There is a story spiritual teachers sometimes tell to teach about spiritual transformation. It’s about an ice cave Rishi (a Himalayan baba) whose spiritual practice is a form of yoga in which he meditates on the inner light. After many years of this practice, the Rishi eventually attains the highest state of samadhi.
Despite his high spiritual state, the Rishi still needs meager supplies to support his life in the Himalayas. So, the time eventually comes when he has to descend to the village at the foot of the mountains to secure supplies: another blanket, a stick, and a bowl.
Walking through the bustling village streets, the Rishi is overwhelmed and anxious. He isn’t used to having to share his personal space with anyone. Then, one fellow gets too close and bumps up against the Rishi, knocking him into another person. The Rishi turns and snaps: “Watch where you’re going, you idiot!”
This story is used to teach the lesson that the measure of one’s spiritual life is not inner experience but the quality of one’s interactions with other people. As Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruits”: (love, patience, kindness, etc.)
In this time of pandemic, many of us, not Himalayan baba’s but “villagers,” are being tested in a similar way. We are being called from our worldly, intensely social lives to sequester – our own version of the overly crowded marketplace, or living room, as the case may be. This experience is taking its toll on many people. We’re just not that used to being forced into such close proximity with others for so long!
Along these lines, have you noticed how many articles and videos are being posted these days about whether relationships will survive this period of social isolation? Here’s a couple of examples: “Marriage Wasn’t Built to Survive Quarantine,” and, “Love Under Lockdown: How Couples Can Cope During Covid-19.” If the literature is at all indicative, couples are struggling with each other… parents are struggling with kids… and kids are struggling with kids.
Why the struggle? Dynamics that were once alleviated by our social outlets are now inescapable. We can’t put off or ignore disagreements. Private time is a rare commodity. Dishes are piling up in the sink! My partner doesn’t even know which way the toilet paper is supposed to roll off the toilet paper roll (What was I thinking when I married this scoundrel?!)! (By the way, there is a correct way to roll the toilet paper off the toilet paper roll!) In sum, we are “suffering” unmediated, 24/7, interpersonal intensity! (As Sartre said, “Hell is other people.”)
This unmediated, 24/7, interpersonal intensity is testing our nerves… and measuring our spiritual lives. How go our interactions with the people with whom we are sequestered? Do we find ourselves acting with love, patience, and kindness, or, like the Himalayan baba, quipping: “Watch where you’re going, you idiot!” Where are we landing on the “reactivity continuum”?
For those of you who are struggling with this unmediated, 24/7, interpersonal intensity, I want to suggest a way to reframe this period of social isolation. The Sufi tradition is particularly helpful here because the Sufi tradition understands that the measure of one’s spiritual life is the quality of one’s interactions with other people. Even more, the Sufis see our interpersonal relationships with other people as preparation for Divine love. As Jami says: "You may try a hundred things but love alone will release you from yourself. So never flee from love - not even love in an earthly guise - for it is a preparation for the supreme Truth."
Similarly, Rumi says:
There is no salvation for the soul
But to fall in Love.
It has to creep and crawl
Among the Lovers first.
What Rumi and Jami are telling us is that part of the journey to God takes place through our interactions with other people. That is, it’s not until we learn to love people - unconditionally (meaning, no matter what way they think the toilet paper should roll off the toilet paper roll!) - that we are ready for Divine love. Another way of saying this is that the path to God is an alchemical path; a transformative path that requires all the complexity of human relationship to work its magic. In the end, though, we learn to love and thereby become able to receive Divine love.
As we struggle with our interpersonal relationships during this sequester, it would be helpful to see our struggles as indicators of the work we need to be doing on ourselves, from a spiritual perspective. Rather than seeing the other scoundrel(s) in our lives a problem set(s), we need to see him/her/them as opportunities - opportunities to enact love, patience, kindness, etc., even, or especially if, we find these scoundrels unworthy!
In his book, “The Only Dance There Is,” Ram Dass cuts to this chase. When I first read this over thirty years ago it struck me to my spiritual core. Since then, I have returned to it over and over and over again. I suggest printing it and pasting it to the bathroom mirror. It’s a simple but effective mnemonic device:
The only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being. You can cop out
only just so long, saying, I’ve got all this fine coat – Joseph’s coat of many colors – I know all this and I can
do all this. But everything you do, whether you’re cooking food or doing therapy or being a student or
being a lover, you are only doing your own being, you’re only manifesting how evolved a consciousness
you are. That’s what you’re doing with another human being. That’s the only dance there is!
There is purported to be a Chinese curse (No Chinese source has yet been found, however.) that masks as a blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we certainly do live in interesting times! We are facing the first worldwide pandemic in one hundred years. The global economy has been seriously shaken thrice in the last two decades. Most everyone reading these words clearly remembers the events of 9/11 and the wars that followed. Advances in science and technology are increasing exponentially, as are their detriments. The world faces ecological havoc, the likes of which threaten our very existence. And, for all its blessings and curses, the “internet of things” is knocking on our doorstep (I will be doing a sermon about the onset of A.I. this spring.). The list can be made very long... these are definitely interesting times!
This all reminds me of a teaching story from the Sufi tradition:
“Jesus (upon whom be peace!) saw the world revealed in the form of an ugly old hag.
He asked her how many husbands she had possessed. She replied that they were countless.
He asked whether they had died or been divorced. She said that she had slain them all.
‘I marvel,’ said Jesus, ‘at the fools who see what you have done to others yet still desire you!’”
Now, this could easily turn into an anti-worldly message. That seems to be its trajectory, does it not? But we’re going to peel the worldly onion one layer deeper than that. Rather than push back against the world, with all its vicissitudes, we are going to set this teaching story in the larger context of Jesus’ other teachings. We begin by asking, did Jesus deprecate life in the world? He did not. Quite the contrary!
