Ignorance v Awareness
Inattention v Knowledge
Laziness v Spirit of Helping
Deception v Honesty, Sincerity
Easy for Us v Easy for Them
I found this contrast online simply googling the word “simplicity.” It popped up in the “images” section. I traced it back to “presentationzen.com”. It is perfect.
I have always sought simplicity, and then rebelled against the simplistic viewpoints I have encountered. Pretending climate change is a hoax is not simplicity. It is ignorance of the mind-bogglingly complex interconnections of the real world. It reminds me of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” debacle of the 1980s. Simplistic attitudes address nothing.
Of course, I found this nugget of perfection on a Zen website. Zen is real. Zen is in-your-face. Zen confronts you with who you are, not the pretty images we all try to project.
The most telling contrast is “Easy for us versus Easy for them.” Ask any programmer and they will tell you that the most complex thing in the world for them is to make a product “intuitive” and user-friendly. Like “the natural look” in makeup, a lot of work goes into its appearance of easy flawlessness. To make something look simple and Zen requires a great deal of up-front thought, planning, and preparation.
Anyone can take something simple and make it look complicated. It takes a genius to make something complicated appear simple. I had an anthropology professor like that. Sitting in his classes made the material seem strikingly obvious and left you feeling like, “Why do the other instructors make all this easy stuff look so hard?” Arthur Helweg (of Western Michigan University) is a genius. That’s all. In my opinion, he is on the level of Steve Jobs.
Leave it to our corporate, consumeristic culture to co-opt, bastardize, and taint the beauty of simplicity. Entire magazines are published to help people look simple and eco-friendly. The people in their articles wear $500 pairs of shoes as they tout the advantages of “simplicity.” It is difficult to imagine them missing the point to any greater extent. Meanwhile, McMindfulness overruns corporate America, encouraging workers to pay closer attention to their jobs. If they are not careful, these workers will start seeing through the meaninglessness of their jobs and start finding ways of making their lives genuinely simple.
I guess the reason the image of the contrasts struck me so hard was my attempt to live more simply and how demanding and relentless simplicity, harmony, and Zen truly are. Talking about them are easy, while doing them is something else. Making time for Zen is challenging. Staying on top of demands is never-ending.
I realized a week or so ago that part of my desire to “live more simply” is nothing more complicated than a yearning to be free of my current responsibilities. There is a limit to how simple my life can become while taking care of a sick husband. Also, the weather has made me want to hibernate until spring. The Weather Channel showed a map of the world’s temperature deviations from normal. The Eastern U.S. and Greenland were blue, indicating cooler than normal temps, and the rest of the world was various shades of red and orange, revealing the truth of global warming. In Michigan, many of us don’t even want to open our front doors because it is so bitterly cold. Nodding off is so easy—and tough to justify in a world gone haywire. “Keeping things simple” may be more fantasy than reality at this point in my life. I reject both needless complexity and stupid simplisticness. Funny how it doesn’t feel like I am trying to strike a balance. Or be inordinately contrary. But it sure looks that way.
I’ve been trying to find ways of doing zazen without falling asleep. I know this is not a rare problem. I’ve been experimenting with breathing faster, adjusting my focus, etc.
I seem to be one of the few people I know that is not ADD. My attention goes somewhere and sticks, like a bulldog. I am definitely more OCD than ADD. If I start to focus on controlling my breathing, I instantly relax, giving myself subconscious permission to let go of stress. This is hazardous. Perhaps I should hold onto the stress. This seems counter-intuitive. The reason I mention any of this is that I am friends with an ever-growing number of ADD people and talking to them stresses me out simply trying to keep track of what they are saying. I am Asperger-y and find listening to them highly annoying and it makes me want to have less contact with my fellow humans in general. Not good. So then I try to do more zazen, and snooze. I trip over myself.
I’m not sure of how much of this is my personal issue, how much of it is inherent in Zen, and how much of it comes from McMindfulness. My problem with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (and other corporate-friendly attempts to reduce stress via meditation and mindfulness) is that that is not what Zen is or ever has been intended for. On the one hand, our culture desperately needs to develop ways to deal with increasing sensory input and emotional turmoil. Stress can kill people and exacerbate virtually every disorder. On the other hand, using Buddhism to relieve stress accomplishes about the same amount as turning Christianity into just one more self-help venue. The serious stress-reducer and the self-helper can always find more effective non-religious means to accomplish their same ends. No philosophy or doctrine required.
