When President Clinton was being impeached, he became famous for his splitting of one hair in particular. In answer to a particular question, he responded with great deliberation, “Well, it depends on what the meaning of is, is.” I intend to continue this vein of hair-splitting here regarding the same infinitive, “to be”.
I feel that the best we ever get from our various spiritual perambulations is “to be.” We get our “is-ness”. Now, I have always had a spiritual streak about me. It was my endowment from my community and family. The role I was to play was, anthropologically speaking, “a holy man”, some conservative Arkansas variation of a shaman. However, in this particular little corner of the world, my title was “preacher”. Writing now five decades later, I recognize that I wanted a whole lot more than mere “is-ness”. I wanted an identity, I wanted a place in that little back-water village, I wanted respect, and I wanted a career. And what this meant was that my brief ministry was, in the words of an evangelical preacher of the day, “a platform on which to display my carnal abilities.” It was a “work of the flesh”, to borrow a concept from the New Testament. It was all about me.
So there I illustrated a basic problem with spiritual aspirations—the ego. The ego is not satisfied with merely “be-ing”, it prefers to shine, to “strut and fret” its hour on the stage and have people admire its holiness, its piety—“Wind my up and watch me be pious!” And though my spiritual ego has today a degree of subtlety about it….I want to say…I still find myself from time to time really proud of how pious I am, something akin to the Pharisee’s pride in how broad their phylactery was. (See Matthew 23:5)
AND, that is ok. For, at that moment, sometimes the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh comes to the fore and I practice his “half smile” and prayerfully breathe the word, “mindfulness.” I then go on with my day to day life. There is no need to beat myself up, no need to bemoan my spiritual immaturity, no need to flagellate myself with, “Oh what a rotten sinner I am.” There is only the need to be “mindful” and to then continue to “chop wood, carry water.” For, no matter how spiritually “refined” we might become…or think we have become…we are going to find a hefty dollop of ego always ready to manifest itself. And that is always going to be present. I have a suspicion that this is some part of what the Buddha had in mind when he attested that “mara” was always with him. And Jesus was always beset by Satan and I’m sure that ego was one of the seductions that Satan had even then in his repertoire.
The goal is to glory in our mere be-ing, in our “is-ness”, in the fact that we exist, that we “are”. To recognize and experience that we have been “thrown into being” by some force or presence (and I like to say Presence) far beyond the grasp of our feeble minds. It is to recognize as did Einstein that at the depths of our existence we find merely a mystery, and incomprehensible mystery, that some of us choose to term “God”.
But it requires joining King Lear out on the heath, “unaccomodated”, naked, pelted by the same “pitiless storm”, bereft of our kingdom and family, shorn of the trappings of our egoic consciousness. It is to experience our emptiness which came to us in the New Testament in the doctrine of “kenosis”, merely meaning, “the emptying of ourselves.” It is to experience our solitude, our “Dark Night of the Soul”. (St. John of the Cross).
Now the nice thing about this is that it does not have to leave us so “unaccomodated.” This spiritual process merely loosens the attachment to our “stuff”. No longer does our “stuff” have us. We have seen and experienced our true self and that will be the core of our identity, not the piling up of earthly treasures, or the acheivement of success, and certainly not the acheivement of “spiritual” success. We know that essentially we have only our “is-ness”, we have it only for this brief sojourn in this parenthesis of time before we return to our Source. And in the mean time, we can have and enjoy our “stuff” but hopefully with less obsession and with an increased proclivity to share some of it with others.
Several weeks ago I quoted Shakespeare’s 146th sonnet and I conclude with an excerpt:
Oh soul, the center of my sinful earth
Thrall to these rebel powers that thee array;
Why doeth thy pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay.
(And he goes on to conclude with:)
Within be fed, without be rich no more.