- At the Desert Retreat House -
I only watched a small portion of the Republican presidential candidate debate last evening but it didn’t take me long before I stopped even trying to listen to the content of what the debaters were saying because I was so swept away with the technique. All the politics aside, it was pretty clear to me that the goal of the debate had little or nothing to do with engaging in a genuine dialogue about issues affecting the nation; but rather the goal was for each individual candidate to climb up to the next rung of the ladder of success in the race for the nomination. And so people on the stage would say whatever they felt they needed to say regardless of how true or how mean-spirited it may have been in order to beat down the other guy and ultimately be perceived as the “winner.”
As I have reflected on it I realized that the debate last night was not only typical of the state of American politics, but it was very iconic of the way lots of people live their everyday lives is today’s popular culture. So much of life today is defined in terms of “upward mobility” – climbing the ladder of success by stepping on whomever you have to step on to get higher up on the rungs.
From the time our kids first start school and thereafter they are taught to climb up the proverbial ladder – don’t just get “good” grades but get “better” grades so that you can go to better schools and get better jobs than the kid sitting next to you.
This is a sure formula for bringing us suffering, unhappiness and misery.
Long ago the Buddha understood the ultimate futility of unchecked ambition:
From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.
The path of upward mobility is always a slippery slope. When we always “crave” the bigger and better, when our ambitions for achieving that higher place on life’s ladder clutter our minds and possess our spirits we can never be truly happy- we are always looking for something more and in doing so we miss the joy of what is, we are always stepping on someone else and by doing so we are ultimately stepping on our “self” because we all belong to one another.
And then in a flash life is over.
I think about something Thomas Merton once said:
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find
once they reach the top,
that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Interestingly enough if I look at the core wisdom inherent in almost every religious and spiritual tradition, the direction of the spiritual journey is much more characterized by a “downward mobility” rather than an “upward mobility.”
The contemporary author and priest, Richard Rohr, observes:
The soul has many secrets.
One of the best-kept secrets, and yet hidden in plain sight, is that
the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer,
the way down is the way up.
And this is indeed the great and ultimate paradox of all spiritual wisdom: we only go up the ladder by not climbing it. In fact we go up the spiritual ladder by letting go of all those things that the culture teaches us we need to do to climb to the next rung.
When we give up our need to be perfect and to be better than others, when we surrender our need for greater power and more control, when we let go of clinging to our rigid ideas and glib assurances and simply make ourselves available to the experiences of life in service to one another, only then are we ready for tranquility to seep into our souls - a peace that surpasses all understanding.
We climb the spiritual ladder by taking on the “beginner’s mind,” a child-like innocence.
The way up is the way down.
The way down is the way up.
Such an important lesson to learn in this life that is over in a flash.