Sunday, August 17, 2014

Acceptance - That Which We Already Know

Over the course of my writing and editing this post, Michael Brown was killed in an altercation with a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Ferguson is not too far from where I grew up and presently work. No matter what we might think of how and why this tragedy occurred, the fact that it did occur, and all that has ensued, can't help but give a reflective person pause. I am grateful for having grown up in a peaceful enough place that I was and am allowed to reflect, as I do in this blog, upon that which is most central to human experience. I wish for every child to grow up in such a place.


Chapter 4 (continued) – Acceptance

I’d just turned four shortly before construction began. While there had almost certainly been some scuttlebutt in the preceding months regarding the upcoming addition to our little avenue, in my memory it was an event that descended upon us out of the blue. Where once an unassuming parcel of land sat vacant across the street, suddenly a rectangular hole reached deep into the red clay earth. I remember us gathering around it that “first” evening, marveling as to the sheerness of its earthen walls, wondering at the speed with which so much work had been accomplished, solemnly pondering the conclusion of the older brothers down the street that the earthmover now sitting there idle must have been driven down the ramp carved into the other side of the hole in order to make the bottom so squared off and tidy.

Yes, it was to be just another house, but when you’re four years old and you’ve never seen a house get built before, it is a pretty big deal. There’s so much to examine and explore: the grooves that the teeth of a backhoe leave in the hard clay earth, the shredded roots of an adjacent tree, the building of forms for foundation walls, the smell of damp lumber and wet concrete; and the various and sundry nails, brick ties, electrical box knockouts, wire remnants, and scraps of wood and shingle and sheet metal that one might find scattered around a construction site. I remember watching the men work – at times focusing on the actions of one of them in isolation, at other times having the sense of them swarming about like ants. This is what we do. We build things.






Not long after the groundbreaking for that first house we watched as they ripped up the little vineyard that we used to play in behind the houses at the bottom of our street. This time it was to make way for an apartment complex with a name that we were told was from a foreign language. But even fifty some years of life have not completely erased my memories of that place. I remember how we’d go to the bottom of the lane and pick up the dirt road that wended its way up the hill from the heart of the Nursery. We’d sneak up to a point where we could oversee the vineyard from behind some bushes for a time in order to make sure that nobody was about who might be inclined to run us off. Then, once we’d ascertained that we were alone we’d run and crawl amongst the rows and rows of grapevines until an impromptu game of hide and seek invariably broke out of our overall furtiveness.

And so it was that the excitement of construction came to be suffused with the reality of its accompanying destruction. But even then there was always enough opportunity in construction in order to assuage whatever sense of loss might have arisen. When the thoroughfare out in front of that new apartment complex was eventually widened it exposed a deposit of ellipsoidal concretions that we were certain must be dinosaur eggs worth spending day upon day to unearth. When the road graders tore through the forested hillside bordering the creek where we used to play they also allowed us to discover a vine-draped tree from which we could swing high out over the emerging roadbed. And when the new highway carved its way through the limestone bedrock underlying the rolling terrain of our ever-expanding domain we were afforded endless hours of fossil hunting amongst the newly exposed outcroppings.

It was only later that my adult mind came to associate the construction that has taken place over the years in and around my old neighborhood and throughout this sprawling city with something more insidious and foreboding. Whereas my child’s mind was more fully accepting of these changes as being a natural part of the world order – we build things – my adult mind can’t help but think that we’ve lost our way, that we’re out of control. Yes, we’ve fallen. I’ve fallen. As a species we’ve lost our ability to accept the sufficient bounty of the forest, and as an individual I’ve lost the ability to accept our human activity as being an integral part of the natural order. How strangely ironic it all is!

At the beginning of this book I described a group of turtles sunning themselves contentedly amongst the flotsam of an urban waterway. They were as accepting of the trash in their midst as we children were of the various changes occurring in and around our little neighborhood. As children we were no more in control of what happened in our environment as the turtles were in control of theirs. We entertained no thoughts of banding together and taking action to put a stop to the encroachment of progress on our areas of play. We harbored no ill-will towards “greedy” developers or the “pillagers” of earthly resources. No, the wisdom that we embodied as children manifested, at least in part, as a complete acceptance of that over which we had no control.

