We don’t get there by following commandments and believing doctrines. This isn’t to dismiss commandments or to suggest that we can get along without doctrines. The Ten Commandments, for example, or the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, are perfectly wonderful descriptions of a life of right-relationship. Throw in “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Do not remove your neighbor’s land mark,” and you have a beautiful picture of what the right kind of community would look like. But, you don’t produce that community by keeping the commandments.
The commandments are descriptive, not prescriptive. They describe what is happening when things are right between, among, us. They do not prescribe what must happen in order for things to be right between, among us. They are not the path to rightness. Robotic, hypnotic, adherence to the law does not produce eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand. Commandments are good for stiffness and rigidity and fear of stepping off the straight-and-narrow, but they are not conducive to life, and living, and being alive.
The same can be said for doctrines. Buddhism has the Doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, plus a wide assortment of additional doctrines (Like the Accumulation of Merit). Christianity has amassed a sizeable number itself. In the few years that we have been together, we have developed quite a collection of our own doctrines. There is the Doctrine of Being Alive, and the Doctrine of Bearing the Pain (which we will talk more about in a bit). The Doctrine of Stumbling Around. The Doctrine of Reversing Our Way Forward (Also stated: “Without backing up, we would never get anywhere”). The doctrines are everywhere, but they are all organic. Their truth, like all truth (Which is another doctrine), is recognized in the living, not in the teaching, of it. Life is the teacher, being alive is the lesson.
We cannot teach anyone to be alive any more than we can teach her, or him, to be spontaneous, or to be intuitive, or to be funny, or to be awake. But, we can be alive ourselves, and we can give everyone permission to be alive (spontaneous, intuitive, funny, awake). We can help everyone discover the barriers to being alive (etc.). We can remind everyone that life is the teacher and being alive is the lesson, but, beyond that we can only sit around, tell stories, and laugh and cry together, then get up and do what is ours to do.
Here’s the path that everyone is looking for, the way to authenticity and realness, the directions to the Holy Grail, the instructions for becoming a true human being: Love what is to be loved. Mourn what is to be mourned. Grieve what is to be grieved. Enjoy what is to be enjoyed. Do what is to be done. Question what is to be questioned. Reject what is to be rejected. Encourage what is to be encouraged. Affirm what is to be affirmed… Get the idea? LIVE YOUR LIFE! Be awake, aware, and alive. That’s all there is to it. The point of life is to live. The meaning of life is to be alive. This is not a difficult concept. But, I think we must be afraid of it, so few of us actually embrace it and apply it. Most of us walk away, shaking our heads, saying, “There must be more to it than that!”
Well. You can believe that if you want to, but there isn’t any more to it than that. Yet, believing it has threatening implications for the culture, if not civilization as a whole. The economic structure of the empire crumbles once we understand there is nothing more to it than that! Nothing is more subversive, or a greater threat to the status quo, than eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands, than knowing that life is the teacher and being alive is the lesson.
Who is going to buy all those Hummers if we are sitting around telling stories, laughing with those who laugh, weeping with those who weep and doing what is ours to do? If we begin to fill the void within with life, living, and being alive, what becomes of all the vendors hawking tinsel and fine plastic? This whole being alive idea is as incendiary, as revolutionary, as turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. And that was the act that got Jesus executed. Beware of being alive, it will require you to die.
But, we can’t let the dying thing stop us, or, the fear of dying! The right kind of death leads to resurrection and new life and being alive, and that is exactly what the world is dying for—the life that is the result of the right kind of death. This gets us back to the Doctrine of Bearing the Pain. Kate Sullivan says pain is part of life, but suffering is not. In this, Kate stands apart from the Buddha, who said that life is suffering. Kate would say to the Buddha, “No. Life is painful, sometimes, but suffering is our choice. We can choose to add suffering to the pain, or not. We can make what’s bad worse by how we deal with it, relate to it. See?” And, the Buddha would have to do the palm to forehead “I could have had a V-8” gesture, and invite Kate in for dinner to hear what else she had to say. The Buddha and the Buddette.
