Thursday, 30 March 2017

Shut Up and Drink Your Potential

Conformal Cats (8074241727) I was born on the crest of a tsunami of late-century self-help that's had a geological effect on our ability to think clearly.

The good news is that the worst is past. That was the period from the 70s to the Millennium, when such messianic gimmicks as Positive Mental Attitude (authentic 70s tip: the capital letters signal dippy fad ahead) laid waste to Western civilisation. But thirty years stoned on trademarked morality have taken their toll, and we're still dealing with the fallout from our protracted no-substance abuse.

I'm often given to reflect on this in Zen company. Western Zen draws heavily on what the 80s called "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians), a fetish of whom is rejection of consumerism, jingoism, xenophobia, homogeneity, and other questionable Western values.

All of which is fine by me. However, they may also indulge in baby-trashing, as when they spurn logic, empiricism, individualism, and circumspection. As a Wikipedia editor writes on the Positive Mental Attitude talk page:
More pernicious is the prescribed PMA [Positive Mental Attitude] in business and public governance, with consequences from a philosophy of over-confidence bordering on self-delusion along with lack of due diligence and just plain common sense.
Given that Zen circles are wont to tolerate such traps, and that they're negatively correlated with sanity (and therefore Zen), I rate it good sangha to lay down a few definitions. So-armed, the sincere meditator can navigate his or her way out of the maze.

Essentially, three terms are in play:

Strength is a synonym for resilience. Meeting a setback, strong people redouble effort; find a way around it; transform it into something useful; or decide, after sober reflection, to abandon that goal in favour of another.

Optimism is a character trait typified by strength. Faced with failure, an optimist says, "We can fix this, or do without it, or succeed at something else instead. One way or another, we'll press on." To correct a trite aphorism, an optimist sees the glass as half potential.

(By contrast, the pessimist sees the glass as all useless. "We can't fix this, and if we could it would only break again, so let's just wait for death.")

Denial is a negative character trait often confused with optimism. Denialists reject truth that annoys or frightens them, or simply doesn't serve their interests. A hallmark of denial is misdirection, i.e., defining things according to one's wishes rather than empirical data.

Presented inconvenient facts, deniers resort to censorship, intimidation, name-calling, and appeals to dogma to enforce or restore silence. These actions may be marketed as "strength", but they are logically its opposite.

Most of the PMA Moonies I worked with in the school system back in the 80s and 90s were more properly chronic denialists, unwilling or unable to address the daunting work at hand. Tellingly, they also couldn't sort a pessimist ("Don't attempt to solve this; we'll only make things worse") from an optimist ("Let's flush our problems into the sunlight and slay the crap out of them!").

In Zen we endeavour to look deeply. Any prejudice that obstructs our vision we engage to clear away. So let's first recognise that attitude isn't an objective phenomenon. The elephant tramples positive and negative monk alike, and any insistence that a cheery outlook can change that is magical thinking. (Which is a therapy term for delusion.)

What attitude does influence is our choices. An optimist might devise a response to the charging elephant ("I know! I'll use my feet to get out of its way! Because I'm awesome like that!"), whereas a pessimist might declare the trampling inevitable, thereby guaranteeing it. But in both cases, reality is influenced by a course of action (practice), not an attitude (perception).

In Zen practice, the two perspectives manifest like this:

P: "Do not criticise the teacher, the sangha, or the Zen community. It causes people to lose faith in the practice."

O: "The Buddha and the Ancestors have provided the tools we need to correct the errors of the teacher, the sangha, and the Zen community."

P: "I'll never practice properly because there is no teacher or Zen centre nearby, and the experts all say you have to have those." (Or: "… because my teacher or Zen centre isn't doing it right." Or: "… because institutional Zen doesn't do it for me, and everybody says you can't practice alone.")

O: "I can order my practice to conform to circumstances, among which are my situation and my nature. Or I can take a page from the Ancestors and continue as-is, seeking enlightenment in things as they are."

P: "Zen is grown lazy, sensual, namby-pamby, narcissistic, Confucian, political, hippy, poser, intellectual, bourgeois, institutional, Western, something. You can't truly do it in this time and/or place. The only genuine Zen is in the past and/or Asia."

O: "Zen is the best shot I've got. Ima do it."

That last one has saved my butt more times than I can count.

(Photo of cat realising her potential courtesy of Steve Jurvetson and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

WW: The ocean giveth

(Latest fudo ring, collected from the beach after a storm.)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Meditation Meditation

"You start out feeling, 'Oh Lord, I hate this' and then later on you feel 'Oh boy this is wonderful', and you're wrong both times."

