The Letters Part 1

Subject: hey norm

Sent: 12/30/96 12:51 AM

norm! its laura, the girl who ever so fleetingly stayed with you and ate your corn flakes with eve. how are things? i was reading your journal for the second and i just wanted to say how truly amazing it is. i am taking a class in school that is not quite normal- it is a class in which the students are responsible for producing a portfolio at the end of a semester filled with connections between whatever books,art or ideas we have come up with while we were studying. right now we are kind of in a 60's period of study - before we were doing existentialism. your philosiphizing is amazing the way it clearly states everything so even i can understand it and it seems so connected to what im learning- there are some parts that seem existentialist and parts that seem like they come from franny and zooey and some parts i dont understand. and i was having those feelings of the pointlessness of life too even though im not trying to recover from an addiction although my really close friend Carl who seems to think like me a lot of times does have a problem with alcohol so i think ill send him your web adress. anyway, i really want to see the next installment and i might want to ask you a few questions about stuff. you seem to have a lot figured out, its really nice what you were able to do with all those ideas. ill talk to you soon hopefully,

love laura

Subject: hey Laura,

Sent: 01/02/97 7:32 PM

Hello, Hello!

Its wonderful to hear from you, Laura. I'm glad you are getting something from my journal. The only people who have read it so far, that I know of, are guys from work, and they don't have a clue. Its not their fault, of course, they just don't have the background.

It sounds like you're getting quite an education in high school--existentialism, indeed! The world is getting more interesting all the time. Confusing, too, of course--there are so many different points of view competing for our attention. So many different people saying that if we just buy this, or drink this, or use this we'll be happy.

The truth, I think, is that happiness, or sadness, or any of our other feelings--they all exist in some place or other in our brains, each with its own set of circuits. The job of our parents, teachers, "society", is to get us wired up so that when we do good things--the things we're "supposed" to do--it lights up our happiness circuits, and when we do bad things the sad circuits get turned on. The system works great when everyone has everyone else's best interests at heart, and when everyone is in agreement about what is good and bad, but we don't all live in little villages any more--diversity rules!

If we are lucky, though, we may come to realize that those happiness circuits are just sitting there, ready to be turned on at any time, and we can learn to do our own wiring. I can be happy looking at dirt (you know, rocks, sand, clay, etc.), although it wouldn't be my first choice, given other options.

The point is that even when life seems pointless, there is no point in being sad about it--happiness is always an option, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite stories. I told it in one of the drafts of a part of my journal that hasn't made it to the web yet:

Two old Chinese farmers who hadn't seen each other for some time were getting up to date:

"So what ever happened to that beautiful white stallion of yours?"

"Oh, he ran away."

"That's too bad."

"Well, not so bad, he came back and brought a herd of wild horses with him."

"That's good."

"Well, not so good. My son was trying to ride one of them and got thrown and broke his leg."

"That's bad!"

"Well, not so bad. They came looking for soldiers to fight in the war and he didn't have to go."

"That's good..."

The story never ends, because every event, whether it seems good or bad at the time, has consequences, and those consequences have consequences in turn. We can never know whether the pain and suffering of the present moment may be the necessary prelude to untold joy at some future time--and therein lies one of our limitations, at least until we have time travel--we cannot know the future.

In that very limitation lies a great freedom: we can be free of the knowledge of good and evil, free of the pain of gain and loss. We can take the larger view in which good and evil, gain and loss balance out, because these opposites only appear from a limited, short-term perspective. The real limitation is in thinking we know the value of any isolated event.

Those last two paragraphs are from the same draft--maybe you'll see them in the next installment... You're getting a preview.

So I'm glad you're interested. I would be happy to answer any questions.

