We live close to the edge at all times. Thin is the line, fine is the balance, between having it made and having nothing at all. Nothing is guaranteed. Everything can change in a flash. Can change so rapidly, so radically, so completely, that we have a hard time going on, and may not go on. We can be overwhelmed. Undone. We can lose so much that we lose the point, and see no reason to keep going.
Don’t think so? I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you sit down and we’ll start taking things away from you, and we’ll see how much we have to remove before we get to your will to live, to your ability to get up and keep going. How much of what constitutes life for us can disappear before we no longer have what it takes to face the day?
Native Americans lost everything that made up life as a Native American in the space of a few generations. The life of the Indian Nations today is an empty shell compared to what it once was. The spirit of life diminishes when our way of life is disrupted.
Human history is replete with stories of the extinction of peoples, and cultures, and civilizations of the world. Wars, plagues, famine, earthquakes, volcanoes have changed the way of life of people to such an extent that it destroyed their life as a people. Those who survive, survive in the company of those who survive.
Life is never a personal and private affair. Life is entirely lodged in our relationships. The quality of our living depends upon the quality of our relationships. Life is grounded in our culture, in our tribe, in our place with those who are with us in our lives. We cannot live apart from those who serve us as the conduits of life, who connect us with the heart of life, and provide us with what it takes to be alive. Without a place of our own in the right kind of company, we don’t stand a chance.
But, the company of others is too close to nothing for most of us to be comfortable with. We would like more of a buffer between ourselves and the edge. We want God on our side. And, do everything we can think of to arrange divine protection and oversight.
We undertake excruciatingly long pilgrimages of depravation and hardship to prove our devotion to the god, to the goddess, and merit his, or her, benevolence and grace. We observe the proscribed rituals, follow the rules of conduct that have been passed along through the centuries, pray the prayers, make the offerings, so that we might receive the blessing, and, perhaps, enter into the eternal bliss of the god, or goddess. We give in order to get. If we can make the god, or the goddess, happy, maybe he, or she, will make us happy in return.
There never was a god, or goddess, who didn’t have something to offer. Who didn’t stand ready to broker a deal. Who didn’t hold one hand out, palm up, with the other hidden behind his, or her, back, in the eternal posture of, “If you give to me, then I will give to you, and oh, how happy we will be!” We are certain of how the system works: The more we suffer in the service of the god, of the goddess, the more pained we are by our allegiance and devotion, the more likely we are to attract their favor and be rewarded.
Religion is a buffer we place between ourselves and our lives. Our lives are hard—and, even if they are easy, and we have it made, without a worry in the world, we worry that it will disappear, and know that it might—and so we crawl on our hands and knees to the holy sites to pray the prayers, and make the offerings, and receive the blessings of ease and bliss.
What’s the blessing? What do we want the god to hand over? What do we need the goddess for? What do we want that we cannot get for ourselves? We want stability, predictability, a comfortably dependable future. We want our lives to ease up on us. We want happiness and peace and prosperity. We want a land flowing with milk and honey. We want to plant a vineyard and eat, or drink, its fruit. We want our children to grow up healthy and whole. We want the bandits and the thieves to take up honest work. We want the bear to eat straw like the ox, and the lion to lie down with the lamb. We want to live free of fear and worry, and enjoy our days upon the earth. And, we trudge to the sacred sites with our prayers and offerings, hoping for the blessing. We do not ask for much, and our hearts are pure, maybe this year…
The gift, it turns out, is never what we thought it would be. Seeking the god, the goddess, we find one another. Pilgrims are regularly blessed, but the blessing comes not at the end of the journey, but is found along the way. The blessing is the pilgrimage made in the company of pilgrims. The blessing is the company they keep.
The blessing is the spirit engendered by the association of like-minded people. The blessing is the experience of solidarity, and compassion, and kindness, and peace. Pilgrims care for one another, and help one another along the way. Pilgrims share their bread and their cup, welcome the stranger, make room around the fire for any who join the circle. Pilgrims become what they seek. The journey provides what the destination promises. We are blessed by those searching for the blessing. The god, or goddess, comes to life in the lives of those come to do homage.
Pilgrimage underscores the abiding presence of that which we seek. It is not “over there,” or “up there,” or “down there.” It is here, always here, among us, waiting to come to life in us and through us, as we take up the work of right relationship and offer to one another—find in one another—the gifts we seek from the god.
We need each other. We need the warmth of caring presence. We desperately need what we can only get from association with, from participation in, the right kind of company. Participation in the life of a community is essential for life. We have to have a place to belong. We cannot LIVE alone. Isolation, which is quite different from solitude, kills the soul. We are here, in part, to help one another keep our soul alive. Let’s start with the premise—because we have to start with some premise—that the purpose of life is to be alive—to live fully, deeply, mindfully, well—and that we need each other in order to do that. We need each other in very specific ways.
Awareness, for one thing. We can’t be alive without being awake and aware. We need each other in order to wake up. We need each other to be open to the experience of the moment. To be interested in and connected with what is going on around us, with what is happening. To be attached, invested. We cannot be alive and be disconnected, disinterested, divested, detached.
Connection, interest, attachment, and investment depend upon our living in relationships that allow and encourage authenticity, integrity, congruence and compassion. And, that depends upon our ability and freedom to see what we see, and hear what we hear, and feel what we feel, and think what we think, and smell what we smell, and taste what we taste, and know what we know, and love what we love, and do what is ours to do. We are alive to the extent that we are true to ourselves in these ways—to the extent that the company we keep allows and enables us to be true to ourselves in these ways.
Right relationship requires the right amount of emotional distance among those in relationship. We have to be clear about where we stop and the others start. When we begin living someone else’s life, because that’s what it takes to be wealthy, for example, or popular, or married. When we start liking what someone else says like, and doing what someone else says do, and thinking what someone else says think… We experience the disconnection that is at the center of lifelessness, and do not care whether we live or die. Right relationship enables the connection to that which is deepest, truest, and best about us and allows for the expression of the authenticity that is the heart of life, and is life, and is required for the experience of life, and living, and being alive.