Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dying So That We Might Live

Like all the great wisdom teachers, Jesus tells us that we must die so that we can live.  All the wisdom traditions agree that the greatest barrier to spiritual growth, to the fulfillment of our longing for wholeness, is our attachment to our self-image and our preoccupation with protecting and defending it.  It is in the movement of self-surrender, the sacrifice of ego to become united with God, that we discover our true identity and creative power.  We have to die so that we can live.

This is illustrated beautifully by a story from The Way of Chuang Tzu, an early Taoist teaching.[1]  A master carver named Ching was commanded by the Duke of Lu to make a bell frame:  an elaborately carved wood sculpture to hold a very important ceremonial bell.  Several weeks later, Ching presented the Duke with the finished work.  The Duke was amazed.  He had never seen anything so beautiful.  The people were certain it must be the work of spirits.  The Duke said to him, “You are a genius! How did you do this?”

Ching confessed that upon receiving the assignment from the Duke, his heart was agitated.  Despite his well-deserved reputation as a master carver, he was afraid of disappointing the Duke.  He had to begin by acknowledging his anxiety about his reputation and his fear of failure. 

He said, “I am no genius.  I am only a simple carver.  But there is one thing.  When I am going to make a bell frame, I meditate for three days until my mind is clear.  After three days, I think no more of rewards or honors. 

When I have meditated for five days, I no longer remember praise or blame, success or failure.  When I have meditated for seven days, I suddenly forget my limbs, my body; no I forget my very self.  I lose consciousness of the court and of my surroundings.  Only my skill remains.

In that state I walk into the forest and examine each tree until I find the one in which I see the bell frame in all its perfection.  Then my hands go to the task.  Having set my self aside, nature meets nature in the work that is performed through me.” 

In his answer, Ching says nothing about tools or techniques to do the work.  He talks instead about what Parker Palmer calls the “work before the work”; the inner work to free himself from being driven by gain or success, praise or blame.   Stripped of ego, of all that was false or simply extraneous to the work, nature met nature as the work was performed through him. 

Notice the use of the passive voice, "the work was performed through him," not "I performed the work."  Ching acted from a place of self-surrender to a reality greater than himself, and became an instrument of its power, rather than acting from a place of self-will in which he sought to wield power in defense of his self-image.

As Ching surrenders through his meditative practice all the constituents of his self-image are slowly dissolved: his desire or being moved by what attracts or repels him, pain or pleasure; his will or sense of volition, of what he can or can not control; his relationships to people, institutions, and things from which we derive value; even his body, perhaps that most basic element of self-image.  And not only are these elements forgotten; so too were his judgments about them, his self-evaluation.  None of this has the power to move him.

He returned to a natural state of undivided wholeness, a child-like sense of union with reality, while retaining his adult skillful means.  This is the “work before the work”, the dying that we must endure before we can live.  It is the work of spiritual transformation, conversion, whereby we come so say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”

Notice too, the way in which Ching engages the “work after the work.”  He truly sees the trees: he has a wide-open awareness of reality that penetrates to the core of things while eliminating all that is irrelevant.  He intuitively knows how to respond to the demands of the situation; the work is performed through him.  His increased self-knowledge, his understanding of the social and psychological sources of his fear, free him from anxiety about self-image so that he can “forget the court” and surrender to what is necessary in the present moment.[2]

“Nothing burns in Hell but self-will.”[3]  It is our fearful clinging to our self-image that prevents us from surrendering to love, the creative power of God.  Self-image in itself is neither good nor bad.  It is simply a necessary part of being human so that we can function in the world.  The problem is when we make our self-image an idol, the source of our life, and refuse to surrender ourselves to the true Source. 

The admonition to die so that we can live is not a counsel of perfection.  It is, rather, an invitation to self-surrender in acceptance of our imperfection AND our creative capacities.  Free from self-preoccupation, from being driven by praise or blame, we can become usable for God.  We can then sing the words from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/that is how the light gets in

We can gain the whole world and never live, never know the truth about ourselves and the freedom and joy that comes with self-surrender.  The light that shines through the cracks of our imperfect offering are the beams of love spoken of by William Blake:  “We are put on earth a little space/That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”[4]  Bearing love – both in the sense of carrying it, bringing it forth to others and in the sense of enduring it, suffering the pain of love’s vulnerability – is what makes us truly alive.  

The “work before the work,” the inner work of self-surrender, is the means by which we learn to bear the beams of love.  It is the imperfect offering that makes the world whole.  We must die so that we can live. 

[1] I’m indebted to Parker Palmer’s exploration of this Taoist story in Chapter Four of his book, The Active Life: Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).
[2] Gerald May discusses these effects of contemplative prayer in his essay, “To Bear The Beams of Love: Contemplation And Personal Growth” in The Way Supplement, Number 59, Summer 1987, pp. 28-30.
[3] From the Theologica Germanica, quoted in Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (New York: HarperCollins, 1982), p.
[4] Quoted in May, “To Bear The Beams Of Love”, p. 31.

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