‘Our practice is not to clear up the mystery, but to make the mystery clear.’
Robert Aitken, Zen teacher
Mystery can be expansive and deeply meaningful – gazing up at the night sky for example, and wondering how such a vast universe can exist, where our planet is the only one we’ve found so far which supports life. Or thinking about the millions of processes which are involved in keeping our bodies alive, this complex system which rarely breaks down. We can study our bodies through science in the minutest details, but still it is difficult to understand how it all holds together. How, for example, do all our cells and hormones and neurotransmitters and antibodies and neurons know what to do, and when? So much needs to happen just for us to take the next breath, let alone find and eat and digest food and so on, and yet the system is able to work seamlessly for decade after decade, keeping us alive if not always in perfect health.
And then of course there is our mind, this extraordinary creation which can be mysterious to us much of the time. When we meditate and become more familiar with the workings of our mind, it can be astonishing to discover where this mind likes to roam. A school excursion in Grade 2, something we read in the paper five weeks ago, still worrying about that discussion with a colleague, and now suddenly here we are in fantasy land, some rich drama is unfolding, we are caught up in that but then before we know it a brilliant solution to a problem which has been nagging us pops into our heads seemingly out of nowhere and we suddenly know how to proceed with a project – and all this within the space of a few minutes. It’s really quite extraordinary.
Yet mystery can also be unsettling, or even distressing – the more we delve into how mysterious life is, the more random it can all seem. If your great-great-grandfather hadn’t had an argument with his sweetheart and gone to the village festival where another girl smiled at him, and after years of ups and downs they did end up getting married, and he was often away and four of their children died in infancy but two survived and one of them fought in a war where he met a girl and after the war he found her and they moved to a nearby town where their seventh child, which almost didn’t survive the birth, became your grandmother… So much had to happen for us to be born. And at any point, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, something different could have occurred which meant that you, or I, never got to exist at all.
We can spend our lives trying to clear up one mystery after the other, or we can, as Zen teacher Robert Aitken suggests, become more clear about the mystery of life. Yes, it can seem random, but at the same time, here we are. Just the fact we exist is wonderful – sometimes we can sit in meditation and just appreciate this simple truth.
Weekly practice idea:
Take a moment to look around you and notice what’s there, and allow yourself to be filled with a sense of mystery. What does it feel like, to be more clear about the mystery?