Clarity in purpose is required. Zen is not for relaxing. It is for an ever-growing awareness of my own mind and how it functions (or not, as the case may be).
“When Milarepa was young he killed thirty-five people. That’s a serious karmic load that would guarantee a difficult time in the bardo and almost certain rebirth into a lower realm. When he realized the karmic implications of his actions, he practiced as if there was no tomorrow. After twelve years of legendary hardship, Milarepa purified his karma and attained liberation….It was Milarepa’s fear of death that led him to conquer death….We should instill a similar level of wholesome anxiety….With Milarepa as our inspiration and guide, the uncompromising truths of Buddhism can speak for themselves. Let’s not dilute them for Western consumption…. Buddhism is an elegant but raw description of reality. It’s our job, as practitioners of the truth, to align ourselves with reality—not our versions of it.” [Italics added by Cindy Hoag] Preparing to Die by Andrew Holecek, p. 40-41
The Eightfold Path is composed of “Right”: View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. If there is a “right” something, then that creates its dualistic opposite, the “wrong” something.
Wrong mindfulness is all about the present moment without context, as if our actions now affect nothing later—if “later” even exists. This is pop spirituality at its most pernicious. People will pay lots of money to be told that their actions now have no consequences ever.
What draws me to Buddhism has always been its unflinching examination of the mind, life, and death. Living in a culture in denial regarding death has left me feeling alone and adrift. Birth and death are the bookends of this physical existence. Pretending we will never die is delusional. Life has limits. One of my favorite quotes from Shunryu Suzuki comes from his dying process. “If you had a limitless life it would be a real problem for you.” What an understatement.
I am trying to give meaning and purpose to my actions, to give myself good karma. Given that I could easily live another few decades, I need to be functional in this life. Death is the default, like gravity. Life requires effort, like pulling oneself out of a hole. I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for death and now I’m trying to build a reality-based life. Post-modern America is not a great place to do that.
I realized a few weeks ago that sitting and watching TV in no way constituted “having a life.” As I look, I see more and more similarities between watching TV and death.
There is the altered state of consciousness. Did you know that most people are in an alpha brain state within two minutes of watching TV? I got that from Eldon Taylor’s Mind Programming. The alpha state is a more relaxed state than our normal beta state. It is more susceptible (gullible) because the internal censors of rational thinking and logic have been turned off. That’s why it feels so good. One has ditched the burden of independent, rational thought. This should frighten anyone aware that the average American watches 6-8 hours of TV every day, 365 days a year.
Then there is the sedentariness factor. Sit down. Relax. Take a load off. Stop trying so hard. It seems like almost weekly a new study comes out warning about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Right now, it is hard for me to imagine living a more sedentary life. The weather does not help. Some days, it is so cold I don’t even want to open my front door. The TV cannot be blamed for Michigan’s weather in February, but it doesn’t help, either.
I also consider falling asleep to be practice for death. Lie down. Exhale. Relax. Enter into another dimension in your mind.
I have been reading a book about the death of Hindu and Zen masters. It is fascinating. I would love to be counted among them.
There is nothing wrong with any of this. We will all die. That much we can be sure of.
But let us practice consciously.
Let us not pretend that killing ourselves with TV is a substitute for living a meaningful life.
The latest issue of Shambhala Sun has an interesting article by Rachel Neumann about a woman getting married. It was her husband’s idea. Her father even asked if he could use the word “marriage.” The couple grudgingly, but only at the end of the ceremony. The couple made no promises and then ran into the Pacific Ocean—“taking the plunge after taking the plunge.” The author/bride wanted the ceremony to acknowledge the impermanence of everything. “Marriage, from the little I’d seen, seemed a strange and false ritual: a public display of certainty about something that was by its nature private and transitory.” (p. 27, March 2015) Amen, sister.
This may sound stupid, but I’ll say it anyway. I am struggling with two things right now: life and death. Can anyone say, “Duuuuuuuh”? These are the universal concerns of all humanity. And I am struggling in particular with people’s/society’s total denial regarding them both.
For example, I need to call the long-term-care insurance people to see what I can get in terms of respite care. I want to work (or at least get out of the house) regularly during the week and I am not comfortable leaving Barry alone for extended regular periods of time. This is due to the fact that, first, he had cancer and was terminally ill and that, second, he lived through all of that and is still here. He will not be happy with me being gone, but I have put my life on hold for years now and I am getting beyond stir crazy.
