Shambhala the Path of the Warrior
by William A. Gordon

Basic Goodness

Getting "at" basic goodness is a sticky problem, both in my own personal experience but even more in my role as teacher, trying to explain the concept so that people can begin to appreciate the actual personal dimension of it. As I continued to study and found it necessary to explain basic goodness, I began to turn to poetry as the best vehicle. It seems to me that this is especially what poetry is all about, seeing the "dearest freshness deep-down things" as Hopkins put it. Adrienne Rich, in a recent book, put the matter succinctly: "A poem can't free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have had urged on us, have accepted as our own. It's not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it's an instrument for embodied experience."

To put it another way, Basic Goodness describes some kind of energy in our experience, energy that originates before our dualistic relation with objects and yet is not separate from our sensuous human world. In consequence, Basic Goodness is experienced within our dualistic world of this and that, of roses, meadows, birds, bees, rain, and thunder, you and me. We often fail to appreciate fully the energy of this actual living world because our ego defenses with their many strategies close off the world of raw experience to us.

Shambhala teachings and practice, on the other hand, open up the eyes and other senses to the phenomenal world. Perception becomes the touchstone of sanity. Opening up to perception is the path of the warrior. It seems almost too simple. Meditation allows us to be aware of what is going on in our minds. When we become conscious of discursive mind, we can relate outward to perception, taste, smell, and touch the world, that is, touch basic goodness.. But, the path doesn't stop there, it leads through (or better perhaps "into") the image to even deeper levels of understanding.

This primordial energy is recognizable especially during moments of awareness as tremendously alive, lighted-up, so to speak, vivid with just being there. The experience can be as mundane as seeing a flower on a Spring day or to the feeling of energy that comes from playing tennis. In other words, we are not talking about the "content" of our experience but about the energy behind the content. That energy is what makes things real.

Of course we all feel that energy at times, but it is hard to talk about it. Poets, more than most, get a glimpse of basic goodness in the world, and they try to convey it to us. Often, in modern poetry especially, it won't be a pretty image. I have used, in teaching basic goodness these lines from "Spring Strains" by W.C. Williams. In this poem he seems to capture Spring as energy rather than as object. I generally ask the audience to pay attention particularly to the verbs and verb forms as they hear the poem read. I have a sense that Williams is doing precisely what Bateson was talking about in "connecting through metaphor, image and symbol. I see the poem as about the dynamic relationships of Spring, not just a variet of things. In other words, he is describing the energy of an event, and it is the "event" quality that seems to convey the sense of the energy that I am calling basic goodness:

In a tissue-thin monotone of blue-grey buds
crowded erect with desire against the sky
tense blue-grey twigs
slenderly anchoring them down, drawing them in--
Two blue-grew birds chasing
a third struggle in circles, angles
swift convergings to a point that burst
instantly!
Vibrant bowing limbs
pull downward, sucking in the sky
that bulges from behind, plastering itself
against them in pocked rifts, rock blue
and dirty orange!

I am reminded of another passage in a recent book, Lila by Robert Pirsig. Pirsig tries to establish the meaning of a term which is also close to my sense of basic goodness; he calls it "dynamic quality." At one point, late in the book, walking through a complex, even chaotic New York City, he grasps the immediate energetic quality of the city and sees it as "dynamic quality," this without denying the negatives with which he is surrounded, the violence, dirt, anger, and fear. Thus we can experience basic goodness, I feel, in the midst of even the most difficult circumstances.

So, the Shambhala path leads to a world in which this basic, primordial, unoriginated energy can be continually available to us in our lives, though energy tempered by sad and tender heart. The teachings, thus, communicate a sense of access to real power, though not the power associated with aggression and domination. Just like Pirsig's experience in New York, Shambhala teachings do not deny the painfulness of experience, our fear, anxiety, anger, passion, and laziness. The goodness we speak of is not, as I say, somewhere beyond these very human experiences, but rather within them. Thus, though anger is unpleasant and we tend to get captured by the emotion, projecting it onto someone or something else as a cause, it is also very sharp and wakes us up. Whereas we often bury or ignore small irritations, resentments, or anxieties, we can't ignore intense anger. One way or another we have to deal with it. But this energy is felt as so real, we don't want to escape it.

When we begin with a view that understands our basic nature as basically good, we can approach our life more directly without fear. But then why are we afraid of being who we are? Is that a true statement of our experience? The fact is that basic goodness gets covered up in the process of forming our versions of the world and of the self that lives in it. We construct a self and then try to protect this self by the strategies through which we deal with everyday life. These strategies are complex patterns of fantasy, emotions, and thoughts that become very solid as we continue on our way. Indeed, beneath these patterns and motivating them we will find fear.

 

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