Jesus saw the world as the abode of the kingdom, per the Gospel of Thomas, “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth,” and the Gospel of Luke, “For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” The problem, said Jesus, was not life on earth. The problem was that “people do not see it [the kingdom of God].” This gets to the crux of Jesus’ ministry. His ministry did not aim, as modern day evangelistic preachers tell us, at delivering people from this miserable world into a perfect, eternal state of heaven. Jesus’ ministry aimed at helping people see that they already inhabit the kingdom; that the kingdom is spread out among them now. Jesus’ was the quintessential spiritual optometrist!
Well, if Jesus taught that the “kingdom of God was spread out upon the earth,” why would he, per the Sufi teaching story, marvel at the fools who see what the world has done to others yet still desire the world? It’s all about desire and identification, those forces that cloud one’s vision like a cataract of the soul.
The earth is the realm of the sacred. And, it is inhabited by us creatures of desire. The spiritual life is the art of knowing the proper limits of desire (we must survive, after all), coupled with the ability to keep one’s eyes (and mind and heart) open to the sacredness in which we are enmeshed. When desire dominates, as it does with those (most) that live for the gratification of desire, the capacity to recognize life’s sacred depth is proportionately compromised (One cannot take in the lilies of the field when one is constantly digging for diamonds.). The result is an over identification with the objects of gratification: money, power, fame, food, sex... whose transitory and fleeting nature ultimately bring suffering (classic Buddhist teaching).
Those who live life for the gratification of desire, who are over identified with the objects of gratification, are ultimately “slain” by the world. That is, their spirits are depleted by the suffering that follows from the pursuit of what is transitory and fleeting; never realizing the sacred depth of life that offers ongoing sustenance and innate joyfulness.
Knowing this, Jesus’ counseled a shift of attention = a turn of the mind (metanoia) = “repentance.” He aimed to reawaken us to the kingdom by calling our attention to different objects, objects that are doorways to the sacred: the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the vineyards and the fields rips for harvest... the nature theme in general. (For those wanting to explore the imagery of nature themes in Jesus’ teaching, the work of Niel Douglass-Klotz regarding Jesus’ words in the original Aramaic is very informative.) Indeed, every phenomenon of nature, from the flowering fields to the running rivers to the floating clouds will, if we are receptive enough to the experience, open a doorway to the sacred.
Once we successfully turn our attention to the sacred and enter therein, our greatest longing is satisfied – our longing to know we belong to the greater reality of which we are, in essence, a part. When this occurs, when that longing is satisfied, desire returns to its proper place in our lives and we are no longer identified with the world’s objects of gratification. It is then that we are able, as Jesus’ counseled, to live in the world but not be of it.
Being in the world but not of it is the reconciliation of Jesus' teaching that “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth” with the simultaneous recognition that the world slays all who marry her. We need not deprecate life in this world, only engage it from our identification with Spirit.
Now, pause and breathe deeply... hear the birds calling to you out your window... respond to that call with your mind and heart... and enter in...
There is an interesting paradox revealed by juxtaposing the following two Sufi teachings. The first is a parable of sorts, by al-‘Ajami:
One day Habib went out to make ablutions and left his cloak behind on the road. Hasan came by and found Habib’s cloak. He thought to himself, “Habib has left his cloak. May God forbid that someone take it!” So Hasan stood watch over the cloak until Habib returned.
When Habib arrived he greeted Hasan and said, “O Imam of the Muslims, what are you doing standing there?” Hasan exclaimed, “Don’t you know that your cloak should not be left here? Someone might take it. Tell me, in whom were you trusting, leaving it here like this?” Habib replied, “In He who appointed you to watch over it.”
The second Sufi teaching is a simple, anonymous phrase:
Trust in God but tie your camel’s leg.
Juxtaposing these two teachings we are left with the paradox that we can trust God to watch over our interests and that it is up to us to watch over our interests. By which teaching should we abide?
Often in life we are presented with apparent either/or choices. Sometimes these apparent either/or choices are what we call a “false choice,” meaning that in such situations other choices remain with which we have not been presented (or of which we have not thought), for instance, “none of the above,” or, “both/and.” The answer to the paradox in question is both/and; we should abide by both teachings. Regarding some matters we can trust God to watch over our interests while regarding others matters it is we who should watch over our interests.
Regarding what matters can we trust God to watch over our interests? God’s involvement in our lives regards those matters we would normally label philosophical, e.g., ontological and existential matters (questions of being and meaning). Regarding these matters we can trust in God (though our egos may not always be satisfied with the manner in which God manages these matters). The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher coined the phrase “absolute dependence” to describe our relationship with God in this regard. (For Schleiermacher, “religion is neither knowledge nor a set of moral codes; it is the immediate and intuitive consciousness of the infinite, of man’s absolute dependence on the infinite of God.”) - www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/friedrich-daniel-ernst-schleiermacher-1768-1834-3/
In fact, the measure of the spiritual life is not the ability to wax philosophically prosaic but the manner in which we conduct our daily affairs, including issues as mundane as where we leave our cloaks. How so? The manner in which we conduct our daily affairs is a direct indicator of the condition of one’s psyche. A messy life indicates a fragmented psyche whereas an ordered life indicates a unified psyche: as within - so without.
Surprisingly, this works the other way as well, meaning that if we take on the management of our daily lives as a spiritual task, the successful management of our daily lives can help bring about a unified psyche (which is required for spiritual experience - a much lengthier topic, on which more at some other time and in some other vein). This may seem counter-intuitive but it is true. By organizing our outer life we experience a shift in our inner self.
So, balance that check book, sweep that floor, and fold those clothes! You will be surprised just how much attending to these practical matters will support your spiritual journey!