Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? - That Which We Already Know

Imagine, if you will, that child of tender years that you once were – perhaps four or five or six years old. You’re at a gathering of some sort, with many of your mother’s or your father’s adult friends in attendance, or maybe relatives that you’ve never met before; and as the awkward introductions proceed, at least one of the grownups smiles at you and enquires: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

What would your response have been? Would you have embarked upon delighted imaginings, or begun parroting precocious certainty? Would the question have even made sense to you, or would it have left you instead with a confounded blankness? And me? Well, count me amongst the confounded, for the most part.

Oh sure, I engaged in my share of roleplaying fun. As boys did at the time, we played Cowboys and Indians, and other war games. From time to time I even dressed up in the Batman costume my mother sewed for me and I pretended that I was as big and strong and smart as the “real” (adult) batman on T.V. When Halloween came around, though, more likely than not I chose to dress up as a hobo.

The author explores ways to manifest his True Self

I’d like to think that that choice of Halloween costume foreshadowed my later appreciation of one of the most highly evolved hobos of all time – the Buddha. To be sure, dressing up as a bum was a fairly popular thing for boys to do back in those days; and, yes, little was required beyond grease penciling a scruffy beard on your face, throwing one of your father’s big old flannel shirts over your shoulders, and tying a bundle of rags wrapped in a kerchief onto the end of a found stick. That notwithstanding, there does seem to be something telling about my desire to be a hobo.

Do I reveal too much about my adult psyche in saying that – as I drive by one of those still wild places that exist down in the over-grown culverts along the highway or in the odd parcels of land too small or inaccessible to be of commercial value – I think of sitting there in solitude, the quiet observer that I have been for as long as I can remember. I know a little bit of what it is like to be a hobo, I think – to feel that there is little in this so-called civilized world to become attached to – to feel that living amidst the truth of those still wild places, as difficult and insecure as that might be, is better than dying slowly amongst the falseness of this fallen world that we’ve created. Was my knowing this already to the depths of my being what inspired me to dress up as a hobo on those Halloween nights so very long ago?

We so gradually develop the self-awareness of our adult years that we tend to forget those childhood days when we had very little of it at all. When we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up we tend to assume that they have a similarly precisely demarcated and robust sense of self as we do, with the ability to project those aspects of who we think we are into whatever prospective role we might be contemplating in order to determine whether it might be the “right fit”. Children do not yet have the ability to do this in any meaningful way. They are so innately expert at being precisely what they are, with neither effort nor forethought, that the idea of one day choosing what to be is totally foreign to their experience. The world of the child is not yet a collection of puzzle pieces amongst which they must “fit”. No, the developing capacity of self-awareness has not yet taken up the laser beam of the intellect in order to create the myriad separate pieces of the world.

What a child ‘is’ is the totality of everything that they know, their siblings and parents, their friends and neighbors, their home and yard and neighborhood. Like those water turtles that I spoke of back in Chapter One, they settle amongst the flotsam and jetsam of this modern world without judgment or separation. They simply are, and the world simply is, and the two of them are not yet two, although their human karma will one day make it so.

So, what do you want to be when you grow up? The question comes like a voice calling from someplace far, far away: You live in oneness now, my child. You have not yet realized the fallenness of this world. You live without wanting to be anything other than precisely what you are, but that cannot last. You must one day learn to be separate from all that is. You must choose what you will be.

Yes, of course, that is the way of the world, and we would be remiss to let our children grow up without contemplating all that is within their power and purview to do and become. The difficulty is that, in doing so, we also tend to foster a sense of separation from all that is – the oneness that is their birthright – the truth that they’ve known all along.

Image References

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Human Karma Becomes Manifest - That Which We Already Know

With this post I bring to a close Chapter 5 of That Which We Already Know. For those of you who are just happening upon this blog, please note that I am bringing this work to fruition in sequential order and with a minimum of editing being done on previous posts. Each post is written to stand on its own, more or less. That said, I hope you'll consider exploring this work from the beginning. Enjoy!

Chapter 5 (conclusion)

At the moment of our human birth there is no question as to the naturalness of our being. We are each a living, breathing, physical organism arising out of and interacting with this physical world with the totality of our being. But while all the other beings of the animal kingdom remain immersed in their naturalness for the remainder of their lives, we humans are an altogether different animal. We inherit the neurobiology made possible by millions of years of evolution – neurobiology that will eventually give rise to the fully developed self-awareness that makes us stand apart from all of the other animals and the rest of the natural world. We might think of this developing self-awareness in positive terms, as the dawning of the light of our humanness. We might also consider it in negative terms, however, as our descent into the fallenness of our fully mature state of being.

