Not To Pass By On The Other Side

That time when we were on the bus. Must have been, what, 11 years ago now. And the coldest winter I can remember.

Maybe below 0 degrees Fahrenheit that morning not counting wind chill. The kind of cold that takes your breath away, the kind that causes your eyes to become glassy with tears.

Did this older woman sit down next to me? All I know is that there she was next to me and that we’d hardly said a word to one other before she began talking to me. Before she was talking to me about cancer. Was it hers? Her daughter’s? One of the two.

What did she want? What was it that I, a stranger, a young fool, could offer her?

Not to pass by on the other side. That’s it. Not, in the welling up of suffering, to be passed by on the other side.

Because suffering can be so cold and often is otherwise.

I Almost Cry Every Time I Hear Johnny Cash’s Hurt

I almost cry every time I hear Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” Sometimes I do cry.

Johnny Cash Hurt

Yes, the speaker’s voice contains so much pain. But it’s not just that. It’s not just the fact that his pain spilleth over nor is it just the history of his pain nor merely the enormity of his pain. Nor even the reference, a tragic one, to the needle that does nothing really now to mollify. It is the feeling that the pain, so faithfully felt, is without the promise of redemption.

It remains, and there’s no out. No home. No peace. And Ecclesiastes was right: everyone, including me, he says because he sees, goes away in the end. But first them, then me.

There’s just this. Just this and more of this until there’s no more this, no more of this.

The speaker makes no bones about the hurt. He is facing it by living it, by singing it. In this, he is unlike others who neither face nor live it but who turn away and away and away from it.

You get that he’s going to die. You get that he gets this. If you’re really listening, then you feel it. Any feeling person must.

But then, I mean in the end, you’re left with nothing to hold onto, only the seemingly interminable hurt that pitches over into the void that is death.

And it’s, therefore, just so sad, nay more: sorrowful. Everything in the song quivers with the most poignant and urgent of questions: Can we possibly live courageously without the promise of redemption? But also, yes, this too: Must we?

Yes And: Buddhism And Beyond

In a recent Aeon article, “The Problem of Mindfulness,” graduate philosophy student Sahanika Ratnayake claims, among other reasonable claims she makes, that mindfulness, just because it rests upon a no-self (anatta) doctrine, promotes detachment from one’s thoughts and feelings and, in turn, nullifies one’s ability to deliberate upon one’s thoughts and feelings as well as, and more important still, one’s willingness to take responsibility for them. When Buddhism came to the West in the 1960s, it got a free pass. But this, as you can see, no more.

Critiques of the unexamined importation of Buddhist practice into the West seem to me quite often apt and timely. Consider the low-hanging fruit case of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, a prominent Zen roshi who was involved in repeated acts of sexual misconduct throughout the course of his very long life (he lived to be 107). How, we might ask, can a Zen master be truly enlightened and thus see the interconnectedness of all beings at the same time that he acts with such cruelty? And he, I assure you, was not the only Zen master who acted viciously.

What I hear the many critiques of Buddhist practice, I often say: “Yes and.” We need to give up on the idea that Buddhism or Advaita or whatever can provide us not just with a theory of mind and a metaphysic but also with a moral philosophy, a political philosophy, and a sound ecological practice; that is to say, we need to give up on the idea that any Eastern practice can readily provide us with everything we seek. Instead, we should see Buddhist practice as a modality that needs, in keeping with thinkers like Ken Wilber, to be brought into contact with and thereby synthesized with other, often very different streams of thought. We need what I’d like to call an “all hands on deck” approach.

Only then, for example, can we engage in necessary ethical deliberation that philosophy rightly urges us to undertake even as we also give ourselves over to seated meditation practices that may disclose secrets about the nature of consciousness otherwise unavailable to us. Yes and. For note that on the relative level, true, I am a moral agent whose conduct should be conducive to the flourishing of all beings; therefore, I must take full responsibility for my conduct in particular, for the life I lead in general. Meanwhile, on the absolute level, I am Awareness. In short, I am both.

We need philosophical contemplations and meditative practice; we need Aristotle and the Buddha and surely many other thinkers besides these two to enable us at once to transform ourselves and to make sense of the time we’re living in.

That’s Not Soul Searching

I once had a chat with a man who’d finished a BA at a major research university, later on a Master’s degree at an Ivy League school. Between both, he had worked successfully in finance and had then successfully pivoted to the tech space. After “some soul searching,” he said, he decided to become a coach. He did so, he reported that he really found what he loves, and he has since been successful at it.

Gotta level with you, man: hey, good for you–but that’s not soul searching. That’s bullshit. (*)

Soul searching means losing a child to cancer and nearly losing your mind.

Soul searching means dropping into hellish despair and feeling the darkness seethe and seep into you.

Soul searching means no longer caring at all about what you used to hold so tenderly and then realizing that there is nothing–nothing!, you scream–that you care about now.

Soul searching means that everything is upside down and nothing you say makes sense.

Soul searching means confronting, as Zen says, “the Great Matter of Life and Death” without polish or pretension.

Soul searching means dying to yourself.

I soul search, if I do, because I am shattered. Shattered, I yearn to be whole. Shattered, I yearn to know what it all means. Shattered, I do nothing but rend and when rending is through, blessedly do I contemplate.

Soul searching is real. It’s not unctuous business speak.

(*) I define bullshit, following Harry Frankfurt’s lead, as saying whatever is necessary to get others to believe (or: to trick others into believing) that I know what it is that I’m talking about when I don’t actually know what it is that I’m talking about in order to leave others (and myself included) with a favorable impression of me. As kids, we might have called this talking out of your ass.



ThePresent And Today

I recently received a note from Scott Thrift, an inventor of two clocks–ThePresent, which slowly carves out the year according to the natural rhythms of the seasons, and Today, whose “silent movement” is said, according to the MOMA Store, to simplify “the day into the perfect balance of dawn, noon, dusk, and midnight.” It is a return, no less, to preindustrial life and, in this respect, suggests the deconstruction of the clock whose ubiquity led to the “time-discipline” necessary to transform pre-industrial “hands” into time-bound industrial Workers. Or, perchance, it is an essay at a post-turn.

Clock, Today, ThePresent

Credit: Scott Thrift, Kickstarter Campaign (2016).

Scott wrote to me about an article I’d written, in May 2018, about “time famine,” the experience of time being a “finite resource” which one never “has” “enough of.” In that article, I conclude with a question:

After countless philosophical conversations over the years with individuals working in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and beyond, those for whom “time famine” is their default mode of being, I’ve come to believe that what must be discovered instead—and this is no easy thing—is the contemplative stillness that exists beneath any pace of life, whether fast, fluctuating, or slow, that sense of abiding peace that T.S. Eliot once so beautifully called “the still point of the turning world.” How to find that abiding peace, that ground of Life, really is the question.

That question–“How to find that abiding peace, that ground of Life, really is the question.”–still tarries in the wind.

Many wish that modernity would move more slowly. That is fine and so, but that is not enough. I wonder, still, what is beneath the movement of time, however slowly it is perceived to go, however rapidly it is thought to be passing. Is not the present, when properly understood, not punctuality but, in truth, eternity? Indeed, could there exist eternity not misunderstood as what is ever-long nor even as what is everlasting but rather as the ineffable beyond the bounds of time? I think so.

This is what deep meditation teaches: when the sense of a separate self drops away, so does time, that flowing river, as we know it. And so is disclosed, as the Bible so beautifully says, that abiding peace that surpasses all understanding. Modernity is yenning, just yenning for that stillness beyond stillness, for that stillness that is the ground of all movement and of all rest. Let us find ourselves here.