Thursday, September 24, 2009

Put Away Childish Things

Lately I've been reflecting on maturity, and what it really means -- and especially what it means on the spiritual path. So much of what we strive to accomplish and to become through spiritual practice is, in essence, about simply and fundamentally and properly growing up, becoming genuinely mature human beings. And, by the same token, so much of what causes us anguish in life, what keeps us trapped in cycles of suffering, is overwhelmingly about childish concerns and about refusing to grow up.

In contemplating this, I was reminded of Zen teacher Norman Fischer's book, "Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up," which I read several years ago. At the time I read it, I don't think I was quite ready to receive its message, and for the most part it went in one eye and out the other. But I went back to look at Fischer's book, and found that it's a rich and meaningful dive into this seldom-explored topic of spiritual maturity. Fischer states the basic problem very concisely:

"[Most] of us are terrified by the idea of growing up -- or would be if we ever considered the idea seriously. Mostly we don't. We usually take maturity for granted, as one of life's givens. You reach a certain age, you get out of school, you get a job, maybe you marry or settle down, maybe not, but time goes by and you're a grown-up. You get a diploma, a credit card, a job, a car, a house or apartment. After you acquire these emblematic prizes, each of which feels like a milestone, you are there. You are an adult. What more is there to it than that? We think growing up, becoming a mature human being, is natural, almost biological, something we all do automatically simply by virtue of the passage of years and the natural course of things. Life happens to us and we go along with it, and there we are, grown up, developed, wise people.

[But] when we...contemplate the question of what it really means to be an adult, fear sets in. We recognize that despite our social position or accomplishments, despite our relationships, our education, and our psychological astuteness, we really don't know what we're doing with our lives. Where is our life going? What is the purpose for which we were born, the fulfillment we deeply seek? We look like grown-ups, we talk like grown-ups, maybe we have grown-up bank accounts and grown-up responsibilities -- but do we really have any idea what we are about?

And if, after much struggle, we think we know the answers to such questions, we are forced to ask another, more agonizing question: Are we living those answers? Or do our lives, in the light of those answers, seem like afterthoughts, like still unformed story lines?"

-- Norman Fischer, "Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up"

"The spiritual path," says Fischer, "leads us to the places we are meant to occupy in this world." And all the practices and forms with which we engage on the path -- meditation and the rest -- are tools that help us develop the maturity to truly become ourselves, to fully inhabit our own lives and to understand what on earth we are here to do.

Most so-called adults, most of the time, live more or less like children, thinking and acting from the perspective of what Buddhists call the ego: the brattish, child-like "me" that thinks primarily about its own happiness, about how it could acquire more of the things it believes will make it happy and how it could further repel or destroy the things it believes will make it unhappy. The childish ego thinks nothing of pushing others out of the way to get what it wants.

By contrast, the great spiritual masters and enlightened beings -- I'm thinking here of the Buddha, Jesus, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and others like them -- are perhaps the only human beings on this earth who have consistently and completely lived as genuine adults. Such beings have completely let go of the childish ego's petty concerns, and have understood the world, and their salvific roles in it, in a way that children cannot possibly do; they have become like parents to the whole human race, caring for us when we are -- isn't it obvious? -- incapable of properly caring for ourselves without grown-up assistance. Like loving parents, these great beings care more about the happiness of their children than they do about their own, and in this sense they are like the ultimate adults and we are like the ultimate children. But they are also representatives of what each of us miserable, selfish brats has the potential to become, if we apply ourselves.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

-- First letter of Paul, Chapter 13, verse 11

"I don't want to grow up! I'm a Toys R Us kid!"

-- Popular advertising jingle for Toys R Us brand

Lately it has struck me that our ability to progress along the spiritual path is wholly dependent on our commitment to the basic principles of maturity, to the process of growing up. To the degree that we lack such a commitment, our opportunities for achieving enlightenment -- or even for achieving a greater degree of sanity and well-being in our lives -- are slim.

Obviously, the kind of maturity I'm talking about here is not the kind that comes when we reach a certain age; it's not something that happens when we are old enough to drink booze or to vote or to trade in our toy guns for actual guns and go off to fight real wars instead of imaginary ones. The kind of maturity we need on the spiritual path is something that develops on the inside, and its growth is entirely dependent on our full, willing participation in the process. There are quite a few young people who have this kind of spiritual maturity, and (unfortunately) there are lots and lots of old people who don't.

When we break it down, I think spiritual maturity has several key components:

  • Responsibility: Mature beings have a highly developed moral sense, and they act accordingly. This built-in moral compass comes not from following a book of rules or a code of behavior that some parental figure gave them -- it comes from following the dictates of their conscience, which is rooted in a clear understanding of what kind of action is skillful and what kind is harmful. They see what needs to be done and they do it. And they see what is better left undone and they avoid it.

  • Relaxation: Mature beings have let go of childish, petty resentments and grudges, and they do not indulge in temper tantrums when they don't get things their way. They are open-minded and have no axes to grind and no chips on their shoulders about anything at all.

  • Confidence: Mature beings have worked through their childhood insecurities and emotional hangups, and are at peace with themselves as they are; they are comfortable in their own skin. But they never boast; their confidence is rooted in humility, and has nothing to do with arrogance. They are okay with admitting how little they actually know.

  • Joyfulness: Mature beings are able to bring joy to their lives and the lives of people they meet, even amidst difficult circumstances.

  • Altruism: Mature beings downplay self-centered concerns and place greater emphasis on the welfare of others.

  • Realism: Mature beings have left behind the pretensions and make-believe of childhood, and have shifted their allegiance to holding a realistic, well-informed view of the world and how it actually works. They are committed to cultivating knowledge and deepening wisdom, and to dispelling illusion.

  • Perseverance: Mature beings dedicate themselves fully to the process of growing up and waking up. They know it takes work, and they are determined not to fall back into the selfish habitual patterns of childhood.

We can use these qualities as measuring sticks to see where we've made progress on our spiritual path, and where we've still got some growing up to do. When I think of someone like the Buddha, or Jesus, or the Karmapa, I think of someone who fully embodies all of these essential aspects of spiritual maturity, and has brought each of these qualities to full ripening. Many people are in awe of such spiritually advanced beings because they are said to be able to display miracles, but perhaps the greatest miracle they display is the simple yet shocking fact of their utter maturity, their complete lack of childishness -- which is shocking precisely because it is so uncommon.

(To be continued....)


Unknown said...

Great post, as always - thank you! Is maturity on the 9th bhumi?
We miss you here in NYC, Dolores

Tsultrim said...

Very good analysis !
I have to think of these elements of maturity. I think you gathered the essence of it.
But it leaves me with this question : why then is there some people who can crash into full wakefulness like Eckart Tolle ? Out of the deep end of depression ? Certainly depression is a state of tension between childishness and maturity...How mysterious.