My fingers feel into the dirt past wriggling worms and daffodil bulbs to yank out the tough roots of zoysia grass. Cleo, the Australian shepherd pup, sniffs at my raised buttocks and swings to nip her own flea-infested shank. And close to my ear, my daughter Caitlin, age three, sings her litany of questions: “Mommy, Mommy why?” “When?” “Which?” Thoroughly immersed in the soil of daily life, I wrestle between endless “thises” and “thats,” making all the distinctions and judgments which allow our family to continue day to day: Drown snails? Squish fleas? Please eat this. Don’t eat that. Bed time. Wake up time. “Good guys?” “Bad guys?” Caught up in this daily whirl, can I sustain an awareness of non-duality?
When the Inquiring Mind staff met at my kitchen table and decided to focus this issue on non-duality, emptiness, the teaching of ultimate reality… I found myself unexpectedly in tears. It wasn’t clear why to anyone at the meeting—even to me. This much I did know: I had sat down with a hope that everyone would agree to choose what seemed to me a very different focus: contemporary moral dilemmas such as abortion, euthanasia, eating meat, gun-play—how we live our lives. Challenged to try to understand my upset, I began to write this article. The writing itself led me to explore: Would the teachings of the Absolute be revealed to me in the relative day-to-day? And further, would these teachings illuminate the dilemmas of my daily life?
As the staff discussed our chosen topic, I sat sniffing and wiping my nose, devouring my, and everyone else’s, muffins, tongue-tied by the fear that a focus on something called “the ultimate reality” might in some way be dangerous. (And, at the same time, also guessing that I wasn’t really “getting it.”) Scary images returned to me from a film I’d seen the night before—the evangelical luminosity in the eyes of Nazi youth dedicating their lives to “Purity.” Might what we write in the journal, I wondered, not by its inherent character, but in the ways that it might be interpreted, suggest that it doesn’t matter how we live our lives? The rest of the staff reassured me: Compassionate action arises naturally when a non-dual view is fully realized. Yet my questions persisted. How might the unenlightened live out their understandings?
As we work on this issue, I continue to notice the risks in using words to describe teachings which by their nature can’t be understood by the thinking mind—in naming the unnameable. And I notice a particular danger in uprooting a teaching from context, as happens sometimes in memory or when a key sentence is repeated to a friend.
For instance, I hear that one master told his students, “Be yourself; go ahead and do whatever you do, and forget about transforming yourselves.” As I write, I taste the literal crunch of my response. Is this teacher suggesting that we continue our unconscious habits of mind and behavior irrespective of their impact? Do we continue to yell at and smack our children, to blame our mates for our unhappiness, to drink our six-packs, to pop our pills, to poison our pests, to pollute our air, to bomb our “enemies”? I search for a more spacious interpretation. And, for a moment, I am able to see beyond the dramas of daily life, to allow the separations between myself and others, between future and past to dissolve. Indeed, if I am able to see with a non-dual view, “yourself” opens to include everything and “do whatever you do” is an expression of harmony with the whole.
But… BUT… I hear my thoughts protest to the word processor. No, I type feebly, feeling peevish and small-minded. Most of us don’t truly experience this oneness, or if we glimpse it for a moment we haven’t learned to sustain it. So the “idea” is somehow separate from our experience. “Be yourself” becomes a justification for cheating on our mates, for taking an unequal share for our own pleasure, for abusing others. The scandals in many spiritual communities are all too familiar examples of “do whatever you do” used as an absolution from responsibility.
“One remains completely carefree concerning whatever happens for better or for worse.” So says another teacher. Once again, I balk. I live so thoroughly in the story…. trying to heal a small swollen toe, to liberate the dog from fleas, to stave off the encroaching mildew in the lettuce. And I do indeed care. Do I let Caitlin wander into the street? Do I ignore raw hairless sores on Cleo’s tail? No. I care to nourish and protect a child. I care to nurture a dog.
Even as I write, I catch my tone. Is my interpretation self-righteous? Once again, I experiment by opening my awareness, allowing separations to dissolve. After adamant protest, I get the crucial point: we do take care in each moment. As we practice and live we are meticulous (flea by flea), yet when it comes to results we can learn to be carefree. Or, at least some can. Again, words are insufficient to express these teachings, especially when plucked from the context of a given talk or interview. How many others, like myself, might hear “carefree” to imply a kind of nihilism?
