My mom always used to need to bake twice as many cookies as she wanted because my brother, my father, and I always consumed half of them before they could ever cool down. My mom’s cookies were the best. And there is a secret to good chocolate chip cookies. You have to let the dough sit in the refrigerator for 36 hours prior to baking. That way the dough has time to absorb all the butter and eggs in order to create a cookie of the perfect consistency.
Things always work better when you wait for them to be ready. Anybody who knows anything about wine can tell you that. Anyone who builds guitars, as well. The wood has to be stored and aged until it is just right. Then, and only then, will the wood allow itself to be molded and shaped into something that can produce an exquisite tone. People are like that too.
I have been on a diet now for most of my life, and I’ve been successful too, and I've failed plenty of times. I’ve lost well over 100 pounds and gained plenty and lost again. I’ve tried to go on diets many times in the past with no success at all. And that’s because I just wasn’t ready to diet yet. I guess I hadn’t hit bottom, as any good addict will tell you. Things have to be just right. I don’t know if the stars have to be in the right position or what, but diets have never worked for me until I was in the right frame of mind.
It isn’t just true for diets. It is true for anything. When I was in college I took a class in astronomy because I was always interested in the mysteries of outer space. But when I took the class, back when I was 18, I had a lot of other things on my mind. I managed to muddle through the class with a B, but I didn’t really get much out of it. It was just a place I had to go a couple of times a week and listen to a professor talk for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until about five years later when I purchased a small telescope and started looking up at the sky that I became engrossed in the study of astronomy. Once I became hooked, I read every book I could find available for the lay person. I even started reading Scientific American for the articles on astronomy. Why should five years make such a difference? I don’t know. I guess I was just ready to learn.
The Hindus understand that although it would seem that a person’s highest priority would be to find the meaning of existence, that quest is postponed until a point in that person’s life when he or she is ready to pursue it. And at that point in their lives, people leave their homes and live the life of an ascetic until they attain enlightenment and find God. Jesus understood that as well.
“On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sewer went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirty-fold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matthew 13: 1-9)
Now his pals heard him say all this and asked why the hell he always spoke to people in parables. Did he or did he not want people to understand him? Jesus understood that there are some ideas that can’t really be explained in words. That’s why there are those Zen koans like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” As a teacher, I know that the best way to teach somebody something is to start with what they know already. So I try to compare new ideas to ideas that kids already understand. For example, I tell them that negative numbers are a little like borrowing money from a friend. When you borrow money, you end up with less than nothing because when you DO get money, you have to pay your friend back.
Jesus simply told them that they were blessed to understand the things he said, and then, because they understood so well, he went ahead and explained what the parable of the sewer meant. He told them that the seeds sewn on the path are like those people who hear his teachings and don’t understand what the hell he’s talking about, so the words are lost. The seeds planted on rocky ground are like those people who hear his teachings and believe him, but as soon as some problem comes along they forget everything. The seeds sewn among thorns are those people who hear the teachings, understand them and believe, but are then distracted by anxieties and having a good time. But the seeds sewn in good soil are the people who hear, understand, believe, and follow the teachings.
But to be clearer, we are not the seeds. We are the soil. Sometimes the soil is just not ready. Take any soil you want, rocky, thorny, whatever, and make it ready, and then the seeds can take root. Not everybody is ready to listen to the teachings of Jesus. Not everybody is ready to change his or her way of thinking about things.
One of the things I have noticed about México City is the amazing number of young men in their twenties and thirties who are very religious. We would get on buses and the bus driver didn’t just have a rosary hanging from the mirror. There would be a three-foot crucifix (not an exaggeration) attached to the windshield. Of course, if you ever saw the way people drive in México City you would understand this. Seriously, though, most young men we spoke to were very religious. And let’s not even start with the women. Religion is a natural part of life for all women in México. The Méxican men drive them to it (with three-foot crucifixes on their windshields).
But maybe people in México are more ready for religion than we are. Let’s face it. Life isn’t easy there. People have to work very hard and then they are still poor. Some people there are poorer than you could possible imagine. OUR poor people are wealthy in comparison with most Méxican poor people. When life is hard and there is nowhere else to turn, people turn to God. Most people here don’t pray at all unless something terrible is happening. I know I never prayed so hard as when that robber had his gun in my belly. I prayed then, let me tell you.
We are distracted by a lot of things. And our lives aren’t that bad most of the time. So we think we can get by well enough without God. So most of us just aren’t ready to hear the teachings of Christ. For one thing, those teachings don’t sound all that practical to us. We hear what Jesus said about loving one another and serving one another and we think, “Yeah, well you don’t know my boss, Jesus. That son of a bitch would make you change your tune about all that loving crap!”
Many scholars believe that this particular parable may not have actually been spoken by Jesus. Many believe that it was added by early Christian writers in order to explain to the faithful why some of their fellow Christians were falling away from the faith. It doesn’t really matter if Jesus said it or not. It’s still true enough. It is a basic life truth. It is true about religion. It is true about just about everything. Not everyone is ready for marriage when s/he gets married. It sounds good in the beginning, but the timing just isn’t right and s/he ends up in divorce court.
Maybe that’s why we have to have bad times. Maybe that’s why the universe was built with that universal law of yin and yang, the Tao, the constant change from one to the other and back again. We need those bad times to remind us that there are things in the universe bigger and stronger than we are. We need those challenges to make us turn to something within us. We need those tribulations to look for something outside ourselves, only to find it within. I don’t know.
But I do know that if you want to accomplish something, you have to get your shit together. You have to make yourself ready. If you want really good chocolate chip cookies, you have to make the dough more than a day ahead. You don’t just make them, not if you want the best cookies you can make. And you don’t just go out and get any old grapes if you want to make a good wine. And you don’t just go out and chop down a tree if you want to build a guitar. You have to have patience and you have to let be until they are ready.
I knew I was ready to go on a diet when I looked in the mirror and became completely disgusted with myself. I knew all the good reasons for losing weight and I knew all kinds of good diets that work. But I wasn’t ready until that moment. And once I was ready, the diet worked. I am waiting to be ready again. And if I only knew how to make people ready to make a change in their lives, I would be a wealthy man. But I don’t. I do know, just as the Hindus know, that every day we are making our soil ready for planting. And as long as our minds are open, the seeds of wisdom will take root and grow and produce thirty-fold or more.
Jesus made a promise to us. And if he was who he said he was then his promises must be good, because if they aren’t, then he isn’t who he said he is and the sooner we find that out, the better off we are. Jesus said that whoever is looking for truth, will find it. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. Ask and you will receive. He wasn’t talking about stuff. He was talking about truth. And that is my faith. I know I haven’t found the key to life, the universe, and everything yet. But if I keep looking, if I keep knocking at the door, if I keep asking, I will find it someday, when I am ready for it. And so will you.