Silence is a general directive, not an actual destination. You can’t actually “Be Silent!” You can’t experience silence. There is always something making noise. I have a pair of hearing protectors guaranteed to seal out sound. I hear my heart beat. And my breathing. And the crickets—there is a term for it—that are to the ears as floaters are to the eyes. Which is to say that you can’t take “Be silent!” as a literal command. You can’t “Be silent!” You can only “Quieten down in there!” That’s the best you can hope for.
We’re all Southern Baptists at heart. We look for a literal world. We yearn for truth to be actual, tangible, concrete, constant, consistent, and dependable. We call ourselves “open-minded” and “inclusive,” and like to say that “All questions are welcome and everything is always on the table,” and we are continually coming up with examples of our closed-minded-ness and exclusive-ness, times when some questions are not allowed and some things are not put up on the table for discussion. Well. Yeah.
We aren’t going to talk about a lot of things. Like turning the clock back to a time when women were not allowed to hold office in the church. Or treating black people and gay people like they aren’t people at all. Or holding old time tent revivals on one of the parking lots. There are tons of subjects we aren’t going to waste our time discussing. But the literal-minded among us go “Hrumph!” and scowl.
The literalization of religion, and of the spiritual quest, is their end. When we try to do it like the saints and the gurus did it, or do it, or tell us to do it, we substitute form for essence. But, we want to know if we are doing it right. If we are being mindful correctly. Once we become mindful of Correct Mindfulness we lose the way. Willful mindfulness is exertion where there can only be grace. Once you begin trying, you’re trying. And, any variety of trying is “trying too hard.” “Easy does it,” you know.
We’re just along for the ride. That realization is religion at its best. The meaning of life is to be alive. What is the meaning of “to be alive”? That’s the question. That’s YOUR question, and MINE. We answer it for ourselves. You can’t tell me what it means for me to be alive. I can’t tell you. If you are going to be mindful of anything, be mindful of what it means for you to “be alive”! And, spend as much time as you can arrange with it, doing it, being it. Don’t worry that someone thinks you aren’t praying enough, or meditating enough, or reading the Bible enough, or walking the labyrinth enough. If those things bring you to life, if doing them overwhelms you with the goodness of being alive, fine. If not, well. Go with the life. Sniff out life. Spend your life being alive, and let those who come alive reading the Bible or walking the labyrinth read the Bible and walk the labyrinth. But, don’t let them tell you how to be alive. You have to sniff that out on your own!
Where do you go to be fully alive? How long has it been since you’ve been there? Don’t think you are going to find something here that will replace what you find there. Don’t think you are going to find a substitute here, or anywhere, for there. Don’t think sitting zazen is going to do it for you, unless that does it for you. Or praying. Or doing good.
You can’t take direction from someone else about where to go to be alive. You can’t be instructed in the matter of living fully. You have to figure that out yourself. By living. With your eyes open. Being mindful. Aware. Of where the life is, and what you are doing when you are most alive. And, doing it often, because that’s it.
Too many people don’t have a life because they are living someone else’s life. Living as someone else thinks they ought to live. They have never done anything they have enjoyed doing, or wanted to do, or liked to do all their lives long. They spend their lives doing it like it’s supposed to be done according to somebody else’s idea of what is supposed to be. They have followed orders, done their duty, been responsible, endeavored to please their mothers and make their fathers proud. But, they had the wrong kind of mother and father. They didn’t have the kind of mother or father who knew about life, and living, and being alive.
Many of us, perhaps most of us, did not, and have had to learn as we live the basic skills of life. We grow up thinking it’s about money, but learn, if we are lucky, that it’s about passion. We grow up thinking it’s about approval, but learn, if we are lucky, that it is about awareness, and attentiveness, and being awake. We grow up thinking that it’s about getting our ducks in a row, and our duties all done, before we allow ourselves a break, but learn, if we are lucky, that it is about the care and feeding of our own souls before we get lost in making production and meeting quotas.
We think it’s about taking care of business and putting first things first, and learn, if we are lucky, that the business is nurturing our spirits, and the first things are the things that bring us to life and nourish us spiritually, psychically, emotionally. Ah, but. Here is the dilemma of the embodied soul: How do we nourish our spirits without making production and meeting quotas? What comes first, body or soul?
We would not think of giving hungry people art lessons, or handing those suffering from the ravages of poverty and oppression a guitar, and telling them to feed their souls. In the hovels and the ghettos of the world, the opportunity to make production and meet quotas would be seen as a gift from God. It takes a certain standard of living, a certain arrogance of opulence and wealth, to scorn the struggle for money and the things money can buy. And, yet, and yet…
Robert Johnson’s guitar in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and Cleveland, Mississippi, and the juke joints of Highway 61, gave soulful sustenance to those languishing in the absence of money and the things money can buy. The Blues and Jazz and the mournful, spiritual, acknowledgment that “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” kept generations of people going, through a destitution and hopeless we cannot imagine. And yet, and yet…
We would never think that a guitar could be a substitute for employment, or that soulful singing could compensate for living hand to mouth and being unable to make ends meet or come up with the balance due the company store at the end of the month, every month. Living in the midst of a spiritual wonderland, the Grand Tetons, say, or in the shadow of Chartres Cathedral, means nothing if you have no means of meeting your physical needs, or those of your family. That is the rock solid truth of life in this world. First the body, then the soul. And yet, and yet…
It is in the exact face of the assertion, “First the body, then the soul,” that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” and “People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Do you feel the tension here, the tug of opposites? Do you see the impossibility of taking things literally in the sphere of body-soul connection?
There are no black footprints here! No “one size fits all” explanations, directives, instructions. We find our own way to life as embodied souls. We take care of business and put first things first, and sometimes the “business” is feeding the body, and sometimes the “business” is feeding the soul, and “first things” shift and move as particles in suspension do, and nothing is etched in stone, nailed down, unalterably and inevitably fixed in time and space forever and ever, world without end, amen.
The spiritual journey is a life-long quest for the proper relationship, the harmony, the balance, the interplay, between body and soul. We have to follow our bliss and pay the bills. That is the task of life. Work that out without neglecting one for the sake of the other, and you have it made. Ah, but. It is the hardest thing in the entire book of things. The Cosmic Jokester put one over on us. We live well on one level only at the expense of living well, or, even, at all, on the other level. And so, the challenge: To live on the border between yin and yang, on the cusp between despair and denial, laughing at the impossibility of being so finely tuned and refusing to take seriously our ineptitude at getting it right for long.