Opened and Opening
* * *
First, we look at a Thich Nhat Hanh anecdote. Then, from it, we will consider spiritual development based on the concept "open, openness, spaciousness."
When I was a young monk in Vietnam, I realized something while meditating on a young banana plant, which had three leaves. The first leaf had completely unfurled and was exposed to the sun and rain and was enjoying her new life as a leaf. The second leaf was still unfurling, not yet fully open. The third leaf, the younger sister, was not yet open.
*At Home in the World.
* * *
In reading the above anecdote, we can see, in the sense of opening, three kinds of spiritual practitioners.
1) The open
When we speak of "open," we may think of the mind or the heart opening up. Before, we may have been close-minded or close-hearted: anxious to let unfamiliar ideas into our minds, fearful of letting others into our hearts. Possibly, we did not know how to open up, for it had not been modeled for us. We may have learned much without a willingness to recognize truth outside what we had been taught. Many persons receive early instruction to avoid claims to truth outside those sanctioned by significant others. We may have been involved much with others, yet not open to disclosing ourselves, accordingly hiding from them by immersing ourselves in being with them. Many are taught to fear those who look, speak, dress, and act differently than those of her or his upbringing.
Then, over time, we grew into a spontaneous spaciousness. Initially, we put forth an effort to be open. We became like the sky, effortlessly open. One cannot separate the sky from openness; we did not just become open, we became openness.
Ideas and persons find room in that sky to move freely. Even as the sky does not cling to anything, we do not cling to what moves through us. Hence, persons find freedom with us. We love them, yet we do not feel neediness toward them. We do not want them to feel neediness toward us. Love flows freely, taking shapes we cannot predict, as the sky cannot know what shapes might enter its embrace.
Spiritual growth seen in this sense means the expansion of mind-and-heart to receive. We move from fear of others and new ideas toward a fearless love of others and for truth. We are drawn to the unfamiliar as another way Life shows up in our world. Potentially, this opening up never ends, expanding more and more through discovery of the vast Unknown.
2) The opening
We are growing from the closed mind and closed heart to the openness of mind and heart. Not yet stabilized in this spaciousness, we are becoming more settled in this way of being. This inner conversion takes time, and we become more open with repeated visits to the fearless, gracious openness. Even as we did not become closed overnight, the opening up takes time. So, we need to be cautious not to become disheartened but remain patient and show compassion toward ourselves.
Furthermore, after stabilizing in openness, we may have times when we close off. We may face a situation that brings up into consciousness something unhealed. Nevertheless, the closing off is short-lived. We move back into openness soon, for we have become aware of when the shutting down occurs.
3) The to-open
I say "to-open," for openness is latent within us all. We all begin in this way. If our natural home were not openness, we would have no ground from which to grow in openness. Paradoxically, we become what we are. Openness is the ground of openness. The spirit-we-are is the origin of seeking for, adopting, and walking a spiritual path.
Persons move from "to-open" to "opening" in varying ways. Some are born into a context where one adopts a path early in life. Other persons enter a spiritual search later in life, most likely through one of two avenues - a tragedy; a growing, discontented sense of 'there must be more.'
* * *
We cannot force openness. Who we are does not show itself through aggression. Trying to force our natural radiance to shine pushes it back into hiding. This demand for non-aggression is why meditation is so helpful. We practice this relaxed, receptive awareness.
We learn to live "hanging loosely," as noted in Keith Downman's translation of Pelden Longchenpa's Treasury of the Dharmadhatu (Spaciousness: The Radical Dzogchen of the Vajra-Heart: Longchenpa's Treasury of the Dharmadhatu). This hanging loosely Buddhists refer to as "aimlessness." What needs to get done gets done, yet one remains calm, mindful, and receptive amid the activity. One does not stick to the action. The action does not close the self in on itself - doer and doing are one. The harmony is the antithesis of the stress of separation between the doer and the doing. Really, in aimlessness, there is no doer, only doing. Self becomes the action it is.
* * *
There is something religions call grace. Grace is gracious. Grace indicates a hidden, subtle influence. Grace, articulated in diverse ways, appears in spiritual paths, theistic and nontheistic. When we grow to live as openness, we know our sense of self did not lead in that emergence - at best, it cooperated. While our natural home is spaciousness, we know the self opened to itself by the agency of an unseen Influence-and-Inspiration. We have a sense of, "I could never have done this." There is no "I" present to claim such a return. An "I" is present, yet it is now the servant of Love.
* * *
Last, there is no room to be critical of where a person is on the Way. We are none of us elite spiritually. We are not in competition. We are equals; we are one. Wherever we are developmentally, we need each other. Moreover, a wise saying of Jesus applies here: "Much is required from the person to whom much is given; much more is required from the person to whom much more is given" (Gospel of Luke 12.48, GNT).
Thanks to the wisdom of nondiscrimination, called upeksha in Sanskrit, we do not fight, quarrel, or compete with one another. When we are not caught in the notion of being a separate self from other human beings, there can be harmony between us. When I teach a friend how to practice meditation, I don’t call myself “teacher,” and my friend “student.” There is no transmitter and no receiver. We are one and the same. Together, we help each other grow.
*Thich Nhat Hanh. At Home in the World.
* * *
*© Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book consists of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.