Another example. I have a god sister that is turning sixty this year and is going back to school. So far, so good, right? Not so fast. When I mentioned that she might be working for the next umpteen years, she kid of chuckled like, “Uh. I don’t think so.” She has no husband, children, or pension. Social Security was never designed to be an elderly person’s sole income, let alone help that person pay off their mortgage. When it was invented, during the depression, many assumptions were in place. The elderly were expected to live with their children, men were assumed to have pensions, women were assumed to have husbands, and the property of the elderly was supposed to have been paid off, providing the receiving family of the elderly parents with some financial assistance to help take care of mom and dad. Veronica violates every single assumption. Will Social Security be sufficient for her to pay her mortgage, keep up with utilities, and feed her? I certainly do not assume so—but she clearly does. She needs to go to the Social Security Administration office and find out exactly what she will receive, not just assume that everything will be fine. It will break my heart if I find out, years from now after I have left Michigan, that she ended up homeless. Needless to say, she hasn’t purchased a cemetery plot for herself or anything like that. She is prepared for neither death nor life.
Rachel Neumann is wise. She understands the transitoriness of everything. She is also not 21 years old. She has already spent many years with the “man on the bus” that she recently married. She is honest with herself. Compare that with, say, myself. I was clueless in my early twenties, not to mention in a great deal of self-deception. I had no idea what I wanted, needed, or felt. I am only discovering these things now. What I do know is that if I had had even a shred of self-confidence back then, there is zero possibility I would have gotten married back then.
I think many young women (but not as many) today feel their options constrained today for similar reasons. Also, I believe that raging hormones encourage us to make commitments that we have no genuine way of knowing if they are even worth keeping. And then internalized religious/social oppression keeps us in these relationships (again, not as frequently as in the past). When cooler bodies prevail, fewer commitments are made, oddly enough.
Being honest with oneself is tough. Many people never are. I am still struggling to deal with the consequences of choices I made twenty-some years ago. I am in the process of purchasing my own (and Barry’s) grave marker. I am way more prepared for death than for life. Am I alone or in good company? I may never know.
I have been wrestling lately with “the present moment” versus planning for the future, or maybe it is “spontaneity” versus “discipline.”
My stumbling block is McMindfulness, where the focus is incessantly on the present and the pretense (perhaps “pretense” comes from the same root as “present”, just as “shrub” and “bush” and “brush” seem to have the same letters rearranged to give a final similar result) that this moment is all there really is. I understand that if you don’t use the present moment well, odds are that your future won’t be that great, either. I see that every day in the people I know. To some degree, the focus needs to be on what you can accomplish today with the resources currently at your disposal.
However, our sensory-overloaded culture keeps saying, “Relax. Enjoy the moment. What’s all the fuss about?” There is a word for that: ignorance. It is rightly called a “poison” by Buddhists everywhere.
Ironies abound here. I was looking at an article on Buddhism Now regarding the Dalai Lama focusing on the present moment, saying that there is no future or past without the present. It seems that the people pushing this “present moment living” are also the people who have consciously, deliberately developed vast reservoirs of spiritual discipline. Another example is the Taoists out there, memorizing vast quantities of their scriptures so that they can “spontaneously” respond to a given situation properly. That’s not “spontaneity.” That’s called “training.” Any HR manager will tell you that. All HR professionals know, through experience, that people do not rise to the level of expectations placed on them. Rather, people fall to the level of their training. Martial arts are also built upon the same unfathomable depths of discipline to enable their practitioners to respond properly in stressful situations. The only way to behave harmoniously in a variety of circumstances is to have already made a strong, conscious choice to behave according to previously-chosen principles. This is hardly my definition of “spontaneity.”
I have some of the same misgivings relating to spiritual experiences that people attribute to The Universe, God, or whatever. Let’s just be honest. Most spiritual environments are designed to invoke certain feelings, such as beauty, clarity, holiness, warmth, community, peace, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Who wouldn’t rather be in a clean, beautiful, warm room/building/whatever (as opposed to a dirty, cold, ugly place)? I, for one, am always trying to declutter my house and clean it better to make it more inviting. I am only advocating truth-in-advertising. As an Orthodox Christian, I could look up whatever Sunday it was (such as the fourth Sunday of John, e.g.) and know precisely what scriptures would be read and what the hymns of the day would be. It was no secret, and there you go. However, in the Protestant world, there was a huge pretense of spontaneity and everything being a “move of God”—even as absolutely every detail was orchestrated and choreographed within an inch of its life. All details were manipulated and canned. The artificiality was palpable. I actually found the in-your-face predictability of orthodoxy refreshing and, uh, unpretentious.