Have fun, take care of yourself,

Love, Norm

dew on grass

Some Good, Some Bad

Subject: normbear

Sent: 01/05/97 5:51 PM

hello norm

does eve call you normbear? just a question. one of my friends calls me laurabear how is everything? how are the trains running?

anyway, im going back to school tomorrow, which if it was just an isolated event and i thought i knew the value of it would be classified is a "bad" thing. ive just had two wonderful weeks of vacation and this last week especially has been beutiful. me and six friends all piled into my dad's previa and took a four day ski trip to vermont, having lots of fun along the way. our car was literally sagging under all the weight of seven people and one of those luggage cases on top- we were supposed to take two cars but the guy backed out last minute. it was like your story about the chinese guys horse - when i first found out he backed out i was so angry and couldnt believe he was doing this to us (the trip looked like it would have to be cancelled) but then i worked on it (this was five in the morning on new years) and figured out the luggage rack and we had a probably much better time without him. i keep thinking of more examples- we were night skiing and were riding the gondola to the top and it stopped for like 40 minutes and all the lights went out and that sounds bad but we had fun in the gondola anyway plus they gave us a free (worth $50) lift ticket to come back- you never know :)

anyway, i still have a couple of questions. do you know anything about zen? would you call yourself an artist from the 60's? i remember you mentioned something about how AA says that the problem with most people are they are self centered and your mentor said that the problem with most people are that they are not honest. if everyone was honest, and decided to do what they most wanted to do, wouldn't bad things start to happen like no one would stand up to people like hitler or help out in community service? that honesty thing is so like existentialism, do you know what that is? do you mind if i bring in your journal to show my teacher? he would really enjoy it- hes so cool - and your journal is perfect in every way to what we are doing in class. did you ever see catch 22? i have to write something on that today.

well, normbear, im going to be going. thank you for all that you have written- i love how clearly you explain things in writing. its amazing. i think i will write back to eve now- talk to you later

love, laurabear

Subject: bear to bear

Sent: 1/5/97 10:29 PM

Well, Laurabear!

It is a joy to hear from you. You are a very bright person, and your thinking is so much more advanced than mine was when I was in high school that it is slightly awesome.

Your ski-trip sounds like a perfect case of good-is-bad-is-good-who-knows? All life is like that--we have to stick around to see what the next phase is like. You raise a good point, though, when you ask,

"if everyone was honest, and decided to do what they most wanted to do, wouldn't bad things start to happen like no one would stand up to people like hitler or help out in community service?"

Even though we don't know how things will turn out in the long run, we have to do what seems like the right thing at the moment, given what we do know. The point is not to be pessimistic, or fatalistic, but to do the best we can with humility. People who think they know how everything is going to turn out, and know they are doing the right thing can be very obnoxious--its called self-righteousness.

Honesty in dealing with other people has to be tempered with kindness. You don't tell people they are "ugly as home-made sin," as my friend Lamar used to say. But honesty with yourself is the most important thing there is. It can be a little scary at times, to face myself as I really am, but the truth really does set you free.

Which is what Zen is about. Old man Yuanwu said, “The words of buddhas and Zen masters are just tools, means of gaining access to truth. Once you are clearly enlightened and experience truth, all the teachings are within you.” (ZEN ESSENCE: THE SCIENCE OF FREEDOM, Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989, p.33) One of the main points of the teachings is that if you understand yourself, you understand everyone else, and if you understand, you cannot help but have compassion for all. Your heart will be in the right place no matter what you do.

The Zen folks are my favorite people in all of recorded time. I was talking to my Mom and Dad once about friends, and I told them, "All my best friends died hundreds of years ago." Which shouldn't lead you to think I'm lonely. There's an old Zen saying, "If you know the truth, you can wiggle old Mazu's toes in your shoes."

What I'm trying to do in my journal is this: I think that part of the reason Zen is so difficult to understand, so hard to get, is that although the old Zen folks understood the most important truth there is, they didn't have the language to express it. They didn't have computers, or brains scans, or DNA; all they had was looking inside their own heads. There is no getting around looking inside our own heads, we all have to do that, but I think the things we have learned with science can give us a little advance notice of what we're looking for in there. At least that's the plan. The part I'm trying to write right now is where the "rubber hits the road," as the truck drivers say--the first two parts were mainly prep-work. We'll see if it comes off... It might be good, but on the other hand:)

You can show my journal to anyone you like; after all, anyone on the internet can read it. Your teacher must be a pretty cool dude, for sure.