Most of all, I revolt when I hear the words, “From the absolute perspective, everything is perfect.” Once again, months after the staff meeting at my kitchen table, I was seated in the same chair sharing a salad with an old friend and struggling to find a way to bridge the teachings of the absolute to the relative world, the home, the garden, the street…. “Perfect? What about our teenage babysitter with cancer? What about the hungry people on Telegraph Avenue? What about the beating of Rodney King? What’s so perfect about….?” My friend cut me off, “What does perfect mean to you?” “Just as it should be,” said I, irritably. “Ideal. Without defect. Flawless.” “Look it up in Webster’s,” she challenged, pushing her plate to the side. I resisted, “Who else will look it up? The people who use it, the people who hear it and are influenced by it? No one will!” After much argument, mostly to please my friend, I checked the dictionary. While some of the later meanings mirrored mine, the primary definition surprised me into silence.
Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.
“From the absolute perspective, everything is complete,” said my friend. “Does that upset you?”
Complete. The word didn’t frighten me, as “perfect” did. But what did it mean? My friend and I wondered together. Everything is complete. I closed my eyes and listened, yet came to a certain opaqueness. I sensed that I was not “getting” it again. “Do you think,” asked my friend, “that saying everything is complete is simply another way of saying that everything is empty, that everything is interdependent, that everything inter-is?” “I don’t know.” I said. “I’ll hold that as a possibility.”
As I pick fleas out of Cleo’s fur, struggle with Caitlin over whether she’ll take a bath and weed in the garden, I am asking myself to remember my nascent understanding, along with my questions. I continue to talk about these teachings with friends and to track my own process: where I see in a non-dual way, where I am stuck in “me” versus “it,” where I am conflicted or confused.
First off, I notice that while I intend to sustain a sense of wholeness, of everything-in-everything, I am making ongoing divisions into this versus that, distinctions and judgments without which I couldn’t function in this world.
Let’s take gardening, which—like mothering—as a late-blooming New York City girl I took on, at the age of forty-two, with a beginner’s fumbling and gusto. While I am gardening I have wandering thoughts, many relating to separations and oneness. I notice the separations of fences between people’s yards, ours and our neighbor’s, and right away I see that the fences have little relevance to what grows where. I’m not sure why I am still startled to find the clusters of tiny blue faces with their yellow-star eyes, the forget-me-nots, on both sides of the fences, and the poppies, velvety-orange, their leaves in delicate grey-green geometry, first at my neighbor’s and then in our yard, or even to find the “nasty” zoysia grass that we have worked so hard to pull out in back of our house, now showing up in front. I am surprised, as if the delineations between “front yard” and “back yard,” “our yard” and “their yard,” “us” and “them” were other than arbitrary. So, after an initial set-back, in noticing the many separations we’ve set up in our lives, I notice how arbitrary these separations are. In coming to know the wild nature of weeds, the exuberance of flowering things as they carelessly seed and root and bloom, I am reminded of the underlying oneness. (This is easy, I say to myself. Even while making distinctions, if I watch myself doing it, I can see the non-dual.)
Of course, the main distinctions I notice myself making in the garden is between what we have agreed to call flowers and what we have agreed to call weeds. The point is not to give up making these divisions, which allow me to transform what I once saw as a chaos of weeds into what I see as “beautiful,” but to bring awareness to the act of making these distinctions. As I return to weeding this spring after a winter of neglect, I uproot the grass and sour grass stem-by-stem, hair by hair. If I am hurried or distracted, I can hear the tiny snapping sounds of the stem breaking off before the root. But when I pull delicately, I hear the satisfying tearing sounds tic-tic-tic-tic as the hairs of root separate from the earth, and I become aware of the way the “weeds” and the earth are connected. (Once again, the very act of making separations—this time, weeds versus wanted flowers, plant from soil—brings my awareness to the arbitrary nature of judgments and to the connectedness of all things!)
In fact, I take daily lessons in connectedness. I find that gardening, just as mothering, is a collaborative process. I can’t force “growing.” Just as I couldn’t compel Caitlin to learn to talk, use the potty, or share her toys before she was ready, I can’t compel tomatoes to ripen early in the fog of our Bay Area garden. The child and the vegetables grow (or don’t grow) as their own peculiar biochemical timetable interacts with all that surrrounds them. As Caitlin matures physically and mentally, and we introduce her to language, the potty, cooperative play, she’ll do what she’s ready to do. Likewise, the tomatoes in our garden eventually ripen, despite the fog, with the help of the proper fertilizing and pruning. So mothering and gardening are creative partnerships with the workings of nature. Again the separations are arbitrary, I notice, of “me” versus “my daughter” or “me” versus “the garden.” We—the sun, rain, soil, tomatoes, mother, child—are participating in life process together. (Here, too, daily life teaches non-duality, I say to myself. No problem!)