My point is that I feel a certain confusion when I hear about how primary this moment is, as compared to all other moments, and then turn around to find my current choices being constrained by prior, poor choices I made years ago. My future choices are, likewise, being constrained by the quality of my current decisions. Maybe my issue is simply the fact that I am middle-aged now and routinely live with the good and bad consequences of previous choices. I want to take young people by the collars and try to communicate somehow to them that they will eventually have to live with the consequences of their choices from today. I have seen, personally, how a time comes to us all when we can no longer make choices. We have to accept the fallout or fruits of previous attitudes and actions. Our ability to make new choices has passed and we are left with what we did or didn’t do years ago.
There is a very steep price to be paid for stupid spontaneity. My friends and I are all paying it. This is the amount due for living a life with the attitude of Alfred E. Neumann: “What? Me worry?”
“Time for the Buddhist is flow; the past flows through the present and into the future. Time is also singular; the present contains the past and the future is necessitated on the present. That is not to say the past determines the present or the present determines the future; but that the past provides the condition for the present to be effected and the present influences the outcome of the future. Nor do I intend to present time as divided into three distinct and easily distinguishable parts. There is no such thing as Past, Present, and Future; for the Buddhist there is only flow of time. The Buddhist would also say that time has always existed and all pasts, presents, and futures are part of a single cosmic (or atomic) moment.”
The Buddhist Concept of Time in Depictions of Parinirvana
I have always been fascinated with the concept of “flow,” even reading books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. There exists a state in which knowledge comes fluidly and efficiency increases exponentially. It is beyond description. I do not understand it. I have experienced it a few times.
At the same time, I don’t think this reality is related to some of the “eternal now” psychobabble so popular these days. The idea that this moment is all there is is the essential problem of our culture today. One can easily live on Facebook, always posting and awaiting responses from one’s friends and family. The “eternal now” philosophy dovetails nicely with unending entertainment, ceaseless TV viewing, and the illusion of accomplishment. We sit in front of a glowing screen for hours a day while our productive years slip away. (And the planet heats up and the oceans rise, etc.)
I try to imagine Kwan Yin putting up her feet, reclining, eating a bacon double cheeseburger, and saying, “Live for the moment for that is all there is.”
Most religions have some sense of urgency. It might come in the Christian form of the one-life-to-live model or the Buddhist every-human-birth-is-a-great-opportunity model.
The issue is one of where the sense of urgency comes from. Some companies violate the principle greatly by having every task deemed “urgent.” The result is what you see in emergency rooms: only the person passing out or bleeding the hardest gets any attention at all. Not everything is an emergency and artificially manufacturing a sense of urgency only proves to everyone that nothing truly urgent was ever occurring in the first place. Urgency cannot ever be manufactured convincingly. It makes even the most severe situations look like nothing more than ploys for attention.
So where the heck does real urgency come from? Zen masters will tell people to meditate as if their hair were on fire. This urgency is reinforced with meditations on the fact that we all are of the nature to grow sick and die.
But I’m unsure that that is sufficient. Death is inevitable. How can the inevitable motivate anyone?
I am finding the ongoingness of life to be a much greater threat. The question isn’t, “OMG. What if I die?” The real issue is, “Oh, shit. What if I live? What if I outlive my income? Then what?” I thought Barry would die a few years ago—and made plans accordingly. Oops. He’s still alive and I am still stuck in Michigan. I am now trying to figure out how exactly to move with no help from an invalid husband, a situation I never planned on. Another example is a friend’s roommate, who is living in my friend’s basement, which is a huge step up from being homeless (her previous condition). She said she thought she was too old to go back to school. My response? “What if you’re still working thirty years from now? How is now too late?” We had all just gone out to eat for her fiftieth birthday. Dead people don’t require food, clothing, and housing. The living do.
I don’t understand time, but I do understand that this moment is not the only one that exists. Later does come eventually. The choices we make now determine the choices we even have later. To me, the sense of urgency comes from knowing that, one day, we will no longer have choices available to us and will have to passively accept the consequences of our previous choices. This is not a pretty picture for many people.