Bridges, Vol 6, Numbers 3/4, pp. 211-218. 1999.
"The Greatest Art"
We don't exist separately one from another like we usually imagine. All of us who are in even casual daily contact belong to one single body. What matters travels from one to another of us in hidden unnoticed ways. Everything is shared. Everything is in common. Our deepest and most secret dreams even are exchanged and end up guiding one another's lives -- much in the same way as the possessions of lovers get intermingled and eventually change hands. She may come to work wearing one of his shirts. Or, fifteen years later, long after they don't even think of each other very much anymore, he may still be listening to an old recording of hers that somehow ended up among his things; or pursuing a path of life that came from reading one of her books.
It's no secret that from the beginnings of our history there has been this casual autonomous commerce between us. Trade routes have always stretched across the deserts and the ice, the ocean and the mountains, from one end of the world to another. Why is it so difficult for us to see that this same inter-connectivity is operative in the microcosm of our own, supposedly "personal" lives at this very moment? Seeming miracles, which we can't help but view as completely accidental because of our accustomed way of looking at things, run their course in our midst by means of a metabolism of currents --a "field" -- that we unknowingly set up and respond to between and amongst ourselves and those with whom we come into even the most fleeting daily contact.
It is for this reason that the smallest act of one pure man or woman, or even an exceptionally pure act from an ordinary person -- say, a movement of the mind, even, or of the heart; a simple perfect thought or feeling or a single untainted perception or expression (even the wave of a hand!) -- can and does reach, by means of its reverberating effects, to the far end of the earth.
Gautama the Buddha held up a single little flower between his fingers. Two thousand five hundred years later in New York City and Croatia, in Poland and Alaska, the effects of this simple action are still reverberating. Our lives can't be the same anymore.
* * *
All around us, as well as inside of us, something is happening outside of what we think is going on. We, fixed to the little picture we have of things in our minds, so often completely miss this larger pattern, and so fail to understand or even appreciate what is greatest about our own lives.
The news reported on the radio or on TV is only a blow by blow account of inconsequential accompaniments to this larger happening which goes, more often perhaps than not, completely unnoticed by us -- unsuspected even. And yet it is this, and not the news we think we make or the histories we presume to write, that is our true and only story.
It is what happens between us, in this other way, that is what we are, that constitutes the metabolism of our real being. And yet we don't even have a ruler to measure its extent or a compass that can signal its direction -- let alone an instrument, except maybe for our art or our religion, that can capture some hint of its true nature. And even that, the literature, the art, the religion that those great ones amongst us come forth with as an expression of the truth of our nature and an explanation of why we are here and what we are for -- even that, even the religion, especially the religion, all too ubiquitously devolves into something so much more akin to the most trivial of the games we play out amongst ourselves -- "If only I do this then I'll get that in return" -- than to the reality of what we are and the truth of what we are about.
* * *
What is greatest about us isn't what we might suspect. It has very little to do with the kinds of things we think are our highest accomplishments. But rather, we complete ourselves and serve our task in ways that we are not even conditioned to consciously recognize as useful, or even as real.
It is in the chemistry between and amongst us that we come to term and bear our fruit. It is in our capacity for this thing that we have misunderstood as love, but which is certainly something so much greater than the concepts we have for that word, it is in our capacity for that which is unnamable by us and inconceivable to us, which is beyond our wildest conception, but which is nevertheless steadily and by degrees being born, through the history of our race, into our presence, moment by moment, little by little -- it is by this capacity of ours that we accomplish, each of us, our deepest destiny and serve our largest purpose.
It is not a question of achievements and accomplishments; paths and the like. But rather of something that is happening from the very first moment of life until the last, something that we don't see, aren't given a means to see by the kinds of considerations we use to approach an understanding of things. Everything that we so neatly divide into our categories of success and failure, wasteful and useful, right and wrong, perfect and imperfect, great and mediocre, is instead running free through our lives like a current that has escaped those nets, as it escapes our categories in general. So that to the degree we stick with these constructs we wreak havoc with what is real about our lives and the lives of others. But even this havoc is a part of the metabolism of a thing turning and churning in upon itself -- trying, in the only way it seems to know how, to be born.
It is the mother and it is the infant at the same time. It is the father and it is the son. We have called it God but really it is us. It is who and what we are -- something so much larger than we can see. As it develops, the eye to see it a little more clearly comes into being along with it. There are words, there are books, piled up through the centuries. Then there is one new word, one new book, and the thing is seen through its own eye for what it is in a way that has never happened before. In an instant whole libraries of books go sliding into the dustbin -- useless, no longer wanted.
* * *
We make progress when we are able to be more deeply and authentically what we really are, each and every one of us, the body of us as a whole. What matters is the degree to which we are capable of giving ourselves over to what we really are. This is not easy because it entails the giving of oneself over to that which is unrecognizable. It is not recognizable by the ways in which we normally recognize things. It can't be recognized by the ways we think we recognize things. We soon enough find out, though, that there is this other way operative in us and it has been operative in us all along. Call it what you will, make up a name for it. It can see what it is in and between us that cries out to be seen, and that blossoms when seen, like a child flowers under love.