Like the Buddha, we confuse pain with suffering. We run from pain when we should simply decline suffering. We must bear the pain, but refuse to carry the suffering. Pain, yes. Suffering, no. It’s the path to life, and light, and peace everlasting.
Pain and aggravation are regular encounters on our way through this world. Grief, loss and sorrow are real and regular aspects of the journey. Suffering is when we refuse to live after a loss. “Look what life has done to me!”, we say. “How can I live after this?” And we wrap our suffering around us and dwell on the unfairness of lot, and live to exhibit our mournfulness and bear the evidence of our burden for all to see. “Woe, woe, poor me! Poor me!”
The pain of some losses can indeed live with us like a cold stone in our stomach forever, but that doesn’t have to keep us from being alive. We can bear the pain without suffering. We can acknowledge the awfulness of our loss, every day. Some pain remains as real as the moment we got the news. Our grief is as fresh as the knock on the door, the ringing of the phone. The flashbacks still stagger us in the aisles of Harris Teeter, and driving to work, and walking along the beach. We cannot get away from the burden of the pain we carry, and life will never be normal again because we will never be free of our loss. We can bear our pain mindfully and mindfully choose to live anyway, nevertheless, even so!
We can wrap our arms around life and live boldly, joyfully, in memory of all we have lost. We can live defiantly, courageously, determinedly, deliberately! We can live a life those we have lost would be proud of us for living! We can carry them consciously with us into life, and live as much for them as for ourselves, living harder for two (or three, or however many) than we ever would dare to live for one. Our lives can be a living testimony to the goodness of life in spite of our loss, even though our pain remains present and real. We can live with pain, without suffering. It’s a perfect conundrum, or koan, or paradox, or contradiction. And, it takes us to the heart of spiritual truth, which is the heart of reality, which is the heart of life itself.
Living fully, completely, unreservedly in this world of pain, anguish, and agony is a bold statement about the essential nature of that which is at the heart of reality. Living is governed by life, not death, and we will not die before we are dead. Thus, we say, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
We suffer when we expand our pain, deepen it, enlarge and enhance it through the things we think and say about it. We nurse our pain into suffering. We allow our pain to keep us from living, from being alive. “But, how can we live, having lost as much as we have lost—having seen all that we have seen? How can we do anything but go through the motions of life? How can we ever live again with our heart in what we are doing when our heart has been broken, crushed, taken out and thrown away?”
We have to know that heart is the easiest thing to lose, and that painful encounters are challenges to our ability to live with heart, anyway, nevertheless, even so! Being alive is not easy. Living will take the life right out of you. There is much that will take heart away from us if we allow it. And so the need for a certain set to the jaw, a certain glint in the eye, a certain disposition of soul that says, “I am not going to die until I’m dead.”
We can bear the pain of life without being overcome by it, without succumbing to it. We can live defiantly in the face of the worse life can do. We can live with heart without losing heart. We can extend grace, nurture compassion, manifest peace, show mercy, create hope, and provide a healing space by the quality of our presence in the world. We can soften the blows of life by our response to those blows, and bring others to life by the way we live with them.
“The influence of a vital person vitalizes,” says Joseph Campbell. Life is contagious. Pass it on. We pass it on by refusing to be undone by the difficulty of picking ourselves up and doing our best with the time that is left for living. It is not easy. There are no answers, or strategies, or solutions, or fixes. It’s a mess. It’s always been a mess. Do what you can. Do what can be done. And, let that be that. We can’t begin to straighten the mess out. We cannot make things like they ought to be, because we cannot make people who they ought to be. We will not get the cooperation we need to make all things good. Do what you can to make something good. Do what can be done to make things as good as they can be. Don’t look at the big picture or think in terms of “making progress.” Just do what you can. Just do what can be done to bring life to life in the moment of your living. And, you will have done enough.