“I have rejected things with nothing so strong to replace them, and I am floundering.” So I wrote to my Zen teacher twenty-nine years ago. And in the way of the cycles of life, twenty-nine years later, I find myself at this point again. (As an aside, this appears to be where we are at as a country, also.) We humans build up our internal infrastructures, relying on their existence for our sense of meaning, forgetting that infrastructures, too, get outdated and need to be refurbished. Life demands growth, and growth is change.
The realization that what worked for us in the past no longer does, is part of a natural cycle of growth. But just because it’s supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it feels great. As a matter of fact, it often feels so un-great that people have developed stock coping mechanisms. Some buy the little red sports car. Some throw off their partners for someone younger, some abuse alcohol and drugs—all to avoid feeling the pain of growth.
What did my Zen teacher write back to me? “If you are floundering, then just flounder” adhering to the Zen teachings of just experiencing your life without attachment.
No stones are left unturned in our lives (try as we might to keep them face down) because we are growing, thinking beings. A time of questioning beliefs, priorities, and values comes to everyone.
I forget sometimes, because it is so damn scary, that the best course of action is to sit right in the middle of it, experiencing (and not reacting to) those uncomfortable feelings. The floundering, like the curve in the road, brings us to the next place in our lives.
It is a soft, wood thrush morning this morning and sure enough, as soon as I step outside in the misty half-light, I hear him. An ethereal, bamboo flute song that echoes the mystery of the morning.
Hearing it coaxes out my child-wonder and I breathe in deeply and fully. A gentle and magical beginning to my day.
What if the world of life on Earth is just a lucky accident brought about by a confluence of lucky coincidences: just the right distance from the Sun, just the right amount of gravitational force, just the right combination of elements to create water, just the right amount of star dust to initiate the complex molecules necessary to create life. What if all this came about because there are billions of universes, so the chance of a planet existing with all the criteria to create life is tiny, but possible.
What if, indeed.
This is what I have been reading in Accidental Universe, by Alan Lightman—who is not a science fiction author, but a physicist (and creative writer) at MIT, outlining the latest theories in quantum physics.
For all of my life, I have wondered about the meaning of our brief existence. I’ve meditated, converted to Zen Buddhism, paid attention and thought, thought, thought. But now if, as Lightman postulates, life may be not a divine occurrence fraught with baffling meaning, but is instead a random coming together of chance—well then heck, I’m off the hook. Life and its meaning, the universe and its meaning, our Earth and its meaning—the meaning part becomes optional.
I went for a walk down my dirt road after I finished the book to digest this revolutionary idea. As I looked at the familiar trees and stone wall, rather giddy thoughts were racing through my brain: Just an accident! led to Don’t have to figure it out! which became the inevitable, I can just experience it! A weight I didn’t know existed lifted and in the new freedom of just experiencing I saw the trees with clarity, as if for the first time.
And it was then that all my Buddhist beliefs and training slipped alongside this new physics: When you take away the meaning, life becomes profound.
A dear friend of mine died this week and while it was not unexpected, still…
It came as a shock to realize that he no longer exists in this world, creating currents. He now only exists in my mind as memories and I am left with only the currents of my own memories. Sometimes a person changes your life and he did mine. I am now a birdwatcher because of his introduction; I discovered the balance of Zen because of him. Like many friendships, ours lurched with some misunderstanding, but it stood the test because underneath all the whitecaps, we had a vast ocean in common.
There was nothing left unsaid or undone at the end. He visited me in my new house, approving of it all, and when we last spoke, we said goodbye without actually saying the words, just extending to each other the understanding.
The loss created at first, an aching emptiness. But as I sifted through what was left to me, I came to realize that the emptiness was a gift. The emptiness, created by the wrenching free of what used to be filled with all the intertwining threads of a relationship, was also space. And without space, there can be no growth. And without growth, there is no life.
Grief is necessary. It is necessary to sift through the memories, holding each close and deciding whether to keep it as something precious, placing it in the space we now have, or to let it go, as something outgrown,
making more room for life.