Yes, we recognize things in ways we don't allow ourselves to know. Even though we use this faculty all the time, we don't exactly do it on purpose. We can't because it wouldn't make sense to us. We have it in us though. It's been there from the very beginning. It came out of something that was there before it. It's an organic thing, an organ part and party to all other organs of our being. We might conceptualize it as the vector sum of all the different ways our various organs can know things when they are cooperating to a degree of maximum effectiveness. Alternatively, we can conceive of it as an ability for silence, such that all the organs of our being, rendered suddenly irrelevant by some momentary circumstance, can just get out of the way when the littlest organ pipes up with something important to it to say, and important to the whole to hear at this particular time.
Any way we envision it, the truth is we don't really know what it is. We can't know. It isn't had by knowing. What is central to our being, most central to who and what we are in the most immediate sense, is and must necessarily be unfathomable to us, totally beyond our ability to conceive except inasmuch as being is a way to conceive. That is the point.
* * *
It's what we are and what we are towards each other that is so very important. Our most casual brushes with one another are not to be slighted. Each time we walk into the corner store and address the clerk behind the counter we have the opportunity before us, by the manner in which we elicit the deepest being of that other person forth into the interchange, of inviting what is real to step a little bit more fully into our world. It's not so much that this resides in the depths of that other person or in our depths -- although this also may be true -- as it is that we have in our hands, at each moment a tremendous power: we have the power to set free a current that will change the world and turn all things inside out. There is that which is waiting to happen. Its time is here. It only needs someone to make a space for it, to allow for it. To accomplish some little gesture in a way that is pure enough for its delicate metabolism to surge forth. To make a passage, to get out of the way: this is what we are called to do. This is our appointed task. And it is a most pleasant and wondrous task, this exercise of a greater freedom, this feeling of the metabolism of the larger body surging through our own small and modular biological body. To be part and party of this transcendental drift is something akin to being touched in the deepest fabric of our being with the reality of our own immortality. That thing we are letting through when we do something right -- it is who and what we really are and yet it has no beginning and no end.
* * *
This clerk behind the counter may be low class. He may be a foreigner. His skin may be dark. He may not speak English well. We might not think that he is capable of being a person who would interest us. He probably doesn't have much in the way of an education. But if we would take the time, and it hardly takes time really -- it's a question here of something else. I mean we could go ahead and honor these kinds of distinctions that keep us placed on a platform above this other man. We could do this. It is easy to do. And so many of us tend to do it without thinking. But we could also do something else. We could also honor what is higher than that. To do this is an entirely different strategy. There is an outcome that comes into play when we take this step that is utterly unexpected.
If we honor what is highest between us we must recognize it as what is most common, and therefore usually taken for granted and discounted. What is most beautiful is the obvious. What is rare is the talent to see this, to delight in some suddenly revealed aspect of the sky amidst the hubbub of a busy city street corner, or to take in the quality of the light on the buildings, or the stories that are so obviously written on the faces and manner of the people all around us. ...or the person of someone we would not normally treat as a person -- so that what would otherwise be a casual financial transaction is rendered into an interpersonal one. In making that kind of transition from one thing to another, that's how we do it, that's how we open up the channel that can and does and will change our lives radically as well as the lives of many others, here and there, that we do not even know are in such deep contact with us. In opening up the channel, in being ourselves the one to do that, we reap such a reward! The miracle flows through us like a rich river in the desert. Everything becomes alive. Everything flowers.
* * *
When we are able to really see like this in a deeper sense, what is so important about it is that the only way we are able to do this is by being that which we see. In other words, it all boils down to our utter and immediate transformation. We are called upon to be real. That is all.
To the extent that this kind of truth can come about within a single person, the world around that person seethes with new electricity. It's like when you can see a child for the lovable creature that it is, then it is given that which it needs to grow and go through its successive maturational stages. In a sense this thing that has been called God by some traditions or Enlightenment by others is like that too. It needs for only one of us to be in order that it may become. And this one may be you today, me tomorrow. If only for an instant, it surges through my life now, perhaps as I'm exchanging pleasantries with the clerk at the corner store. Then it moves on, towards its appointed course, through veins that move and change instant by instant, snaking through our midst with these eddies and currents, so that it would seem sometimes to be advancing through the whole surge of humanity, old and young, near and far, as one single wave, using our failures as well as our successes as its fertilizer, sprouting into our lives, seemingly out of nowhere, and then vanishing just as quickly as it came. None of the ways we've come up with to understand it even begin to come close to explaining it as much as a spark in the eyes or a delight in the heart -- or one of those little kindnesses we manage to perform for each other, often in secret. In such is found the metabolism of our real being, the steady heartbeat of our true body.
The greatest art is not executed by any master and hangs in no museum. It is lived , often unnoticed, and as often as not by the least of us. It doesn't go on tour of the great museums of the world's capitals, but travels the back roads from one end of the globe to another, sometimes like lightning, sometimes nestling for centuries in some forgotten place before taking its next tentative step.