What Does It Want To Do?

swirl water leavesThe words came into his head. Out of nowhere. Like someone else said them. The voice wasn’t even his, but sounded like someone doing a bad imitation of him; slightly nasal with a raspy piercing deepness.

He lounged on his screened front porch, shielded from the eyes of passersby. Not that he knew any of them, really. Just neighbors. The same faces passed his house regularly, fulfilling the daily routine stamped into their lives, in this case by the dogs they walked. He envied them this regularity, at least from a distance. It gave them the power of rooted steadiness, able to withstand gusts of windy life without falling over.

He, on the other hand, felt more like a pile of leaves, able to take any shape and move with the wind, but having no particular form or solidity. He felt like the foam on top of the waves of change and time. For that reason he liked his name, Dorn. It sounded like a part of a decoration. Just part. Not even his name was complete in itself.

“What does it want to do?” Was the question directed at him or from him? He’d always thought of himself as an object, a human form rather than a unique person. So he could be the “it” in question, like the hamster whose owner asks aloud in its presence what it wants to do. He could imagine the neighbors wondering why he didn’t rake his leaves or mow his grass much. Why did he sleep so late before starting his day? He smiled, imagining himself under observation to learn about the perplexing and perhaps dangerous behavior of slightly deviant humans.

But he’d also approached the whole human race from the same detachment he applied to himself. To his misanthropic thinking, most people had no free will. Certainly not as a group. They did what they had to do to survive, or compete, or follow the group.

How many dared break all the “rules” to be free of them? Most desperately “wanted” to fit in, even if they disagreed with the norm. Wasn’t that the way of the world, to be the best behaved lab rats on the block? Wasn’t modern life a conglomeration of activities born of doing what’s healthy, right, smart, well researched, popular, chic, compassionate or efficient?

People thought it was free will to shop when and for what you wanted. Sure, like it would be free will to snort coke when you “wanted”, or sleep when you’re tired or eat when you’re hungry. No. To him people had about as much free will as cats or birds. Clink their bowl and they come running for more treats. The “It” in question could mean humanity flowing along the luscious and complex Cinerama of cause and effect, survival and conformity. Freedom is an elusive thing.

Thoughts continued to burst like microwave popcorn. Body, mind, systems of language, culture, society, history, chance; all burst with answers to explore. All seemed to operate in systems of their own, with particular patterns of cause and effect, like an IT without will. Letting the scope of the question grow, it now encompassed something beyond humanity and earth. What if “it” in question is the universe. What does IT want to do? Is the universe conscious of doing anything? How can it be? So how can it want to do something?

This thinking began to give an answer, not so much an answer as another kind of question. Why was Dorn able to ask these questions? If all aspects of the universe, from individuals to groups to cosmos, were operating under definable and determinate rules, what did it imply about his ability to wonder at the unanswerable nature of the questions? Gazing with wonder at snow falling, or leaves swirling in a gust of wind, or the peaceful purring of a sleeping cat, or the powerful ephemeral majesty of the setting sun; were those activities just another cog in the wheel of cause and effect?

Sometimes Dorn wanted to do things. Yes, he himself actually wanted to do something, without consideration for their usefulness or conformity. He wanted to sob for hours at the horror of the human race’s continual violence to other creatures, torture, abuse of power, manipulation of lives for personal gain, blind selfishness, pettiness, laziness, destruction of the planet. He included himself in that mass of insidious perfidiousness. He also wanted to hug and kiss anyone he met on the street, to break the ice of distance and normality, to start a new spark of spontaneous love. He wanted to reward with the greatest possible emotion anyone and everyone who struggled to make the world a little better place.

But he was usually paralyzed into doing what’s normal; smile, go about your business, leave the worrying to someone else. Sometimes he wanted to stop doing anything, because so much of “normal” life involved conforming to patterns of tacit destruction and manipulation and evasion of naked truth. He felt trapped, unable to escape his own involvement, his complicity in such a world. How could he fight it without becoming further caught in the vicious cycle? However, these thoughts embarrassed him, because of their wimpiness. He could imagine someone saying, “Get off your ass and do something about it!”

