Monday, May 15, 2023

Love is the Mystery

There is a higher reality that words, concepts, and sermons can’t reach. We try to
point to this reality with carefully wrought language, theology, and doctrine, but the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The map is not the place. The menu is not the food.

For those of us who teach, preach, and write this news is somewhat deflating. We thought we were getting close to naming the mystery. But in the end, all we can do is cultivate in others a willingness to deepen into the mystery that wells up through the cracks of their own lives. This is why Buddha simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. This is why Lao Tzu wrote that “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.” Even Jesus seemed exasperated as he chastised his disciples in chapter thirteen of the Gospel of Thomas. “I am not your teacher,” he said. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring I have tended.”

If the teacher is not the message, and if the message cannot be received second-hand, then why do we gather in spiritual community to hear sermons about how to better ourselves and draw closer to the sacred source? As a guy who often gives those sermons, this strikes me as a particularly urgent question. What, in the end, are spiritual teachings for? Why do we need any of this?

You might as well ask a tree why it leans toward the sun. We love language, talking, and teaching because concepts are what we know. They’re how we know. In a way, they feed us.

First we perceive the world, then shape those perceptions into thoughts. As Adam named the animals, we name the concepts taking up residency in our consciousness, even going so far as to order them into hierarchies, because with naming comes judgment, prejudice, and bias. There is no such thing as value-neutral thought. We fall asleep and forget that we do not know the world as it is—we know only our thoughts about the world. This dynamic leaves us vulnerable to self-aggrandizing narratives that lionize us while diminishing the other. Prejudice seems baked into cognition itself.

Our innate need to discriminate and ascribe hierarchies must be deliberately disrupted and discarded. The good news is that the deeper part of us already knows this. Beneath the conceptual realm there is a concept-free field of awareness unbound by the limitations of thought. The world’s wisdom traditions call it by many names—Atman, Buddha-mind, spirit, inner Christ—and it is our essential nature. We have our being there. The conceptual mind is ill-equipped to experience this deeper reality. Realizing one’s sacred nature is more a process of  unlearning, of getting out of our own way. No matter how Herculean the effort, how can you become what you already are?

One of the most notable hallmarks of awakening is humility. Less and less do you need to prove that you are right. You recognize that every religion is true—that they all work, like maps, to show the way home. You stop straining and start softening. Freedom replaces fear and anxiety. You no longer argue about the meanings of words. All of the names of God are fine. Or none at all. In the end, only one word—love—serves us best as the name of the nameless mystery that we are. 

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the March/April 2023 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

No comments: