We want to be alive on our terms, yet, we do not dictate the terms. Coming to terms with the terms is the primary task of life in the world. The great spiritual work is putting our self, our spirit, our psyche, into accord with the realities that limit and determine our existence.
The world is not the way we would like for it to be. The world is not the way we would draw it up. No one thinks things are just fine as they are. “Life isn’t fair.” How many of us would design a world in which “life isn’t fair”? The Old Testament is replete with descriptions of the dream world, the land of promise. It’s a land flowing with milk and honey. It’s a place where the lion lies down with the lamb, and the bear eats straw like the ox. It’s a place where spears are beaten into pruning hooks, and swords are melted into plow-shares. It’s a place where people live out their lives to a ripe old age in peace, and justice prevails. Where they build homes and live in them, plant vineyards and enjoy their produce. But, this place is not that place. And, we have to square ourselves up to that ever-present fact.
This place is not the place we want it to be. How can we live here, hating it? How can we sing the Lord‘s song in THIS land? How can we live here, longing for what we cannot have? The task that is before us in every generation, every age, is that of taking up the work of spiritual practice to put us into accord with the unacceptable realities. And, this work is the point of demarcation between good religion and bad.
Bad religion tells us that if we just do this in this way, that will happen and we will like it—that if we make God happy, God will put the unacceptable realities into accord with us, with our wishes, dreams and desires. Bad religion tells us that we can have what we want and live happily protected in an invisible shield God, or the Universe, places around us as a favor to us for living the right way. God will set us high on a rock, you know, and we will be immune to all of the pitfalls, and disasters, and disappointments that befall the heathens and non-believers.
What we have to believe and how we have to act is different with each bad religion, but each bad religion promises prosperity and wealth and happiness (That land flowing with milk and honey, you know), if we identify ourselves with its precepts, and become true believers and faithful doers. It may be the Law of Attraction, or the Ten Commandments, or the Prayer of Jabez, or the atoning death and resurrection of God’s Only Son Jesus Christ Our Lord, but if we believe, if we really believe, and live lives commensurate with our beliefs, the heavens will open and the goodies will be delivered to our door. Give to the god and the god will give to us. Getting what we want is just a matter of knowing the right hoops to jump through. The story is different with good religion.
Good religion knows it isn’t about getting what we want. This, too, is part of the Biblical record. Moses doesn’t get to the Promised Land. The Suffering Servant hands himself over to those who ridicule him and pull out his beard—yet, upon him is the chastisement that is ours to bear, and his are our healing, one might say awakening, wounds. The prophets are beaten and stoned, and Jesus, in his blamelessness and purity, is condemned and crucified, and tells us that if we would be his disciples we have to give up everything, take up our cross, and follow him. Good things do not necessarily accrue to those who are good and do good. And good things cannot be our goal. We aren’t in it for what we get out of it.
We are here to do what is ours to do, to live the life that is ours to live, to align ourselves with the integrity of our own lives, to do what truly needs to be done. We cannot do that with an eye out for what is in it for us. We cannot do that thinking of our advantage, and advancing our interest, and caring about what we receive for our efforts. The great spiritual work is to live as those who have nothing to lose with everything on the line.
It is not about getting what we want, it is about not wanting. It is about not letting what we have or don’t have get in the way of living the lives that are ours to live, of doing what is ours to do, of doing what needs to be done in the moment of our living, regardless of the implications for us, our interest, our lives. But, wait a minute.
Who are we kidding? Self-preservation is the Law of the Jungle. Taking care of Number One is what got us where we are today. We can’t just lay aside millions of years of evolutionary tradition and pretend that someone else’s interest is more important than our own. We ARE in this for what we can get out of it! Why else would we put up with what we put up with? And here we find the spiritual turning point of our lives, of existence. This is exactly the crux of the matter. What will we care about?
Everything hinges on our caring about living the life that is ours to live. “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” “Thy will, not mine, be done.” We have to understand “the one who sent me,” and “his work,” and “Thy will,” to be the life that is ours to live—the integrity of our own life—which exists beyond the life we have in mind for ourselves, the life we want, and desire, and dream of. If we sacrifice, or hand over, or ignore, that life—the life that is truly our life to live—for the sake of the glass beads and silver mirrors the world offers to us in the name of life, we will enter the Wasteland and die the death of the living dead.
But, if we remain true to ourselves, our calling, and sacrifice everything, hand over everything, and take up the cross of living the life with our name on it, no matter what, we will enter the Land of Promise, and know the joy of the good and faithful servants, which is exactly the joy of having done what is theirs to do. In this comes to pass Jesus’ words that those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives in the service of their calling will find them. In being true to ourselves we have to lay self interest aside, for the sake of being true to ourselves and doing what is ours to do in the moment of our living.
Who do you know who lives like that? Who puts self-interest aside in the service of the needs of the moment? The right kind of parents do it with their children, at least until their children are out and on their own. Employees sometimes do it for the sake of their business. We stumble across examples from time to time, of people who lay aside self-interest in the service of the needs of the moment. Firefighters enter burning buildings to save lives. Soldiers risk their lives to help their comrades. It happens, here and there, in spurts and splashes. But it is not a way of life. It is an exception, not the rule.
The rule is that we are ruled by our interests. And, that is also the rub. We set our interests aside occasionally, but then, we pick them back up. “When it is my turn? What’s in this for me? What am I getting out of all this? Why am I doing this? What’s the payoff? When do we start having fun?” The questions underscore the fact that our motivation for living is what we get out of being alive. We don’t do anything for nothing very long.
Yet, nothing is the heart of the matter. We have to have nothing to lose with everything on the line. If we are going to believe in anything, we need to believe in nothing—not as the absence of everything, but as the eternal and infinite power to create and transform, heal, restore, redeem and make whole. Nothing is the origin of all that is. How can we believe in anything if we don’t believe in nothing?
What do we have to gain? Nothing! What do we have to lose? Nothing! What are we good for? Nothing! What are we getting out of it? Nothing! Upon what does the quality of our lives depend? Nothing! This is the realization of Jesus during his temptations in the wilderness, and it is the realization of the Buddha under the Bo Tree.
We are here, with this life to live, as only we can live it, and everything rides on our doing it for nothing. We are here in this moment, with what needs to happen here and now, and everything rides on our doing what needs to be done the way it needs to be done as only we can perceive it and do it. We aren’t here to do what someone else says needs doing, what society, or the culture, or our parents, or the church says needs doing. We are here to do what we perceive to truly need doing in the moment of our living, to respond to the need that we see arising out of the situation in which we find ourselves. What needs to happen now? What is the next step here? Our task is to answer those questions for ourselves out of the integrity of our own being, and to do it for nothing, as an expression of who we are in the world—“Thy will, not mine, be done!”—not caring whether we receive anything from the world for being who we are and doing what is ours to do.