Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said, “Above all, do no harm.” How is it possible to do no harm? How can one be so sensitive to oneself and others as to be able to see/ know when one is doing harm? And how does one know if what other people tell us hurts them is really hurting their True Self or their ego?
Many years ago, near the beginning of my journey, I had the perhaps the most powerful event of my life – a “religious experience” where “the sky opened up” and I saw The Truth (at least some aspect of it). The words that came out of my mouth were, “This is it! This is it! Why couldn’t I see it before when it was right in front of my eyes?” And for the following two weeks, I was a “Holy Man.” Wherever I went, things would come into order. Traffic lights would turn green as I approached them. Little kids would come up to me and ask me about God. People would come to me with their problems and solve them for themselves just by being in my presence.
The year was 1970. I was working as a school social worker in the inner city of Detroit during the period right after the race riots. The black community was very angry and wanting to take control of every aspect of their lives, including the schools. And their kids were acting out the parents’ anger in the classroom. There was one 6th grade class in the elementary school where I was positioned that was acting out so horrifically that they couldn’t keep a substitute teacher in the classroom for even half-a-day. I asked the assistant principal if I could go in and observe. She said, “Well, you certainly can’t do any harm.”
So I went into this classroom and observed the mayhem that was ensuing: things of all shapes and sizes (up to and including desks) being thrown in and out of (via the open window) the room, screaming and shouting, pushing and shoving, confronting the teacher, etc., etc., etc. I sat and watched with real interest. In a few minutes, one of the kids came up to me and started talking with me about his life – the things that concerned him. In another few minutes, another kid joined in to the conversation. A few minutes later, another, and another, and another…. They were talking about what mattered to them, quite openly and freely. Then they started picking stuff up off the floor and putting it where it belonged, straightening out the chairs, etc. And I was not doing anything. Really!
It would be years – no decades – before I understood the power of not doing.
Anyway, this “grace” I experienced only lasted 2 weeks, and when I crashed, I crashed hard (the higher you fly, the farther you fall). I went to all my friends and asked, “How would you feel if I killed myself?” All except one became frightened, and I knew they couldn’t help me. The one person who didn’t get scared was my first (real) therapist and spiritual teacher. He just looked at me and said, “Well, I kind of miss your form.” While I had no idea of what he was talking about at the time, I could see that he wasn’t afraid of where I was. So I asked him if I could stay with him until I could get my act together. He said I could.
Fred lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a loft that opened to the living room. He slept in the loft and saw clients in the bedroom, which he had converted into an office. I moved into the living room, and would either “hide” up in the loft when he was seeing clients, or vacate the apartment.
Fred was a man with many remarkable gifts and powers. He tried everything he could think of to snap me out of my deep depression. Nothing worked. Finally, after a week of futile attempts, he walked out of his apartment, saying, “Boy, I’ve had enough of f—ed up people!” Believe it or not, that was the kindest, most helpful thing anyone had ever said to me up to that point in my life. It worked. I realized in that very moment that only I could do it (get my life back) for myself, and I began the process of picking up the pieces of my life and integrating what I had seen into a new life.
Fred was both honest and caring in his statement, even though some would have seen it as anything but kind. And he was not attached to the results of his actions. He gave me everything he had and left me to do what I would with it.
In my work with people, I have made many mistakes – way more, I’m sure, than I even know about. Sometimes I have erred on the side of holding back my truth, sometimes on the side of being a little too adamant about having the other person see “The Truth!” Hopefully, I have learned something from some of these mistakes. My favorite saying (by Dogen Zenji – one of the two greatest Japanese Zen Masters) is “My life has been joshaku shoshaku (one mistake after another).” This is the most forgiving statement I have ever heard. It means that one is continually opening one’s awareness deeper and wider and, in the process, seeing how limited it was in the previous moment. And my second favorite quote (by William Blake) is, “The fool who persists in his folly eventually becomes a wise man.” I have begun to acknowledge that there is wisdom that comes through this being, and I can definitely see that it has come on the heels of folly – the greater the folly, the greater the wisdom. Leonard Cohen sings in his most wonderful song, “Anthem,” “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forgive your perfect offering. There is a crack – a crack – in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.”
I saw very clearly a while ago that enlightenment is inevitable for all of us – whether in this lifetime of some future lifetime. We are intelligent beings living in an enlightened universe (the Tao). We learn from our mistakes (the things that we do that cause pain to ourselves and/or others) – eventually! “Mistakes” are simply living and acting out of harmony with the Tao/ Truth/ Way/ God. So “Right Activity” means living and acting in harmony with Tao.
Obviously, the only way one can live in harmony with the Tao/ Truth/ Way/ God is to have experienced it directly, so that one can have a base line to relate to. And obviously, the deeper one has experienced Tao/ Truth/ Way/ God, the more deeply one can practice Right Activity in one’s life.
There is an old saying, “When an enlightened person swims in the water, s/he makes no waves; when s/he walks in the grass, s/he bends not a blade.” But what does one do between now and the time one is fully enlightened? How does one know – get feedback in the moment (apart form the occasional feedback we get from others) – if one is living in harmony with the Tao? Surely, some people would have said that Fred’s statement to me was harmful. But it was anything but harmful to me.
For myself, I use my body as my primary barometer; it never lies. If I notice that an action I’ve taken – whether in word, deed or thought – creates even the subtlest tension anywhere in my body, I know that there is some level of untruth going on, and that I need to look more deeply into what is there. It has taken me a lot of hard work over many years to have gotten to the point where I am most-of-the-time in touch with what’s happening on the level of sensation in my body, softening/ inquiring into any tension that arises, searching for deeper and deeper Truths within my own being.
The Buddha said, “Within this fathom long body is found all the teachings, is found suffering, the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering.” All we need to do is what we learned in elementary school – stop (running away from ourselves), look (deeply into what is happening), and listen (to whatever is in there that wants/ needs to express itself)!