Chatting this morning with my wife about the internal and external life of man.
Over the last Christmas holiday season, it struck me more than ever that everyone talks about outer life. What we are doing professionally; how our jobs and marriages, siblings and children, are treating each other; what we are eating — with Americans, oh my God, always with the eating. One would think that every bite we put in our mouth has some kind of sacred significance, especially if there is no gluten in it.
I did manage to mount a few conversations on shaky timbers where we exchanged about inner life; but they were brief. Every single one of them lacked focus and was interrupted by some kind of nonsense. This; when the most obscure forms of drivel are honored and discussed at great length. None of us seem to have a sense of ourselves; and none of us seem to have a sense of honoring those sacred inward parts of ourselves which ought to be brought first to every conversation.
Perhaps the standard I seek here is too high. My aim is not, in the end, to criticize the ordinary — but to ask myself whether any of us really understand what the inward life consists of, and how we bring a sensitivity to that to the exchanges we have with one another. In my own case, I had to field an endless series of questions, with one person after another, always the same: how do I manage to hold up under all the travel I am doing? Honestly, I’m tired of talking about it. I wish that this outer part of my life were less obvious, and that I could exchange with people about deeper questions instead of endlessly batting the shuttlecock of Asian travel back and forth across the badminton net.
Agreed; it’s selfish of me. This is the most accessible piece of information our friends and acquaintances have about me, and they are just seeking entry at a familiar point. No one can blame anyone for this; we all do it. Yet the entry point is where everything always stops.
What is it about us as a society, and as individuals; do we not have inner lives anymore?
Have we failed to understand the difference between what is inward and what is outward?
During the conversation with Neal, I touched on the point that most of my acquaintances are determined to adjust their lives by eating differently. Either they have eliminated gluten; or they are eating more or less protein; or they are eating raw animals, or no animals — you get the picture. Every one of them reports how much better they feel through the magical eating practice, whatever it is. There are an endless number of them and they all contradict one another. Yet all of them attempt to manipulate both physical health and inner experience through the lowest kind of food we take in: the food we eat with our mouths.
The impressions we take in are a finer and far more powerful type of food; yet I watch those around me take in all kinds of impressions, willy-nilly, with very little discrimination about what those impressions consist of. Mindfulness, for what it’s worth, ought to involve a direct and caring sensitivity to what type of impressions we taken: and it ought to involve, first of all, an attention to our environment, which any monastic community understands by default. Yet I live in a world where people throw things together without any attention at all, and choose to live quite cheerfully in the midst of an absolute environmental disorder that shows little or no respect for anything, even folding the laundry.
Every impression that we take in is something we ought to become responsible for; this question of feeding ourselves goes well beyond any food we put in our mouths. The health of the soul is not attended to. A healthy body which commits evil is a worthless thing; but a sick one that nonetheless does some true good has immeasurable value.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.