I just read a piece in the Huffington Post by MeiMei Fox on how she sees much of contemporary spirituality to be lost in its own moralism. I can’t say I disagree with her. Like MeiMei, I found my own journey fraught with teachers, and even entire communities, that couldn’t walk their talk; the Buddha’s robes may have been worn, but I saw both teachers and their flocks act like spoiled children who often excused their behavior by hiding behind distorted versions of the teaching. Perhaps because of this obvious hypocrisy, I, like MeiMei, was a bit of a “bad” student. I was known for messing with the words of various liturgical chants, and I did my best to crack others up in the midst of ceremonies and meditation. I even snuck out of the monastery to have a beer with some other monks at a local pub once. Crazy, I know, but at these early stages of my journey, my life as a monk was, as MeiMei might put it, lived out-loud, even as the depths of the Dharma instructed me to shut up and sit still.
Over the years, I began to see through my rebellion both on my cushion and in life. I was shocked to uncover my deep egoic need for living out my search for meaning on my own terms. As a new meditator, I wanted to manage my quest for enlightenment in ways that suited me and my sense of what would work. I also wasn’t interested in doing anything that got in the way of my appreciation of wine, women, song and an occasional cigar. I wanted to feel in control and in charge of my own spiritual work, and by extension, my own spiritual destiny. I was, as Wm. Ernest Henley might say, “the captain of my fate and the master of my soul”… dammit. I would be doing this whole spiritual search my way, thank you, and my path will most certainly involve laughter, some rule-breaking and lots of pleasure. What’s more, if I wasn’t going to be allowed to cultivate this kind of life, and lifestyle, as I pursued Truth, then it wasn’t a Truth I was interested in.
Or so I thought.
It didn’t take much for my teacher to point out what was going on. He showed me, rather ruthlessly, that if my goal was to truly awaken to the Truth beyond name and form, I had to get out of my own way. The occasional retreat here, the chakra alignments there, the many yoga intensives and all of the books and the Sunday Dharma talks would never amount to anything if I wasn’t in a place that combined surrender with steely resolve. Not one bit of this was about being a “goody two-shoes,” but rather it was about being real. Being authentic. Being radically honest with myself and others. It was about generating a balance between the silence and the noise, my anguish and my bliss, neither indulging nor avoiding anything that came up in my experience. In that open field of intimacy, where any and all polarities of experience fall away, clarity shows up. So does an absence of preference for either living small or living large. No preference for either living in silence or living out-loud catches us in this space. In fact, as my teacher pointed out to me, in this open field of Emptiness we can begin to orient our lives in ways that integrate opposites, thereby straightening out the hooks of preference that get us caught in the first place.
But this kind of integral balance can never be done if we are only living in silence or living out-loud. While MeiMei articulates her own, personal disdain for “balance,” she unwittingly exposes the very causes and conditions for her own struggles. She also seems to be advocating a kind of spirituality that is forever kept small and partial in its reach since it’s oriented around the infinitely sloppy cravings of a perpetually dissatisfied ego.
Of course, if a simple management of Samsara’s spin is the goal, then MeiMei’s approach is just fine. On the other hand, if enlightenment is the goal, or, reestablishing an entirely different role with Samsara, one where we are free to chose its offerings or not, then it is imperative that we know, nourish and appreciate, both the quiet ahead of the noisy aspects of being. We need to unlearn our typical leans into and away from what life is offering. We need to know silence better than we know noise, for a while at least since doing so helps us come back into the world and live in ways that support the very awakening that so many of us are aching to uncover and ultimately share with the world.
If realizing the Truth beyond name and form is our aim, then consciously balancing all aspects of our lives is key to the process. Intentionally cultivating balance offers an infinitely steady, “groundless” position, where we can live passionately without getting caught by our passions. But this can only happen once we’ve seen through our clinging to its source. In the absence of this revelatory vision, we are only able to give birth to perpetually limited views that see themselves as infinitely vast. Enlightening our egos might be entertaining and fun, but it won’t get us past ourselves, and it certainly won’t awaken much in us except more of the same.
Seeing through both our cravings and our avoidances offers a spiritual practice where we can live in unattached ways without getting caught by anything, especially our sense of non-attachment. This clarity also has the effect of turning the light of our spiritual practice out toward the rest of the world. Here we have an opportunity to move away from “I, me and mine” into “all of us, all of the time.” And in this space we can live in ways where there is no division between spiritual and non-spiritual aspects of either ourselves or our lives. We see and know union, and communion, in ways that neither heart nor mind can apprehend let alone manage. We begin to see that this whole beautiful dance is only ever Spirit seeing itself through us and everything else as a tango between Samsara and Nirvana, in every moment. Here is where freedom unfolds for all beings.
But giving into the false, mind-created dualisms of “spiritual” versus “non-spiritual,” or “goody two-shoes” versus “rebellious,” or “silence” versus “out-loud” will forever make any authentic non-dual awakening impossible. As long as we aren’t intimately familiar with and grounded in quietude, the noisy sides of our most sacred work will be limited by our preferences for them. Living in this way can’t help but ultimately generate suffering for ourselves as well as those we touch.