There is a way to do things and a way to not do things. Or, as our parents used to say, “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything.” The spiritual path is learning to do what needs to be done the way it needs to be done. And, we don’t have any idea what either of those things are. But, living shows us. We see what needs to be done, and how it needs to be done, over time.
This is the way it works: We decide what needs doing, and we decide when and how to do it. That is the entire scope of our lives. The quality of our living hinges on the quality of our decisions and choices. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know what we are doing. We don’t know what needs to be done. We decide, not-knowing. When it becomes apparent, as it will, that we were wrong, as we will be, then, we decide what needs to be done about that. We are always deciding what needs to be done, and when, and how, to do it.
The ideal is to live with our eyes open, learning what living has to teach us. We learn what works and what doesn’t work by guessing a lot, and being wrong often, and figuring things out as we go. Ideally, we develop a feel for a lives over time, a sense of how things are, a knack for living. And, we do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, the way it needs to be done, and things go smoothly, exactly the way they ought to.
But disruptions come along. We marry into a strange family, or move to a different part of the country, or take a new job and have to learn again how things work now. And, pity the poor person who is always trying to live here and now the way she, the way he, lived there and then. “It’s a new world, Goldie,” and we have to adjust continually to a changed and changing context in order to know what needs to happen now, and how it needs to be done. We cannot keep the past forever present.
In order to be alive in the moment of our living, we have to be awake and aware, alert and attentive, now, in this moment. The recipe for a good life is consistent across time: “Eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart that understands.” It is never more difficult than that. And, it is always that difficult. Cultivating eyes and ears and heart is the work of a lifetime, and is exactly what is required to know what needs to be done and how to do it.
The spiritual task is seeing, hearing, and understanding. Or, to be more specific, right seeing, right hearing, right understanding. Everything flows from there. The spiritual quest is the quest to see, and hear, and understand. The spiritual journey is the journey to seeing and hearing, and understanding, rightly. Right perception (which includes seeing and hearing and intuiting), right living (which includes being and doing), and right relationship (which finds the balance point between the individual and the other, the part and the whole) is the spiritual vertex. There is nothing beyond that to know, or achieve, or experience, or acquire. Oneness with the universe is nothing compared to living in this moment in ways that are precisely right for the moment. Apply that to every moment, and you are as God is.
But, God is not threatened by the competition. There is too much standing between us and right perception, right living, and right relationship for God to be worried. Personal ambition alone is enough to keep us circling around the wrong flame forever. There is no particular advantage to right perception, right living, and right relationship. There is nothing in it for us. We don’t stand to get anything out of the deal. Doing what needs to be done, the way it needs to be done, because it’s the right thing to do isn’t going to play well in Peoria. Or anywhere else.
What’s the payoff is the question. How’s it going to help us is the question. What difference is it going to make in our lives is the question. How is being spiritual going to help ME is the question. What am I going to get out of being enlightened is the question. God’s laughing. Bent over. Howling at the idea that we could aspire to be competition.
Look, it’s like this, here’s the deal: In this culture, we are in it for what we can get out of it. We look for the advantage. We run a cost/benefit analysis before getting out of bed each day. We look at everything in terms of what’s in it for us. If it doesn’t pay off, we aren’t buying. Our motive for living is to have more at the end than we had at the beginning. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” you know. Acquire, amass, achieve, accumulate, accrue, assemble, succeed, win, triumph… We have to have something to show for having lived up to this point, and more to show for living from this point on. What we stand to gain is the motivating force of our lives. We don’t do anything without calculating the angles, and weighing the odds, and coming out ahead in the game.
All right. Put that approach in one chair. And, in another chair put all that stands between us and the realization of our ideas for our lives. We can lose the way in the swirl of lost car keys, IRS audits, over-drawn bank accounts, flat tires, leaking roofs, and the dog throwing up on the carpet in the den. The experience of life is a wrestling match between what we want and all that gets in our way.
Now, add another chair to the circle and place in it the concept of being called, of having a mission, of being invested in an undertaking—listening to music, say, or making art—for no reason beyond the experience itself. Now, invite the chairs to talk to each other. What do they say? How does the artist communicate with the corporate executive? What does Jesus have to say to Judas? What becomes of struggle when we are just listening to what needs to happen? Which chair gets most of our attention, most of the time?
We decide what needs to be done, and how to do it, in each moment. The moment redeems the past—to the extent that it can be redeemed—and influences the future—to the extent that it can be influenced. The moment is where life is lived. The moment is all there is. Moments add up to make a life. They aren’t what we use to get something out of life.
The moment is not where we set the stage for some future life. The moment is where we live. It is easy to get the idea in this culture that the value of the present is in preparing for a wonderful future. We live now in ways that will allow us to really live then. We use the moment to position ourselves for a fabulous life of wealth and opulence. And we lose the moment using it to get something from the next moment. And, something else is always coming along to derail our plans and postpone indefinitely the arrival of that grand future for which we live.
Our lives are contrived from the start. We do this to get that. We have to be going somewhere, you know. We have to have that career track, that life plan. We have to have those goals and those steps to attaining them. We decide what we want, and calculate our way to the realization of our desires. Desire fuels life. There is no end to what we want. And, there is no pattern to our wanting. To follow our desires is to run from one latest thing to the next. Our eyes trick us into a life that has no soul. The desires of our heart have very little to do with heart. Our lives are too shallow to splash because we spend them asking what we want and not who we are. How else would you do it?
Well. We might call it “living from the core.” Call it “living aligned with that which is deepest, best, and truest about us.” Gerard Manley Hopkins could say, “What I do is me, for that I came,” but we have no idea what he’s talking about. We have to figure it out. Integrity of being is the highest value, not gaining the advantage, not having it made, but being who we are, doing what is ours to do, even when that is all that is in it for us.
Most of us don’t have a clue about what that might be. And this is the important point: We don’t have to figure it out! We don’t have to be able to say what it is! Here’s some more of the deal: It is the nature of the good to not know what it is doing, to have only a vague sense of what ought to be, and to have no strategy for, or even an idea of, achieving what needs to happen. As the good begins to stir, we find ourselves saying strange things, thinking strange thoughts, things and thoughts we can’t begin to defend, justify, explain, or excuse, things and thoughts about photography, for example, or something that is equally fruitless, pointless, costly and serves no purpose. As the good begins to stir, we find ourselves being drawn toward certain experiences, and, as we move in their direction, what needs to happen becomes increasingly obvious, even though we may never be able to explain to anyone’s satisfaction—even our own—exactly why we are doing what we are doing. “It’s just so ME,” may be the best we can do.
What is opening before you, or trying to? What are you resisting? What are you forcing? What are you pushing? What if you stopped resisting, forcing, pushing, and just started listening? Just started assisting what seems to be calling you, asking you to give it a chance at life? Where might your life take you if you weren’t so determined to go somewhere else instead? What is your life trying to give you? The way opens, you know, before those who are open to the way.
In order for life to be more than "one damn thing after another and then we die," we have to factor in retreats and pilgrimages to the "thin places" which connect us with the foundation and restore our souls. We have to open ourselves to the refreshing waters, ground ourselves in the wonder of sunlight and air, return to the source, and be one at the level of the heart with all things. It is too easy for our lives to be too shallow to splash. The depths are all around us, waiting for us to immerse ourselves and remember who we are and what we are about. We have to take the time to engage in the practice and the discipline of enlarging our perspective and reclaiming our lives.