“In India, two amusing figures are used to characterize the two principle types of religious attitude. One is “the way of the kitten”; the other, “the way of the monkey.” When a kitten cries “meow,” its mother takes it by the scruff of the neck and carries it to safety; but as anyone who has ever traveled in India will have observed, when a band of monkeys come scampering down from a tree and across the road, the babies riding on their mothers’ backs are hanging on by themselves. Accordingly, with reference to the two attitudes: the first is that of the person who prays, ‘Oh, Lord, O Lord, come and save me!’ and the second of one who, without such prayers or cries, goes to work on himself. In Japan the same two are know as tariki, ‘outside strength,’ or ‘power from without,’ and jiriki, ‘own strength,’ or ‘effort from within.’ And in the Buddhism of that country these radically contrasting approaches to the achievement of enlightenment are represented accordingly in the two apparently contrary types of religious life and thought.”
— “Myths to Live By,” Joseph Campbell
I’ve heard it said that many of the attitudes that spiritual seekers take towards the path of growth can be grouped in two ways. One is to say that all is perfect as it is, and that all we need to do is relax and realize this inherent perfection. This orientation is expressed in many specific forms of religious and spiritual practice throughout time and across cultures, for example the Indian “way of the kitten” and the Japanese “tariki” described by Joseph Campbell above, or the medieval Catholic idea of “Salvation Through Faith”.
There, however, many forms of activity that a person can take so as to generate an experience of growth, clarity, enlightenment, closeness to God, realizing the Cosmic Mystery, and other such goals – we can meditate, do hatha yoga, pray, read spiritual texts, study with a spiritual teacher, stop doing addictions, tell the truth, open our hearts to be more loving, be charitable and do acts of service, and more. And so, there is also a whole family of ideas about religious/spiritual practice that focuses on our own efforts. This is exemplified by the Indian “way of the monkey” and the Japanese “jiriki” that Joseph Campbell talked about, or the medieval Catholic “Salvation Through Works”.
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow used to say that healthy growth is a balance between discovering who we are and deciding who we want to become. He asserted that if we overemphasize either of these aspects at the expense of the other, we can become imbalanced. Similarly, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, famously said, “You are perfect just the way that you are, and you could use some improvement.” The realizing our perfection just the way that we are is what we have to discover by relaxing and not-doing, and what direction that we work on improving ourselves is what we have to decide on (and then follow up on with effort and actions).
My teacher Shinzen Young has said that ancient Buddhist masters would tell some people that, “There is nothing you can do or not do to be enlightened – there is no need to try, just let go, realize that life is all good, it’s all enlightenment, there is no good and evil, there is nothing to improve, even better and worse are just an illusion …”. To other people, however, the same masters would say, “You need to SWEAT BLOOD in order to gain spiritual advancement, you need to give up all concepts, pleasures, and familiarity, push yourself – get your ass to the meditation cushion – work! work! work!” Well, those sound like contradictory sets of instructions. As Shinzen points out, however, the first message was intended for monks who were getting competitive with each other over who was meditating twenty hours a day and who was meditating twenty one hours, while the second message was intended for people lazing around smoking opium and playing mah jong. Just as a guitar string sometimes needs to be tightened up to be in tune and sometimes it needs to be loosened, so do different people need different messages at different times to find balance and center.
I remember, way back twenty years ago, I was in a men’s therapy group, and the balance between these two types of growth came into focus. There was a guy in the group who never seemed to be satisfied and always seemed to be working on something. One day he challenged me as to whether I wanted to “work on myself”. After a little back and forth conversation, I eventually said, “I’m satisfied with myself as the imperfect person that I am right now. And, part of being the imperfect person that I am right now is a person who is constantly growing, challenging myself, and taking things on. But I want that change and becoming to come from a spacious and relaxed sense of being, I want that motion to emerge out of stillness – I don’t want it to be something that I have to do, that I’m driven to do, that is compulsive, that comes from a shallow part of me, some part of me that feels imperfect and wants to improve myself. I want my self-improvement to emerge organically.” I think he told me that it was all a bunch of fancy talk, but then the rest of the men said that they respected what I had said and that they thought that it was actually pretty wise.
Internet images like these ones lampoon the idea that mere faith/being/spiritual interconnection could perform technical acts in the real world. But I think that psychospiritual growth and healing is a different realm than the physical world, and sometimes trusting a larger sense of Spirit, through non-doing and trusting perfection, is in fact the best way to go. Confusing intentional rational goal-driven action towards a goal with spiritual growth is a pitfall that has tripped up many seekers.
Here is a traditional Zen story that emphasizes the being/relaxing/faith/tariki side of psychospiritual growth, in contrast with the doing/effort/works/jiriki side:
Two Zen masters were walking a long a river bank. A rabbit scampered with some degree of rapidity across their path.
“Flash! Like a bolt of lightning, it came, and instantly it was gone,” said one.
“Quite like a person suddenly being given a noble title, and instantly being elevated from common status,” said the other.
“Hmmmm … that’s not quite it,” said the first.
“What would you say?”
“It’s like waking from a dream of common life to find that you have been a nobleman all along.”