And you're pretty darn cool, yourself. I'm sure you did a great job with catch 22. Take care of your sweet self.

Love, normbear

grand canyon of yellowstone

In the Long Run

Subject: simpsons

Sent: 01/05/97 10:15 PM

hello norm

i was just watching the only show i ever watch (which is now on twice a day i just found out) and i saw a funny bit that i thought you and your mind would appreciate. homer had just eaten insanity peppers and was having some sort of a trip. he was in the middle of this desert and a coyote was talking to him about his life. the coyote told homer that his mind chatters with thoughts 1000 times a minute, just like you said with the finger excercise. then it shows a close up of homer's brain with no thoughts what so ever coming out of it. i thought it was funny but maybe you had to be there. homer then uncharacteristicly says "so what do i have to do,meditate or give up worldly possesions?" the coyote says no no no, you should get lots of posessions, you just have to find your soul mate. then the show consists of homer running around trying to find his soul mate and it ends up being marge after all. sort of disapointing but i love that show so much. well, i guess ill be going, id love to hear from you

love laura

Subject: Re: bear to bear

Sent: 01/07/97 2:35 PM

hey normbear!

i love getting emails from you- i feel so smart when i read them.

im trying to read zen and the art of motercycle maintenence as my 60's book for class and someone warned me i needed a background in zen to do it. i also have a fact-like book about zen but i dont think i have time to read them both. who is this mazu guy and how can i get to wiggle his toes? he sounds so cute when you put it that way.

im going to keep doing stuff and i might want to ask you a few more questions. thanks for all the help, you have been sucha help in more ways than you can know.

love, laurabear

Subject: time

Sent: 1/8/97 9:53 AM

Hi, Laurabear,

Yesterday I got off work at 9:00 am, slept for a couple of hours, then went to the first day of Macworld, came home and went straight to bed, and now I'm on my way to work again. I hope I get home early enough tonight to write you again. Zen is my favorite subject and I've been thinking of all sorts of things to tell you, but right now, I gotta go to work!

Take care of your sweet self,

Love, Normbear

Subject: Mazu's toes

Sent: 1/8/97 10:45 PM

Hi, Laura,

Eve and I got a kick out of Homer and the "insanity peppers". There is hope for tv.

Mazu was a Zen guy who lived during the eighth century in China. There are lots of stories about him and things he said, which I won't take the time for now, but maybe I'll have time later for a story about one of his students, Layman Pang. First let's see if I can give you a quick and easy explanation of Zen.

There are several points of view from which the universe can be considered as a kind of organism, at least a couple of them from physics. One of these points of view is that anything that happens to any one particle of the universe effects every other particle in the entire universe--even if the effect is very small. Everything is connected to everything else in one way or another--maybe in several ways. In other words, when you get up in the morning and put on your socks and shoes, the entire universe participates in the process.

The universe then, from these points of view, is not just a sort of jumble of isolated bits and pieces--it is one thing.

Many people can understand this idea intellectually, but Zen is not about intellectual understanding. It is about perceiving this unity directly. A Japanese Zen guy named Dogen said something like this: consciousness in the eye is seeing, in the ear is hearing, in the tongue is tasting, etc. Consciousness is a big subject in itself, but one of the most important things about it is that it only shows a little bit of what is going on in the brain at any one time, and it moves around. If you've ever listened to music with headphones on and your eyes closed, trying to hear all the parts of the music at once, you've experienced "consciousness in the ear"--there is nothing at all that is conscious but the music itself; the rest of the world seems to disappear.

The world is still there, of course, and your brain is still monitoring it in various ways and taking care of business--keeping your breath going in and out, your heart beating, making sure you're not too cold or hot, etc.--but all that is happening outside of consciousness.