Robert Pirsig

(Photo of Zen monk striking call to zazen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

WW: Evening Steller's jay

(Cyanocitta stelleri)

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Fortune Cookie Zen

Some things were harder, because I was older. As a young man I hiked for days and slept on hard ground, but on the Acres it immediately became clear I needed a bed. My glasses too were insufficient to see the stars, or identify birds and trees at a distance. I felt like Burgess Meredith in the bank vault.

When I was ten I heard tiny bells in the lake when it rained, and thought my father was being difficult when he claimed to hear no such thing. But I haven't heard the bells in years.

And then there was the energy. At 23, teaching in a rural school that demanded three concurrent fulltime jobs of me, I skipped breakfast, lunch, and sleep. If I tried that now, it would kill me.

And, perhaps most debilitating: the passion. Ardent enthusiasm, dogged opposition, throbbing heartbreak. All were inherent in me, then. I live more economically now.

Old people like to claim they're slower to spark because they've gained wisdom. The truth is we're just tired.

Some things were easier. I didn't bore as quickly. Just one of those yearlong days would have broken me at 17; then, an unfilled hour was torture. I lived in the moment at that age, but as if it were forever. No evil undefied, no windmill uncharged. And no time lost to pondering whether windmills were the problem.

Impatience wastes a lot of time.

I'm too worn out for it now. If maturity has a vice, it is this: that it is lazy. Be still, and a multitude of problems solve themselves. But mindfully done, inaction can defeat adversaries action can't. Thus the great insight of age: that any vow can be kept for a hundred days. And those days are meaningless without it. On the Acres I was free of the addictions that ruled me outside: variety, change, external diversion.

Therefore, hermitry is for the young. And for the old. Because you must have both strength and insight. But as you're only ever issued one at a time, you must either manufacture insight from strength, or strength from insight.

Which is the biggest load of fortune-cookie crap when you're out there for days on end, with nothing for company but your own shortcomings.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

WW: Monday, 20 March 2017, is Bodhisattva Day!

Vintage 80s 8-Bit Scottie Dogs Tacky Ugly Christmas Sweater It's that time of year again, friends. Time to get out your cardigan and represent for cool-headed compassion.

This Bodhisattva Day is more important than ever. (Somehow that keeps happening.)

So this Monday, 20 March 2017, let's see some wool out there, brothers and sisters. Click the link above for details.

And don't let the bastards make you mean.

(Photo [cropped for composition] of cool dude in weapons-grade cardigan courtesy of and Flickr.)

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Shovelling Peas Into Your Pants

In 1975, British artists Brian Eno (a musician) and Peter Schmidt (a painter) developed a formal system for smashing "creative block" (i.e., writer's block, except for everyone). They called it Oblique Strategies (deck: "Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas"), and it caused quite a stir in that decade's famously vivacious art scene.

The mechanism is deceptively simple: Eno and Schmidt wrote sentences on index cards and stacked them up. Then each time they smacked into a brick wall, or found themselves churning out the same old same-old, they turned over the top card and did whatever it said.

Most bear commands, such as:
State the problem in words as clearly as possible
Cut a vital connection
Humanise something free of error

 A few ask questions (hello, Zen!):
What were you really thinking about just now?
When is it for? Who is it for?
What mistakes did you make last time?

And many rival the best koanic poetry:
Remember those quiet evenings
Lost in useless territory
If eating peas improves virility, shovel them into your pants

For decades the card decks were only released in limited editions, expensive at the time and stupid now. To his credit, Eno recently released a production edition (some 150 prompts), but even that costs £40.00. While it would be a cool thing to own (I much prefer real, tactile tools to digital ones) we're not all hip enough even for those prices.

Fortunately, admirers have compiled OS prompts into online "strategy generators": web pages that randomly produce a meditation each time you reload them.

The two I used to write this post are:

So why am I writing about such artsy-fartsy stuff on a Zen site? Because "practice" is a synonym for "rut".

Yeah, I know: we Zenners love us our forms. We're inordinately – illogically – proud to do everything exactly as the Ancestors did.

And that's fine. But it does co-arise two dependencies:

1. It's crap. Nobody here and now is doing what they did in the mountains of China in the 13th century.


2. That's a good thing, because "consistent" is a synonym for "dead".

Therefore, as a guy who supervises his own practice, I find it worthwhile to shake things up from time to time. Examine my actions. Analyse my intent. (I was going to add "Vet my results", but since that word has recently become an instrument of torture, I'll "appraise" them instead.)

And – possibly the only trait we hold in common – this system is almost as effective for hermits as it is for rock stars. Fact is, even monasteries and Zen centres could stand the periodic administration of one such kyôsaku:

1. Everybody meditates in the zendo.
2. Someone (OK, a specially-ordained monk with a task-specific Sino-Japanese title) turns over the top card and reads it to the sangha
3. Everybody meditates again
4. The sangha discusses the prompt, with a view to implementing one or two of the practice adjustments it inspires.