Acceptance at times comes grudgingly. At times it comes only after a bitter and losing battle that ultimately ends with our surrender. The acceptance of children, however, is so complete that it comes without any internal struggle whatsoever; it precedes any and all judgments as to good and bad, right and wrong. Faith in Mind, a famous poem by Seng-Ts'an, the Third Patriarch of Zen, succinctly describes the predicament of the fully self-aware individual in its first few lines. The nature of reality is unobscured, he declares, as long as one refrains from making judgments. Begin to make distinctions, however, and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

Of course, this making of distinctions is precisely what transpired after that legendary event all those years ago in the Garden of Eden – the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Thenceforth, heaven was indeed cleaved from the earth; and, thenceforth, we humans began to hold ourselves captive with the chains of our very own distinctions. The irony of our predicament is that our burgeoning self-awareness, the self-awareness that leads us to the making of self-centered distinctions that cleave us from the natural order of things, eventually leads us as well to the realization of our fallen state – to an awareness of the unnaturalness of our ways. This irony is present in Seng-Ts’an’s words, i.e. the distinction between going through life making distinctions, and going through life without!

Despite being tinged with this fundamental irony, Seng-Ts’an’s words undoubtedly speak to us today and are worthy of putting into practice. Having said that, we humans and our self-serving distinctions have created far too many problems to be resolved by simply dispensing with the making of distinctions. What we can do, however, is begin to make distinctions from a place of greater wisdom. We can begin to make distinctions from a place of increasing acceptance. By getting back in touch with the wisdom of children we come to realize that we have enough, that we are enough, that we know enough. We come to have faith once again in the “sufficiency of the forest” that has always sustained us. Yes, we may have to live like those turtles for a time – amidst the flotsam of our own creation – but over time our increasing self-awareness will bring heaven and earth back together again.


The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
(as translated by Clarke, 2001)






References

Clarke, R. (2001). Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind by Seng-Ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch. (R. Clarke, Trans.) Published by White Pine Press.

 
Image References

Boy on a toy front-loader via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:


Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


Sunday, August 3, 2014

We Have A Place (cont.) - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 4 – We Have A Place (continued)

The suburban neighborhood that I live in has fairly robust populations of the usual squirrels, rabbits and birds. Add to that short list all the voles and moles, possums and raccoons, field mice and owls, toads and snakes and insects that at least make an appearance from time, and we have quite an inventory of fauna. Interestingly, though, despite our living in such close proximity, it’s actually quite seldom that I get to know any particular animal. Each robin or sparrow that visits the birdbath on any given day looks and acts pretty much the same as every other robin or sparrow. They don’t have much personality in that regard. They rarely display their individuality.

Occasionally, however, I do get to know a particular animal, and through that relationship, fleeting though it may be, I’m afforded a unique view of what it’s like to live entirely in the natural world. For instance, there was once a mockingbird that perched in the apple tree outside my bedroom window. Every morning around 4:00 or so he would commence to singing at the top of his little lungs – making it almost impossible for me to get any quality sleep for the rest of the morning. At times I resented that little bird for intruding on “my” space. At other times I felt as though we were kindred spirits. I was grieving the breakup of my marriage at the time, you see, and sleep was sweet refuge from the pain. But that little bird was also a regular reminder of the universality of my longing. His song was there in my pain. My pain was there in his song. I’ll never forget my deep sadness upon discovering the little pile of white and gray and black feathers scattered in a circle in the grass about whatever else was left of him. A cat had gotten him, or perhaps a hawk or an owl. Such is the way of the world, isn’t it?




There’s a squirrel that I’ve been seeing around the neighborhood for a couple of years now. “He” only has but a stub of a tail anymore – the result of some violent altercation that I can only imagine. Almost from the moment I laid eyes on him my curiosity gave way to concern. He was walking in strange fashion for a squirrel and I wondered whether his injuries might be more serious than just the loss of a tail. The passage of time assuaged my concerns, however. The awkwardness of his waddle is apparently only due to the absence of a tail to use as balance while hopping around in more squirrel-like fashion. Notwithstanding his debilitating injury, he seems to be as happy as a squirrel can be. If for no other reason than that my spirits are buoyed every time I happen to see him. And if it should come to pass that I find a little tailless carcass around the yard or in the street, I’ll shed a tear for him as well.

Most of all that lives and dies all around us does so anonymously. Perhaps that mockingbird lived out virtually the entirety of its life alone – with no one but his mother and father to care that he’d entered the world, and no one but me to care that he’d left. Perhaps that squirrel, awkward as he might appear, will never find a mate in the survival-of-the-fittest world in which squirrels dwell, and therefore never know whatever fulfillment there might be in starting a squirrel family of his own. And yet, despite the seeming indifference that the natural world displays toward the life or death of any one of its own, still everything has its place. Everything belongs. The universe has given rise to each and every being in whatever idiosyncratic glory they might embody, and each and every one of them knows precisely how to be.