As I sit in front of the wood stove on this stormy-snowy morning in March, I hope that this will be the last of the snow. There is still a foot of it on the ground and I can’t even see my gardens, much less plant things. I have started some flower seedlings indoors and they are up and tenaciously growing—little inch-high things under lights in the dining room. Normally I start seedlings in the living room where the southwest windows bring in tons of light. Normally. But this spring has been unusually gray, not much sun at all, so for the first time in five years, the seedlings are under the grow lights.
But even as our climate, our planet, our home, is becoming more unpredictable; I am reminded of something Bernie Glassman said. Bernie is one of the authors of The Dude and the Zen Master—he being the Zen master part and Jeff Bridges being the dude. I bring this up because it is this iteration of him that people may be familiar with. But I met Bernie way back, in the 1980’s, when I was an ardent student of Zen and he was my teacher’s teacher. I used to, back then, go on zazenkai’s (day-long meditations) at the zendo in Long Island. And during one of these zazenkai’s, Bernie sat across from me. That day, as I sometimes used to do, I cast my mind out, seeing what I could pick up—was he fidgeting? Ego-bound? Thinking about dinner? I prided myself on being able to read energy somewhat (which is, looking back on it, quite obnoxious, since it’s all about power and control).
But at any rate, my point is, from Bernie, I could read nothing. Nothing. It was as if he was not even there. And that meant, of course, that he was the real deal. Because if you have fully realized, you walk in step with the world, not pushing through it. You are one with it.
That day, Bernie said something that has stayed with me all these years. He said, “We try to improve a little, but we are who we are.”
Well that struck me like a big, warm hug. I was comforted and freed and validated all at once. Because if there’s one thing I’m always insecure about, it’s that I’m not good enough.
“We try to improve a little, but we are who we are.”
There is a place to rest inside those words.
There is a term used these days that rankles me like fingernails on a chalkboard–real time. And I may be going on a little rant here–sorry. The vernacular “real time” has become a synonym for the “present”. And I suppose it’s because there is so much information available to us via the Internet that a qualification is needed between what is an original interaction and what is disseminated through the layers of media stratification. But it’s the subsequent illusion of knowledge–because of all this information accessibility–that makes the term “real time” so annoying for me. Because time is not a quantitative entity–something that can be packaged up into a neat glib term–it’s a profound mystery, and to my mind, we need more profound mysteries to dwell upon and less information minutiae.
Here are some interesting ideas about time:
Einstein discovered that time slows down the closer a moving entity comes to the speed of light.
Mircea Eliade wrote about sacred time—a circular time incepted in ritual, where the very act of performing a ritual connects that time to all the previous times the ritual was enacted.
Zen Buddhists say time does not exist, as in; there is no three o’clock in the afternoon as something separate from ourselves–time is one moment after another.
In the space/time continuum theory, space occupies three dimensions and time is a fourth dimension.
Closer to home, time can be both the grandfather clock with its precise tangible mechanisms, so carefully handcrafted, and the electric impulse of the digital clock.
And time can be an internalized boundary—an asset or a stressor–“plenty of time” or “not enough time;” “out of time.”
And finally, the Buddhist belief again: there is no future, just an endlessly changing present.
Which would–happily–mean that all we ever have is real time.
I’ve been thinking about the emotion of anger lately because of the ongoing debate around gun control. Hearing the trumpeting of the Second Amendment as a justification for the slaughter of children makes me angry. And so I want to go deeper and figure out why.
A few years ago, I took a course taught by a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine that discussed the connection of emotions to health. I learned that traditional Chinese medicine identifies five emotions as integral parts of the human–Anger, Grief, Joy/Sadness, Fear and Worry–and that each of these emotions is linked to a specific organ in our body. In TCM therefore, feeling an emotion is not an unattached event, but is instead a clue–a signpost pointing us in a direction toward greater clarity and self-understanding.
The emotion anger links to the liver and its role in our lives is to set boundaries. We feel angry when a boundary within us is being violated–something we believe in is being challenged. Seen in this light then, no one makes you angry; you make yourself angry. You have created the emotion. And that is where the empowerment lies.
When I feel angry, I try my best to rout out and examine the belief that the anger is asking me to look at. In this way, I can hope to act with clarity, rather than react. This is important, because anger is a rather pensive emotion. It is not meant to be belligerent.
