Loving What’s Wild by Ira Rechtshaffer
What is wildness, but our inability to control life’s unpredictable twists and turns, and so it is feared and resisted. But wildness serves our spiritual path because it exposes how tightly we hold onto ourselves, and to our notions of order and rationality.
We might think that if we meditate forty minutes a day, take our vitamins, do yoga or tai chi, contribute to charity, eat vegetarian, and do no harm—even to insects—that somehow life will go smoothly for us. But life conspires against that idea. An intrinsic part of life is disorder. There are some days when our meditation is clear as a bell, precise, and insightful. We might naively assume that we’ve reached the stage where, from here on in, it’s going to be clear sailing. The next morning, expecting to resume the clarity and tranquility of your previous meditation session, you discover to your dismay that your mind is spinning like a top with the most nonsensical thoughts. It’s easy to become discouraged and confused, as you wonder whether the fault lies with you or with the practice of meditation itself. But at that point, it’s necessary to stay on the cushion and to contemplate wildness as part of the path. We can’t have a life without it.
Having worked very hard to create right livelihood that affords us a comfortable lifestyle, and having established a network of friends, and the free time to both entertain and enrich ourselves culturally, our life finally feels balanced and healthy. We’ve spent years making it all work efficiently, but we’ve become increasingly ambivalent. It all seems to require too much effort, too much doing to maintain that level of success and comfort. We no longer feel like working so hard, but we’re also afraid that if we “let go of the line,” our comfortable lifestyle may start to unravel. Do we continue to give it our best shot or let it go? We never anticipated it would come to this.
We may discover that although we truly love our partner, we dislike him or her with equal passion. We’re not ready to leave this relationship, but secretly we’re festering in negative judgments about their neuroses. How do we make peace with these contradictory feelings? The Buddhist teachings don’t come prepackaged with formulas or remedies for all problems and conflicts. Practitioners eventually stumble across a deeper, more troubling aspect of impermanence— not only is life impermanent, but it can be wild, chaotic, unpredictable, and beyond our control. The further reaches of our path challenge us to not set ourselves against gritty situations and the gnarly feelings they trigger. To think that our life should be happening other than the way it is, is to find ourselves very alone and far from our true home.
Wild could be a life without restraint or regulation, conjuring up images of being untamed, turbulent, or even ferocious. But it can also mean to be uninhibited in our passions, to be exuberant, thrilled, or ecstatic. Wild could be out of control and destructive, or spontaneous and creative. Wild could be a teenager’s impulse to steal dad’s car keys and take it out for spin, and end up getting into a serious accident. Or it might be the sudden release of our preoccupations— for no apparent reason—and the spontaneous call to a dear friend or parent to say, “I love you.”
In the Buddhist tradition, a mandala is a pictorial image of wholeness, a circular design of ourselves and the cosmos—both of which include order and chaos. Wildness is another way of talking about chaos, the countless occasions of disorder that confront us daily. Although we’ve watered our plants, vacuumed the rug, checked our email, and balanced our checkbook, we accidentally knock over one of the plants, spilling its wet earth all over the carpet that we just shampooed. And that happens all the time. The growing capacity to embrace life’s wildness is a remarkable shift in attitude.
Buddhism holds that when we are fully immersed in the world, then whatever we see, hear, smell, or feel has “one taste.” What presents itself to our mind and our senses is our own unique mandala. To reject one part of life and embrace another part sets us at odds with how nature works. Wildness has a purity, a lack of contamination or contrivance, and like nature at its raw elemental level, is ruggedly beautiful in its own right. One of the ways to extend the meditative state of mind after formal sitting practice, is to notice that the world is already its own work of art, although it doesn’t have to be beautiful by conventional standards. Although hard to define, beauty evokes a sense of “just so” or “as it is”—that indefinable quality that arrests our attention, stirs our emotions, and transports us out of our mundane mentality for timeless moments.
Sometimes when things fall apart, through the cracks in our best laid plans, a strange light illuminates things with heightened clarity. Wildness can mysteriously intensify the presence of the world, so that we feel things most vividly, and we’re momentarily dropped into an unguarded depth. Something as simple as autumn leaves that we’ve raked into a neat pile, suddenly swept up by the wind into mini-cyclones, can momentarily halt every reaction within us but that perception.
As we mature on our spiritual path, we no longer take chaos personally. We realize that wildness is the continuous movement of life that upsets our fixed ideas and habitual patterns. It is the confounding shape-shifting life force that evades all definition, as it transforms one thing into another, and finally dissolves those entities into formlessness.
Our plans and strategies are part of human life, but they can’t protect us from life’s vagaries, those unpredictable situations that confront us without regard for our need for order and control. Yet, we have no other home but this. A life without cracks, gaps, and inconsistencies is not an authentic life. A fair portion of our life can’t be predicted or controlled, nor do our conflicts always admit of remedies. We can take all the necessary precautions for ourselves and our loved ones, but there’s no protection from life’s wildness.
If we lack an intimate, caring relationship with the unruly things of our world, then we will suffer a particular kind of deprivation and emptiness. Our willingness to make a place for wildness in our lives allows us to see that we are not strangers in this world, and that everything that is here, is part of our extended family.
Meditation involves cutting through layer after layer so that there are no longer barriers of defense keeping us safe from the rawness of the world or our own unspoiled nature. The further reaches of wildness might be turning away from conventional wisdom and stepping out where we haven’t been before to meet our authentic self. Celebrating wildness is our courage to step beyond the inner parent who whispers, “But, what will the neighbors think?” There’s a time to turn our back on what society thinks to face the deepest, most authentic aspect of ourselves for the sake of our psychospiritual growth. This is not a form of rebellion but rather our growing allegiance to what is most true for ourselves.