Saturday, December 3, 2011

The coral reef

One hears a lot about “special conditions”–about how one needs to be in special conditions to do real spiritual work, how one has to be in a community, at a retreat, in the Dharma Hall meditating, what have you.

This idea is useful up to a point. Then it goes past the point and ultimately begins to miss it entirely.

Life itself is special conditions. It is, in fact, so special that it doesn't last forever. We die. So life is very special indeed.

Life is the condition in which we work. The community is everyone we know. The inner work is every relationship we engage in.

We might think of it like a coral reef. We are all organisms on a coral reef in this life; it is an incredibly varied place, with tens of thousands of different habitats, countless encounters, impressions flowing in like plankton on a current: rich food everywhere to feed on. The coral reef is complicated and complex and unpredictable. So much so that it can seem scary. There are sharks here; there are Moray eels and octopi.

So we take some special, wonderful fish out of a coral reef, grab a few sponges, some dead coral, and put it all in an aquarium of our own design. The aquarium is manageable! It's nice and quiet in here; a little air bubbles into the water, a fake plastic treasure chest opens and closes alluringly.  There is a diver next to it in a little suit... mysterious, isn't he? Delicious food is sprinkled just within reach.

It looks like a real coral reef– and it is hypnotically interesting. But it is really just a beautiful trap from which it is nearly impossible to escape.

We can't allow our  inner work to become an aquarium, yet this is what seems to happen. There is this conviction that inner work can be put in a bell jar, isolated from life, plunked down on a cushion in the meditation hall, and that this is where "it" really happens. That concept is utter nonsense.

Where it really happens is out here in the ordinary world, where a thousand uncomfortable situations rub up against me. This is where I need my attention. This is where I need my sensation. This is where I need to experience an emotional relationship. Yes, I need to work with others; but the "others" are not the special people that I selected– or that selected me– to work around me in the aquarium. The others aren't the members of the aquarium.

The others are every event, every other fish, every circumstance on the coral reef.

I have to believe in my own life and believe that it is real enough to find the value in it; not in the abstractions of a philosophy or the controlled conditions of a magical teaching.  I need to live it and breathe it– I can't afford to turn it into a museum display or quotation society, where everything is taken out of context and printed up a nice little books to read and discuss. The ideas and the books are good; yet they are always out of context, because the only context they can ever exist within is the book. The ideas themselves were, before they got squashed between two covers on a series of thin little pages, living things out on the coral reef.

If I begin to mistake the things squashed onto the page as the actual organisms on the coral reef, well, one can see how delusional I am right away, can't one? Yet I like to live that way. Really, it's much easier than being on that damned reef.

 So I think it's useful to do away with the idea of special conditions–do away with it, that is, by understanding that all of the conditions, every moment, are special; that every moment is a potential moment for relationship, and that the questions that need to be asked cannot be steered and mediated through committees in small rooms.

They need to be out there in the current, intelligent, sensitive, and  moving constantly in order to feed on all the rich material that keeps sweeping past me.

 To draw an analogy from less watery territory: any alcoholic could tell you, it's the easiest thing in the world to not drink when you're sitting in an AA meeting. But that isn't worth a damn. The place you have to not drink is outside the meeting. The meeting is just there to prepare you.

It's what happens in real life that matters.

 I respectfully ask you to take good care.

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