do we know what is worth our time?
To say, as I do, “We are here to bring out the best in each other,” is to open the door to wondering what constitutes “the best” and how we will know when it has been “brought out.” I think the question of “the good,” or “the best,” is fraught with complexity and paradox, and takes us to the heart of what it means to be human—to the heart of the struggle, if you will, to be human. I see the struggle to be human to be the struggle to do right by ourselves and by one another, and all others. That is the cross we all bear, who would be “fully human and fully divine.” Humanity, at the level of the heart, is divine. How to get there is hell.
Of course, there is no way to know if I know what I’m talking about here, so, let’s assume I do not. Never mind the business about being human and divine at the level of the heart, but hang on to the idea that the essence of the work/struggle to be human being the effort to do right by ourselves and all others. Or, as Jesus would say (Paraphrasing Hillel), “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s it. And, it is hell.
This is only one theory about what belongs at the center, about “the good,” “the best.” But, it is a good theory. An excellent theory. I can’t think of a better gauge for a life well-lived than the extent to which it does right by itself and all others. And, if we are going to bring out the best in each other, we are going to live toward enabling one another to do right by ourselves and all others. We are going to live in ways that take “the other” (a generic term for all others) into account. We are not going to dismiss anyone as being inconsequential or unworthy of our concern. We are going to recognize that WE are the neighbor (The answer, by the way, to the lawyer’s question—Luke 10:25 and following—to Jesus about “who is my neighbor.” “Who was the Jew’s neighbor?”, asked Jesus at the end of the tale. “The one who did right by him!”, said the lawyer. “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus). We are the neighbor who loves, and does right by, everyone. If you think that’s easy, give it a whirl. That’s the work of bringing God to life in our lives; it is the work of birthing God into the world. And, it’s our work. We are here to bring out the best in one another; to help one another with the work of bringing God to life in our lives. We do that best by being clear about what belongs at the center, at the heart, of our lives, around which we coalesce.
It would be easy for me to nominate “the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth” as the center around which we coalesce, but that’s just a way of formulating, of talking about, what is at the center. If Jesus is our model of “doing it the way it ought to be done,” there is, beyond Jesus, an idea of “the ought to be,” which Jesus reflects. The key is “the ought to be.” The idea of what ought to be is reflected in Jesus by those who have the right idea of the ought to be and can see it in him. Everyone who looks at Jesus does not see the same “ought to be.”
People have looked at Jesus and burned other people at the stake, and drowned reputed witches, and shamefully discriminated against black people, and gay people, and physically and mentally handicapped people, and mentally ill people, and women, and children, and, well, the list is pretty much endless. And, they claimed to have Jesus at the center of their lives.
The Jesus at the center of their lives reflected a world view that was really at the center of their lives. We see Jesus in a way that exhibits, expresses, and justifies our view of the good. Jesus rarely ever calls into question what we think of as good. We see “the good” in Jesus because we already think of it as “good,” and not because we see it in Jesus.
At the same time, however, “the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth” can be instructive and transformative—a source of revelation and enlightenment—if we approach them with open-minded awareness/mindfulness, and allow them to call into question our assumptions about “the good.” Attitude is everything. The spirit with which we seek truth and understanding determines the outcome of the search. We have to be aware of our heart and mind if we are to change them. What do we think is good, how do we know it is good, and how does the life and teachings of Jesus stretch, challenge, oppose, reflect our views? That is the kind of question we ask in the company of one another as a way of bringing out the best in each other, and enabling each other to bring God to life in our lives.
What is the good we think of as good? How good is it? How do we know? Who says so? Who says not so? Whose good is served by the good we serve? How good is a good that serves only our good? That benefits only us? What is good for us is one thing; what are we good for is another. How do we use the good that is good for us in ways that are good for others? How shall we live so as to do right by ourselves, and by one another, and all others? How shall we resolve the conflict of good, when what is good for me is bad for you, and what is good for you is bad for me? Our answers to these questions—and those like them—are the ones which shape our character and determine the value of our lives. Where do we go to ask, and answer them? It is no more difficult than finding a place to have the right kind of conversation.