Doing the Natural Thing

In our culture and in our age the word “natural” has taken on a kind of secular sacredness. If something is deemed as “natural” then it is undoubtedly “good”; but do we ever question what exactly do we mean by “natural.” This quality is attributed to food, to lifestyles, to personalities, to talents—there was a movie several decades ago about a very talented baseball player entitled “The Natural.” Ever since Rousseau one goal of human life in society is articulated as to maximize what it is to be “natural.” Anything that restricts “naturalness” is then considered negatively. And yes some people have given a lot of thought to the meaning of “naturalness” but often it gets articulated in terms of “human fulfillment.” Like that old Army slogan: Be All You Can Be. Well, now I have a little story from India—I think it comes from the Gandhi circle but its real origins I am not sure of—which raises the notion of “natural” to a whole new level. I am sure some of you have seen/heard this story before, but it’s worth bringing it out every once in a while to ponder its deep truth—lest we forget:


One day a sannyasi was sitting on the bank of a river silently repeating his mantra. A scorpion fell from a nearby tree in to the river. The sannyasi seeing it struggling in the water, bent over and pulled him out and set him back in the tree, but as he did so the creature bit him on the hand. He paid no heed to the bite, and went back to repeating his mantra. This happened two more times and each time the scorpion bit him on the hand and he went back to his mantra.

As this happened a villager, ignorant of the ways of holy men, had come to the river for water and had seen the whole affair. Unable to contain himself any longer he asked the sannyasi. “Swamiji, I have seen you save that foolish scorpion several times now and each time he has bitten you. Why not let him go?” “Brother,” replied the sannyasi, “the scorpion cannot help himself. It is in his nature to bite.”

“Agreed,” answered the villager. “But knowing this, why don’t you avoid him?” “Ah, brother,” replied the sannyasi, “you see, I cannot help myself either. I am a human being; it is my nature to save.


This story goes very deep, and it would be a mistake to think you have a “handle” on the truth buried within it. But maybe we can create a bit of a rudimentary map that at least can point one in the right direction in unearthing this truth. So first of all it needs to be said that this story is not to be used as a kind of rationalization in order to endure a lot of unjust suffering that others may inflict. It is not an invitation to a “holy masochism.” In fact it is not even about suffering at all. The bite from the scorpion and the pain from that bite are merely ancillary elements that open up the question of our “nature.” Like I said before, society presents us with a lot of answers, images, ideals, models, etc. to explain to us what our “nature” is all about, what is the “natural thing” to do in every situation. And most of the time this involves a kind of expansion of our ego self, an invitation to self-aggrandizement, a maximizing of pleasure and a minimizing of pain, even of discomfort, a true “magnificat of consumerism.” At other times we are urged to simply “be natural,” “to go with the flow”—New Agers interpret Taoism and sometimes Zen that way, and it couldn’t be more wrong!


Note that there are three actors on this stage: a sannyasi, a householder who is “ignorant of the ways of holy men,” and a scorpion. The sannyasi is the one who truly knows the situation, meaning he has an insight into his own nature, who he really is—he says he is “a human being,” but that still leaves the question of what it means to be human. The sannyasi ultimately answers that question. The quiet reason for this “knowledge” is that the sannyasi is totally focused on God, repeating his mantra. By definition as it were the sannyasi is totally stripped of everything else, no other concerns except being present to the Divine Presence and it is this which enables him to act from the core of his being, not from a surface level of self-concern, self-preoccupation, self-aggrandizement. He is able to act from the clarity within him—the Christian Desert Fathers used to call this “purity of heart.” And because of that inner clarity all his actions express his true being, “who he is, his nature,” with great transparency.


Now the villager is put there in contrast, as one who is preoccupied with everyday matters. He is not portrayed as someone who is “bad,” just as someone who does not have the same clarity of vision and that’s because of his mundane concerns. Think of it this way: most people live their lives at a stimulus-response mode of being, meaning whatever the stimulus is kind of determines what the response will be. If the stimulus is painful/hurtful (physically or psychologically or socially) then the response is either self-protection or aggression as a form of self-preservation. If the stimulus is pleasureable/beneficial, well, the response is appropriately welcoming. Now of course stimuli are constantly coming at us and we constantly respond, but what we are talking about is a life that is totally determined by these stimuli. So life is lived within this “map” of “gains” and “losses” and everyone expects you to maximize your gains and minimize your losses. This is pretty much life in society, more or less; and to be liberated from being limited and restricted to this mode of life is the authentic function of true asceticism.   And so coming back to our story, our villager then is seeing the action of this sannyasi and the situation from this mode of vision in contrast to the sannyasi. (By the way, an obvious implication of what I am saying above is that the stimulus-response mode of being is NOT expressive of our real nature, what it means to be “natural,” etc., but this is exactly what many, many people think and believe in.)


Now what is it exactly that the sannyasi and the villager actually see? A scorpion, a creature which has a very painful bite in order to protect itself as an act of self-preservation. The scorpion falls from a branch into the water of a river and begins to drown. The story does not explicitly say this but only implies it: the villager would not be so foolish as to reach out and lift the scorpion out of the water because the result would surely be a very painful bite. The story passes no blame on the villager; he is only doing and saying the sensible thing. That is your everyday life on that level of being. You touch something hot, you drop it. But there is another level of being where your actions flow not simply or solely from the determinisms of a stimulus, but out of the unspeakable freedom that is at the core of your being. The sannyasi says that he has “no choice” about this action but this is not in contradiction to the freedom I mention. Your nature is not a matter of self-creation, a matter of various choices and decisions as our modern ideology holds—advertising says that the more choices you have the better off you are. But our life is not really about that kind of freedom; rather it is a matter of self-discovery of who you are, of the Divine Mystery abiding at the core of your being, and this allows you then the true freedom to act without counting the so-called cost of this action. This manifests your true “nature” and makes your actions “natural.”


When the villager tells the sannyasi, “Let him go,” that is a euphemism for urging him to let the scorpion drown. The cost of saving the scorpion is extreme pain, so why bother to save this nasty creature? The sannyasi reaches out to save this scorpion, not out of some “super willpower,” or “heroic action,” but simply because that is a manifestation of who he truly is in his utter freedom. And the action is repeated three times for emphasis. And the result is the pain of the bite each time, suffering. So it is inevitable that we return to this reality. While it is true that this story is not about suffering or an invitation to be passive toward it, the story nevertheless does open up a vision of how intimate the reality of suffering may be to manifesting our true nature. Suffering and “being natural” are not usually put together but there may come a time and a place where the two are one!! A true non-dualism!! The great Islamic mystic and Sufi, al-Hallaj, put it in an even more radical way: “Happiness comes from God, but Suffering is God!”


Well we have come a long way with this story by now, but we have not yet touched the key line when the sannyasi says, “My nature is to save.” But this is a participation in the very action of God who is the one who truly “saves” each and every moment of our being from collapsing into sheer nothingness. So once more we return to the theme of this story: the sannyasi’s “saving” manifests the Reality of God—this is what he means by “my nature”– for it is only God who can truly “save”;and so we discover that at the core of our self our so-called “nature” is to be found only in the Divine Mystery which manifests itself in every breath we take and in every action that flows from that unspeakable freedom to “be God” no matter the cost. One final thought to ponder: Is this sannyasi not a marvelous manifestation of the meaning of Jesus Christ in the Gospels?