The point is that we are only conscious of a tiny fraction of what is going on in our brain at any one time, and since the brain is organized into specialized areas--seeing, hearing, talking, etc., consciousness moves around from place to place depending on what the brain thinks is important at the moment.

Because we grow up as social creatures, and because so much of what we do depends on how we fit into the social situation, consciousness spends a lot of time in parts of our brain that deal with language. We think about what we said, and what they said, and whether they understood what we mean, and how we might have said it better, and what we're going to say next time if we get the chance, etc.

What the Zen folks say (according to norm) is that there is a place in the brain that consciousness rarely visits--because of all its social engagements--and this part of the brain has a very special gift: It sees the universe as one thing. This is not an intellectual understanding of the unity of the universe--it is a direct perception. You can think of this kind of perception as another sense--the unity sense--in the same way that seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling are senses. What Zen is about, then, is learning to experience this sense, and then learning to integrate it with the other senses.

You can imagine the difficulty of trying to teach this if you try to imagine how you would teach a blind person what color is about. How do you explain it to someone who can't experience it? Suppose you were successful enough that the blind person said, "Ah, I think I get it. I think I have an idea what you sighted people mean by 'color'." This kind of understanding is intellectual--it doesn't mean that now the blind person can experience colors.

There is the same problem with Zen. A lot of what you read that Zen teachers have said is things they have said to try to give their students an idea of what they are looking for, and at the same time trying to impress on them that what they are looking for is not an idea. It is beyond thinking about, it is a direct experience.

A lot of the Zen literature sounds like nonsense because the teachers are trying to get their students to stop thinking and to experience directly. You may have heard the question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" In ordinary terms it makes no sense at all, and part of the point is that if you try thinking about it long enough you will realize that it can't be understood by ordinary thinking. If you are lucky, consciousness will then wander out of the thinking (linguistic) part of your brain, and into the part that experiences the universe as a whole. In that part of the brain, things don't have to make sense--they just ARE.

Just experiencing the oneness of everything is not enough, however, because the universe is BOTH one thing, and it is ALSO the conglomerate of bits and pieces that is the ordinary way of looking at it. So the final problem is to integrate ordinary reality and enlightened reality.

An old guy named Donovan once included a Zen saying in a song: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." First there are ordinary mountains, the kind you go skiing on. Then there are no mountains, there is only "that which is"--the universe, in which you and the mountain and all the stars are just one indivisable thing. And then there are mountains again, and you can go skiing on them, but nothing is ordinary anymore--now the mountain skis you.

So Layman Pang traveled all over China studying with different teachers, one of whom was old Mazu. Pang, his wife, his daughter, and his son were all enlightened.

“The Layman was sitting in his thatched cottage one day [studying the sūtras]. "Difficult, difficult," he said; "like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree." "Easy, easy," Mrs. Pang said; "like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed." "Neither difficult nor easy," Ling Zhao said; "on the hundred grass tips, the great Masters' meaning.""

Who had the best perspective? Think about it :)

"The Layman was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge he stumbled and fell. When Ling-chao saw this she ran to her father's side and threw herself down. "What are you doing!" cried the Layman. "I saw Papa fall to the ground, so I'm helping," replied Ling-chao. "Luckily no one was looking," remarked the Layman."

Translated by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya & Dana R. Fraser
The Recorded Sayings of Layman P'ang: A Ninth-Century Zen Classic
(New York, Weatherhill, 1971: p.75)

I could go on and on, but maybe a hundred grass-tips in one letter is enough. If you have any questions I will do my best to answer.

Thanks for helping me try to clarify these things.

