Don't you wonder sometimes where spirit has hidden itself in our confused and maddened world? I do. It’s hard to accept the harsh reality that it is in us, and that if we don’t change, nothing outside us will change.
Myriad teachings describe a process of transformation, of incarnation in this earthly body of another level of life. “Remember who you are,” commands Gurdjieff. “Keep your thought on your energy in movement,” orders the T’ai Chi Master. “When you sit, sit; when you cook, cook,” says the Zen roshi. “Take no thought of tomorrow,” says the Christ. In the Hindu tradition, Karma Yoga calls on those who lead a busy life to dedicate each act to Krishna. Some, like the Gnostics, the Quakers and Hasidic Jews, see our task as orienting daily life toward the essentials and toward God.
There’s a spark of the divine in everything living. We aren’t on earth to fit into a mold or to repeat what someone else has accomplished but to find our own unique way, to bring to fruition our own potential, to practice our own presence. In fact, as the Lord Krishna told the warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, it would be a grievous error to try to accomplish someone else’s dharma (duty). One must find one’s own. And as Thomas Merton affirmed, “Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is rooted in life.”
The Jewish view differs from the Christian paradigm of sin and redemption with which I was brought up, although it also sees the world as a battleground. One of God’s names is Shekhinah, defined in the Encyclopedia Judaica as “the Divine Presence…the numinous immanence of God in the world.” Rooted in the Hebrew word for dwelling, resting, it also means “the battleground between the divine powers of good and evil, the first and the main target of Satan.”
If there’s a perpetual battle between the presence of God in the world and Satan, perhaps it’s up to us to choose consciously under which banner we wish to enlist. The decision isn’t a once-and-for-all mental act. That would be easy. It’s a daily commitment to living within the tension of that choice. Does it lie between sin and virtue as in the Christian paradigm? I prefer the Greek translation of sin--missing the mark--because it offers an active reorientation to try again. Jewish theologian Adin Steinsaltz said the essential punishment for sin or violence is alienation from one’s own true Self. Martin Buber invited us to what he called “the way of reversal.” Repentance is “an incentive to…active reversal,” he said. But it’s the “turning” away from sin, not the attack on oneself, that’s important.
Buber’s “way of reversal” calls on us to discover the particular task in life we were born for. “It is the things that happen to me day after day, the things that claim me day after day – these contain my essential task,” he affirmed. “...The soil we till, the materials we shape, the tools we use…all contain a mysterious spiritual substance which depends on us for helping it towards its pure form…Man was created for the purpose of unifying the two worlds…God’s grace consists precisely in this, that he wants to let himself be won by man, that he places himself…into man’s hands.”
When we characterize the body as “mere flesh and blood,” we forget that it’s a vessel containing all that is precious in us. In Buber’s view: “The soul is not really united, unless all bodily energies, all the limbs of the body, are united.” Steinsaltz agrees. He deplores the separation of body and soul so prevalent in Western thought: "The principal action of the soul ...lies not in its…remoteness from the physical world, but precisely in the world of living creatures,” he explains. “In its contact with matter...especially relations with its own body—the soul is able to reach far higher levels than it can in its abstract state of separate essence.” In other words, whether we follow the way of the East Indian meditating for three days under a banyan tree or the American Indian gesturing at dawn to make the sun rise, all of our parts must come to the altar if we wish to bathe in the light of our own presence, and in so doing, to bring Spirit into the World.