Wholeness, part 2

Another question asked in this month’s issue of “On the Journey” on the theme of “Wholeness” is this one:
“Is it possible to become whole? Or only to recognize that we are always already whole?"
You, in fact, are always already whole. You are not broken and do not need fixing. If you think of wholeness as something you have to achieve or attain, then there’s already a dividedness right there. Who you are is divided from who you think you should be. There’s a little story from Zen tradition that illustrates this.
Mazu, when he was a young monk, sat long hours in meditation in the meditation hall. One day Master Nanyue interrupted Mazu’s meditation and asked him, "Why are you sitting in meditation?"
Mazu replied, "Because I want to become a Buddha."
Thereupon Nanyue took a brick and started to polish it with a cloth.
Mazu asked him, "Why are you polishing that brick?"
Nanyue replied, "Because I want to make a mirror."
Mazu asked, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?"
Nanyue said, "If I cannot make a mirror by polishing a brick, how can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?"
The point here is that one does not sit zazen in order to become a Buddha, or to become anything, or to achieve or to attain anything. You are already a Buddha. You are already enlightened, already whole. If one sits zazen it is only to manifest the intrinsic wholeness that is already there, and to see and recognize – to explore and become more intimate with – the wholeness that is already there.

That’s how any spiritual practice works. If it’s something you do to fix you, to make you better in some way, then it’s not a spiritual practice. There are a number of things you can do to make yourself better. You can take up a course of study and develop your knowledge and expertise in a given field. That’s a great thing to do, but it’s not a spiritual practice. You can take up a regime of diet and exercise that improves your health and vitality. Also a great thing to do – and also not a spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is not about getting any better, but about simply familiarizing yourself with, becoming more intimate with, more broadly aware of, how you are already perfect – and everyone else is too.

Whatever you do that cultivates your awareness of your own and others’ intrinsic wholeness – that’s your spiritual practice. The task, then, is not to become whole, but to recognize that you always already are whole. And yet, within this recognition there is a becoming that happens. The path of manifesting the wholeness that you are is a path of change, of transforming, of becoming – though the path is winding and unpredictable.

In the last couple decades we’ve seen scholars investigate concepts that used to be the province of theologians, poets, and inspirational speakers. In the last couple decades, for instance, there has been a boom in studies about the effects of gratitutde. Scholarly articles about wholeness have also begun appearing. I’m going to particularly talk today about one of those – of which there are a couple excerpts from it in this months Journey Group packet.

These scholars see wholeness as involving three features. First, wholeness involves the capacity to see and approach life with breadth and depth. Breadth means recognizing yourself as “singular yet also a part of a larger collective.” I spoke earlier about belonging. That at-home-ness amidst your social context – that’s breadth. Your uniqueness is recognized and therefore meaningful insofar as it is valued as a unique offering to your group, your community. Depth means you can see beyond ordinary material existence and address matters of what theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern.” There is more to life than getting and spending. If whoever dies with the most toys wins, then winning is not what’s most important. That’s depth. So the first feature of wholeness is that you are a being of breadth and depth.

Second, wholeness involves a life-affirming view of oneself and the world. With wholeness comes hope, support, and compassion in relation to oneself, other people, the world, the sacred, and life itself. As I say, you don’t become whole, you merely recognize the intrinsic wholeness that you already are. And with that recognition comes an increasingly life-affirming approach – an increasing groundedness in meaning and wisdom.

Third, wholeness involves the ability to organize the life journey into a cohesive whole. Here we are referring to the capacity to put thoughts, values, emotions, actions, and relationships into an integrated totality. Well, now, that sounds like something you attain, or achieve, right? But here’s the thing: you can’t make it happen. You can’t make your thoughts, values, emotions, actions, and relationships coalesce into an integrated totality. If it happens, it won’t happen on your schedule.

You can take up a spiritual practice and pay attention to what you are in all your rather disjointed glory – and gradually, unevenly, with a lot of backsliding, probably this more integrated totality may emerge. Not because you wanted it to – but just from appreciating and paying attention to what is rather than what should be.

Developing wholeness involves embracing all of life in its multifaceted complexity. Just keep embracing and paying attention and you’ll find your life begins to organize into a unified whole. You don’t do it – you just get the ego self a little out of the way so that life can do it on its own. Pay attention to the bits and pieces of your life, and they begin, on their own to coherently fit together.

It’s an ongoing, vibrant process. Wholeness is not the antithesis of brokenness but rather involves a changed relationship to brokenness. Indeed, to be whole we must allow ourselves to get fully involved in life, be vulnerable enough to see our brokenness, and get ourselves out of the way so that the broken pieces can find their own way to a new compelling unity out of the broken pieces.

Breadth and depth, a life-affirming orientation, and cohesiveness – those are the hallmarks of recognizing your intrinsic and inalienable wholeness. This doesn’t fix any of your problems – but it helps you see the problems as nothing to be anxious about. Problems thus do not dissolve out of your life, but they dissolve into your life. The problems and challenges you face day to day just are your life. As Zen teacher Bernie Glassman put: “Enlightenment doesn’t mean no more problems. It means no more complaining.”

May it be so. May we see clearly that it is already so.


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