Life is like getting on a boat that is about to sink. —D.T. Suzuki
"The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man." —Ernest Becker
We are mirror mortals, the first known species with the capacity to look in the mirror and see the full arc of life and to know in definitive detail that we die. We get on the boat; we row with great enthusiasm knowing that no matter where we take it, our ultimate destiny is the inky deep. We invest in our journey conscious that we must eventually divest.
It isn't just the one death. Getting on a boat that is about to sink is a fractal experience played out in the arc of minutes, hours, years, eras, epochs and millennia. Every day something dies. You lose your glasses, your friend snubs you, you realize that the thing that thrilled you yesterday doesn't thrill you today. Over the months, too, the people and joys come and go. And the years, centuries and millennia too, we can look in the mirror and see it all. Families die out. Civilizations fall. Species go extinct. The universe itself is terminal. Everything we embrace as exciting and new comes with its time-release aging, decay, and breakdown. When you buy a pet dog you buy a pet dog's death.
None of this would matter if we never got on the boat. But here we are, caring. The whole point of being here in to invest in our journey. There's no getting around it, we want in, and we'll need out. Because we invest in our various gardens of Eden, we grieve when we're cast out of them. Because we accelerate into what enthuses us, our brakes squeal and our wheels shudder when we are forced to stop or change directions. Union is sweet, disunion is sour. Yes, no one gets out alive, but also no one gets out without great grief and loss. Here we are, in love, attached, knowing we'll be evicted eventually. What can we do about it?
I've had a hard time with the word "spiritual." Powerful but ill-defined words make me wary. Since I can't find much consensus about what it means, I'll offer my own definition. Spirituality is one's overall strategy for coping with the challenge of investing, knowing that you must eventually divest. Spirituality is an attempt at preparation, a pre-grieving. Defined this way, I see three main spiritual paths, each with myriad variations, but still ultimately just three:
1. Make One Eternal Investment: Build a pillar of committment to hold onto, one thing from which you'll never have to divest for all eternity. Invest in something that can't be credibly challenged or tested and proved wanting, something that couches local loss in the context of global eternal gain, a belief that makes the eternal realm one's primary focus.
2. Divest completely: Since letting go is the hard part, make a practice of divesting by being present in every instant. Excise memory (of what's lost) or projection (to what's in store). Be here now. Quiet the hungry ghosts of intellect and conception. Become one with nature which doesn't think, theorize, speculate or foresee, but just is. Return to animal simplicity. In pain, simply say "ouch." In pleasure simply say "ah." Don't generalize or theorize about implications. Live in the moment, the cross sections, one slice of life at a time. Cling to nothing. Make divestment your path and downplay and distrusting investment.
3. Embrace and study investment and divestment: Put your investments and divestments in context of the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs. Study that larger context with heart and head full open, feeling waves of sorrow, joy and contemplating yours and other people's waves of investment and divestment. Study investment and divestment through the many disciplines, culture's long arguments, quests, debates and accounts, the peculiarly stubborn attempts to think clearly that constitute intellectual culture. Cut a path through big time, the long and wide now by absorbing evolutionary biology, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and above all, literature. Become worldly so that you can say of whatever life deals you, "Yes, this too life has in its vast and intricate creative capacities."
Every once in a while people ask me if I'm spiritual or have a spiritual practice. I think they're asking about the first two kinds, in which case my answer is no. But I pause because though the third path defies the first path by embracing mortality, and defies the second path by embracing attachment, it feels like my spiritual path. I've begun to say that I'm a soulnerd: heart and mind both alive and connected, soulfully experiencing the thrill of investment and the grief of divestment, and nerdishly studying the human condition that gives rise to both investment and divestment.
My deepest spiritual experience came through reading a novel about a normal couple divorcing. It was during my first mid-life crisis (I've had two and am expecting one more). My wife was in love with someone very spiritual. My marriage and my career were both falling apart. My eldest son was showing signs of severe chemical imbalance. My expectations of manly success felt snuffed. I was terribly uncomfortable in my skin, crying every day, an embarrassment to my wife and children, an endless font of anxiety.
I had to get away and decided to spend a month in rural Guatemala where I had worked in my early 20's. En route I stopped off to see my brother, an English professor living in Chicago. He asked me what I brought to read on my journey. I showed him my books, all Buddhist tracts from that second spiritual path, all about letting go.
"These are all so aspirational," he said. "Why not read some fiction?" He gave me "Too far to go" a book of short stories by John Updike spanning the arc of an ordinary marriage. It captured people just as we are. It laid us wide open in precise non-judgmental detail, including all our shocking neediness and coldness and yet free from authorial scorn. It was people just seen, investing and divesting.
On a bus from Guatemala City to Livingston, a long drive that flew by, I was thoroughly absorbed, feeling as one with us all, and our capable, inexscapable conflicted monkey minds. One with us, but not in some platitudinous abstract "we are all one" kind of way. Rather, intimate with the details, and generalizing intellectually with my heart wide open, experiencing the full catastrophe of being one of us, fearful in our embraces, haunted by the entangling tension between investment and divestment.
It was grace, forgiveness from the universe, but grace in the fine details set in the context of the real predicament, not in God's sweeping and peculiar forgiveness for His making us wrong on purpose.
On my spiritual path, Updike is a master, as are so many practitioners of literature. Though I now work among theorists and scientists, philosophers and psychologists, I contend that no theoretical, scientific or spiritual work is anywhere near as capable of representing what this is, this life of ours, as good fiction. Literature is a yoga, a soulnerd's intellectual-spiritual practice of contour-fitting what we know to what is so.
Not just literature, all the arts. For example catch this amazing short video