He quickly grew overwhelmed. How could he fathom what the universe wanted to do or how to determine what is truly free will? A fuse burned out in his mind. That often happened to him. He’d break open a huge subject, even with friends, and by the time they had gotten deep into the discussion, he’d poop out, move on, wanting to do something else. He had a feeling it was an escape, a kind of laziness, to give up on the big questions. But what the heck, everyone else did it.

So he finished his last swig of beer. Out of habit, the idea of a walk came to mind. According to numerous studies, walking is good for you, and it passed some time in a way others would accept as normal. So off he went, to be healthy and normal.

That’s what IT wanted to do for now, at least. But the question would haunt him toward further exploration.

Going OUT and Letting IN

Blue Dart Frog Fully PresentWhat does it mean to be fully present? Many religions and spiritual practices refer to the idea. But it is not necessary to follow any particular practice to acquire the awareness and skill to be present. Yet that skill is useful in becoming more fully human.

However, the task is not so easy as it may seem. As a young man reading about Zen Buddhism for the first time, I thought it was just a switch which, once flipped, stayed “on” and that was it. Yet, that little skill, stumbled upon by early spiritual practices such as Buddhism, can lead to a blossoming of confidence and compassion. It balances many issues of selfishness which arise from too much focus on “self-development”.

Perhaps it’s the way my psyche is built, but I tend to think of myself as very separate from the world, limited by my ability to “perform” on the world stage. My self-expectations precede and deflate any possibility of spontaneous happiness. I get lost in this artificial separateness and forget to just “be” and “breathe” into whatever happens.

Rather than approach these issues from a psychological perspective, I have found that practicing the following “exercise” can break the paranoid illusion of separateness from the outside world. When I am at the “surface” of my self, I can make eye contact with others without feeling invasive of their space or invaded by their probing eyes. (Yes, I feel uncomfortable with eye contact) It’s a simple way to clarify our interactions on the “world stage”, so that our character is more innocent and open, rather than being preoccupied by judgment, fear or hesitation.

When we let go of the need to analyze and carve out meaning, we let in a different kind of awareness. A primary sense of being arises. If you think of letting go a big “muscle” behind the eyes and nose, let it soften and sink open, you begin to feel something else happening. You come out into the world and let the world in simultaneously, as if a big fish tank has broken and you realize the water and air can mix just fine.

You meet the world with your primary self, or what might be called simple self or original self. When the two become well acquainted, you notice how much more present you can be during times of stress and frustration. This primary self is almost always superseded by our crazy, mental, stressful culture. We either focus intently on something, usually an idea or activity, or we space out and disappear altogether.

This practice can help with ego and selfishness. If we see ourself as something continuous between inside and outside, it becomes easier to let go of hurt, anger and frustration. Forgiveness is only possible when you let in compassion and pity. Anger is easier to release when you see that caring and understanding can be received from others. It’s not a cure all, but it helps soften the pain of separateness. We can then begin the long process of embracing connections within our large world with less inhibition and fear.

What do you see when you think of God?

I see an incomprehensibly vast universe, perhaps “breathing” by expansion and contraction to a single point over trillions of years; a universe in which I barely exist, but which I am unbelievably lucky and blessed to be able to experience and be aware of. Outside that universe, I cannot even imagine what could be. I am humbled by the thought.


The Shape of the Blanks, II

Leave the Blanks EmptyLeave the blanks empty and watch their shape evolve. Emptiness has shape. The space of emptiness has definition in relation to its surroundings.

There are numerous times each day when we compulsively fill in the blanks. When a stranger looks as us oddly, we search for the reason. “Is there a smudge on my face? Is my zipper undone? Am I ugly?” When a friend looks at us oddly, we become frantic, especially if the reason is unapparent. “Did I offend her? Did I forget something? Is something wrong?” Even asking for the reason often doesn’t satisfy our doubt. “Perhaps this person is hiding something to avoid hurting me.”

