Innocence is something we expect to see in children: seeing no evil, no hidden agendas, having no reason to be pessimistic, downhearted or critical. Innocence knows nothing of failure, incapacity, loss or death.The bubble of innocence cannot be burst. Until it is.
It certainly appears in adults, in unguarded moments, but it’s more likely to be fleeting. If you’ve had your oblivious happiness-for-no-reason punctured a few times, it becomes harder to wipe out or ignore the memory of that experience. Innocence is endearing, but usually becomes transient or even inaccessible with age. The guard goes back up much sooner….until, after being repeatedly assaulted by the impermanence of life, and particularly by the presence of evil, it becomes permanent. We are all familiar with that guard. We feel it in our bodies as we shut down natural responsive movement and the flow of feeling while we erect boundaries for protection.
As years pass, we no longer even notice the degree of guarding that becomes unconscious and automatic. Adults may or may not mourn the loss of freedom that innocence implies. Those who reflect on that loss wistfully recall a nebulous past in which they had no cares, no reason to second guess themselves or others. Those who do not mourn its loss are thankful they got over their childish ignorance of the real world. Others who still recall an innocent past and remain nostalgic call such people jaded.
We speak of innocence as something we once had, never to be recovered, irretrievably lost in a murky memory of maturation. We wish we could have it back and may even cultivate it. But more often than not, we either have a limited understanding of what we lost or what it is we wish we could have again.
Can we have it back? Can we still have a less reified presence even in adulthood? Is it a trust in the world we want to rebuild? Or is it a trust in ourselves regardless of what the world brings? As our personal history gets longer, it becomes increasingly difficult to detach from our cultivated persona, whereas innocence is an infinitely mutable and naturally freshening quality regarding every moment as an entirely original encounter with life. Innocence has no memory. The accumulation of memory becomes an intrusion into that experience, shutting down spontaneity. On one hand, this is a useful function. The accumulation of experience improves our ability to evaluate risk, design our lives and commit to longterm plans.
On the other hand, all of that accumulation becomes the cement of an increasingly rigid identity that is familiar, comfortable and safe, but which has also lost its originality, weighs us down, demanding increasing amounts of our energy to maintain in the face of the ever-changing conditions of life. Innocence is not mere optimism. It is resilient, with seemingly endless reserves of adaptability, a capacity to re-boot, integrate new information and return to cruising speed.
Another implicit quality of innocence that rarely gets named is the spontaneous expression of love that it represents. Innocence has few of the value judgments that come with maturity and experience. Anyone imagining forging a pathway to an erstwhile innocence would not likely be contemplating an erasure of all the experience on which their acquired identity and set of values are found; more likely they might be seeking a temporary suspension of their past to permit more spontaneous non-judgemental expression in the present, ie. unconditional love.
In adult human relations, the suspension of judgment (without a suspension of memory) along with an ability to look beyond imperfection, to spontaneously express one’s intrinsic nature as unconditional positive regard has been given different names. Essence love is a term used by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, the relative nature of feeling, but it might also be regarded as innocence, a naturally arising pristine clarity, purity and love.
Not to be making too fine a point of it, but is there a difference? Are we talking about the same thing? There is a character of unconsciousness to what we call innocence. It is unschooled, inexperienced, unstained. The term essence love is more like a grown-up version, more conscious, cognizant and not denying any memory or experience whatsoever, merely reinterpreting it. And yet, essence love exhibits the softness of a tenuous ego with the resilience, the more motile, un-reified nature of childlike vision. It arises in spite of the stains of loss or failure, or the relentless voice of an inner critic.
The innocence of essence love is a crucial factor of spiritual practice. Nurturing it is the heart of practice, in a way. After all, we aren’t trying to put on the clothing of accomplishment so much as we are trying to peel away the obscurations of essence. We are loosening the grip of causes and conditions, loosening the grip of conceptual mind on our thinking and behavior.
We are looking to regain something, reveal what we already know, that already knows us, something we share with everything and everyone. Nowadays, this is happening everywhere we look, a rising and spreading awakening to the spiritual blockage we have constructed, supported by social conventions. We have created the Jericho of the soul, the barricading of the spirit that yearns to experience relationship with everyone and everything, now making itself known, feeling itself emerging into a more deliberate design of a new future.
At the same time, we as a species, having blithely gone about despoiling our home to a critical degree, marching ourselves to the precipice of extinction, are (or better be) also losing our innocence, coming to our senses and trying to recognize what is required of us now. We are trying to emerge from an unconscious innocence of childhood into a more adult embodiment of our true place and our full responsibility, into our full potential as the animal reflects on her own experience, the thinking being whose critical faculties may be capable of understanding her predicament, but whose behaviors remain immature. We are sensing new pathways of expression, growing into a neural net becoming aware of itself.
The expansion of essence love is not only a journey into the feeling level of the gross body, but also into consciousness and ownership of the subtle body, the dream body in which the meta-narrative of our motivations, mental habits and spiritual quest resides. We are unraveling our conflicts and aligning with our meta-motivations to create a new coherent life-affirming story of Thich Nhat Han’s Interbeing.
Likewise, the deepening embodiment of humanity into stewardship of all life is a reflection of that emerging awareness and an expansion into the collective dream body, which we are all creating: it is the sum of our collective action, the spiritual journey of the whole. Humanity is undergoing an initiation, simultaneously losing and regaining innocence. We must grow young, live at the feeling level of inter-being in order to grow up; and also learn how to act, how to think, how to feel our way into a future by feeling our way ever more deeply into the present.