A Meditation on the Serenity Prayer

Living with the Iron Bull

iron-bullGod grant me the serenity/ to accept the things I cannot change;/ courage to change the things I can;/ and wisdom to know the difference.

The Buddhists have a saying: intellect is a good servant but a poor master. The same may be said (especially for addicts) of fear. Indeed, the American psychologist and philosopher William James made the connection between fear and cognition in a theoretical insight that has stood up to time, experience, and research.

Fear is an inadequate response to addiction because it is, in the full Freudian sense, a defense mechanism. That is to say, fear is mechanical in its focus and defensive in its energy. It takes a lot of work to keep such a wall standing, because it attempts to replace one compulsion (the addiction) with another (the fear-driven defense).

Still, many of us, addicts or not, spend a significant part of our lives in a posture of defense. Is life that perpetually dangerous, really? Or have we tended to overlook or even deny something more elemental, more embracing, than life itself, or the narrow view of it that is commonly conditioned into us? What if we spent just half as much time and energy on the contemplation of our ideas about death as we commonly do on the psychological defense of our physical life? I think if we can just try this, we may discover a more potent and non-mechanical energy than defense.

Whenever Alan Watts talked of death (see above), he was doing the same thing as any good teacher does with this subject—he spoke of and for life. He knew that the honest, fearless, and self-searching examination of death was the greatest tonic to life and to genuine healing. It has the effect of breaking down the walls, habits, and fears of defense. Fewer walls, greater freedom; and far less dissipated and misdirected energy.

Biologists teach us that the membrane of a cell is not a wall but a web of selective receptivity. It remains open to what is nourishing while chemically repelling what is toxic. Therefore, the cell’s energy is protective rather than defensive, and the difference is this: protection has that organic, bidirectional quality of that selective intelligence which is in fact celebrated in the famous “serenity prayer” of 12 steps: the working cell that is unhindered, unenslaved by thought and fear actually has “the wisdom to know the difference.” Thus, it saves more energy than it spends.

We Americans love to save: we like saving money, saving time, and we give abundant lip service, at least, to saving trouble. The man-god of our culture’s dominant religion is a symbol of salvation, of saving and being saved. I personally think that Jesus the man wasn’t the least bit interested in saving anyone, but rather in exposing ego and revealing the truth within us. The salvation myth is a crust that was spread by others over this original meat of self-discovery; that crust was then sold as the substance, the whole meaning of Christ’s story and teaching. So it is perhaps no random coincidence but a kind of grim irony that we eat slivers of grain (communion wafers) as our ritualistic consumption of the body of God. That thin, superficial crust has become the consummation of Christian reality, and the seed of Western law and corporate culture.

Thus, even for those of us who have consciously rejected the Christian myth and its torpid, obsolete morality, the salvation superstition remains within, and must be both examined and discarded. So let’s trample salvation under the wheel of presence and attend to our selves rather than our gods. Paradoxically, it might “save us” from a lot of self-destructive energy.

Yet I am also now suggesting that it is not necessary to reject the truth of the serenity prayer—that would be akin to dumping the baby with the bath water. If we are to know and be better led by the ineffable—god, tao, buddha, atman, or what have you—it seems necessary to strip it of the cultural clothing of defense; and to do that, we must begin by similarly stripping ourselves.

I’ve already touched on the method to this madness in my various discussions of “psychological nudity” — the stripping away of belief, fear, guilt, hatred, and delusion from the living body of the true self. It is no random coincidence that one of the meanings of the word habit is clothing, especially spiritual clothing. When your energy-body is clear—stripped clean of the dress of defense—then guess what, you start to love the physical form you see in the mirror, no matter its superficial appearance or how others might perceive it. This is the first movement from defense to protection.

What I’m adding to this now is that you can have the same or similar experience when it comes to the defensive attitude towards life. For when we sincerely embrace the work of exploring our psychological nudity, we find that we are also weakening the foundations of those walls that comprise and indeed define the defensive life.

This is what Watts is talking about with regard to death: the quest for external salvation is part of the delusion. We can give ourselves all the salvation we might ever wish for, simply by refusing to waste ourselves. Thus, it makes sense to play with these puzzles that Watts recommends regarding our received notions about death:

  • What is the nature of Nothing? How can anything, let alone the universe or ourselves, come from Nothing?
  • Imagine what it is like to go to sleep and never wake up.
  • Envision an experience of the Eternal Null: absolute emptiness.
  • Look around you, right now, and wonder at how soon you and all those people you see there will be dead.

Such questions are, once you get to know them, incredibly refreshing, restorative, life-giving. Why? Because they have no correct answers. It’s like finding a lover who makes no demands of you; or going into a house or a room without walls—a space that is completely your own, personal and private; yet without barriers of division and separation.

The Mosquito and the Bull

That brings us back to where we began: finding or revealing an inner world where defense is no longer a reflex arc and the vicious circle of fear, aggression, and defense is finally and enduringly broken. What, after all, is there to defend? Find out for yourself: ask repeatedly, without giving up on the question. Be an utter pest to yourself, your true self. No one will be harmed, for when you work deeply with such questions you are what in Zen is called the “mosquito biting the iron bull.” The mosquito lives by its bite; it has no other means of sustenance. Iron’s subatomic structure is a slowly vibrating stillness of a density that resists the penetration of the mosquito’s bite. The mosquito cannot disturb the iron bull; and the bull (aside from inadvertently causing it to break a tooth) cannot harm the mosquito.

So, taken as metaphor, how is this developmental? Well, the mosquito’s bite is made to penetrate flesh, not iron; the bull’s body is forever imperturbable but non-responsive. The bull makes no defense and responds with no attack; its body allows the presence of the mosquito’s but is impervious to its bite. The Question invites us on but not in; and this is where we find the opening from fear to freedom, from thought to intelligence, from defense to protection.

Eventually, our mosquito-being decides to stop biting. Instead, we begin the work of walking around the body of the iron bull. The assault becomes an exploration in which we discover that we and the bull are not two, not separate. When that happens a few times (for realization never persists for long), the space that connects and embraces the bull’s iron and the mosquito’s mouth fills us up and holds us in. The Mystery, once so opaque and darkly rigid, dissolves and disperses, as soon as we just let go of our demand for The Answer. This is the practical and regenerative effect of a practice of meditation; for it reveals to us not merely the “wisdom to know the difference,” but the wisdom to transcend it.

Therefore, our object in exploring these questions about death and nothingness is not to penetrate them but to live with them. We dance over the iron bull’s body and thereby join with it, become it, and discover that we are the very body of that Mystery whose blood we once sought to extract by force. Article link “the fix”…

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