Is the Universe Friendly or Unfriendly?

Einstein declared that the most important question facing humanity is this: “Is the universe friendly or unfriendly?” How we answer this question, he insisted, determines how we relate to and engage with ourselves, each other and the world.

The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with the premise of “original sin.” Buddhist teaching offers a more generous option: basic human goodness, smeared by ignorance. It is not evil, but confusion that seeds our bad behavior.

Illusion is hard-wired. We are always peering through lenses colored by personal and cultural bias. As Anais Nin wrote: “We don't see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” To imagine we see the world clearly is ignorance. To believe our illusory, limited views and opinions as Truth is pure delusion.

I often use the image that we are all walking around looking at the sky through a straw. Is that the sky we see? Sure it is. But only a small circle of it. The trouble comes when we grip our straw-circle too tightly, proclaiming that everything outside our narrow perspective is scary or bad or wrong. This is the source of the divisiveness, heartache and harm escalating throughout our world as racism, misogyny, homophobia, oppression.

The sky is vast and mysterious. It belongs to no one. What is needed for us to be curious and humble enough to stretch our limited circle, and to invite and even celebrate diverse perspectives?

This is the work of individual and collective mindfulness: the willingness to open, receive and allow whatever arises, and to meet it with inquiry and interest. As our minds stretch and soften, we become more malleable, more able to meet the world with skill and kindness. As we cultivate the ability to see and see through the edges of our limited ideas and assumptions, we come to open our hands and open our hearts to a wider, more inclusive sky.


Being Human

The Chinese character "ren" depicts a human stick figure: feet planted firmly on the ground, limbs reaching upward toward the sky, the length of the body stretched between heaven and earth. Here lies our fundamental dilemma. Infinity meets mortality. Who we are is at once ripe with imagination and dreaming, and simultaneously bound to a body that ages and sickens and dies.

How do we reconcile the sublimity of our potential with the limitations of our embodiment? What does it take to straddle this unique human predicament? How can we live fully within this peculiar event called being human?

The heart of spiritual and meditative practice is about pausing to contemplate these questions. Cultivating a spiritual life means unwinding our frenetic scurrying long enough to ponder the absolute weirdness of incarnate existence in all of its anguish and beauty. And then allowing the rubbery habits of getting somewhere and being certain to soften into curiosity and amazement.

I’ve spent almost 30 years immersed in Buddhist teaching and practice: as a Zen monk, as a consultant aspiring to bring the wisdom I learned in the monastery into the workplace, and as a daughter, sister, wife, step-mother, teacher and friend. The truth is that I know less now than I did when I started. And this is probably a good thing.

Zen holds a special appreciation for having a “beginner’s mind.” Being a perpetual beginner is a discipline that demands the willingness to keep letting go, and the courage to embrace not-knowing. Copping to our bewilderment is not easy. The everyday world offers kudos to those who know (or claim to know), and often looks askance at those who confess to being baffled. 

Even modern spiritual life has been infused by the doctrine and discipline of science. The mystery of the mind has taken a back seat to neuroscience and the current creed of “it’s true only if you can measure it.” Of course, science is an amazing accomplishment. As a type 1 diabetic for over 40 years, I am the direct beneficiary of recombinant DNA and insulin-pump technology that literally keep me alive.

And yet. 

When I find myself in conversation with experts who claim that a current scientific theory is absolute, I am unconvinced. In the decades I’ve lived with diabetes, the scientific explanation  for my disease has changed (at least) three times: first it was considered genetic, then viral, now auto-immune. Which is true? Perhaps all three. The real truth is: we don't know for sure.

The point is not to take sides. The point is to bring a healthy skepticism to our sureness so we can revive our curiosity and wonderment about what it means to be alive. And as we learn to navigate the fluidity inherent in not-knowing (or even not-being-so-sure), we can begin to discover the source of fullness and creativity bubbling just beneath the surface of our shared mysterious life.