In the case of gun control, the boundary within me that is being violated is the idea I have that we are all one, and that what we do to each other, we do to ourselves. Therefore in my belief system, if we think we are justified in murdering one another for ‘personal freedom’ we are not only committing violence on a physical level, we are ripping ourselves from a fundamental truth.
Now that I have ferreted out this belief, I can ask myself: do I really believe this idea the anger has pushed me to see? And in this case, yes, I do. From the moment years ago, when a damaged Vietnam vet shoved a pistol against my sixteen year old head threatening me, to the slaughter of six year olds last December by a deranged teenager, I see no value in guns. They tear rather than mend.
My anger has revealed a belief, challenged me to examine it, and asked me to affirm or reject it. In this way, our emotions are guides for our self-growth. The more we understand the role of emotions in our lives the more we can change what doesn’t enrich us. Working from inward to outward is using our emotions in the way they are meant to be used.
I recently read an early draft of the novel, Passion Blue, published in 2012. It has been well received and I am eager to read the published version. The story revolves around Guilia, a girl living in fifteenth century Italy, who is trying to change what she believes is a deleterious fate. Her horoscope (and casting horoscopes was considered a science in fifteenth century Italy) seems to indicate that she will never marry. In the fifteen hundreds, females had very little rights and it was only though the protection of marriage that they had anything like a secure life. Or so Guilia thinks, so she tries to change her fate through sorcery.
When she gets sent off to a monastery, where she discovers the world of painting, it becomes obvious that this, not a husband, is where her passion and security lies. However, Guilia stills holds to her original idea of a husband. She thinks she knows better than the stars what her fate should be and to that end she tries to command them to her will. The consequences of her decisions is the plot of the book.
The book’s theme, that of free will versus fate intrigues me. It opens up the idea that, with our limited scope and experience, we think we know the way our world should go, and try to arrange events accordingly. It makes me wonder if most of the heartache in life comes from trying to force our idea of free will on fate. Which is not to say that we can only let things happen to us. There’s a finer distinction here that I’m struggling to understand.
I once read in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, something that went like this: “if you want to control a sheep or cow, give them a bigger pasture.” That seems counter intuitive to the idea of control, but I think what that phrase is doing is challenging our idea of control altogether. That it is saying that control in the larger sense is about the control to let things become what they are meant to become. We cannot see what the overall tapestry is, since we are only one thread in it and have the viewpoint of only seeing the threads nearest us. So we try to arrange our limited threads to a picture that does makes sense, not realizing that the bigger picture is already perfect.
Toward the end of Passion Blue (at least the draft I read) one of the nuns tells Guilia: “there is always sacrifice, you always have to give something up”. And I’m wondering if that is the free will. What do you give up, to obtain the freedom to live expansively within your fate. I’m thinking that ultimately what you give up is the idea that you have anything to give up–that free will and fate are anything different at all.
At a whiskey drinking little get-together last month with a new French friend, Richie, Michel and I got onto the subject of being rescued, as in, “Mayday” which comes from the French, “m’aider”––help me. We had been talking about sailing and ocean storms and the type of person who likes to go to sea and risk their life. Richie likes to watch storms at sea on the TV; Michel and I are both sailors with blue water experience, so we like to experience storms at sea in person. But perhaps ‘like’ is not the appropriate word here since there’s not much to ‘like’ about being soaking wet, cut and bruised, sleep-deprived, nauseous, and fearful of dying at any moment. Maybe ‘appreciative’ is a better word.
In our coddled twenty first century Western world of home and hearth, we experience adrenaline surges as spectators. We root for our favorite sports teams; anxiously watching them live on TV. We watch reality shows that pit people with dangerous situations, just like the ancient Romans did at the coliseum. Participating in virtual, rather than actual adventure takes away the contrast. Taking away the contrast takes away the appreciation. And life should be appreciated. As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was fond of saying: “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Because your life is going very, very quickly.”
The acronym SOS, I learned from Michel, stands for “Save Our Souls”. This tugs at my heartstrings, as it seems so touchingly archaic. It speaks of a time when people held the soul, that anchor of life, as something rare, unique, and precious–something with weight and worth. I can’t really think of anyone thinking up the words “save our souls” in this day and age.
SOS today would more likely stand for “Save Our Stuff”.