The Garden of Eden story fascinates me. I’m going to ask you, just for purposes of this post, to take the story out of Biblical context. Put aside all the theology, all your beliefs and opinions, whatever they are, about the Bible and religion. Just for a few minutes, consider this story without any preconceived notions. Disregard for the moment issues about obedience, sin, and punishment. Please understand that I am not challenging or disrespecting anyone’s beliefs. And I’m not asking anyone to change what they believe. This is just an invitation to look at the story itself without any additional context to see what we notice.
Okay, so you have the first people living in this beautiful place, where they have a life of ease, with plenty of food. The weather must have been pleasant because they were without clothing. They walked in the garden with God, in whose image they were created.
There are many trees in this garden paradise, but only two are named – the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The people are free to eat the fruit of any tree, presumably including the tree of life, but they are warned not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for if they do, they will “surely die.”
Let’s pause right here. One of my first questions is why, if a tree is forbidden, would it be in the garden in the first place? Is that entrapment? When you tell a child “Whatever you do, DON’T do that!” what is the first thing that child wants to do?
And why do these two trees, the only two named trees in the garden, stand in contrast to each other? The tree of life gives immortality, but the tree of knowledge of good and evil gives death. What is it about the knowledge of good and evil that is incompatible with life? It might be easier to understand if the forbidden tree was the tree of evil. But it seems like knowing the difference between good and evil would be a good thing. Why isn’t it?
One way to think about it might be that knowledge of good and evil created duality. Before this knowledge, there was un-self conscious harmony with God.
What is the first thing that happens after they eat the fruit? They become aware that they are naked and they are ashamed. They try to cover themselves up literally with leaves. And figuratively, they try to cover up what they have done by hiding from God.
So in effect, they become self conscious in a way they weren’t before, and separate from God. They are afraid.
The Tao Te Ching says that we only know goodness because of evil, and that goodness only comes into existence when we have lost Tao. So when we are living in harmony with Tao, concepts of goodness/evil, kindness/cruelty, and justice/injustice are meaningless, because Tao transcends duality. Everything happens naturally and without effort. There is nothing to fear because there is acceptance of what is without struggle.
Putting this back in the context of the Eden story, good and evil had no existence or meaning when we walked in harmony with God. By introducing the duality of good and evil, we also created the cycle of life and death. We separated unity into conflicting opposites. We labeled them good and bad. We tried to hold onto the good and reject the bad. We began to struggle with what is. And we suffered.
So what do we do now? How do we restore unity and harmony? Again, leaving aside religious doctrine for the moment, the generic answer is that we repair the breach in our own selves. Where do I struggle in my life against what is? What do I judge as good or bad? What do I desire or reject? In what ways do I separate myself from others through judgment, unforgiveness, fear?
We might have specific answers to these questions, but we can go deeper by contemplating the nature of what creates the breach. If I am angry, for example, I can get stuck in the story I’m telling myself about why I’m angry. Of course, my story will justify my anger, and will probably blame someone else or some outside circumstances for causing the anger. I will be right and the other person will be wrong.
But what if I put the story aside and just observe the nature of this anger? What does it feel like in my body? How does it shape my experience of myself, my relationships with others, my view of the world? What can I learn from anger? How can it lead me back to harmony?
In contemplating this in my own life recently, I realized that I was judging myself for being angry. As I offered myself compassion instead of judgment, the anger softened and I could see that under the anger was pain, pain that I blamed someone else for. When I looked closer, I could acknowledge that what I was blaming the other person for was something that I either had done or was capable of doing myself. I could see that the other person was in pain too. My compassion expanded to include the other person.
My breathing slowed and sank into my belly. I felt lighter. Free. Without forcing anything, I easily released the anger I had been holding onto. I accepted what had happened as well as my reaction to it. I let it all go.
And I went for a stroll with God in the garden.
[Note: The painting above is by my awesomely talented sister, Susan E. Inman.]
Game of Thrones fans will recognize this line, spoken to Jon Snow repeatedly by the wildling woman he fell in love with, and who died in his arms with these words on her lips.
The universe has conspired lately to remind me that, like Jon Snow, everything I think I know ... I don’t. No matter where I turn – to family, to friends old and new, to martial arts, to life in general – I am confronted by my absolute ignorance of, well, everything. It is disorienting and decidedly uncomfortable. Sometimes scary. At the same time, it is intriguing, exciting, and occasionally even fun.
It is, spiritually speaking, where the action is. Outside of my comfort zone, on the razor’s edge. It is where I see most clearly, if I’m willing to look, my habitual patterns, my stories, my insecurities and fear. It is where I’m given the opportunity to experience the raw beauty and fierce grace of reality, to taste the nectar of truth, to be stripped of all my defenses and emerge pure and powerful. If only for a moment....
It sounds sublime, and it is, but it is also messy, like diving beneath the lotus blossom to its roots in the muck. The muck is where the flower grows. And so it is with us. When we embrace all life offers, excluding nothing, seeing the sacred in every moment, no matter what, then our true nature grows rooted in the depths of darkness to bloom brilliant in the light.
The following poem was written a couple of years ago to support a friend going through a hard time. But today, it speaks to me to give me courage to step into the mystery.
The ground beneath our feet
That we think strong
Is but an icy crust
Lightning cracks race
Pop and thunder
We dare not move
It matters not
We will fall through into our destiny
And remember once again
That what dies
Was never real
And we are