Back to the Garden

A Morning Mind Essay

A terribly long time ago, in an era long before memory, human beings did not have the function of speech or visual memory. They did not conceptualize. It is hard to imagine such an existence, living from moment to moment, responding to appetite. There was no plan to life, or grand scheme. People just dealt with whatever came up.

I saw this state when I first met my grandson, a few weeks after he was born. He responded to stimuli, lying there doing that little dance that babies do. When he was hungry or otherwise uncomfortable he fussed. But when I would lean over, showing him my face, he seemed to look above me, to where the light was in the sky. He didn’t like that odd shape (my head) coming in the way.

Now almost a year later, he has all kinds of personality. If you say hi he does a little open and close motion with his hand. He hears music and moves his head up and down. He has a special little maneuver that he does with his tongue. He splashes water during his bath.

But he doesn’t have ideas; there is no language to form them. If he has an uncomfortable feeling in his body, he has no recourse except to respond directly, to shout, to scream, to cry. At some point in human development, once we learn to conceptualize, there is another possibility: We can imagine how we might change things to make them different. We can visualize a situation where that pain isn’t present. And in so doing, we take attention away from it. The act of thinking diminishes our focus on it, so we don’t experience it directly. The pain isn’t “as bad.”

That becomes a strategy. We’re in a bad situation and we whistle a happy tune. We simply remember our favorite things and then we don’t feel so bad. Thank you, Julie Andrews.

That is a fateful moment in human consciousness, when we go from experiencing a pain directly to creating a thought about it, however natural and innocent such a reaction is. Perhaps the truly fateful moment—the Buddha seemed to imply this—comes earlier, when we differentiate among feelings at all, seeing one as bad and the other as good, this to be avoided and that to be grasped. That is the beginning of all our suffering, when we create a concept out of a feeling and initiate desire and aversion, good and evil.

It calls to mind the story of Adam and Eve and their encounter with the tree of knowledge. Apparently there was a time before they differentiated.

“For God doth know that in the day ye eat therof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” [Genesis 3:5]

I’ve always thought the concept of Original Sin was one of the stupidest in the history of the human race. But it does point to something that human beings feel: Something is desperately wrong that isn’t our fault. We’re at odds with ourselves and don’t know why. I love the quotation that Graham Greene used to give a title to one of his novels: “There’s a man within me who’s angry with me.” It’s a little like the Eastern concept of karma and rebirth. Something I did in another lifetime has me so screwed up.

The real problem is when we create a concept in the first place. Instead of directly experiencing a feeling (a wrenching pain in the knee as we sit) we create an idea about it (It isn’t that bad. It would be a lot worse. Or conversely, I wonder if I’m doing irrevocable damage to my tendons. Maybe I’ll need surgery). We substitute a concept for an experience. That’s how we create that man within us who’s angry with us (How can my knee still be hurting? I’ve been practicing zazen for 27 years!).

Some people have experiences so horrendous that they have no choice but to flee them. Sexual abuse comes immediately to mind, or any kind of physical abuse. Trauma in war. My father’s death when I was 16 was an event that I personally couldn’t handle, one that lifted me out of my body and into my head for many years (though I’d formed the habit of fleeing into my head much earlier. I formed it as far back as I can remember).

Nevertheless, if we want to heal the split we all feel inside us, if we want to get back to the Garden, as we used to sing in the Sixties, we have no choice but to live out our physical existence. We need to drop the concept and have the experience.

It won’t happen through sex drugs and rock and roll, as we thought in the Sixties.

As wonderful as those things are, they’re not return tickets to paradise, just high class consolations for living in hell, three more ways to grasp after good experiences and avoid bad ones. We’ve got a million of them.

Ancient disciplines of yoga, tai chi, chi gong exist to heal this split. The fact that they’re so ancient suggests the problem has been around for a while. Twentieth century therapists invented whole new techniques, some rather wacky: the Orgone box, primal scream, bioenergetics, Gestalt therapy, sensory awareness.

I myself practice the most ancient and moronic of all these practices, just sitting there. Could anything be more basic? Yet as anyone will tell you who has practiced it over months and years, there’s something magical about it. Or maybe it’s not magic at all, but just returning to what we were meant to do all along: have a physical experience of life.

In an essay buried in the book Being Bodies, the brilliant Zen teacher Joko Beck sums it all up:

“So the ‘secret’ of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from, to rest in the bodily experience of the present moment—even if it is a feeling of being humiliated, of failing, of abandonment, of unfairness. We learn to rest in our experience without thought, to sink into a nondual state. Even if we can stay only a few seconds at first, with time and development we can learn to rest there for long periods of time…

“Call this enlightenment if you wish. But please remember: we do not do this bodily experiencing just once, or in one sitting. We are describing a lifetime process with many ups and downs, probably one that is never complete. It doesn’t matter! What does matter is the slow, slow shift in the way we see and live our lives.”

We romanticize enlightenment and make a big deal out of it. But maybe it’s just a return to the way we once were, deeply physical and fully human.