One of my favorite moments EVER was a lesson I learned from my two year old son. We were out walking. He looked up and saw something flying overhead. He said to me,”What’s that Dada?” I looked up and said, “That’s a bird.” Then another bird flew overhead. He said again, “What’s that Dada?” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I just say…..?” After gathering some patience I said, “That’s a bird.” I looked at my son’s face and he was so disappointed and confused. How could they both be birds? They look totally different- different colors, different sizes, and different sounds. The only thing they had in common was that they were both soaring over our heads. My easy label had smothered the mystery and squashed some of his curiosity.
Then a while later I came across this quote from Nobel Prize winner and one of the world’s most distinguished physicists, Richard Feynman. He said this to a group of science teachers in 1966,
You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
Wow! You see where I’m heading with this? The same wisdom came from a two year old boy and a world renowned scientist, and incidentally is also found in centuries old spiritual traditions.
Labels and names aren’t themselves the experience. Without labels, it’s like seeing a bird for the first time and being blown away by the experience. Without labels life is open and mysterious. Of course labels are eventually necessary for communication, but if we could just delay the process of labeling an experience for long enough to let the experience itself soak deep into our consciousness, then every moment would leave us with our jaws dropped and the only intelligible word to come from our open mouths would be “Wow!”.
Labels and beliefs are like putting a period on an experience rather than a comma or a question mark or sometimes a long line of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The flying creature is not JUST a bird. It’s an awesome, majestic, flying wonder. The key word in my son’s question was, “that”. Then I remembered that in Hebrew language they called God, “I am that”. Wow! This kid was really on to something. Then I remembered that Joseph Campbell wrote a book called “Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor.” It’s a warning about confusing metaphor with literalism, which is so often the problem with religious belief AND science. Wow!
Then I remembered the ancient Hindu story, told in The Upanishads, about a father who sent his son away to experience life. The son came home and was full of knowledge but lacking in wisdom. So the father did a fun experiment with his son. He told his son to put some salt in water and bring it back to him in the morning. Then they had this conversation:
Father- Fetch me the salt that you put there yesterday.
Son- I cannot, father. It is dissolved.
Father- Then take a sip from the edge of it. What is there?
Father- Take a sip from the middle. What is there?
Father- Take a sip from the far edge. What is there?
Son- Salt. It is always the same.
Father- That which you cannot grasp, but can taste in every drop, That is the Real. That is atman (the spirit). That art thou, my son. (Tat Tvam Asi)
That art thou. You are that! Wow!
Maybe the best answer to my son’s question, “What’s that Dada?” would have been “That’s YOU!” “YOU are it!”
To bring this series full circle, Alan Watts wrote this in “The book on the Taboo”:
That is the Self. That is the real. That art thou! But I cannot think or say anything about THAT, or, as I shall now call it, IT, unless I resort to the convention of using dualistic language.
Or as James Broughton put it in “The Bard and the Harper”:
This is It / and I am It / and You are It
and so is That / and He is It / and She is It / and It is It
and That is That.