When I read about Tiger Woods’s philandering, I wasn’t really surprised; I don’t think anyone was. It only adds him the list of public figures who seem to realize an ideal I admire, while actually embodying one that I don’t.
I like to think of the principle of purity as meaning, “it contains nothing else”, in the way that I think of distilled water or real gold as being pure. When Tiger or another guru displays qualities incongruous with their achievements, they vividly demonstrate their mixed (or mixed-up) character. As such they are brilliant counter-examples of the quality of containing one thing and nothing else.
There are plenty of counter-examples in my own life, too – the moments (or years) when I have been muddled or deluded. If my essential self were a pure and rich olive oil, I have often felt more like a salad dressing, thinned out and bitter. What would it have been like during those times to focus on being myself, to avoid things that mixed me up?
This would have taken more wisdom than I usually possess. It is hard to know what the essential me is, when I strip away my social identities and put aside all of the constraints and freedoms they imply. Is there a common thread, a central nervous system that holds all of my ideas, feelings, and experiences together? For me it has been a lifelong process to develop an answer to this question.
Having asked (or discovered) that question, it takes a different kind of wisdom for me to place myself in situations that predispose me to be who I am and nothing else. This involves making the big choices skillfully, like discovering a career, a life’s partner, a place to live. But it also implies care in the endless list of smaller choices. Choices in my life are almost continuous; the alternatives are never perfect. As a result, in large ways and small, my situation often encourages me to be something other than my deepest self.
Even where the choices don’t at first seem to allow it, I am learning to look for opportunities to develop the most essential part of me. This requires an openness to unexpected discoveries, a sensitivity to my evolving sense of what I am. It is choosing moment by moment what I want to be, continuously molding my own process of becoming.
This kind of self-guidance comes naturally to plants. It is in the geometry of their genes to probe their environment for whatever sustains them. My scope is wider in many ways than that of a plant, but the principle still holds. All of us possess the wisdom to seek out what is good for us and then to be our best self. This next poem expresses my desire to re-establish in my own deepest roots the simple and infallible self-knowledge of, say, a pomegranate.
Pomegranates grow from salty dirt,
but they never taste of brine or grit.
Quarter one and press the cheek; splay
concave its inner flesh – again you’ll taste
among those polygons of pods, the seeds
containing rain-wine, soil’s bittersweet.
When you have lived in dry or salty places
have you conceived such deep, clear juice ?
Be silent; drink. Let your lips be stained
with truth, your whitest shirt be ruined.
Earth is so complex ! And you, sweet seed,
must only take in what your nature needs.