Love, norm

tiny flowers and dead wood

Ground Cover

Subject: norm's toes

Sent: 01/11/97 10:15 AM

hey normbear!

you have the most wonderful way of writing- its so clear and precise that even i can understand it! I love all those stories you tel me- the horse one and the one about layman pang and his family. im not sure i understand this last one, but this is just my initial thinking- the dad who says studying zen was difficult was still on the first side of the mountain- he had not yet percieved the unity thing (like everyone else i suppose), the mom who said it was easy as putting your socks on was in the middle of the unity thing but had not yet integrated this sense with her other senses, and the daughter already had it all figured out cuz she had percieved it and integrated it so that's why it was all around her on the grass. i dont think this is right but i dont know what else to think. have you ever gotten to feel your unity sense? it sounds so nice. i dont understand the throwing down on the grass story though. do you have to meditate a lot and think about one hand clapping to see what these guys meant? well, i probably have a lot more questions but ill talk to you later. for now, i must return to my extremely unzenlike world. thank you for giving me something to look foward to norm!

love laura bear

Subject: Laurabear, girl genius

Sent: 1/13/97 12:15 PM

Hi, Laurabear

Your interpretation of the Pang family story is very good. You are much smarter than the average bear. (Whoops! You may have to be over 50 to understand "smarter than the average bear").

In order to understand the falling down one you have to know a little history (only a little). The Buddha lived about 2500 years ago in India. By the time Buddhism made it to China there was already a huge volume of scripture--Buddha's original teachings plus commentaries, etc. All of it was intended simply to help people see the unity thing, but people got distracted, and they got so involved in discussing what all this literature meant that they missed the point.

The Zen master's job was to convince them that all this talking and thinking about enlightenment was not enlightenment itself, that they had to stop thinking about it and DO it.

The Zen masters would have these dialogues with the monks--sometimes the monk would ask questions and the Zen master would answer, or sometimes the other way around. The monk would either be trying to find a way to understand what it was about, or he would be trying to show that he did understand. Some of these short dialogues got to be famous, and people would quote them and try to understand what they meant, and again, they would get so involved in trying to understand what they meant that they would forget the POINT.

So it was an ongoing problem, and a common solution was to try to get people so confused that they would give up trying to think about it. The "what is the sound of one hand clapping" approach.

The other side of the coin was that if you tried to give an answer that made sense in ordinary terms, you were automatically considered wrong. In one extreme case, a Zen master asked a monk a question and then said, "If you open your mouth to answer I will hit you thirty times. If you don't open your mouth to answer I will still hit you thirty times. What do you say?" What do you say?

In one of my favorite stories, two groups of monks were arguing about whether a cat has Buddha-nature (talking and thinking, talking and thinking). The Zen master, Nan Ch'uan, found them like this and grabbed the cat, saying, "Unless one of you can say something I will kill the cat." The monks were all dumbfounded; no one knew what to say, so Nan Ch'uan killed the cat (some say he only pretended to). Sometime later, Chao Chou, a famous traveling monk, came by, and Nan Ch'uan told him the story. As soon as Chao Chou heard it, he took off his straw sandals, put them on his head and left. Nan Ch'uan said, "If Chao Chou had been there, he could have saved the cat." Putting his sandals on his head and walking out was the "right thing to say".

Chao Chou had experienced the unity thing, but simply experiencing it is only the beginning--he had gone way beyond that.

Suppose you had been born in a factory and spent your whole life surrounded by noise and clamor. If someone showed up and said, "God its noisy in here, how do you stand it?" You wouldn't know what they were talking about. For you, noise and clamor would just be part of the background of life. If you were to leave the factory--take a walk in the country--you would suddenly know the meaning of peace and quiet. If you then go back to the factory, you have a different attitude toward the noise. Since you now know the meaning of "silence", you can begin to ask, "Where did all this noise come from? What is making it?" You may even find that some of the noise can be eliminated.

The same thing happens when you experience the unity thing. You look at your regular life, and you begin to see that, while our isolation as individual persons is one aspect of the truth of the universe, it is not the whole truth. Human beings have, for thousands of years, picked up on that aspect of truth, (it is the most obvious, after all), and have made it the whole truth, have built whole societies on it. It has been useful, but there are costs involved--loneliness, anxiety, etc. The more you look at life from the unity perspective, the more you see how things have evolved. You see how your own perspective on life, your feelings about yourself and everything else, even the words we use to describe things, have grown out of the individualist perspective. You see where the noise and the pain come from, and you begin to see ways that they can be eliminated. You also begin to see fun ways of playing with ordinary language and ways of looking at things. If you see someone pushing a car that is stuck in the snow, you can run over and help by pushing beside them. If you see someone falling down, you can run over and "help" by falling down beside them. If someone asks if they should kill the cat, you put your sandals on your head and walk out.

