Again yesterday, the nag came nagging and I set out to reflect on what so much effort had been all about -- spiritual life. I guess, in the end, it doesn't matter much what field of endeavor anyone chooses as long as s/he 'goes the distance' -- i.e. digs in long enough and far enough so that, in the end, enough is enough.
I haven't really satisfied my own curiosities, so I keep writing this over and over. "Goes the distance," but what is THE distance? People like me get old and fat and lazy and, hey!, how long can you expect satisfaction when picking your nose? Death and sleep beckon -- isn't it time to leave things to their own devices? I suppose there are those who cling more tightly still to a given spiritual persuasion as age encroaches, but that strikes me as the wrong tack. Let God worship God, assuming God-stuff is your inclination. Stop fussing. Time used is seldom time wasted so ... let things alone.
Anyway ... here is yesterday's effort-manqué ... for the file-box, I guess. "If only..." is a young man's sport and looking back, I don't think I made a mistake ... or made a mistake exactly. All bullshit is good bullshit and yet is simultaneously bullshit as well.
I don't want to get into a kerfuffel with some clipped-lip Brit, but after 50 years of sometimes intense immersion in spiritual life I honestly wonder whether all those years were worth the price of admission.
A psychologist friend of mine, an ex-Jesuit who quit the Roman Catholic priesthood, once pointed out that no baby ever slid down the maternal chute burdened with belief. "Babies only know how to suck. End of story."
The anti-religious crowd may whoop and applaud the observation, but they are too often immured in their own belief system, and too seldom make room for the frailty like my own -- the need to believe in something bigger than a bread box.
Fifty years ... settling at last on Zen Buddhism as a vehicle. Today, at 77, I look back with delight on the fact that at the monastery I flunked out of there were valuable lessons to be learned and chief among them was that it is possible to eat oatmeal with chop sticks. More seriously -- by which I do not mean solemnly -- there is the approach of death and the question, "Of what importance is 50 years of failure and success? In death, won't it dissipate like a film played in reverse ... back up the maternal chute perhaps into ... into ... into ... will someone please tell me into what."
You might think that death would create a capstone to all that study, all that intensive, meditative effort, all that reading that never quite managed to answer the question, "If I'm so smart, how come I'm not happy?" Isn't spiritual life largely a relaxing response to the unknown that is called death? Believers and non-believers smile knowingly, but what the hell do they know?
It all started easily enough when I was about 35, the sole offspring of a college professor whose own father had been a Presbyterian minister, and a very good writer of fiction and non-fiction. Both relied, with differing amounts of courage, on the religion of the intellect. Any child who has been subjected to the catechisms of intellectual life may sympathize with the child who seeks out love in the above-and-beyond-it-all.
As I dipped my toe in the spiritual waters and determined I wanted to get wet, I had a couple of provisos: 1. I wanted to find out if spiritual life were verifiable but not in order to convince or convert anyone else. In terms that suited my leanings I wanted to know, "Is it bullsh*t or not?" and 2. if my spiritual adventures could not step up to the clamor of a raucous beer hall, it was useless. Outside of that, I was willing to dive.
I read. I did the ecumenical schtick. I tried, unsuccessfully, to stop cussing. Hinduism was lovely, not least because its age gave it the capacity for laughter. But its ornamentation outstripped my capacity to love bright lights. The Abrahamic persuasions -- Judaism, Islam, Christianity -- were top-heavy with the separation of man and god and hence riddled with unspoken doubt and I wasn't after what ladled out more doubt.
My first entry onto a zendo or Zen meditation hall, scared the hell out of me. Forty or fifty people sat facing a wall. They didn't move. They didn't speak. They didn't rely on each other in socially-recognizable ways. They sat still and, at the sound of a bell, they got up and walked. Then they sat down again. End of story. Yes, it scared me to death and yet somehow felt right. Put up and shut up.
I wasn't wrong. Which is not to say I was necessarily right.
The first nine years were full of hope and belief. Hope and belief inspire, but as a teacher would later tell me, "For the first four or five years (of meditation practice), belief and hope are necessary. After that, they are not so necessary."
Experience trumps hope and belief. All anyone has to do to verify this is to sneeze. Where do belief and hope go in the midst of a sneeze? What is left?
Fifty years of sometimes-zealous, sometimes-laggard practice and now I wonder, where does the accumulated experience go when the film is reversed? Heaven? Get a life! Hell? Get a life! Enlightenment? Get a life!
I practiced through times of bright openings and rock-solid sorrows. I kept on and kept on and kept on. But now is a time to consider the possibility of not-keeping-on. The understandings came and went in full accordance with Buddhism's observation or fact-checker that "everything changes."
The years rolled by. I got married. Three kids came down the chute. We moved out of New York City an into Massachusetts. I built my own zendo in the backyard and invited others to come and sit. Few did. I put spaghetti on the table as a 'copy editor' at a nearby newspaper. It was dreary work. Every Sunday, I would get into my robe and go out to the zendo to sit for an hour or two.
The same priest-turned-psychologist I knew once told me when I asked about his own post-exit approach to spiritual life, "I have done with the eternal."
With death on the doorstep, how and why should I complain or fret? When I was a kid, I had an array of cap pistols with which to play cowboys-and-Indians. Racism on that front had yet to raise its apt objections. But today, not a single cap pistol remains. As I have a soft spot for children's games, so I have a soft spot for people seeking an easier way of life, something less tear-stained and full of doubt. Spiritual life is a possible approach.
It's bullsh*t of course, but life is full of bullsh*t that helps the flowers grow. Stinky, but rich. I have a soft spot, but not soft enough to remain silent about the bullsh*t. I might have stuck with cap pistols as a focal interest but, well, it's too late now.
The cap pistols of my heart.