The Box

Yesterday, I saw someone whom I hadn’t seen for many years. As we talked, she said, “You always were an out-of-the-box person.” I smiled/nodded at the cliché, instantly aware of the pain in my gut that that sentence hasn’t yet failed to trigger. Everybody says this to me – it is a pensive compliment – and it brings my loneliness into sharp focus. Then I have something to work on for a while. For “out-of-the-box person” read stranger in a strange land, sister from another planet, swimmer against the stream, dancer to your own drummer, alone alone, alone. But then, she went on to finish her thought. She said that recently, she had heard so called “21st century thinkers” say that, in fact, there is no box, and a person like me has the advantage of seeing that clearly and the hard work of having to work with people who cannot. It is not often that someone understands my life’s work so succinctly, and I was very moved.

Hardly a 21st century thought, of course. Socrates, Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sri Aurobindo – to name some non-21st century people who didn’t believe in the box-like existence and told us so, quite loudly.

No boxes. No box to live in, think in, believe in. No walls, no boundaries, no rules. Customs, traditions, mores – all by choice. We build from the inside, carefully constructing around us until we can’t see over the top, then can’t see the sky, then can’t breathe. Then we take little spoons and try to dig ourselves out, deconstructing ways of thinking, unlearning the ideas that create the laws that bind, breathing in and out and chanting I want to be free in every language. So much effort. Then one day, a sudden glimpse is offered and we see that there’s nothing at all. No stone construction, only an idea; and if you huff and you puff, you can blow the whole damn thing to smithereens.

(The problem, of course, is the ensuing nakedness.)

We are great and skillful architects of complex, hi-tech and interesting cages. We cage chickens, pigs, calves, goats, cows, fish so we can eat them. Lions, tigers, bear, fish, whales, birds, camels, monkeys, rhinos so we can look at them. Then we write odes to the freedom of the soaring eagle, to the power of the wild tiger, to the roaming of the wind.

We imprison wild humans. Humans who drive too fast, drink too much, smoke pot, hallucinate, beat their wives, rape their girls. We put them in little cages with bars, chain them to posts and shackle their hands and feet. This is law, entertainment, religion, and we have come to see it as how things are. We have lost our understanding of how shocking it is to see a person chained and caged. We have covered up our shame at seeing a brother or a sister with shackles behind bars. Prisons are now among the most lucrative industries in this country. We gorge ourselves on the imprisonment of our species and call it righteousness and safety.

There’s a sweet little Zendo close enough to walk to, and I have spent many good Sunday mornings meditating there. It is loosely connected to the Zen monastery a couple of hours away, in which I have spent a few really important weekends. I love the place. I have had a long flirtation with Western Buddhism – almost an affair, you can call it. But I just can’t commit – not even to an open relationship with no strings attached. I get to second base and then need to bolt for a while. So many precepts. Don’t, don’t, don’t. And so much taming of the wild human mind. Leading the bull, riding the bull, taming the bull. I want to do it, I really do – but there it is again…the walls of the box – so neatly constructed, so cleverly narrated that they mendaciously seem to offer freedom. Frost’s famous (and very misunderstood) poem says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.” What do all these precepts seek to shut out?

How is it possible to take the brilliance of Jesus in the temple or on the cross, of Gautama under the tree, and create this web of chains? To tell the congregation that true freedom lies only within – when there is nothing else but freedom – no inside or outside, no walls, no need for taming anything. We are not wild and dangerous creatures – we are beautiful, intelligent, graceful, loving and absolutely perfect in every way. We do not have to lock the dog in the basement – we can bring the bitch out to play, roll around and bite and bark at will. We can trust ourselves to be OK and we will be.

In fact, of course, the longer you lock up the dog, the madder he becomes. The more rules in a place, the more chaos that threatens to erupt. Look around. The institutions have failed at their mission. We are not tamed at all.

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