(If this procedure is too Buddhic for your sangha, you could empower your teacher or non-profit board to impose the adjustments instead.)

Such a practice, faithfully applied, might go a long way toward busting the staleness and inertia that institutions breed by their very nature. It might also clear out some of the hierarchical congestion that generates and sustains abuses large and small.

Be advised that since OS was developed specifically for artists, some prompts may not be germane to enlightenment practice. (Or even Tito or Michael.) But I would caution fellow seekers to look deeply before discarding one.

It may be that "The tape is now the music" has a monastic application after all.

(Photo of a man performing water calligraphy in front of Beijing's Temple of Heaven courtesy of Immanuel Giel and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

WW: Waiting for spring

(So we can kill it.)

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Good Book: I See By My Outfit

By dint of random good fortune I just read I See By My Outfit: Cross-Country by Scooter—an Adventure, by Peter S. Beagle. This inexplicably obscure American masterpiece is basically Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets On the Road by way of Three Men in a Boat, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who appreciated those classics. (I commend it even harder to those who couldn't get through the first two. Beagle utterly lacks the pretence of Kerouac or Pirsig.)

In 1963, Peter and his childhood best friend, artist Phil Sigunick, set out from New York City for the Bay Area on motor scooters. Yeah, that's not a typo: scooters. Weird-looking Heinkel Tourists, from the days when former Nazi aircraft manufacturers were still doghoused by punitive restrictions.

If a cute little city-boy scooter doesn't strike you as the tool for the task, welcome to the adventure. (Past tense form; in the present we call it "catastrophe".)

But Phil and Pete are 24 and invincible, and the tale that ensues is simultaneously hilarious, insightful, and nostalgic. Beagle's tart, economical prose foreshadows the power that will soon make him a cultural icon. A few years later he will write The Last Unicorn (an event subtly hindsighted by his obsession with Tolkien, whose work he has to define for 1964 readers) and become a lion of literary fantasy. But that's even farther ahead than California at this point.

In fact, lots of things are ahead of him, but he's trying not to think about that. For the moment his life is a sequence of picnic grounds and diners; fleabag hotels, pawnshops, and borrowed guitars; breakdowns and rainstorms; eerily prescient cow town parochials; and more than one Cold War cop with little clue where his authority ends – or interest.

Along the way we get pithy, almost poetic descriptions of little towns along old Route 40, some of which have hardly changed in half a century. (I checked on Google Street View.) Pop-culture call-outs recreate the ecosystem of the period. Together with bookish literary references they feed the capital Internet scavenger hunt that signals a great book.

And through it all, the simple joy of being a brash young twentysomething, smart-mouthed and game, and somehow, in Beagle's case, aware of it. His breezy, funny patter is the sort of thing you can only produce – or get away with – at that age. The fact that he and Sigunick constantly remind each other to act like smart-mouthed twentysomethings – because that's their calculated schtick – is at once endearing, and a little surrealistic.

Outfit does suffer from an excess of voice in places, particularly in the repartee between the boys, which can become tedious when it pokes too long in the inside-jokey territory of childhood friends. Fortunately, Beagle's tight pacing limits these interludes to a fleeting irritation.

Some readers have also fingered the riders' casual misogyny, amounting mostly to failure to take women seriously. Beagle himself reportedly winces at those moments now, which as a fellow old man I can well imagine. But their tone is par for young stallions in 1963, and so they are a lesson in their own right. (Full disclosure: my friends and I talked similarly – out of female earshot – twenty years later.)

For the rest, my main complaint is incompleteness. The book badly needs an epilogue, maybe two – one in-period, the other retrospective. And for a book about an artist, it's frustratingly unillustrated. Why don't we have those gouaches Phil's always executing, in parking lots and beside bridges? (Both oversights may have been corrected in subsequent editions; I read the original, with the cover above.)

One thing is certain: I See By My Outfit deserves to be much more widely read. It's a beloved classic waiting fifty years and counting to happen. If you like road stories, or Americana, or social history, or just effervescent, youthful prose, this one's for you.

I nearly cried when it was over, just because there was no more to read.

Update, 7 March 2017: I've just stumbled over this 2012 Chronogram profile of Phil and his wife Judy, in which occurs the following line: "He is also a primary character in Peter S. Beagle’s classic cross-country travelogue, I See By My Outfit, for which he is creating a soon-to-be-published series of illustrations." I hope this means that my above speculation is correct, and that a recent re-issue of Outfit now includes adequate, dare we hope generous, graphic contributions by the book's co-protoganist. I mean, c'mon. Dude shares top billing in this trip, and he's a recognised artist. Isn't this the definition of a "no-brainer"?.

Heinkel Tourist 175, Bj. 1956 1a

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

WW: Story problem for cats

Q. You got a whole bed. From pillow to foot, where do you sleep?

A. On the freshly-laundered shirt.

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