So yes, I've experienced the unity thing. The part of the journal about listening to your thoughts and waiting for a space can be a way of getting to the place where all divisions between things disappear. It is as much a kind of meditation as sitting in the lotus posture. But seeing the implications of that experience for ordinary life can be a long process, especially since I have spent so many years seeing things in the ordinary, conventional way. Even so, the little bit of progress that the universe has bestowed on me has been glorious. "I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto."

(Enough! Enough! Jesus, won't he ever shut up?)

Love, Normbear

p.s. "If you think you know who you are, you've sold yourself short."

top of the Wasatch Mountains

What Mountain Is This?

Subject: Norm youre smarter than the average bear

Sent: 01/15/97 9:20 PM

Hey normbear

how could you accuse me of not knowing yogi bear?!! he is actually kind of annoying but i used to watch the hanah barbera along with everyone else :) i liked boo boo better but my favortie of all time was captain caveman, smarter than the average caveman "(Enough! Enough! Jesus, wont he ever shut up?)"

never say that about your writing, norm. it is one of the most interesting things i have ever read. i have about 100 pages to go in my zen and the art of motorcycle maintenence book and i am so glad i had you there to help me understand some of it. i really recocmend it but not in the way i am reading it- in a hurry to finish it for school. i hate it when i have to do that. anyway, it talks about climbing a mountain and at the top of the mountain the guy sees connections between everything in the whole universe and when he descends the mountain he starts applying them to every day things like motorcycle maintenence and i would have never picked up on that if you hadnt told me the mountain story. i have a few questions from your last letter... im begining to intelectually understand zen but is there anyway for me to experience it without medidtating? how do people who dont have time to meditate experiecne stuff like that or do they have to drop everything to do it like buddhist monks. thats amazing that you could feel something so connected and i totally agree with you about the individualatiy thing and how it has gotten us so far but it still leaves us with problems like anxiety. i am totally and completely an individual and being connected to everything sounds a lot more fun although sometimes i really like being an individual. is there any way to reconcile that? does this unity apply to unity with other people? i remember you talking about our social desires and our preocuppation with our relationships with other people. its amazing how much of my day and every one elses day is spent gossiping aobut this relationshp or thinking about how this person thinks of this person. how does that apply to everyhting weve been talking about? well norm, i hope i can send this email. aol is being a real bitch lately and they keep apologizing but dont do anything about it. my whole portfolio project for this class is due next week and youre going to be in it if i ever get down to actually write stuff for it. its mroe fun to learn about it than to show i learnt it by wrting it down. ill see you later norm say hi to the trains for me

love laurabear

Subject: cartoons

Sent: 1/17/97 6:05 PM

Yabba Dabba Doo, Laurabear (whoops, wrong caveman)

I did not mean to imply that you had a cartoon-free childhood, its just that its been so long since I watched cartoons that I figured Yogi would be dead by now. I guess they can recycle cartoons forever since the audience keeps growing up and moving on. I don't remember captain caveman, though, so some things must change.

I sympathize with your having to rush through books and stuff for school. Its too bad, but there's just too much stuff out there, and too little time. Fortunately there will be time, later, to spend with the things you want, but we never have time enough for everything--life is too short. Which is probably what the Buddha had in mind when he said, "Life is suffering." Even when we're enjoying it we're thinking that there isn't enough, that its going to end. Fortunately he also said that there is a way out of suffering--that is what Zen (Buddhism) is about.