Perhaps it is on account of the latter that we tend to look back on our childhood days with such nostalgia. We were much more firmly rooted in the present back in those days. If not completely carefree, we could at least relinquish those cares with much more ease from moment to moment. We could learn that there are burglars “out there” in one moment, and then we could run off and play without a single care in the world in the next. We could see images on the television of a war raging somewhere “out there” in the world, and then we could run on over to a friend’s house as if we were oblivious to the existence of such darkness. Sure enough, those concerns would return, and many more. After all, we’d only just begun to fall. But it was our orientation toward the present moment that enabled us to return so easily to our gloriously uninhibited and spontaneous childhood state – one of full-functioning engagement with the world.

During those most glorious of childhood days we had just enough self-awareness to keep from tripping over our feet as we ran like the wind down the street. We had just enough self-awareness to know how far up into the tree we could climb without unduly risking falling on our heads. We had just enough self-awareness to keep from burning ourselves on the stove or steering our bikes out into the busy traffic. On the other hand, our burgeoning self-awareness had not yet grown so overwhelming as to distract us from full immersion in whatever activity we were engaged in, or to inhibit us with self-consciousness.

Sooner or later, though, the child must learn to meet the challenges and dangers of the “outside” world, and we adults would be remiss in not helping them along in that regard. And so the list of things for the child to fear keeps growing longer and longer – in part due to the developing child acquiring a more accurate assessment of an already fallen human world, and in part due to an expanding awareness that there is indeed a self to be harmed, and many ways for that harm to be inflicted.

The Buddhist concept of karma makes sense in this regard – not in the sense of some cosmic payback system for all of the good and bad things that we do, but in the sense of created patterns of existence and behavior. There is karma that we share with all living things in that we need to take something from our environment in order to survive. This is the karma that is stored in and expressed by the respective genomes of all living things. There is also karma that only we human beings share: the “hardwired” neurobiology that gives rise to self-awareness, for instance, and the “programmed” karma related to our social mores, myth, and historicity. Similarly, there is the familial karma of shared genetic tendencies overlaid with shared experiences and interpretations that are passed down in story and imitated behavior from generation to generation to generation. Of course, there is also the karma that most of us think of – those idiosyncratic patterns of thought and behavior, whether unconscious in nature or purposefully replicated – stored in our neural networks and in the very muscles that bring it to life.

The children of our Stone Age ancestors had substantially less to learn from their elders when compared to the children of today. Little was required back then in the way of toilet training and personal hygiene, for instance. There was no alphabet to learn or multiplication tables to memorize. There were no schools and no “careers” to prepare for. Learning and work were seamlessly integrated into day to day existence, and day to day existence was seamlessly integrated into the totality of the natural world – just as it was for any other of the animals of the forest. Sure, there were tools to be made – the flint-knapping of spear points, and the carving of needles and fishhooks. Other than a few such notable and uniquely hominid exceptions, however, our Stone Age ancestors hunted in a manner similar to other social predators; they gathered in a manner similar to other foraging animals; they read the seasons and they wandered and roamed similar to other migrating animals. Each and every action grew out of the reality of the natural world. Just as a bird builds its nest in precise fulfillment of its need, with nothing superfluous nor incomplete, so our Stone Age ancestors lived from day to day to day.

Oh, how different life is for we modern humans! How insufficient the sufficiency of the forest has become! How insufficient we have become! With self-awareness has come the nagging sense that we don’t have enough, that we don’t know enough, that we aren’t capable enough – that we are lacking and incomplete. This sense of insufficiency and incompleteness is prominent enough to have earned a central place in Alfred Adler’s very influential theory of Individual Psychology. In Adler’s view, it is the manner in which the developing child deals with these feelings of insufficiency and incompleteness (inferiority) that determines the type of person that she will become.

While our fallen forebears only eventually came to realize their “nakedness” back there in that proverbial Garden of Eden, we modern humans come to realize it all too quickly. With nakedness comes shame and fear of the shame that might be. With nakedness comes fear of harm and insufficiency. With nakedness comes fear that we might lose that which we perceive ourselves having gained, and scheming in order to get that which we fear having to live without. Our nakedness, of course, is simply our human neurobiological karma manifesting self-awareness, blossoming forth from the ground of our being. With burgeoning self-awareness our genetic predispositions become manifest within the social milieu in which we are raised. The fears of our parents and our neighbors and our nation become our own, often keeping us in our fallen state for the remainder of our days. Such is the nature of our karma.

Image References

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nature's Fan – Girl with a Child by Shu Shen via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Laid to Waste - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 5 (continued) - Laid to Waste

There were many ponds out there in the Nursery – tabletop-sized holes left behind after the occasional harvest of a shrub or sapling – deep enough to hold rainwater throughout all but the driest of summers. In its heyday the workers at Gerhardt Gardens likely filled those holes with new plantings as soon as the space became available. By the time I arrived on the scene, however, business had long been in decline. Nothing was planted by human hands out there during all the years of my childhood, and so those ponds remained year after year – growing wilder and wilder with each passing season.

