It was a favorite saying of the Great American mythologists Joseph Campbell. Like most profound things, an initial interpretation is almost guaranteed to miss the point. It’s not about falling or diving at all. As with the Zen Koans, the saying is simply an indication of a door that we might go through towards a deeper understanding of the experience of being alive.
You see the point is that we are all falling in at least a metaphorical way. The circumstance that we find ourselves in – that is the circumstance of being alive in a particular form, in a particular place and at a particular time – has aspects of being beyond our control. And so, falling is a metaphor for the condition that every sentient being experiences at birth.
To restate Campbell’s favorite saying, if you are alive, live!
That might sound incredibly easy. After all, if you are alive you are, by definition, living. But, yet again, a metaphor introduces uncomfortable complexities.
The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
The Dalai Lama’s point is that being alive and living are not the same thing for beings possessing a consciousness and sense of self-awareness. The term ‘live’ means something different when applied to an amoeba. It’s difficult to conceive of an ‘enlightened’ amoeba. But humans have been pursuing that path for millennia. The fundamental purpose of the entire Buddhist project is to help the living live.
The journey to enlightenment is the inward journey to self. It involves allowing the person who is to be the person they are rather than being some manufactured avatar.
But that doesn’t nearly exhaust the content. Here is another variation: if you are you, be being you. In other words, don’t spend your life trying to be someone else but live authentically out of your unique center. This involves living in the present rather than the past or the future. To be authentically who you are means to cast aside the manufactured realities of past and future and to live completely in the present moment.
One of the things that I like about Zen Buddhism is that a few sentences, or indeed a few words, can be the door of a huge house with thousands of rooms. There are things worth contemplating for years – and eight years that it takes to truly understand them. The nightmare is to live a life that gave the potential of understanding without ever even considering. Listen to Joseph Campbell. Listen to that quiet voice inside you that tells you who you are. Stop arguing with yourself. It’s an argument you can’t win!
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD