A friend recently introduced me to David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine Monk who survived Hitler’s Germany, emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s and, today, when he isn’t living as a hermit, still gives inspiring talks at nearly 92 years of age.
I particularly love this quote, which gets to the core of the problem with religion:
“The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion. But, I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth … and then … the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it’s just rocks. You’d never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.”
Don’t be too hard on the religious and their religions. After all, it’s what the mind does with everything. It labels a thing so that it can be ‘understood.’ But in that labeling all of the wonder and awe of the thing labeled is lost.
Consider anything – literally anything – without a mental label. What is a dog if he’s not a ‘dog’? A tree that is no longer a tree?
The mind creates words and then grants those words immense power so that the word, itself, IS the thing.
This word is acceptable, this word is not, this word is worth killing over, and so on. If I type the word ‘penis,’ your mind immediately conjures up not just an image, perhaps, but a feeling. If I toss out the word ‘the,’ your mind quickly moves on, hungry for something more ‘interesting.’
But that’s just it: all of life, if we simply put away the labels and concepts, is a miracle. The mystics told us all the answers can be found in the consideration of a simple flower, the pebble beneath the foot, a bird singing in a tree, an unseen breeze that whispers through our hair.
When I walk in the nearby forest with our dog, I cannot help but smile at the outright joy with which he bounds and leaps and smells his way through the trees, over the rocks, across the streams. He is all-natural in a natural world, free of labels and the mental burdens that come with them. Every molecule of the dog seems to come alive, and whether we are in that wood for 5 minutes or 5 hours makes no difference – he gives it his all and returns home spent and content and ready to do it again at a moment’s notice.
Contrast this to the rollercoaster of thought and emotion with which so many of us make our way through the day. This moment or event or person is good, this one bad, this one dull, this one frightening. It is the mental soundtrack of life.
Mind you, I am not encouraging forced optimism: that is every bit as much a disease of the mind as is depression, because it is still steeped in thought, only now the mind is busy labeling things – and its reaction to them – as happy, upbeat, positive, when deep down in the duality of things, it cannot help but occasionally be miserable, lonely, forlorn.
No, this is advocating, as described in The Great Way, a label-free navigation of the world. Here, the first four paragraphs of that mysterious, marvelous essay:
The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When not attached to love or hate,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.
If you wish to know the truth,
then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the fundamental nature of things is not recognized
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect as vast space is perfect,
where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.
Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting
that we do not know the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
nor in ideas or feelings of emptiness.
Be serene and at one with things
and erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
The Mother of all labels is, of course, the one each of us calls ‘me’ or “I.’ This is the label each of us is stuck with from an early age and the one the rest of the world uses to understand us and keep us in our place. It’s the one we vigorously defend and yet also the one we vehemently oppose.
“Don’t you DARE label me!”
“How dare you challenge who I am!”
It rarely if ever occurs to us to question not just the label of me, but the one doing the questioning – the one behind the label, the one being labeled. Who or what is that?
If the truth – the Truth – can be found in the simple, label-free appraisal of a flower, then might it not also be found by meeting the gaze of the one in the mirror, without labels or any thought at all?