It’s been this way since the beginning of life on earth – with everything belonging, and everything knowing how to be. We humans were no exception, for we too were once of the forest in all of its abundance and simplicity. Unfortunately, though, life for us has become so much more complicated. Our kind has fallen, and each of us has fallen too. Where once we knew exactly how to be, now it can seem as though we’re endlessly thrashing about in the underbrush. We’ve forgotten that we belong. We’ve forgotten how to be. We’ve forgotten that we have enough, that we are enough, that we know enough. Because of our forgetting, we can never seem to rest; and because of our inability to rest, we need to be reminded how to be. “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus is reported to have said, “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Everything that lives carries within its being the wisdom of billions of years of evolution. Everything that lives thus embodies trust that it belongs – that it has a place. Children embody this trust as well. They enter this world not doubting for an instant that they belong – that they have a place. Sure enough, that trust can be taken from them prematurely if they should happen to be raised by an abusive parent or within a dysfunctional family; but even in the best of circumstances whatever trust we have will become lost in the course of our fall. At some point in our life we will begin to sow and reap, and as soon as that day comes we will begin to worry about the results. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Jesus went on to enquire of those who were listening to him speak of the birds of the air.

“You have the right to work,” Krishna said to the despairing Arjuna as he surveyed the next day’s battlefield, “but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working” (Prabhavananda, 1964, p. 40). The fact of the matter is that we are the fruits of the work of the universe. We are the fruit of billions of years of evolution – of countless beings sowing without ever reaping. The mockingbird, the tailless squirrel, and the child – they proceed with their work with the entirety of their being, without any thought of their own enrichment.

The wisdom of children, then, includes the trust that they belong, that they have a place in this world. They neither worry about the day to day concerns of how they will feed or clothe themselves nor the existential concerns that their fallen parents might be struggling with each day. Yes, we all eventually find a way to sow and reap, but the mind with which we do so will make all the difference in our lives. Will we spend our days worrying about whether we’ll ever find a mate with which to share this life, or will we simply sing our song with all the heart we have to give, come what may? Will we bemoan our hindered abilities or circumstances and retreat into a place of psychic poverty, or will we hop throughout our days in tailless glory?

I realize now that this understanding has been with me since I first began to explore the Nursery just beyond our garden gate. I knew just how to be when I was there – without ever needing to be taught. The world unfolded like a flower blossoming in my hands and I, in turn, blossomed completely into it. No, my understanding wasn’t one that I could articulate as I do now with words and concepts – it was understanding that I embodied. Such is the wisdom of children.




  

 References

Prabhavananda, S., Isherwood C. (1964). The song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. (S. Prabhavananda & C. Isherwood, Trans.) Published by The New American Library of World Literature, Inc.


Image References

Flock of Birds courtesy of Faisal Akram via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:



Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Friday, July 25, 2014

We Have A Place - That Which We Already Know

Part II

Chapter 4 – We Have A Place

Amongst the collection of Christmas ornaments that my family unpacked from a battered cardboard storage box each holiday season was a set of a half a dozen heavier gauge aluminum foil snowflakes in those anodized metal colorings now so familiar to us all – blue and green, red and violet, silver and gold. They unfolded in popup book fashion from the flatness of their latent state into eight-pointed wonders for which I took personal responsibility. Perhaps because of their size – they were about as big around as dinner plates – or perhaps because they were always on the bottom of the box and thus became an afterthought to the decorating process, they ended up becoming my personal bedroom decorations. I’d climb up on a stepladder and attach their strings to the plaster ceiling with asterisks of masking tape that occasionally required a supplemental strip or two over the course of the holiday season.

My fondest memory of those snowflakes was of laying in bed watching them spin faster on their strings whenever the furnace kicked on and then gradually unwinding when it kicked off again – over and over and over. I recall one particular evening when my parents were having company and the adult activity continued much longer and a little bit louder than usual subsequent to my being sent off to bed. Light from the living room filtered into the hallway and underneath my bedroom door to set those snowflakes flickering as they spun. Murmurings of adult conversation, likewise, filtered in to where I lay – making me feel warm and cozy, cared for and protected. I had a place. All was as it should be. And as I drifted off to sleep that evening I likely entered a state of mind not too far removed from that oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that a contented infant might enjoy while lying in her crib watching the brightly colored mobile spin slowly over her head.




Childhood has the potential to foster feelings of security and belonging unlike any we will ever experience. When else but in childhood do we feel as though a place has been created for us alone, that people who are so much wiser and more powerful are watching over us and lovingly considering our every need? What if we could carry such peaceful feelings into adulthood? Unfortunately, though, the innocence of our childhood can’t last forever. Our parents can’t be there for us forever. Besides, we eventually come to realize that they’re not as smart or strong as we’d once thought, despite their loving us much more than we could ever know.

