The Horizontal Juniper's Teaching on Obedience by Michelle Katz
I recently met a juniper that seemed to not follow the rules of typical growth. It was coming out of the earth horizontally then growing toward the sky at an angle. Clearly, this juniper found its own way to sun and earth, not out of command, but intuition, I was touched by its knowing of what to do to be in the world.
Last week, I heard a woman stand up and speak about the values she has for her children. At the top of her list was obedience. I noticed that throughout her talk and many hours after that this word lingered, unable to settle anywhere in my being. Then on my morning walk, my dog and I bumped into a runner with her dog, and my dog approached her dog ignoring my call for her; to which the runner said, “your dog doesn’t obey you!” And there again, I heard this word like a blow to the chest.
I sat with the word “obey”. I thought about all the ways it had shown up in the last week. From hearing stories about authority figures at work, doctors telling us what to do, people/gurus we give our power over to. All the ways we obey without a second thought. I then began to think about the subtle and unspoken obedience of our society-- from a 17-year-old client who shared his feelings about not being able to make the most out of college - yet he is going none-the-less because our culture—and his parents—demand a Bachelor’s degree? I think about ways we have been trained as children to follow the rules—our almost unconscious responses to the changing colors of traffic signals or even more concerning, follow laws that we know are unjust.
I think about where we would be if we all blindly followed the rules and commands of our society or government-- what if we all simply obeyed all the time? What if no one broke the law of authority during Nazi Germany or the Civil Rights Movement? What do we make of those great leaders that saw certain authority to be unjust and stepped up to change our world because of it? They chose to NOT “just obey” but instead knew themselves and their truths in this world-- and the call to do so was much bigger than the call for obedience. These are the individuals that guide us as a society through a rite of passage. Their calling, their knowing, their integration of what they learned and heard from others. They combined this deeper wisdom with what they knew and heard in themselves, and changed everything! Think MLK and Schindler. Think about all the advocates, right now, at our border and across the country, protesting the zero tolerance policy and demanding the re-unification of parents and children, that had been torn apart in attempts seek a better life. A decree our government expected all to “obey.”
I thought about how obedience feels related to childhood, about children being told what to do and following those commands. I began to get curious about each individual’s journey toward maturation, their passage to knowing themselves to the point of not simply following commands anymore. The process of maturation has us question obedience or at least interact with it differently. I recalled my parents’ wish to keep me safe and learn how to be in the world through their guidance, and young as I was and a female, even more so, I did my best to obey them. However, at a certain age, I found that their guidance did not fit well for me and my path. What once was well intentioned suggestion for my obedience, changed as I matured into adulthood. I began to understand that what I knew, what I had learned about myself through navigating my own life challenges, was more essential to follow than their words and suggestions (no matter how well intentioned).
This is when it hit me, obedience is not good or bad in and of itself. In many cases, it does keep us safe and serves a purpose for learning. However, it is our attitude toward authority that is truly what is calling our attention. So often, if we obey an authority, it can hold us back from maturing and questioning our own values. I wonder if obedience hinders us from trusting ourselves? From following what we intuitively know?
At a certain age, I began to laugh at my parents’ attempts to guide me, recognizing it as a hope to control when we clearly live in a world that cannot be controlled. (They often laughed too, for the absurdity of it all). Before I met them with laughter, I would get wildly frustrated with them, but now as an adult, it seems that my intuition and knowing will guide me in the direction I need and anything else would just be giving myself away, would be reverting back to some stage of childhood.
Clearly the commands of my parents, my boss, the doctors, and the gurus will not stop. But my attitude toward them has changed. If I meet the commands with obedience, I lose myself. If I rebel against all commands and authority, then I am engaging the obstinate part of me. But if I integrate commands and authority with my knowing, then I am participating in a practice of maturity. If we meet commands with rigidity, one way or the other, we are not seeing ourselves in the story of our own lives.
If I stop, feel my feet firmly on the earth, know the place in which I sit, and trust that I will turn into the sun and soil and water for what I need in my own way, as I can fully hear what others have to say but not take it in a rigid way, then I know that I am meeting authority with my authority and maturity. I cannot imagine being a tree that grows straight up and down. I am forever the tree coming out of the earth horizontally and then growing at a diagonal and then wide at the top in every single direction imaginable! (All while still aware of the directive of the sun and soil and water).
In the theme of all these experiences, I recalled reading Abraham Hershel’s thoughts on obedience in relation to the Jewish religion: “To be is to obey the commandment of creation…there is a cosmic piety in sheer being. What is endures as a response to a command.” This speaks to me about how important it is for us to live into our full being. Hershel is referring to the statement of the creation of humanity, as higher being commanded it. By living fully and knowing ourselves we are offering the greatest sense of obedience to the life we have been gifted. This is obeying not only the commandment to BE but also obeying our deep inner Self, regardless of a religious or spiritual practice.