The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.   The Lord God gave man this order:  “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”

Genesis 2: 15-17

“Are you also so unable to understand?  Do you not grasp that nothing that enters into a man from without can defile him, because it enters not into his heart, but into the bowels and is expelled into a latrine, purging away everything that has been eaten?’” And he said: “That which comes forth from a man, that defiles a man.”

Mark 7: 18-20

Some philosophers see anxiety as that affect that constitutes what is unique in human experience. We are anxious because, of all creatures, we are aware that we are going to die. And so, we develop our own understanding of life and world, our own particular fruit which comes from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We come to see the world in light of the good, whatever avoids death and evil, whatever raises awareness of or concern about our own death. We long to return to that time of life when the reality of death was hidden from us, when we lived with a trust and a faith that lived in and for the moment. Yet, the more that the specter of our own death impinges on our consciousness, the more we sense the passing of time as alien and a threat to us.

So, the great spiritual paradox is that there is a knowledge that inhibits our awareness. Because we fear the future and mourn the past, we are often not able to dwell and to act in the present. We so fill our minds with wasteful and illusory speculation that we fail to be present to the confluence of that reality which is both without and within. This is what Jesus reprimands his disciples about. Our anxiety leads us to create so many norms, rules, and strictures in an attempt to control what is so disturbingly uncontrollable about life and time. If we can just find the “perfect” way of being and doing, we’ll avoid the dreadful end that so disturbs us.

This compulsive drive to avoid what is mysterious and fear-evoking for us is precisely what keeps us from living in and acting in response to the moment and its call. Our attempt to stop the inexorable movement of time only succeeds in inhibiting its flow. In the flow, we are but a part of creation who has, in each moment, a unique task to perform. If we are fully in the moment, what comes out of us will be a response to what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing calls the one impulse of grace for that one moment of time. When we are not in that flow, then moment after moment passes either without our response or with the wrong response, the evil of falseness and manipulation in service of our own illusions which comes forth from us and defiles us. 

A recent episode of the podcast The Hidden Brain featured a discussion on how in our time we so overdevelop the left hemisphere of our brain and inhibit the activity of the right hemisphere. It is our right hemisphere that allows us to recognize flow and to intuit our place in that larger flow. Our left hemisphere perceives our life and world as problems to be solved, while the right hemisphere inserts us in a flow of life that requires of us in each moment but the one thing necessary to us. In his formation anthropology, Adrian van Kaam speaks of the need for our rational-functional capacities to be at the service of our transcendent capacities. If they are not, they will unconsciously serve our social and vital dimensions, the sources of our unconscious.

It is our unconscious that complicates life and inhibits our ability to act. If we reflect over the course of our personal, work, and socio-political lives, we discover how often we ourselves or those working with us failed to act in response to what the moment asked of us. I am often struck by how, in considering a need or appeal made to us, we spend so much time dwelling on all the obstacles to action, with the result that we do nothing. What we take to be so rational in us is often but those excuses that our rationality uses to avoid doing. 

Perhaps one of the greatest examples in our own religious tradition of a “knowledge of good and evil” that inhibits our deepening human flourishing is the opposition we have created between contemplation and action, between prayer and work. True contemplation and prayer is always an action. To be present contemplatively to a moment is not to be introspective about it and grind away at rationalizations for not acting. It is, rather, to be fully present in such a way that we are aware of the moment as call and we respond in kind. It is to realize that at each moment we are “to do something.” It is in that acting, in responding to the summons of the moment to our unique calling, that we are actually living out our lives, the time of our being. In this sense, there is only the moment. When we participate in action in the flow of life and world, in the creative action of God, our anxiety falls away. We realize that this is what we are “for.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to wonder if “judgment” is not something that occurs at each moment of our lives. The judgment is of whether or not we have, in Paul Tillich’s terms, “the courage to be.” We can only be in action. And action is only authentic in response to the reality of the present moment. When we live in this response, there is nothing to be anxious about, for we experience what Jesus calls “eternal life.” All time is present in the moment, and in our unique response to that moment we fulfill our call, our reason for being. We need not worry about many things, because only the one thing, this call at this moment, is important.

We think that by living calculatively and defensively we shall overcome our inherent anxiety. Yet, all this does is increase it. We are anxious about our lives, anxious that we shall have spent our time on earth and never lived our own life. When we act, simply and purely in response to the call, we are actually living. Many years ago I discovered that what I thought was fear of death was rather a fear of never having lived. In the act of living, the fear of dying disappears. There is nothing to be anxious about, because we are already realizing the eternal in this moment of time.

Just actualize all time as all being; there is nothing extra.

Vigorously abiding in each moment is the time-being. Do not mistakenly confuse it as non-being. Do not forcefully assert it as being.

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival.

People only see time’s coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time-being abides in each moment. This being so, when can they penetrate the barrier?

Kazuaki Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen

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