And fortunately, you don't have to meditate to do Zen. “To attain Zen enlightenment, it is not necessary to give up family life, quit your job, become a vegetarian, practice asceticism, and flee to a quiet place...” (Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom, p. 56) as Dahui said several hundred years ago. All you have to do is look inside your own mind and be aware of what goes on there. You are already further along than most people get in their whole life.

The Buddha went into some detail, on occasion, to describe just what suffering is, but basically it comes down to two things: 1) being separated from things you love, 2) being close to things you hate. This seems fairly obvious--most people figure the way to be happy is to get, or get close to, the things you love, and avoid the things you hate (or "dislike" if "hate" seems too strong a word). If we could succeed with this approach we would all be happy, but life has a way of being difficult at times. Sooner or later we all face separation and loss, or are forced into unpleasant situations, and again, even when things are ok we worry about how they might change--suffering!

Some of the Buddha's followers have suggested that the way to end suffering is to not love or hate anything, but the approach I prefer is to love everything and hate nothing. This is really what we've been discussing all along, in a way. If everything is all one, then if you love, there is no way not to love the whole thing, or if you hate, you're hating everything--you can't have any one thing without having the whole thing--its all connected.

It seems strange, paradoxical, at first, to think that there is nothing, not even the worst crime or criminal, to be hated, but there are at least two things that are important to consider. One is the horse story, and what it says about our ability to see the big picture, all the way into the future. Even things that seem monstrously wrong may set the stage for some incredibly wonderful future state of affairs that could not have come about otherwise--there is just no way to tell, given our limitations.

The other thing to consider is a saying from the French: to understand is to forgive. What we need to understand is who we are, and how we got to be who we are. People usually define themselves in terms of what they love and hate--their tastes and opinions, what and who they think are cool and uncool. They take pride in being a certain kind of person, and in NOT being a certain kind of person. But if we ask ourselves how we got to be the person we are, it turns out that it was all determined by circumstances we really had nothing to do with, like being white or black, rich or poor, growing up in a certain neighborhood in a certain part of the country, having parents who read certain books or watched certain things on TV, etc., etc. If we just pay attention to the things that go on in our minds and ask, "Where did that come from?" we will see that it came from being at a certain set of coordinates in the universe, and that we did not pick those coordinates. And then we will realize that, Aha!, that's how everyone else got to be where and who they are. There is no way we can blame other people for being who they are--smart or dumb, crude or refined, educated or ignorant, etc. There, but for fortune, go you and I.

When people first encounter these ideas, they often think, "Well, if I am who I am due to circumstances beyond my control, then I can't be blamed or held responsible for anything I do; don't blame me, blame my parents and grandparents, and on and on." But because we live in society, there are certain kinds of behavior we can't allow, even if we understand why people do them. We can't allow people to go around killing other people, so we HOLD them responsible, even though they may not ultimately BE responsible; and even though we cannot know, in the long run, what the final effects of their crime will be. At any rate, putting their grandparents in jail is not going to solve the problem.

Another objection people make is to say, "If I am who I am due to circumstances beyond my control, then therefore I can't change. I have no choice but to be the person I have been shaped to be." People who say that are objecting to an idea they don't really understand. They have not really looked at themselves; they haven't really seen the truth of how they got to be where they are. The odd thing, you see, is that understanding itself is a circumstance which results in our changing.

All my life I loved sweets--candy, cake, ice cream, all that stuff--I still do. But through a long and convoluted chain of circumstances I learned that the sugar I ate was directly related to the pimples I had--if I didn't eat sugar, I didn't have pimples. I had never liked having pimples, and due to circumstances beyond my control, it turned out that I would rather not eat sugar than have pimples, so I stopped. I had no reason to stop eating sugar until I UNDERSTOOD the connection to my complexion, and that understanding became a new circumstance in the determination of who I am.

Every new item of information that enters our brain effects the balance of all the things that are already there, and a new balance emerges. Sometimes the effects of these new bits of information are not always immediately obvious, but they accumulate. Its like filling a glass with water and then adding more, drop-by-drop. Each additional drop doesn't seem to do much, but then comes the drop that tips the balance, and the excess runs over with a splash. We come to understand that if we keep adding drops, sooner of later we will have to clean up a spill.

