“What matters is slowing down and tasting the water, rather than trying to drink the deepest or get to the bottom of the well.”
An excerpt from Coffin’s book, Light For The Journey.
A friend recently said, when talking about his relationship with Jesus, that he preferred to drink deeply from one well rather than drink from many wells. As a person who drinks from many wells, I felt myself becoming defensive. I thought that he was intimating that people who drink from many wells drink more shallowly. And I know that that is not true for me.
Christianity, Judaism, Sufism, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, and many other traditions have deeply and profoundly impacted my faith journey. One reason that I have been attracted to, and studied, a wide variety of religions and their denominations, is that while certain ideas are universal to all of them, there may be one tradition that teaches it in a way that touches and inspires me more than the others. `
Take the Golden Rule. Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” I still remember the day when, as a preteen, I first heard this. I was elated. I couldn’t wait to put it into action. We were having hot dogs for lunch that day, and it would be the perfect opportunity to practice what I’d learned in Sunday school. You see, while I love mustard on hot dogs, my brother hates it. But I was going to have to put mustard on his hot dog. After all, that was what I would want someone to do unto me…
I wasn’t really fooling myself. I definitely knew that I was following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. I just thought that I’d found a loophole.
However, I did always think that the Golden Rule was really about how you acted. This understanding was underscored when I read it in other faith scriptures. Hinduism, “You should not behave toward others in a way which is disagreeable to yourself.” Judaism, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Buddhism “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself find hurtful.” But then I read this verse in Islamic scripture, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”
I found that scripture transformational. Wish for others? I thought the Golden Rule was about acting a certain way because you were supposed to. But this implied that God was asking for a change of heart, not just a change of behavior. I’d been reading and hearing and reciting Matthew’s version for forty years and it wasn’t until I read the Islamic scripture that I got it, that I understood, that I, in fact, experienced a conversion of the heart.
When I first heard the comment about drinking deeply, I tried to find a way to make that analogy work for me. I thought, “Well, if he had one bottle of whiskey and I had three bottles of whiskey, and he took three shots from his one bottle, and I took one shot each from my three bottles he wouldn’t be any drunker than I would.” I thought, rather idiotically, that I’d proven something. But then I thought, “Oh, wait. If a bottle of whiskey is Christianity, then he would have one bottle of Christianity AKA whiskey, and I would have a bottle of whiskey, and a bottle of rum, and a bottle of vodka, and a bottle of gin. In which case I would get really sick, and there would be much vomiting involved.” I decided I needed a different analogy.
So, I started looking at different analogies I’ve heard describing spirituality and religion. In one book I read, the author described different religions as being different rivers leading to the same ocean, and the ocean is God. But, she warned, you can’t just dip your toe in this river and wade in that river. You have to commit to only one river and jump in and swim. Again, that doesn’t work for me. I like a lot of rivers. I tried to rearrange the analogy. “It’s not like there are a bunch of rivers all running parallel straight to the ocean. One river might lead to another river,” I thought, “and I could get in that river and continue on. Maybe I’d get to a stream, which I could swim in for a while until I got to a new body of water. And even if the rivers were all parallel, I could swim in one for a while and then get out and just cross over to the next river to continue my journey.” It would be like changing lanes on the highway – something I’m a big fan of.
Another analogy I’d heard described religions as different sides of a mountain, with God, or spiritual enlightenment, or the Divine, at the top. And each side of the mountain has a different climate. One side might be covered with ice and snow, another with a desert, another a jungle, and maybe the fourth with a giant waterfall. Depending on which side of the mountain you are climbing, you would need different tools – an ice pick, a camel, a machete, swim goggles. Religions are the tools you have to climb your side of the mountain.
Again, this analogy is not working for me. I’m pretty sure I’m not climbing straight up the mountain, in only one climate. It’s more like I’m spiraling around the mountain. I use the ice pick for a while in the ice, and then I get to the jungle, where I need to switch to the machete, and I go around a bit more and hit the desert, where I pick up my camel. I also find that I travel horizontally as well as vertically and that when I am traveling vertically, I am sometimes ascending and sometimes descending.
I was reconstructing the analogies to defend and justify myself. But I wished for some validation from another source. Then one day I heard a song about it all being the same truth. Whatever name we call it by, however we get to it, it’s all the same Spirit, the same Light.
I felt such relief. Yes. We’re all in the same river, I thought, we’re just calling it by different names. We’re all drinking from the same well. The Jesus well, and the Buddha well, and the Hafiz well are all the same well. How we get the water may differ, but it’s the same water. It’s all the same mountain, we may just be seeing it differently. I basked in this belief for several weeks. I felt lighter, easier about my faith journey.
And then able to breathe and accept my practice, I had a further insight. It was about that word ‘journey’. I realized that all of these analogies were about getting to God. Having to go deep, as if God was only, or especially, at the bottom of the well. Swimming to get to God at the ocean. Climbing in order to find God at the top of the mountain. God becomes something we have to achieve, to acquire, to obtain, to earn. But I don’t believe we have to get to God. I think God is already right here. An Islamic scripture says, “Whoever comes to me walking, I will come to him at a run.” God will meet us where we are.
I don’t think God is just in the ocean. I think God is right here in the river. In fact, I believe God is the river, or the creek, or the bank. I don’t have to swim for the ocean. I can splash right here. Or float. Or dangle my feet. Or fish. It’s all God.
I don’t have to drink from the bottom of the well. I can drink from the top of the well or the middle. I can just look at the well. Or throw a penny in. God is the whole well and the bucket. God is the water and the one who drinks the water.
I can just look at the well. Or throw a penny in. God is the whole well and the bucket. God is the water and the one who drinks the water.
God isn’t only at the top of the mountain. I can go up the mountain, or down, or around in circles, or tunnel through the mountain. I can sit in a cave. And there is God. God is the mountain. Hafiz said, “I was in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days and God came to me.”
I thought about Jesus saying, “I am the way.” I always thought that meant I am the ‘path.’ I am the ‘route.’ But ‘way’ can have a different meaning. There’s a scene in the movie Young Frankenstein, where Igor says, “Walk this way” and rather than understanding that he is supposed to follow him, Dr. Frankenstein thinks he means ‘walk like this’, ‘walk in this manner.’
‘Way’ can mean the path to walk, but it can also mean the manner or style of doing something. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t saying, “I am the way – the route -- to get to God eventually,” but “I am the way – the manner of living – to find out that you are already with God. I am the manner to live in so that you are at one with God.” Maybe he wasn’t drawing a map, but illustrating a way of life. Maybe loving God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and loving your neighbor as yourself is ‘the way’ to live.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The Miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”
I am a driven person, the product of my culture, always hurrying to arrive – to achieve, prevail, accomplish. When my friend spoke of drinking deeply my competitive nature kicked in. But in focusing on how deeply we were drinking, we may have missed the purpose of drinking from a well, or even many wells. The pleasure and experience of drinking come from the taste of the water and the quenching of your thirst. It’s not about trying to drink the deepest or get to the bottom. I don’t think it matters whether we drink from one well or many.
If spiritual ‘enlightenment’ is like drinking from a well, then I think what matters is slowing down and tasting the water, rather than trying to drink the deepest or get to the bottom of the well.