On Labeling Part 1: Discovering its Limiting Nature
As I have often shared in blogs, in the beginning of my spiritual search I lived alone on a mountainside, above an old growth redwood forest park (Muir Woods), across the bay from San Francisco. I pray I haven’t exhausted you with this narrative, which for me was so spiritually formative, and powerful. I present lessons I haven't shared before from those days, which I continue to build on. I gravitated toward actions considered favorable for spiritual practice and yoga. Rising at the day’s first light, with the stars as my roof, I felt the push of urgency to find meaning, because ordinary materialistic life seemed pointless, and increasingly, I didn’t fit in. There arose in me a sense that by living in, and observing Nature, while studying ancient spiritual books, I could understand my place, and what I should be doing with my life.
This quest for meaning and purpose was the only thing I found that interested me. I concluded that a person’s existence, with every day and breathe, was meant for understanding the significance of life, and our relationship to the Universe (or the Source of all that was). I developed a special affection for these super-gigantic redwood trees, often thousands of years old, who were like silent meditating sages with keys for understanding the secrets of the ages—if I could just learn to speak their language. I went on a daily pilgrimage down the hill to the valley forest, along with my other “friends” of a few spiritual books, and occasionally, an acquaintance.
The beauty I observed, along with a sense of some guiding force, moved me deeply, and I wondered how I could have lived so many years without having this natural dimension and support to my life. Having been a placid, dull, and unimaginative child, my current excitement and spiritual interest was new to me—yet strangely familiar! I found I didn’t have a vocabulary to explain my experiences—and no one who would understand if I did! It was like I’d been born blind, and suddenly discovered my sight—something similar to the wonder of a young child, excited by the simplest things, and always curious, never thinking everything was known.
Monks are often encouraged to keep a “beginner’s mind” in order to not become complacent or overly familiar with their spiritual practices, and to go beyond appearances. The general principle is that living a simple life in a calm, spiritual atmosphere helps one to be peaceful, and introspective. The most important aspect of spiritual life, saintly association, was still missing for me, yet the groundwork was being laid so I could appreciate such company when I later discovered it. Spiritual books are a kind of association, yet they still require living spiritual personalities for activation of their deeper secrets, and to extract the distilled essence.
During the week I pretty much had the forest to myself, though a good number of visitors came on the weekend, holidays, and at some other times. I came there to be with the trees, and to contemplate existential questions, yet I also found it interesting to observe the park visitors, and how the park structure catered to them. I sat and observed these people, seeing them to be as I once had been. I felt they were not able to be fully present, to slow down from the fast pace of city life within them, or to give up their blindness’s to the significance of the natural world, and their relationship to it.
While I had personally come to view the forest and natural world as “real life”, the visitors appeared like bored strangers coming to a museum, cut off from their roots deep in the Earth, and its Source (whatever that was). In front of most of the trees and plants, were signs giving their common name, Latin species, and a brief description of growing characteristics and other facts. I was struck at how such a label was a shallow perception of the wonder of life. A label implies knowing what something is, so we don’t have to think more about it.
On a side note from the topic of labels, the message we imbibe from our consumer oriented life is that the environment is something to be used/exploited for our personal, or societal purpose and agenda, and rarely as something to learn from. Material laws are seen as an inconvenience to be overcome, and not as indicating a higher intelligence, law maker, or Creator we owe anything to, or should cooperate with. Liter thrown mindless by the side of the road, demonstrates our disconnection, and disrespect for Nature, and shows our ignorance of our human responsibility to stewards of the resources of the planet. Spiritually speaking, our service to God, includes taking care of his energy.