July 13, 2014
There are lessons, teachings, all around and within us. They are present continually, the flow never stops. It only appears to dry up when we tune it out. But whenever we are open to it, our bodies and our lives carry messages in virtually every moment.
One choice we have to make to enable that openness is to make experience rather than belief the touchstone of our lives. If I were to draw a single distinction between a life guided by institutional religion and one led by personal truth, it would be this: religion is chained by belief; truth is liberated by experience.
Why should I believe in anything when I can experience it instead? Belief must be defended: the history of religion is a history of war. But experience needs no defense; it can simply be trusted, wherever it may lead us. Belief is fixed, carved into stone or law; it has no capacity for change. Experience tends to transmute; it is never quite the same from moment to moment, day to day. Therefore, when we allow experience the lead in our lives, we are far less likely to make that one fatal error of humanity: the impulse to exist severely rather than to live playfully; to, as Alan Watts used to say, take life seriously rather than sincerely.
Now you would think that, of all dimensions of human experience, our sports might lead us clearly in this context. But unfortunately, guided mostly by our media, sports as an institutional entity tends to be among the worst offenders of them all in choosing severity and the arrogance of seriousness over play and the genuineness of sincerity. Think of it for a moment, sports fans: never mind the horrible violence, police state machinations, and on-field barbarity that have dominated the recent world cup of soccer/futbol: do you ever hear more mindless diatribes of the most somber and saccharine sentimentality as you do during sports broadcasts? The vocabulary of these rants is often so idiotic that I feel embarrassed for the speaker. I rarely hear words like “eternal,” “forever,” “fame,” and “glory” spoken with such a laughably biblical tone as amid sports broadcasts and publications.
So our media and other institutions can teach us absolutely nothing about recovering the natural spirit of play in our lives. It is a distinctly individual quest. This takes me back to the original point I made about the lessons contained in our lives, which flow through our days like the air, fluids, and secretions of and through our bodies. The natural life finds nourishment in experience in precisely the same way as our digestive organs find it in our food. Even a painful or positively toxic experience can guide us forward, just as our bodies can find some scrap of acceptable nutrition in a Big Mac (and god only knows how).
There is a mindfulness in Nature that we tend to do a very poor job of integrating into our lives — not through incapacity but through ignorance or denial, much of which has been trained into us. We are by nature perfectly capable of inward attention, contemplation, and that calmly piercing and playful mindfulness of meditation. Nature has never told us: cats may have it but dogs may not; it will come easily to dolphins but to humans, not so much.
The animals — and I am certain that this is meant to include us — are attentive equally to the visible and the invisible; to the physical and to the supernal — to the quantum and the Newtonian alike, if you will. It is all part of their ordinary experience: the poet Lao Tzu tells us, “the formed and the formless coalesce / like the breaths of lovers.” There is no belief that can compare with such experience. The insight of the playful life penetrates, embraces, and then surpasses the apparent. It makes belief obsolete.
I recall one lesson that my old cat Night, about whom I’ve written so often here since her death, used to teach me continually. Whenever I felt broken or depressed or hopeless or self-pitying, she would always come to me with the compassion of her presence. But her eyes, her look, would deliver an added message with their ironic stare: “really, human, this is it? This is what has flattened you and made you prostrate with misery?” It really didn’t matter what the circumstances of the moment happened to be: poverty, loneliness, joblessness, even a death in the family — her look would carry the same message, the same teaching. And it always made me laugh at myself again.
I have occasionally been asked why I use the old Chinese oracle I Ching, and why I would recommend that anyone else use it. The best answer I think I’ve been able to provide to that question is that the teachings of the oracle remind me of all the lessons contained in the ordinary stream of my own life. The best oracles point us back there, to ourselves and to the oracle of daily living.
The I Ching exposes and often lampoons arrogance, immodesty, self-pity, and many other ideological and emotional marks of self-absorption and egocentricity. When we are truly attentive, our lives do the same thing.