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I suggested to a friend that she read The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Months later, she finished the first story/chapter and made the mistake of telling me. Poor soul, she then had to listen to me expound at length — accompanied by ferociously animated hand gestures — on Powers’s ingenious use of the active voice in his writing.
For those who may not know what the “active voice” means, here’s a blessedly shorter explanation, without gesticulation:
ACTIVE: Lightning struck the tree.
PASSIVE: The tree was struck by lightning.
I know it seems unlikely that grammar can lead to spiritual truth, but I promise you, it does.
I waved my arms about in praise of Powers’s active writing because he did something I’d never experienced before to the same masterful degree: he turned trees, generally regarded as stationary “objects,” into main characters, just as animated and alive as you and I are. This is no doubt one reason why the book garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019.
Here’s a gorgeous example. Powers describes a researcher’s revelation as she observes trees infested by insects:
“The trees under attack pump out insecticides to save their lives. That much is uncontroversial. But something else in the data makes her flesh pucker: trees a little way off, untouched by the invading swarms, ramp up their own defenses when their neighbor is attacked. Something alerts them. They get wind of the disaster, and they prepare… Only one conclusion makes any sense: The wounded trees send out alarms that other trees smell. Her maples are signaling. They’re linked together in an airborne network, sharing an immune system across acres of woodland. These brainless, stationary trunks are protecting each other.”
Suddenly, in Powers’s hands, trees are living beings with senses, with a kind of intelligence we rarely ascribe to them, and with intention. They are taking action. They are also acting in community, which I will come back to at the end of this.
All of this points to why we bother to incarnate here on Earth.
Ram Dass was a beloved American spiritual teacher who, after finding his way to the Divine through psychedelics, wrote the seminal book Be Here Now. He devoted his life to bringing eastern spirituality to the west, and to promoting loving service, harmonious business practices, and conscious care for the dying.
He was known for his highly entertaining anecdotes; one of them involved receiving wisdom through his disembodied teacher. Apparently, Ram Dass was spending more and more time trying to attain higher and higher states of consciousness, and he asked his teacher what he should do next to evolve.
To his great surprise, his teacher didn’t advocate for more meditation or prayer or states of devotional “being.” Instead, his teacher said this:
“You’re in a school. Why don’t you try taking the curriculum? Why don’t you try being human?”
I imagine that one of the reasons this advice surprised Ram Dass is that so many spiritual paths advocate identifying with the spirit, striving to be “above” the material world. Isn’t that what religious teachers often tell us? To transcend the physical to attain enlightenment?
Yet his teacher told him, “try being human.”
Of course, I can’t know exactly what his disembodied guide meant by that, but I interpret his counsel as having to do with action.
I’ve often wondered, why do any of us bother coming to Earth? If, as soon as we arrive here, we’re supposed to spend all our time transcending the physical, then we might as well have stayed in spirit form, no? Wouldn’t that be more efficient? Not to mention easier?
Within the realm of spirit, however, we’re pretty hamstrung. Without a body, we’re mighty limited in what we can do. So we come to Earth, a veritable Times Square of action.
Here, movement is a constant and change is inevitable, all the time. From the moment we arrive, there are infinite choices, infinite possibilities, and infinite actions available to take — all of which can, and often do, lead to frustration, pain, and regret, as well as to “the good stuff.” It’s kind of overwhelming, frankly.
Add to that the exponential multiplying effect of blundering about with and crashing into 8 billion other incarnated souls who ALSO have infinite choices… and transcendence starts to look pretty appealing. It can look like freedom. Ah… the peace and tranquility of solo meditation on a mountaintop. Stillness. Simple, clear, finite.
Sign me up.
At least, that’s what I used to feel — until I co-authored a book about Shaiva Tantra. (I’ve written a little about it in this essay.) As I dove deeper into the Shaiva Tantra philosophy, I understood more about the difference between the “renunciate path” and the “householder path.”
The renunciate path is a withdrawing from the world to seek enlightenment. The Buddha (Siddhartha) is a great example: he renounced all worldly ambition and effects, left his loved ones behind, and devoted himself to God. To walk the renunciate path often means full days spent in isolation, meditating to achieve higher and higher states of consciousness.
This was the path Dr. Richard Alpert originally took, walking away from his PhD, his employment at Harvard, and the trappings of a successful life, eventually becoming “Ram Dass” in the process.
In contrast, the householder path requires total engagement with the material world, a deep commitment to embodiment in one’s human form and its surrounding circumstances. The Buddha’s wife Yasodhara exemplifies this alternative path. (More on how she affected me profoundly in this essay.)
She stayed home with their infant son when her husband Siddhartha left, raising the child to adulthood, yet she also attained enlightenment — doing so through the challenges of ordinary domestic life, not by avoiding them.
Her path is the one many of us find ourselves walking, often because resources and life circumstances don’t allow for total departures, or because the option to leave it all behind is just too painful to willingly choose.
The householder path is the path of Shaiva Tantra. It acknowledges that we all signed up for this plane of existence, so if we’re here, we might as well fully embrace it — all of it, even the gnarly, confusing, shadow-filled struggles of day-to-day human existence. We might as well be here now.
I think that’s what Ram Dass’s teacher meant when he said “try being human.” Lace up your cleats and get in the game. Feel it all. Take action. Do your best.
Ram Dass took that advice. He stepped back into the world, essentially moving from renunciate to householder. He taught, mentored, lectured, and created foundations, even as he continued to cultivate his inner connection to Source. He treated his work in the world as self-enlightenment and vice-versa, saying:
"I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people ... to me, that's what the emerging game is all about.
Yes, we need regular time-outs and days off, spent recharging in whatever way plugs us into Source, but we are here to play. I take great comfort in knowing there are others who see life on Earth as a grand game. I also take comfort in the thought that blundering about with and crashing into 8 billion other incarnated souls IS the game.
The microscope has proved what indigenous cultures have always known: the Earth is alive, every single element of it, from the branching mycelium, to the microorganisms living in a marine environment, to the teeming biomes in our guts. All of those beings are constantly moving, reaching, and interfacing with sun, air, water, and each other, taking action in this cosmic community soup. They are dependent on one another. They support one another. It’s just what they do.
That’s why they’re here, and we are no different. Like the trees Powers breathes agency into through his active voice, we thrive within community. Even though The Overstory is fiction, what Powers writes about the social network of trees is not.
German forester Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, chronicles what he learned from managing a forest in the Eifel mountains. Here’s one wise gem, extrapolated to explain how protecting one another creates strong human communities and societies:
Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.
Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance. […]
A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.
We are here to take action, to take on all of the very real challenges of incarnation and help others do the same. Ram Dass’s teacher didn’t say, “why don’t you take a few classes?” he said, “Why don’t you try taking the curriculum?” That’s the whole enchilada, folks. Birth, death, and all the mayhem in between.
And there’s a whole lot of mayhem right now. “Be here now,” sometimes feels almost like a threat, or a curse. Really? Be here? Now? Me? In this shit show?
That’s where another hopeful voice enters, one I turn to often: Mahatma Gandhi, who spoke from experience when he said,
“It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit. But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
His words echo the Hindu and Buddhist teachings to let go of attachment to outcomes. Given the insanity of the world in which we live, all of us would do well to follow his guidance: keep showing up, no matter what.
I want to be more and more like a tree: travel in stillness; rest in action; and help others. Here. Now.
If we all did that, imagine the forest we would be.