If you love ice cream, and it doesn't give you pimples, there is no reason not to enjoy it; but if there is nothing to eat but watery gruel, you might as well enjoy that, too. We can enjoy the person we happen to be, but there is no reason to stop there. We can enjoy whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, even if they are not what we would usually prefer.

The problem with thinking of ourselves as individuals is that we end up spending an amazing amount of time trying to figure out how the person we think we are fits into the current situation. It is the idea of being a certain person that drives most of the chatter in our brains. We have to decide whether the current situation is one a person like ourselves should be happy in, or whether we should try to change the situation so that a person like ourselves can be happy in it, or whether we should try to change ourselves to fit the situation--decisions, decisions; and never enough information to decide. Thinking, thinking, thinking.

What people try to do with classic meditation practices is to focus on something--like breathing in and out--to try and break the habit of thinking constantly. But there are other things that you can do at any time and place that are more fun and have the same effect. Here is some stuff on this subject that I've been writing for the next installment:

"Most of us do not have to think about what we're doing while we're tying our shoes; in fact, we are usually thinking about the next INTERESTING thing we're going to do after we finish. Since you don't have to think about it to do it, try watching your hands tie your shoes as if you were watching someone else tie them, as if you were very interested in the way they were doing it without trying to exercise any control over the process. It is a little tricky at first to just watch without the feeling of participating in the action, but you know that it is possible in principle because that is how you tie your shoes most of the time anyway. The only difference is that instead of thinking ahead into the day, or fantasizing, or whatever else you usually do while your hands are tying your shoes, you WATCH your hands do their job.

"Another appendage that is fun to watch is your tongue. We all had to learn to tie our shoes, but it seems our tongue knows how to do its job without ever having had any instruction at all. In watching our tongues, there is less of a tendency to slip automatically into the controlling, participatory roll, because we don't have as much experience in trying to control our tongue as we have with our hands--we almost never pay attention to what it is doing. It can be quite interesting--fascinating even--to watch the tricks our tongue does in moving food around in our mouths as we chew, shifting bits into place until everything is properly masticated.

"A fun exercise for men is to watch the guy in the mirror shave his face.

"Anything that you can do by habit, anything that you often daydream or "think" through, is an opportunity to practice this observation-without-participation. The more you practice, the more you realize that you can have the usual feeling of being your "self", without the feeling that "you" are in control, either of your body or your brain. As time goes on you will come to appreciate more and more the incomprehensible complexity of your own brain. You will realize that the feeling of being your "self" is the product of a tiny subset of all the things your brain does. That little subset does not run the brain, anymore than your left foot runs your body."

It turns out that life is much more interesting than we give it credit for, once we open up to the possibility that our ideas of what is cool, or uncool--ideas about who we are--are more limited than need be. When we learn to stop constantly thinking about how the current situation relates to ME, and learn to focus on what it IS, everything becomes incredibly interesting. A blade of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk becomes the most fascinating phenomenon in the universe. Every moment of our life is precious--stupendous even--not because of how it relates to who we are, but just because it is.

Here is a poem from an old Japanese guy, Ryokan:

“In all ten directions of the universe, there is only one truth.
When we see clearly, the great teachings are the same.
What can ever be lost? What can be attained?
If we attain something, it was there from the beginning of time.
If we lose something, it is hiding somewhere near us.
Look: this ball in my pocket:
can you see how priceless it is?”

THE ENLIGHTENED HEART, edited by Stephen Mitchell, Harper & Row, 1989, (p. 97)

If Ryokan's ball is priceless, well then, Laurabear, you are priceless too!

Which reminds me of a story about William Blake. A popular question in his day was whether Jesus Christ was really God-on-earth. Someone asked him his opinion on the subject, and he said, "He is the only God ... and so am I, and so are you."

Time to eat and go to bed. The trains send their love, and so do I.

Love, Norm

 

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