We’re driving home from an onsen, a benefit of living in a land filled with natural hot springs. Boy and Girl are in the back seat.
“Hey, Papa?” It’s Boy, and all conversations start with “Hey.” And given that only two people on earth speak English to him, there’s a disturbing chance that, unknown to me, my conversations also start with “Hey.” (I’m also to blame, it would seem, for “awesome.”)
“Yeah?” It’s raining hard outside. It’s the season. So we half-shout a lot when we drive.
“When you make a bath, you have to check if the water is too hot or too cold.”
“Mmm, I guess that’s right.” Boy always thinks the water is too hot. He thinks everything is too hot. I spend half of every meal time blowing his food to room temperature. I ask, “So how do you check the water? Do you check with your hand or with your foot?”
“You have to do it with your whole body.”
At this, my ears perk up. This sounds like something I might say. It also sounds a little crazy.
“Your whole body? Do you just jump in?”
“Yep. You just jump in! And Papa?”
“When you run, you have to run with your whole body, too.”
I’m smiling. I like this. I get this. I’ve given talks about this, about the physicality of Zen practice, about never holding back, about committing completely to each action.
He keeps going: “When you do yoga, you have to do it with your whole body. When you fight, you have to fight with your whole body. When you play, you have to play with your whole body.”
This is dead on. But I’m starting to wonder where he’ll take it. After all, these are already whole-body activities.
Then he makes the turn: “When you hold hands, you have to hold hands with your whole body. And when you say ‘thank you,’ you have to say it with your whole body.”
There it is. My 4-year-old son has just come close, in his little way, to summing up my total understanding of spiritual practice. And why should I be surprised? If I imagine myself trying to lift a car off of a baby, I know I still wouldn’t use as much of myself as he does just when he cries. Everything he does is total. Even sleep, for him, is an unrestrained act of plunging into something. It’s a complete investment of himself.
He will lose this understanding. He’s losing it moment by moment. It’s not something he’s arrived at, or something he can see from the outside. It’s just that right now, at a moment in his life when his body does not yet feel in any way separate from his own sense of self, he cannot imagine it any other way. He’ll lose that sense of singularity, and along the way, he’ll discover the dangerous idea of conserving energy. He’ll come to appreciate efficiency. He’ll see his body as a tool, something to use or not at his discretion.
And then, if he’s lucky, he’ll cross over. He’ll find, on one hand, that “his” body isn’t really his, and on the other, that it is inseparable from who he is. And he’ll realize, probably the hard way, that negotiating with himself about what to give and what to keep is what makes him tired in the first place, that a total commitment to this action and this life is what makes that commitment possible. Giving feeds giving. Saying “thank you” with the whole body is exactly what you’ve been saving up for.
Boy’s been quiet for a while, and I’ve been lost in my own musings about this unformed wisdom of his, hypnotized by the windshield wipers.
He pipes up again. “But Papa?”
“When you look at a picture, you don’t look with your whole body.”
“What? Why not? How do you look at a picture?”
He sighs, another mannerism that comes from me. “With your eyes. If you use your whole body, that would be weird.”
And we’re home.
This is wonderful.
I’ve also noticed that my older child has picked up vocal mannerisms from me. Apparently I frequently start replies, especially when I’m dubious about some requested course of action, with “Hmmmm…”
This is very annoying coming from a three-year-old: “Would you please put on your shoes?”
There’s nothing like a kid to show us who we are.
Thank you. And there are mysteries, too. We’re doing something of a controlled experiment here, but the other day, after I announced I was going to go to the bathroom, he said, “Yeah, you can go and do your business.” What? Who on earth taught him that? I’ve never said it in my life. Neither has Tracy. It’s like he’s snatching English from the sky, from radio waves. Crazy.
This is one of the most inspiring pieces I have ever read. It is such a fundamental spiritual practice that few really master. Out of the mouth of babes…. Great. I will really apply what I learned here. Thank you to all involved. Brilliant. I wonder how my own life would be different if I indeed followed these precepts. I am going to do it and see. I think some yoga practice might help with conceptualizing. Thank you so much!
Thank you. And by all means, yes–if you haven’t tried yoga, please do so. It can be shocking how profoundly it changes your idea of yourself and your body. And in Hawaii, you should have lots and lots of opportunities.
Ohh, yeah. Thank you for this piece! There was a moment when I was 10 or 11 when I felt my sense of totality (“whole body”) slipping (or having slipped) away. My mind felt like a tangle, where it had been smooth and clear before. So I guess that has to happen from a human development point of view. And our practice is to somehow make our way as adults AND yet, dive with the whole body? In gassho, Jikun
Thank you. And yes, I think that’s exactly it–to go past the pre-differentiated body-mind we have in childhood, into the alienated differentiation of adulthood, into a trans-differentiated, integrated experience of it. Love or hate Ken Wilber (and I do both), he describes this aspect of things really well. 🙂
I love this piece Koun. It also breaks my heart. I’ve watched both of my boys lose that sense of wholeness (which my spell correct wanted to change to ‘whole mess’ interestingly). They have to lose it to grow up in our society. My hope is that they (and your son and every last one of us) lose it as slowly as possible. Then, as soon as possible, I hope they have the good fortune to find that they’ve lost nothing after all.
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