In the garden, I often reach my fingers into the soil to uncover what I imagine was planted around this house by generations of past occupants or to find wild flowers which preceded formal planting. Then my task is to nurture what is already here! So in exploring the yard, I am observing, discovering, sensing beyond the artificial boundaries not only of space, but also time. (Yes. Yes. Happily, I find what I imagine these teachings are pointing towards.)
So paying attention in the garden, I can remember our essential oneness. And, if I don’t, Caitlin comes along, with her questions to remind me. Grumbling into the brambles, I bemoan the overgrown blackberry vines among the calla lilies. “Since I’ve had the flu, I haven’t done any weeding… two months of sneezing and cough….” Caitlin’s querulous eyes find mine; our two dirt-powdered noses touch. “Why? You’re afraid you might give the garden your cough?” Brother weed, sister worm.
Which brings me to the snails. In the first few years of growing flowers, I carried the snails out through our gate to deposit them in the grass by the side of the street, or I even collected a great congregation of snails, and drove them clamoring to the rim of a bowl, to a new residence in a nearby park. I taught Caitlin to do the same. Gently, we would export them, and, gradually, they or their cousins would find their way back to the flowers.
This year, in trying to grow vegetables, I was shocked into combat. If I didn’t keep the snails out, I couldn’t have a garden. I found myself in a battle with hordes of hungry snails, and at the same time, in an ongoing moral struggle. Up to this point, in the garden, I had enjoyed lesson after lesson in oneness. I could learn from the zoysia grass, from the strength and vigor with which it proliferated irrespective of artificial boundaries, and I could watch with a certain dispassion as I killed it in exchange for the life of the flowers. But I couldn’t, and still can’t, kill snails with the same dispassion. As I face the snails, I continue to be confused and upset. (A friend nods, “And this is where your practice begins.”)
One morning I discovered the new spices and vegetables chewed to the ground. In a fit, I snatched up all the snails still lolling around in the damp morning fog and crushed them into a slimey mess under my shoe. I swung away quickly to other chores, my nails clenched into my palms. But the event kept returning to me in memory. I could see one snail in particular, craning out of its shell, tentacles waving, what seemed to be its face turned up towards mine. It had, as I continued to project my impression, an air of brightness, the tenderness of life expressing itself.
As I relived this moment, a sick taste would come to my mouth and stop up my throat. A clamminess would seep through my limbs. How could I violate such innocence?
Why am I killing snails? I ask myself. Because, I reply, I am cultivating a garden and I spend hours of focused labor fertilizing, mulching, weeding. I seed the carrots, I plant the sugarpeas and sweet basil, and just as the seedlings are beginning to flourish, the snails demolish them, leaving only the frayed stalks peeping out of the dirt.
Despite the yards of copper barriers I spent hours to erect, some intrepid souls still do find their way into the lettuce. And when I find them, alas, I pluck them out and cover them with salt, lethal for snails. Caitlin, delighted, by my side, carries around brightly colored Easter egg-dyeing-cups filled with salt in which she buries every snail she can find. I may not begrime my shoe with carcasses, but the feeling still haunts me: is this mass murder? I haven’t made peace with what I’m doing, and what I am teaching my daughter. So, as I lower what feels like my executioner’s helmet, I numb my mind.
I find myself struggling with a moral dilemma, similar to, though less fashionable than, the dilemmas I had pictured we might discuss in this Inquiring Mind… abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. I think back to my upset at the meeting where we picked the theme for this issue. Might a discussion of the Absolute lead to a sense that it didn’t matter how we lived our lives? And here I am in the garden trying to figure out how to live my life. I wonder, do the teachings of non-duality relate to the dilemma I-as-gardener face with the snails?
We are all expressions of the same everything, I remind myself. Lifting a snail out of the lettuce, I stop, for once, to experience its softness beneath the frail shell. For just this moment, I feel its flesh as I might my own. Indeed, when I open to the expanse of time and space, I experience myself and the snails as beings, very much equivalent. Differences blur between me-gardener executing snails to protect “my” vegetables, and the four policemen beating Rodney King to “protect” others. Or even the fervent Nazi youth ready to murder Jews to “protect” their own racial purity. (“Come on, Barbara! From killing snails, to Nazis! You’ve got to be kidding!”) Yet, as I take what seems to me to be the vast view, I’m not sure how to distinguish between these scenarios.
