“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
. . . Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized they were naked.
“What do you feel before you think?
What do you see before you blink?
Who do you battle in your dreams?”
My Cat, Uncle Larry, and the Inherent Perfection of this Moment
Our cat Amigo loves me with great intensity. When he sees me he flops onto his back, purrs loudly and presents his belly for me to rub. Sometimes I feel bad because I don’t have time to pet him, but in that case he just follows me around the house, squawking until I do. When he’s not following me around, he’s usually eating or sleeping in a piece of sunlight or playing with a misplaced hair rubber band. Far be it from me to assume I know what attends the deepest recesses of Amigo’s walnut-sized brain, but I have the feeling that he doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he should have been born a Calico or ruminating on our other cats’ opinions of him. I could learn a lot from Amigo.
This moment is complete. If it could be any better, it would be, and if that were the case, it would be a different moment. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to improve it. I notice that my mind tends to seek out the flaws in things, or at least some part of it does. It’s like a crazy uncle who always does something deranged to ruin family gatherings. He’s always willing to criticize the food, but you won’t find him helping in the kitchen. Everyone’s favorite part of the evening is after Uncle Larry has passed out on the couch.
Things either exist or they don’t. When they do it’s as though they carry a fundamental blessing just by virtue of their existence, like a stamp of approval from the universe. It’s easy to see that things like kittens and rainbows and extraordinarily gifted artists are blessed, but what about terrorists? What about social injustice and that nosy next-door neighbor who knows everyone’s business? If I think back through my day, I can remember a hundred things that were just not quite right in some way. That crazy uncle part of the mind has an opinion on everything, from how people drive or dress to the squeaking-grinding noise of the elliptical machine–even what I think. And don’t look now, because he’s coming your way.
You are not outside the universe. When I’m living in Uncle Larry’s world, it’s as though there’s an unbreachable rift between myself and my life; there’s a background and a foreground and I seem to be the only one inhabiting the foreground. It feels like my skin is too tight, my mind is too tight, or somehow the world just doesn’t fit. That’s a painful way to live, as a sore thumb, the only skinny-dipper left standing on cold conrete while everyone else frolics in the pool.
Life is unmanageable. We are ever comparing the world to our ideas about how it ought to be–husband should have emptied the dishwasher, wish it wasn’t so cold right now, my sister should be happier–what a way to live in the world! Actually, it’s not really living in the world, it’s living in a little tiny box with the word “world” neatly printed on the inside. Standard operating procedure is to try to run the show from inside the box by managing external conditions, internal conditions, other people’s thoughts and behaviors, our own thoughts and behaviors, their impressions of us, our impressions of us–the list is endless. You’ve heard of the American Dream, right? Well, this is the promise of the Human Dream: If It Exists, We Will Manage It! Something opens at the moment when we realize there’s something missing in this approach to life–perhaps we don’t have all the answers, maybe nobody does, and maybe answers are not all that valuable anyhow.
The universe is irreducible. The mind does its best to help us navigate our lives by creating a sort of Cliff’s Notes about things. This is a good method for understanding how to set up a bank account or drive a stick shift, but it doesn’t work remarkably well for the bigger questions in life. It tends to make jerky out of our experience, drying out all the juice and cutting it down to bite-size pieces. We lose something when this happens, an intimacy, a deep connection with life.
Life is inexplicable. A friend recently suffered a devastating loss. After decades of struggling with deep loneliness and depression, he had finally found a partner who made him feel whole. In short order they were engaged and he moved all his things into her apartment, but within a month she died abruptly. I had seen my friend profoundly depressed before, but never so bereft of hope as when he related this tale to me. In a moment like this, often there is an urge to say something to fill the silence, to offer some helpful words to alleviate a loved one’s suffering or our own discomfort. We want to help, but perhaps above all we want to make sense of what has happened, for him and for us. But these moments, like all moments, are complete expressions of the universe and as such they are irreducible. Life is not meant to be suppressed or managed or ruled from inside our tiny box and so perhaps what is truly needed is just our participation, our full presence. And so while I could have offered my friend any number of trite consolations, I didn’t feel the need to change him or myself, and I knew that whatever I explanation gave him would have been more for my own benefit anyways.
The universe is always moving toward awakening. Experiences like the one my friend is having shatter the certainty of the world we have been living in; they are a form of awakening, and perhaps that’s why people often find enlightenment in the midst of terrible suffering. Sometimes the world opens to us accompanied by the gilded voices of angels and sometimes darkened by the shadowy work of demons, but either way it opens, and when it does we find ourselves in the middle of the deepest sea, unable to see land in any direction. My friend is a man of strong faith, someone who has looked to God his whole life for strength and support. “Someone told me that God never gives you more than you can handle,” he said, “but that’s bullshit.” He is in the middle of it now, treading water out beyond where the lights on shore can reach him. Rather than pointing him in one direction or another, it seemed enough to keep him company while he swims.
Like the student in this koan, like my friend, like all of us, we seek an explanation, some tool we might use to carve meaning into our experience. But at some point we notice that our tools never quite do the trick–our thoughts about the world never come close to encapsulating it–and actually our attempts to reach dry land only serve to push us farther out to sea. And so perhaps the best thing we can do in the beginning is entertain the possibility that there might be some value in just being where we are. Perhaps this very moment carries with it the blessing of existence–like kittens and exceptional art–and we can trust what it’s giving us. If we let the koan take away our usual way of understanding things, it might leave us open to discover a new way of living.
Perhaps then, even Uncle Larry has Buddha nature.