Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
"Be in the world, but not of the world."
Recently, on a sunny, early autumn day, I worked in the yard with my son, who's seven. We were cleaning up the piles of bark remaining from splitting several cords of winter firewood, and chatted as we loaded the wheelbarrow.
"I've decided what I want to be when I grow up," he said.
"What?" I asked with interest.
"I either want to be a world champion pogo-sticker and break the record for the most bounces; or a mountain biker and ride over Mount Everest. Which do you think I should do?"
We walked together across the grass as I pushed the wheelbarrow toward the woods for dumping.
"Both of those sound awesome," I replied. "Maybe you can do both. But do you know what I think you should be when you grow up?"
"What?" he asked, his voice carrying the melodic lilt of piqued interest.
I put down the wheelbarrow and looked him in the eyes.
He looked surprised, and then incredulous, and then his face split into a broad grin.
"You always say stuff like that, Dad!"
By the look in his eyes, I knew my meaning had reached home. We didn't talk much for the rest of our work session, but the atmosphere had a quality of interior richness.
There is, in children, a preponderance of this simple being. They haven't been overwhelmed with the conditioning and education that mostly governs us as adults. What is more, they haven't yet made the mistake of believing they are what they do. Children are just too busy being their essential selves to get caught in that state of mistaken identity.
Recently, a friend with a younger child than mine asked advice about how to handle getting her son into his car-seat when he resists, struggling and arching his back to prevent being buckled.
"Should I bribe him with sweeties? Should I simply force him in?" she wondered.
I remembered the experience of having one or two-year-old children, and the epiphany that arose after similar struggles and quandaries. It was that children live in a different world from us. It is a world that is natural and immediate—a reality unmitigated by the artificial schedules and agendas of adults—and it is qualitatively better than my synthetic reality.
"You should be ready to change your plan, or at least leave lots of extra time," I suggested to my friend. "What's the hurry to make your child into a manageable adult? Instead strive to enter that magical world of childhood."
In other words, put being first.
A pithy hint from the Christian Bible suggests that "only when you are converted, and become like a little child, can you enter heaven." I take this to mean that we need to strive to let go of the conditioning about who we are, what we are to do, and when things need to happen, and simply stand in the presence of our own being. In the presence of our essential selves is the doorway to the place called heaven.
The personality (from persona, meaning mask) is a random collection of all the acquired knowledge, skills, and techniques we need to navigate in the "civilized" world. It is the nurture of the nature-versus-nurture dichotomy (yes, both are true, in their ways). In itself, personality is not good or bad. Like any good toolbox, we can use the selection of tools for good or ill.
Personality becomes destructive when we mistake our identity for its contents, believing we are what we know or can do. This is the chief error of the current state of society—there is an almost total emphasis on outer performance, conformity, and capitulation, and very little importance placed on the world of being, real individuality, and freedom.
In the world of being is the meaning of things—not the descriptive meaning, but the intrinsic, essential meaning that is more sensual and emotional than it is analytical. It is where we experience the wisdom that can only arise in the moment, and not through any process of analysis. It is where we can know the innate qualities of things, and understand the relationship between parts. We can know them because these qualities are already in us.
In reality, the world of being and its qualities are infinitely more real and substantial than the outer world of objects and functions. Recognizing that in being is where our treasure lies, is—in the sense of the Bible quote—to be converted.
For more on this topic, including practical techniques and exercises, consider attending Jason Stern's lecture, "Remembering Ourselves: Learning to Stand in the Presence of Being," at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock, on Thursday, October 17, at 7pm.