It’s not surprising, then, that we might try to keep such feelings alive as long as possible by nurturing belief in some sort of personal and parental God – one who is omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent. As long as we play well the role of the obedient child, we might tell ourselves, then God will continue to play the role of watchful guardian. Of course, things don’t always go as we would like in life, and when that happens we might be inclined to reason that God is teaching us a well-deserved lesson – guiding us along as a caring, if stern, parent might do.

But what about those times when innocence and goodness are met with such brutality and injustice that no amount of rationalization can bring us to accept its being part of God’s grand plan? Child victims of war, disease, starvation and abuse – such all too common realities strain to the breaking point our belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent God, just as our erstwhile belief in the infallibility of our own parents was eventually strained to the breaking point. We might be tempted, then, to peel away our idea of a personal God from the harsh realities all around us and declare that He still loves us even as He foregoes interceding in the injustices wrought by a world ostensibly of His creation. And so it is that we might continue feeling loved for the remainder of our days, and with that sense of love might come a modicum of peace, but the security that we might have once enjoyed in childhood will remain forever in the past. The potential for “injustice” will always be right around the corner. Crime, disease, financial hardship, disaster and accident are always waiting in the wings – if not in reality, then in our minds.

How, then, do we reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our childhood – the wisdom that allowed us to settle unhesitatingly into that calm sense of wellbeing that still lingers as a distant memory? Of course, I’m well aware that you might be prepared to question my use of the word ‘wisdom’ here. Perhaps the aphorism that ignorance is bliss is more apropos from your point of view? We were ignorant of our parents’ inability to truly keep us safe and sound. We were ignorant of all the ways that our world could come crashing down around us. Alright then, let’s step back and explore the nature of that ignorance.

Before the age of 12 or so children are unable to engage in very deeply abstract or hypothetical thought. Until then we think of the world in mostly concrete terms. Our world, for the most part, is what we can apprehend with our senses. Life takes place primarily in the here and now and the "finality" of death is a not very well understood reality. Selfhood, likewise, is a concept that is not quite fully grasped. Think of how young children, if pressed, describe themselves: My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. My Daddy takes us to the park and we run and play catch. I like peanut butter and jelly. I like to draw and read books.

It is only later, after the emergence of self-awareness, that we come to possess such well-developed and articulate answers to the questions of who we are and what we’re here for and where we go when we die: I am so and so, and I believe such and such, and I stand for this and that, and I’m here to accomplish thus and such with my life, and when I’m gone I know I’m going to heaven (or becoming reincarnated, or whatever it is that we might believe). The funny thing is, however, that despite our answers becoming more and more developed and articulate as we grow older, they are not necessarily any more accurate!

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” Socrates is reported to have said. This wisdom of not knowing is something that adepts of the Zen tradition become quite familiar with. In order to really see in the Zen sense, one must let go of words and concepts and ideas regarding the so-called knower and the known. Only then does real seeing take place. This dropping off of conceptualization extends even to that which we take most for granted - ourselves. Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, for instance, when asked who he was by the emperor of his day is reported to have replied quite matter-of-factly that he didn’t know!

Mindfulness practice is becoming rather ubiquitous these days in the treatment of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction and so forth. Rooted in techniques of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness practice gets us back into our bodies and out of that place where the real suffering of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and addiction takes place – our heads. When we’re out of our heads and into our bodies, focusing on our breath or the coming and going of bodily sensations, we’re not worrying about the future or regretting the past; we’re simply in this moment living out the reality of our existence – much like a child.

It seems, then, that some of the most profound wisdom that we can live by is that which urges us to be less sure of what we know, to loosen our iron grip on our sense of selfhood, and to live more in the here and now – away from the schemes and concerns that so consume us. In this way, the blissful ignorance (innocence) of our childhood is actually an expression of embodied wisdom – that which we already know.

Lest anyone be confused by what I’m saying here, I am not advocating that we eschew all abstract thought and conceptualization and regress back to some idealized childhood state. We are now adults and, however fallen we may be, we must stand up where we are and continue living. We need to be able to think clearly and deeply from time to time, and our ability to do so should be nurtured and celebrated. Hopefully we come to know our minds well enough that we might use them like an artisan uses his or her array of tools. When it is skillful and appropriate to chisel away on something, then we do so. When it is skillful and appropriate to refrain from chiseling away on anything, then we refrain from doing so.

Can we ever again know such feelings of security and belonging as we hopefully knew at least at one time as a child? Can we be such skillful artisans that we turn our minds off completely to the concerns of our day to day lives as well as those existential concerns that have us pondering the nature of God and creation and the afterlife? And what if we do? Will we have lost some of what makes us human in the process, or will we actually find our place of belonging in the kingdom of God?




 
Image References


Snowflake image cropped and filtered from a photo courtesy:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:



Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank