There are psychic realities that are as actual as gravity and the change of seasons. “A witness to violence is a victim of violence,” is a psychic law. We cannot live in this world without witnessing violence. Violence violates, brutalizes, traumatizes, shatters, fragments, destroys our world on a psychic level. After the encounter with violence, things might be put back in order on a physical level, but they may never be put back together on a psychic level. We have to understand the importance of healing the psyche, and engage in practices that restore harmony and balance to the soul—and “psyche” is the Greek word for “soul.”
Part of our work in the physical world is to provide ourselves with safety and comfort, security and stability on a psychic level. We have to know that we are okay, psychically. In order to really be okay, we have to find the way to the world beyond the world of fear and desire, and live there consciously, intentionally. We have always been helpless, and we have always hated it. We have always been at the mercy of forces quite beyond us. The elements, animals, natural catastrophes, bullies, thugs, hooligans, raiding parties, warring nations, disease, debilitation, death… It’s all out there, arrayed against us, biding its time, what can we do?
Our lives consist of imagining ways of protecting ourselves against the inevitabilities of life in this place. We have invented insurance, and nuclear weapons, and certificates of deposit, and neighborhood watch as hedges against the encroaching realities in order to provide ourselves with a little peace of mind and breathing room, so that we might sleep at night and avoid the constant seizure of panic attacks.
Life, it seems, is out to get us. It is as though we don’t belong here with our dreams of convenience, and comfort, and cooperation, where we harvest what we plant, and reap what we sow, and live in what we build, and enjoy the endless pleasure of the fruit of our labor and the laughter of our children, and grand children, and great-grand-children through long generations into the far distant future. There is always the looming specter of the great loss of everything. Those who can afford it live behind high walls in gated, and guarded, communities. But, who can feel safe, even there? Once we get behind the fence, we are still in the world. In the world of fear and desire.
The Bush Administration has played to the fears, and insecurities, and uncertainties of the nation, but I don’t think it has been an intentional and deliberate strategy to fleece us of our freedom and burden us with national debt. I think it is because George Bush, and Dick Cheney, and Carl Rove are exceedingly afraid, and insecure, and uncertain themselves. Just as “the influence of a vital person vitalizes,” so the influence of a terrified person terrifies. We elected to office bullies who are terrified of bigger bullies, and who will die haunted by the uncontrollable possibilities of their lives.
It is important that we not go with them down that path. We avoid the descent into panic and dread by experiencing our experience and reflecting on it, thinking about it—experiencing it. When we experience our experience, we understand how grounded we are in the world of fear and desire, and how little we know of the world beyond fear and desire. There are two aspects of that world which are psychically healing, nourishing, and restorative: Being present to others and being present to ourselves.
Jesus practiced being present, and offered two guidelines to his followers, “the greatest commandment,” and a popular (in his day) version of “the Golden Rule.” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rumi says, “If you are not here faithfully with us, you are causing terrible damage.” From their standpoint, it isn’t about amassing a fortune, having it made, and being safe. It’s about being a positive, not a negative, force in the world. It’s about being a source of encouragement, not throwing a wet blanking over sputtering enthusiasm or stamping out sparks of optimism and joy.
We have all known people who can take the life out of a room just by walking into it. These are black holes of gloom and despair who devour happiness and well-being, and seem to delight in removing delight from the world. “If you are not here faithfully with us, you are causing terrible damage.”
From the standpoint of the world beyond fear and desire, which is also the world of having our own way, there is no reason to despair. The foundation of despair is the hopelessness of ever having our way. But, hope isn’t about having our way! Life isn’t about having our way! The quality of our lives, and the value of life, cannot be gauged according to the number of check marks on our wish list.
Life does not consist of buying, spending, amassing, consuming, acquiring, producing, accumulating, owning, having, controlling, achieving, accomplishing, gaining, getting, and raking it in. These things constitute the foundation of life-as-we-know it, and have served as the ground of civilization since the beginning of time, but they have nothing to do with being alive. Being alive comes down to eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands. Being alive is about being awake and aware and perceptive to the point of taking our own perception into account, so that we see ourselves seeing, think about our thinking, and realize what we are doing at every point in our lives, and know how what we are doing connects us to, or disconnects us from, the world of psychic reality.
Joseph Campbell says, “Realize what you are doing when you’re giving a cocktail party (for instance). You are performing a social ritual. (Pay attention when sit down to eat a meal). When you are eating something (that once was alive, but now is dead so that you might live), this is something quite special to do. And you ought to have that thought when you eat a carrot as well as when you eat (a hamburger). But, you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. (That’s what attention does). You do things with intention (and awareness), and not just in the animal way, ravenously, without knowing what you are doing.”
Attention, and awareness, are the foundation of appreciation, and gratitude, and humility, and life. None of us is here by virtue of our own strength, and cunning, and skill. We owe it all to the help that we have been given along the way. For better or worse, we are at the mercy of the benevolence, or the malevolence, of the drift of our lives. Our contribution in making things as good as they can be is the way we think about what happens to us. To think properly about it, we have to think about our thinking, and evaluate the things we tell ourselves about “the human condition.”
Protection from “the slings and arrows of time” is found in perception. The value of any religion is in the quality of the perception it engenders among its adherents—in the way it structures the thinking of its followers to deal with what happens to them in their lives. The question of every religion is the very practical matter of “How well does it enable us to live day-to-day?” To what extent is it a boost, or a burden? To what extent does it enable us to be present with one another and to be present to ourselves.
To be present to ourselves is to be alert to, aware of, the genius, the gift, the knack, the passion we carry within, and nurturing that to life in the world, so that it becomes our gift to the world—in the sense that “as we do it unto one of the least of these” we do it unto all the world. We think life is the ultimate good, and make significant sacrifices for the sake of what we call “the good life,” but the way we live is a waste of life. “You call that living?”, comes the chastising scorn of God upon those of us who live in the service of our fear and desires. “Wake up, won’t you, to that which has need of you beyond all fear or desire?”
Speaking for myself, I must write, whether anyone reads it or not. I must take photographs, whether anyone views them or not. I must say what must be said, whether anyone hears it or not. It all has to do with apprehending and exploring the truth of experience, and I do it for its own sake, not to get anything out of it beyond the joy of doing it. Lance Armstrong had his bicycle and I have my words and images. “What I do is me, for that I came,” said Gerard Manly Hopkins. If we look closely enough at the life we have lived, and are living, we will see something of who we are.
The truth shines through. The essence cannot be completely hidden or denied. Our work is to get out of the way and let who we are be what we do. The hero’s journey and the search for the Holy Grail, and the spiritual quest come down to the same thing: the recognition and bestowal of our gift to the world. This is not about having our way, but about getting out of our way, so that we might take up the way of the True Human being.
The difference between this world of my-way-ness, fear and desire, and that world of the True Human Being is highlighted by our answer to the question, “What are we interested in?”. Money, right? In the world of my-way-ness, we are interested in money and the things money can buy. Well, money is not the primary concern in the world of the True Human Being. Money is not the goal of the spiritual quest. Money is not the Holy Grail, and the Hero’s Journey is not for booty, loot, and plunder. We have to consider who we are and what we are about apart from the question of how much money it’s going to make us, or what’s in it for us. Money is not the bottom line. Our work is to discover, to remember, what is.