“There may be a lot that needs fixing, but there is nothing out there to fix.” – Stephen Mitchell, The Second Book of the Tao
This comment by Stephen Mitchell is a classic Zen paradox. The goal of Zen, and most contemplative traditions of various religions, is to address the ego, when it is unhealthy, tending to cling, control, and force life to conform to its own ideas of right and wrong. The point of the contemplative path is to allow life to unfold, to allow the right action to arise, on its own. In Christian terminology, the contemplative mindset is the mindset of Christ, “thy will be done.” It is trusting in God and the world that God has given.
In the context of the above quote, Stephen Mitchell asks how much harm has been done by the benevolent people of the world. After all, even the worst dictator is probably convinced that he’s causing suffering to ultimately make the world a better place.
Is the contemplative life at odds with the life of the activist? Not anymore than it is for the nonactivist. You just have to get comfortable with paradox! There is a lot that needs fixing, as Mitchell’s quote indicates. However, when the ego is driven by the need to fix the world, then it will continually come up empty. When we allow the ego to accept the world, just as it is, and proceed from a place of trust, the right actions arise in response to what needs fixing. Actions arise in response to what needs fixing, but the ego remains still. Actions arise, while the inner spirit remains steady.
The paradox here is typical Zen. See what needs fixing in the world. See that there is simultaneously nothing to fix. The world is empty, both in need of fixing and perfect.