Years ago I read Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”. Barthes’ lighthearted observations of the bewildered lover’s frantic interior dialog offers an entertaining read, but also strikes close to many of our real experiences. When the beloved is late for a date, the lover’s thoughts ping-pong at hyper speed to gain some sense of the situation, running various vignettes across his vision: the beloved making love to someone else; the beloved, dead in the middle of the road; and so on.

In relationships, every look, word, tone of voice, silence, pattern of presence or absence is charted, dissected, rinsed, scrubbed and rehashed to squeeze out any and every drop of meaning. Ultimately, the meaning is contextual; the answers change like quantum particles, leaving more questions. The end result is little or no gain and lots of strain.

When I see someone going through this kind of self torture, it’s as if they are tumbling rocks. As I kid I used to have a rock tumbling kit. My friends and I would gather a dozen interesting small rocks and place them in the rock tumbler with gritty minerals to polish them over many hours. The results was shiny rocks. And that’s about what you get when you try to answer unanswerable questions. The answers may become shiny, but they’re still rocks.

When alone, we tend to fill every thought space with something. We judge, name, analyze, decide and dismiss. Most of these verbs are considered desirable activities when we are at work solving specific problems. But the rest of the day we need to balance ourselves with open awareness and open ended creativity, not answers. Even after we tire of filling in the blanks ourselves, we then turn on the TV to fill them for us.

Over years and decades of filling in the blanks, our persistent attempts to fill the void becomes a compulsive background noise like static. The photo at the beginning of this post depicts this constant state quite graphically. There is no possibility of white, peaceful space with this kind of static going on all the time.

The desire to know all the answers is a natural and comforting habit. We want to have everything tidy and finished. We cling to this habit tenaciously. But that’s not the way reality unfolds. It’s difficult to let go of this feeling of control. Allowing the answers to remain blank can feel like jumping into a void. But as we grow accustomed to the idea, we realize the blanks are not empty at all, but full of a wondrous, infinite possibilities.

The Shape of the Blanks

The Shape of the BlanksCan we ask oursevles questions without trying to answer with too much finality? In our busy, goal oriented society, it’s considered unproductive. We believe we need to fill in all the blanks.

There are questions which don’t necessarily have clear answers, at least right now. Who am I? What will become of me? Who is the perfect mate for me? What do I really want from life? Why am I like I am? Even questions like, What should I do today? can cause a compulsive filling in of the blank. Most of us would immediately jump to answer these, thinking we know exactly what the answers are or should be. Or perhaps it’s what we want them to be.

The process of being alive, of being human, rarely has a “fill in the blank” simplicity. The answers change. They evolve. Sometimes they are better left blank. Filling in the blanks may actually hurt us. It can create labels which limit us, box us in. If I answer the question Who am I? with “I am a selfish person, because I’ve been told that, and because I tend to take care of myself before others”, I inflict more damage than good. But if I say “I will acknowledge what others think of me, and I will take care of myself, but I know I am aware of others well being. I just don’t wrap my life around it. My way of showing that I care it different.” Then I leave open the possibility of change. The answer is more positive.

Even better is to simply leave the blank empty and watch its shape as we allow our thoughts to filter in and out of the space created by the question. Then more possibilities are allowed into the equation. The blanks can blossom with a creative opening of new answers we had never considered before.

When we face stress, we tend to label the stress as bad, something to be avoided as much as possible, something to minimize. This kind of filling in the blanks creates a gap in our motivation. It prevents us from flowing with the moment and the freedom to process the stressful situation with alacrity. By simply leaving those blanks empty we prevent blocking our own progress with negative thoughts. The shape of the blanks may loom and threaten us, but we can smile and watch as the clouds pass leaving our minds clear to tackle the issues at hand.

Krishnamurti was famous for answering his followers questions with questions. Tonally a question has a lift at the end, allowing it to remain unfinished, open. Rhetorically a question leaves the answer soft and malleable, ready for adjustments, or more questions. Few philosophical questions in life have definitive answers. Why not allow the answers to ebb and flow like the tide, which brings in new answers and uncovers others when leaving?