In the same way that dehumanization paves the way for every kind of atrocity against humanity, I think much of the cruelty and abuse we inflict on our living planet and it’s non-human inhabitants is the result of detachment – fostered by our collective ego and the egocentric trappings of modernity.
I also believe that many so-called ‘spiritual’ belief systems we depend on for our existential comfort contribute to this by creating a false duality between our current lives and some ‘afterworld’ – indoctrinating us to believe that our priority as humans is to pursue an existence completely separate from this planet. In other words, Heaven is a pipe dream and…something, something… opiate of the masses.
Unlike many non-theists, however, I do believe there is a profoundly spiritual element to our existence. You can find it in almost any tradition if you read between the lines of human aspirations for power masquerading as religious dogma. These traditions tell stories in ways that allow us to visualize concepts that aren’t easy to describe. (Some people like to take these as literal and turn them into idols – but that’s a different discussion for another time.)
My budding Zen practice has helped me recenter and reorient my whole self – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual – around the idea that we are not some separate, special creation made in the image of some male-centric, authority figure modeled on patriarchal, tribal cultures.
Instead, each of us are a particularly beautiful, inextricably connected manifestation of the natural world with infinite potential; born to fully inhabit each perfect moment during the cosmically short time we are alive.
Living well means our engagement with other humans, the planet, and the billions of non-human life forms that live alongside us, is a symbiotic dance in which we take our cues from one another (both subtle and gross), and respond in ways that demonstrate the truth that we are, all, one.
The Golden Rule, in its simplest and most elegant form; extended to all things, at all times.
This week at my Wednesday night zen group, our focus was on “Gaia Meditation” – and the teacher brought a short reading from Karen Armstrong’s book titled “Buddha.” It was the account of The Buddha’s enlightenment – a lush and illustrative mythical story that is rich with symbolism and meaning. I’ve read it in many forms and it’s always beneficial.
Armstrong’s depiction of the final days before Buddha achieved enlightenment is an accessible narrative and well worth reading and pondering even if you’re not at all interested in Buddhism as a religion.
But to sum up, here’s how it went down (in my own words):
Young Sid (SIddhartha) was a pampered royal whose dad decided to try to keep him locked away and distracted by all the comforts of wealth and privilege because he wanted Sid to follow in the family business of ruling instead of joining a band or becoming a spiritual teacher, or whatever other nonsense kids were into back then.
Eventually, however, Sid, got out of the palace (as kids are wont to do) and saw some terrible shit out there – including a corpse. Naturally he freaked out, and this set him on a path of trying to understand suffering. (Parents who try to keep their kids in a bubble, take note.)
Well a lot of stuff happened. Sid tried all kinds of wild scenes in his pursuit of existential truth, even coming close to dying because he fell in with some wacky ascetics who thought that their physical bodies were a hindrance and starving themselves was the way to truth and liberation.
Anyway, this went on for years and Sid got frustrated. Nothing could help him make sense of the world and all the suffering and the inexplicable lack of obvious purpose – and his failure to do so wasn’t because he wasn’t trying super hard.
So finally, after exhausting all his mental and physical resources, he said to himself, “Fuck this noise. I’m tired of chasing the meaning of life. I’m sitting my ass right under this tree and I am NOT getting up until the meaning comes to me!” (This might sound silly, but I gotta tell ya, after coming through my own existential crisis this is kind of how it happens. At some point you’re just like, wow, I GIVE UP.)
Anyway, Sid sat under this tree for a long time – like 49 days (in some versions of this story) – and as he did, an evil creature named Mara who is a shadowy symbol of self-doubt, duality, and ego – showed up on a giant elephant with a whole ass army.
Mara approached Sid menacingly, and threw all kinds of terrible stuff at him. Basically, a gauntlet of mental and emotional cruelty designed to undermine Sid’s attempts to see past his own ego and gain true understanding of the universe. (According to Armstrong “Mara” means “delusion” and he symbolizes delusions that hold us back from enlightenment.)
Finally, Mara said to him, “Who the fuck do you think you are anyway? That’s MY seat of enlightenment. You’re not worthy. I’m the ruler of the world! Look at all my power! See? I have an army of legions who will vouch for me!” And then one of Mara’s soldiers piped up and was like, “Yep!”
Sid was alone. Exhausted. Demoralized. But also, not a damn fool. He wasn’t going to give up his seat – he’d come too far for that, and anyway, Mara was a creep. Even if Sid doubted his own right to sit there, he knew that the seat didn’t belong to Mara. So.
Sid looked around for someone to vouch for him and saw no other person. At that point, Sid reached his right hand down and touched the earth and said, “Bear witness for me!”
And the earth shook.
It rumbled and groaned in a terrifying way.
And a powerful voice was heard to say “I BEAR WITNESS, YO. THIS GUY IS LEGIT.”
Mara’s giant elephant dropped to its knees. The armies fled. Mara ran off, totally freaked out because it suddenly occurred to him that armies and violence and intimidation might not actually be the ultimate power in the world.
And, as the story goes, the sun rose the next day and Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment – the complete understanding of the non-duality of all things; and the ability to experience All within our own singular manifestation of life and humanity.
The point of this story, of course, is that our truest, highest purpose is to understand and embody our existence as a PART of the world, not a conqueror of it (and its inhabitants) – OR – as a weigh station on the way to a much better version of earth up in the sky.
Only then can we serve humanity. Only then can we serve our planet. Only then can we open ourselves fully to the extraordinary opportunities to be alive and engage our whole selves as an actualized manifestation of the universal creative process.
Human life is short. And that’s ok. Only our egos tell us that – unlike literally everything else in the universe – we deserve to live forever after we are done here. This delusion is what cuts us off from our selves and one another, and gives us anxiety that keeps us from living in each moment.
A couple weeks ago I told my therapist that having an existential crisis turned out to be pretty great. It reminds me of swimming in Barton Springs – a popular watering hole here in Austin that stays around 68 degrees all year. When you dip your toes in you automatically recoil your 98.6 degree body because it is profoundly uncomfortable. But once you dive in, it feels incredible. Your body and mind become alert, blood is flowing into all your nooks and crannies, you’re buoyant and ALIVE. Once you’re in, all your drama about how cold the water is seems silly.
So anyway, two things:
1. I’m thinking a lot these days about whether or not the earth would bear witness for me if I asked it to.
2. Come on in. The water’s fine.
“All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
― Octavia E. Butler