Sometimes I wonder about the ability of the human spirit to conceive of a land of milk and honey, a place of peace and ease, a state of mind that is utterly relaxed and clear. It is such a wonderful and inspiring dream -- so different from what actually seems to happen -- and yet ... well, doesn't it also tend to gum up the works?
Yesterday, I sent an NYTimes article to couple of old Zen buddies. I thought they might not have seen it. The article addressed the situation of Lou Nordstrom, a fellow I and the people to whom I sent the article had known in the past. Lou had attained the title of "roshi" only to find that, whatever wisdoms the title implied, there was a lot of unresolved and unacknowledged psychological difficulty in his life. Briefly stated, he had worked hard to overcome his difficulties only to find that his hard work had obscured some difficulties. A shrink was helping him to work things out.
One of the people to whom I sent the article, Frank, wrote back that he had recently been to a Zen center meeting at which the instructor invited the audience to address their personal difficulties openly. And they had, baring their souls and their wounds in front of a hundred other people. Frank noted parenthetically that the exercise had made him "cringe."
I knew what Frank meant. Whether personally or publicly, 'fessing up can be dangerous to the extent that anyone might get stuck wallowing and delighting in their own difficulties as if those difficulties constituted some honest truth. And yet without acknowledging actual-factual problems -- without entering the place where the muck is muck-iest -- how could anyone find a satisfactory solution? It's not really enough to wallow and delight and it's not really enough NOT to take the time to wallow and delight. If being overwhelmed with sadness and confusion is the honest truth of the moment, how could it not be the honest truth?
But I found myself cringing that Frank should cringe. Cringing really won't do, whether my own or anyone else's. Yes, it is fruitless over the long haul to wallow and delight and yet wallowing and delighting is utterly human and needs to be addressed. Naturally, you might get tired of my endless wallowing and delighting -- you've got your own problems to cope with -- but whether the wallowing and delighting are mine or yours, still it's something to address in the world of milk and honey. The gritty, on-the-ground details of a peaceful life are seldom peaceful.
But the question that always arises -- no matter how vast the horror and confusion and fear -- is this:
Yes, I can whine and writhe as well as the next person, but ...
Gently but firmly ...
What adds force to the world of wallowing and delight is the notion that things might somehow be improved, better, less stressful, more peaceful. If things were better, they wouldn't be so bad, right? And this notion of what might roughly be called a land of milk and honey inspires us to seek out better approaches -- to practice, to gather our courage and patience and doubt and strive to make our dreams come true. And our strivings are useful and constructive we hope.
But in a land of milk and honey, who would need to strive? If everything were OK, would there really be some need to make them OK?
Of course it is not enough to run around believing and blabbering about the fact that "things really are OK." That's just dreaming and a cause for more not-OK-ness, more cringing. But within this world of wallow-and-delight, within this realm of what Buddhists refer to as "ego," there is the possibility of practice -- of paying attention and taking responsibility. There is no escape from the nitty-gritty details of our lives, but at the same time we can examine who exactly would need to escape in the first place.
The land of milk and honey is not a dream and it is not-not a dream. It inspires us and it confounds us and in the end the question rises up like some double-helix emblem of heaven and hell:
Have a little milk and honey.