In 1968, only hours before the Trappist monk, activist, and writer Thomas Merton died, he quoted his good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
“From now on, Brother,” he relayed, “everybody stands on his own two feet. If you forget anything else that is said, I suggest you remember this for the future: From now on, everyone stands on his own feet.”
In light of his death soon after, these words carry special weight. Out of all of his prolific writing and speaking, which over decades inspired multiple generations to pursue religious vocations and deeper relationships with God, these are the last words he instructed us to hold on to, above all other invocations.
“This, I think, is what Buddhism is about, what Christianity is about, what monasticism is about, if you understand it in terms of Grace,” he said.
In the prologue to his collection of essays, No Man Is an Island, Merton had already elaborated: “Although men have a common destiny, each individual also has to work out his own personal salvation for himself in fear and trembling.” I’m a Zen priest, not a Catholic, but this resonates with my own spiritual discipline. In order to find one’s True Self, a Zen student needs to learn to stand on her own two feet, without relying on support from any external source. This means not relying on other people, who may enable or join us in our delusion. And it mean not relying, either, on institutions or structures, which are bound to crumble and sway as the political, social, and moral landscape beneath them moves like ever-shifting sand.
Like a blessing, the Dalai Lama’s words via Merton have come to me just at the times when I need them most, which is to say when I am convinced that I cannot make it alone, that I need someone else to swoop in and solve my problems for me: The Zen master to cut through my delusions, hitting me over the head to expedite my enlightenment. Or a parent or partner to forgive my most intractable habits, reassuring me that I am loved while I lick my wounds and figure out how to repair the harm that I’ve caused.
At times, I have found myself worked into such a frenzy, searching for something outside of myself to solve a crisis that really only exists on the inside, and which is therefore beyond anyone’s reach but my own. In those moments, my face feels pressed against the limits of what I’m capable of and what’s possible, and my hands feel tied behind my back. A voice inside says that I can only change so much. Or perhaps, that I cannot change at all, that the flaws I perceive in myself are permanent fixtures of who I am.
As much I may dislike or even hate them, these traits are a familiar home. I may even begin to think that they are me. This is why I can become so convinced that I cannot transcend them. But the real question is if I actually want to.
The part of me that does not want the change erects a specter to stave off the possibility of freedom through self realization. After all, as Merton quotes from scripture, “If any man would save his life, he must lose it.” This, to my fragile ego, is simply a bridge too far. To lose myself is to venture beyond the limits of all that I know. Facing the prospect, I am gripped by a creeping terror and madness, and the threat of oblivion.
And then, in a moment of Grace, I hear it: “Everybody stands on his own two feet.”
The realization that I, and only I, am in control of myself sinks in. Slowly, my senses return to sharpness. I again start to feel my feet on the ground and the air on my skin. The tension in my body gives way as I change back from the buzzing mass of doubt and anxiety I had become, suspended in time and space, to this simple body of blood and bone.
“We can help one another to find out the meaning of life, no doubt,” Merton wrote. “But in the last analysis the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for ‘finding himself.'”
I have found this to be true. The pursuit of self realization can happen in the company of others, in a beloved community or amidst the bustle of the city. But ultimately, for me, spiritual discipline elicits a deep solitude and loneliness. It’s not a physical loneliness but a spiritual aloneness, reflected in the Greek word monos—alone—from which the word “monk” is derived.
The technology of monasticism resides in its more formal, liturgical aspects as well as in the in-between moments in which training becomes life and life becomes training. It is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No quarter exists for our habits and for our small selves. They are driven out, even if we kick and scream to hold on to them. This is how the technology of monasticism efficiently brings out opportunities to learn to stand on one’s own two feet, working out, again and again, our own personal salvation and the pursuit of our True Selves.
While it is helpful and may even be necessary for deep transformation to spend at least some time in a monastery, we don’t have to spend our whole lives in one simply to perceive this aloneness of the spirit. It comes to anyone who is haunted by the gnawing suspicion that trying to find ourselves is not only a worthy endeavor but maybe also something terribly important and urgent, a matter of life and death.
Nor do we have to be monks to learn to stand on our own two feet. It is the miracle of this human lifetime that we are endowed with these humble appendages. Every challenge we encounter is an opportunity to learn to stand on our own again, grounded and immovable by any external force, unperturbed by inner grasping or turmoil. This is the final truth of being human, even if we can’t see it yet: Everybody stands on their own two feet.
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