Tag Archives: zen

On The Cusp!

There are two books that have had an inordinately large effect on my life. One of them I can remember large parts of and can offer reasonably intelligent analyses of what the author was trying to say. The other one I can hardly recall one thing about, save for the overall message the author was trying to convey. The reason these two come to mind—and have affected me so greatly—is that they’re closely related conceptually and their messages resonate and overlap, at least as I see them and I’m pretty sure that’s about all that counts.

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The first of these two books is “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” by Alan Watts. The second of these books is “Passages,” by Gail Sheehy. Without going into any detail, I’ll merely note that each of them speaks to the inexorable rhythms of life and the inevitability of change. They also offer a philosophical approach to dealing with those rhythms and changes that offers one a chance to navigate them with as little friction and pain as possible. I read the book by Watts in my early twenties. At the time I was head-over-heels in love with a young woman, but the relationship wasn’t to be and she broke up with me. I was young, impetuous, and prone to bouts of manic happiness and deep, dark depression.

I somehow found the book; how is lost in the mists of my slowly calcifying synapses. Perhaps it found me. It wasn’t the first book by Watts I had read. That was “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” which I found quite helpful in navigating the changes I was going through shortly after high school, a short stint in the U.S. Navy, a slightly longer stint as a businessman, a somewhat shorter flirtation with Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of ’67, and a steadily growing antipathy toward the nation’s conduct of the war in Vietnam.

Another thing I thought interesting, and somewhat serendipitous, was the juxtaposition of the release of two Beatles records that coincided with my reading of these two books by Watts. When I read “The Book: …” the Beatles had just released “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” The book was kind of my introduction to Zen Buddhist philosophy and the concept of the dialectic as represented by the Yin-Yang symbol. I was beginning to understand the duality of nature and the essence of all forms of evolution. Some of the lyrics in the song point out that same kind of duality, e.g. “Your inside is out when your outside is in. Your outside is in when your inside is out,” and the title of the song seemed to resonate with Watts’s message that we needed to get in touch with our actual selves (our “inner monkey”) if we were to understand our place in the world and not color it with the expectations of others.

The second song, which coincided with my reading of “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” was “Let It Be” which, as I understood it was the message Watts was conveying about the reality there is no such thing as security, that all things are in a constant state of flux, and the only way to (paradoxically, a very Zen concept) achieve any semblance of security—no matter how ephemeral and transient it may be—was to stop seeking it.

Sheehy’s book, as I recall it (and I only read it once, whereas I’ve read The Wisdom of Insecurity three times) had a similar message, but it was less on a spiritual and philosophical level and more on a practical, everyday “here’s what to expect” kind of approach. She wrote of what she referred to as the “passages” we all go through as we age and gain experience, while everything around us is changing and moving forward.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I have reached a point (a passage, if you will) in my life where I find far too many reasons to prepare myself for the end. I’ll be 74 years old three months from today. Next month I will be fourteen years older than my father was when he died. I realize I’ve reached an age where I could, conceivably, live another decade or more, but I could also drop dead tomorrow. There sure are a lot of people doing it who are younger than me.

Throw in the reality that I still have two daughters at home, one of whom is a Junior in High School, the other a Freshman in College, and it’s producing a bit of a tension arc that I’m struggling to put behind me.

I’m not trying to be morose, or overly glum. I am, however, attempting to approach what is definitely the autumn (more likely winter) of my life with as much spring in my step and lightness in my heart as I can muster. I need to understand what this passage I’m experiencing is all about (Sheehy did not write about septuagenarians) and position myself to take advantage of all it might offer. If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there’s always benefit to be found in nearly every situation, at least until there isn’t (if that makes sense.) I am an optimist, so even when I get deeply (perhaps depressingly) introspective, I usually snap out of it within a few hours or now more than a day or two.

I’m looking forward to what the next stage of my life is going to offer. Both of my girls will be on their own in a few years, God (or whoever’s in charge of these things) willing and the creek don’t rise, and Linda and I will be on our own again. The difference for us, is we won’t be in our early to late fifties, like most people who have their families when they’re no older than their thirties. As long as I know my girls are doing well and taking care of themselves (which is an entirely different story) I’ll be OK with whatever happens. I will say this. Not having to help with high school homework will be deeply enjoyable!

If I live that long. 🙂

Dialectical Zenosity

The Interpenetration of Opposites

My philosophy of life has been informed by two people, both of whom I was first introduced to (not personally, but via their writings) in my early twenties. They helped me understand the meaning of the dialectic of life; the yin yang of our corporeal (and intellectual) existence.