(“Killing is not murder,” points out one friend. “Do you kill snails in anger or with hatred? No. The key is your intent.”) But intent is not the sole criterion; I want to consider the impact of what I do. Moreover, who is to evaluate the justice in one intent as opposed to another? We each think we’re protecting our own interests, me-the gardener, the policemen, Hitler’s Youth…. I can feel myself becoming increasingly confused. Am I stubbornly refusing to see the obvious? I don’t know.
(“If you are going to think this way, how can you walk down the street? What about the bugs? How can you live at all?” says my neighbor.) And I too am wondering, can I truly follow this morality? Indeed, my line of thinking is leading me to a conclusion I can’t live by. Practice awareness, I tell myself, not thinking.
So let’s frame this dilemma in another way. I return to the conversation two months ago in my kitchen. “From an absolute perspective, everything is complete.” Perhaps this understanding will illuminate my confusion. When I first framed my dilemma, I separated out the snail and focused on her plight as if it were isolated from everything else. Killing snails is one of many interactions as we live through and around the garden. I need to look at how we in our family become intimate with the soil as we garden, and how we, in our larger community of friends and neighbors, renew our spirit through eating vegetables—organically grown and fresh-picked. So I open my awareness to the whole conundrum: sugarpeas and spice, fleas and snails and puppydog tails; family and community; and all of this inseparable from the awareness itself.
Life, by its very nature, feeds on life, I tell myself. Killing snails is an aspect of growing a garden, which is an aspect of the cycle of life. Yes, everything is complete. Yet the thinking mind intrudes to spin out more worries: Isn’t this dangerously pat? If killing snails is part of this cycle, why not include killing others? Why not kill Jews? Anything becomes possible. Who is to determine the boundaries? Once again, thinking leads me to impossible conclusions. Through one line of thought, I can’t even walk down the street for fear of destroying life, while through the other I am absolved of any responsibilty!
But doesn’t participation in this cycle of life carry with it a sense of responsibility to the whole and all that comprises it? A vague memory niggles at the edges of my consciousness. Gary Snyder wrote about this. Didn’t he describe the food chain as sacred? I thumb through The Practice of the Wild for inspiration.
“What a big potlatch we are all members of!” To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being “realistic.” It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being.
Snyder begins where I did, but he adds a crucial dimension: that we acknowledge our mutuality, our mutual benefit and dilemma. The recognition that life continues because “your ass is somebody else’s meal” prompts us to grieve and laugh for ourselves and one another, and to honor the sacredness of our transactions. The “practice of the wild” is an awareness practice which, by its sacred nature, encompasses restraint and honor.
For this moment, let me adopt Snyder’s paradigm. In full awareness might I kill a snail? This would be quite different from my current numb-minded assaults. Yet, to practice restraint, to honor the snails, I would still need to examine my intentions, as my friend suggests. Am I free from greed or hatred? I don’t know. Perhaps there is greed. Growing vegetables in the garden brings pleasure and spiritual sustenance to me and to my family, but we don’t depend on it for food or livelihood in order to survive….
No matter how I frame my question, I don’t find an answer.
As I see it now, there aren’t Absolute answers or solutions for such moral dilemmas as mine with the snails. The teachings of the Absolute do not seem to translate in this way, into direct application in the relative world. Moreover, to borrow these teachings as concepts can lead people (me included) who are looking for answers into impossible dead ends and dangerous rationalizations.
I had, indeed, hoped to find an answer. And I’m not sure how I feel about not finding one. But I am coming to recognize that I don’t want to turn “no-answer” into the answer. So I am still questioning. “Love the questions themselves,” wrote Rilke. A question about snails becomes my current koan.
Along with the wariness that I felt from the start about giving words to these teachings, I have learned to celebrate the direction in which they point, turning me again and again towards non-dual awareness. So I return to the garden, senses open, reminding myself that nothing is separate from everything else: the tang of new lettuce on the tongue, the shatter of a snail’s shell in the gravel, the warmth of a small hand in mine, the sweet salt smell of sweat, the tug of the thinking mind, snail-slime on my fingers, the feel of dirt under the nails.