The former brought me an understanding of spirituality that did not require the existence of a supreme “being,” while the latter helped me to see how our thinking is shaped by the material world we live in, and how our thinking can then help us act to change that world for the better.

The former brought me “The Wisdom of Insecurity” and taught me to accept the tenuousness of existence and the need to slow down and enjoy life absent regret for the past or anxiety for the future (not that I am proficient at it always,) while the latter gave me a much clearer understanding of both biological evolution and the evolution of human society.

These two people are: Alan Watts, who many considered the western world’s foremost authority on Zen, a philosophy I believe reflects our place in the universe; and Karl Marx who, along with Friedrich Engels, developed and promulgated the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which I believe accurately reflects how the physical world informs our existence and how our ability to understand that physical world gives us the ability to significantly alter it.

It’s been over fifty years since I first encountered these two aspects of what I consider to be a somewhat “unified” theory of existence. Nothing in the interim has dissuaded me from following their teachings. I find the physical universe to be infinitely more beautiful and mystical than any of the Gods humans have worshiped over millennia.

More Softiness!

Yesterday I posted my thoughts about empathy and kind of wondered aloud why I find it easy to get so deeply immersed in a fictional drama that I can be moved to tears; sometimes to really distressful levels of sadness and grief. At the end of that post I wrote:

I want to understand what is moving me when this happens. On some levels it seems patently ridiculous to get so emotionally involved in a fiction story. On the other hand, perhaps it is really what makes us human. I’m wondering if someone with a more classical education than I have knows more of the thinking humans have brought to the subject. I’m sure some in the Arts (especially the Theater Arts) have tackled it. I’ll have to do more research. In the meantime, I’m glad there’s plenty of tissue in the house.

As it turns out, thanks to a friend I discovered an interesting answer through a wonderful TED talk by VS Ramachandran, a Neuroscientist who has studied the functions of mirror neurons. It would seem there is overwhelming evidence we humans are more closely connected than I was hinting at.

In his talk he says, “There is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons.” I find this resonates in many ways with my understanding of Systems Dynamics, Quantum Theory, and Zen and goes a long way toward answering my question. Frankly I find it a meaningful addition to my understanding, but still find myself wondering why it manifests itself so powerfully in some . . . and not at all in others. After all, the world is filled with people who are anti-social in varying degrees of severity from mild conduct disorders to outright sociopathy or APSD.

Regardless, there is much value in this talk. He speaks of the wonders of the human brain and, with respect to the issues I raised yesterday, uses words like imitation and emulation, ultimately winding his way to empathy. Rather than repeat any of his talk, I urge you to listen to it. There’s at least one very cool surprise a little more than halfway through. At less than eight minutes, it’s really engaging. Here’s the video. I’d love to hear what others think of this:

You Can’t Hold on to Anything

Beauty and Death

Coveting Kills

I was reminded by a post from one of my Facebook friends that we lose many things in our lives by trying too hard to hold on to them. Many years ago I  had a girlfriend who had been a high-fashion model, working runways and some of the glitzier magazines of the day, including Cosmopolitan, Town & Country, etc. I met her through our mutual activity in the anti-war movement, including our work with the Vietnam Veterans Against The War. She had gone to Vietnam several times as a USO entertainer.

She was, as she put it, getting a little “long in the tooth’ and her modeling days were pretty much over (she was seven years older than me and I was approaching 30). She was constantly worrying about how old she looked, spending what I thought was an inordinate amount of time on her makeup and hair, especially if we were going out. One day it dawned on me just how much the constant worry was causing her to accelerate the aging process. Through the act of worrying she was actually making herself look older. I told her that and, frankly, I don’t think it made much of a difference to her. She was caught up in a “death spiral” of concern for losing something it’s impossible to hang on to.

It – as so many things do – also reminds me of the lessons I learned from reading Alan Watts‘ Book “The Wisdom of Insecurity“, the most important of which is that there is no such thing as security and absolutely anything can be snatched from you at any time; including your health, life, etc. Alan points out the futility and self-destructiveness of trying to hang on to things and the paradoxical value of “letting go”. He bases his teachings on those of Zen Buddhism. Currently, I’ve read the book three times over the years . . . and each time it has either drastically changed how I saw things or comforted me in my acceptance of things I couldn’t change. I recommend it highly.

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