I got to know those ponds well. Given their number and wide dispersal they could be encountered on virtually any random stroll; but the fact that they were often filled with multitudes of croaking frogs made them attractive destinations in their own right. When I was all alone I’d sit beside one of them, quietly waiting for the life there to either get used to my presence or forget it, as the case may be. Frogs would begin to croak again, birds would return, and dragonflies would glide back in to hover just over the water and light upon the weed-stems at pond’s edge. On those occasions that I visited with a friend, however, it was much more likely that we’d spend our time seeing how many of those frogs we could catch using just our bare hands.

Of course, catching frogs bare-handed requires a fair amount of stillness in and of itself, albeit stillness of a much more intentional nature. One needs to be still and silent and watchful for signs of movement in the shadows and amongst the weeds; but one also needs to be prepared to move quickly and with a precise and steady hand in order to scoop up one’s quarry on the very first attempt, for there will likely not be another for quite some time. Once apprehended, we’d dutifully examine each little being and place it in a big cider jug or something for safekeeping until the hunt was over. In this way we didn’t risk pursuing to exhaustion some hapless frog that otherwise might have ended up getting caught over and over again.

I wish I could say that the frogs’ best interests were always utmost in our minds, but of course I realize now that it might have been even better at times to simply leave them well enough alone. Yes, it’s true that children manifest their wonder at the world by picking things up and touching and examining them. And, yes, ensuring that children have opportunities to manifest their wonder is ultimately crucial to the survival of life on earth. How else will we humans nurture our innate desire to live with it rather than opposed to it? Unfortunately, though, our frog-catching ended up veering far from the realm of wonder and deep into the realm of self-indulgence. It was a gradual transition, to be sure, but once it was complete it was as if a mirror had been thrust up to my face in order to show me what I’d become – separate, wounded, and fallen. Yes, I was still a child, but I was now all too aware of the incredible potential for destruction that lurked deep inside of me.

It was the height of summer. Insects buzzed and flitted about in the still and sweltering air, weeds stood tall in between the rows of trees and shrubs, the frogs out in the many ponds had completely lost their tails, and Mark Patrick and I were busy catching as many of them as we could. It started innocently enough. We set up shop beside a pair of adjacent ponds and proceeded to practice the skills that we’d learned. Things were different this time, though. Our play became a competition, a keeping of score, a determination of a winner and a loser. It took on a more hectic, and then a frenzied pace. Where once we took the time to get to know each and every frog that ended up in the palms of our hands, now we deposited them perfunctorily into our respective pots and turned our attention back to the task at hand. Where once our frog-catching had been an outgrowth of our sense of wonder, now it was merely a game. Where once Mark and I had engaged with a sense of camaraderie this activity that we both enjoyed, now we measured ourselves one against the other and began to grow concerned about the outcome.

I don’t recall who was in the lead when we came to realize that the game was coming to a close by virtue of our having caught nearly every single little frog. We couldn’t be sure of that, though. All we could be sure of was that it was getting harder and harder to find each successive frog that we might catch. Perhaps the slowing pace of our game gave us time to think of a win-win way out of the competitive quandary that we’d gotten ourselves into. We took to discussing how we would actually know when we’d caught every last little frog that we could possibly catch. And that’s when we came up with the idea for the greatest engineering feat of our then short lives. We would bail all the water from one pond into the other, and in doing so we could be certain of having caught each and every last frog, at least in that particular pond. Then came step two. We would dig a trench between the two and drain the now overly full pond back into the just emptied one. We’d keep an eye on the little trench and catch any frogs that tried to use it to escape. Then, when the water levels were equal once again, we’d take to bailing the water back into the other pond – catching all of the remaining frogs in the process. I remember well the final stage of our trench-digging. Mark took to straddling it, deepening almost the entirety of its length with the churning action of his legs and feet. When he was through all we needed to do was dig with some sticks through the remaining few inches of earth in order to set the water flowing.

It sounds very ugly, and, of course, it was. By the time we were done we’d created a pair of muddy pits with all of the vegetation around the perimeter trampled into oblivion. The water was murky and no longer a fit place for all of the frogs that sat waiting patiently for their return. They didn’t yet know that their once happy home had been laid to waste.

I tried not to show it, but I felt sick. I felt shame. I felt dirty – far dirtier than my mud-smeared arms and legs might attest. Mark and I emptied our containers full of frogs in some nearby ponds and parted ways. I walked back home alone with the weight of my deed sinking heavier and heavier onto my shoulders. I didn’t want to go out and play the next day. If I were to return to the Nursery, I would just be reminded of my crime. But neither could I get it off of my mind simply by staying away from the scene. It was an even hotter day than the previous one. The solitary window air-conditioner in our home droned loudly so as to keep at bay the oppressive heat of the outdoors. I lay on the couch beneath it – gazing out at the maple trees in the front yard swaying in the gathering breeze. I was neither inside nor outside. I was nowhere – no longer feeling that I belonged anywhere. There was a storm brewing inside of me. It built in strength as the maples began to pitch and bend. There was a storm brewing outside as well. I couldn’t hear it over the air-conditioner, but I could see it. The sky was growing dark. My mind was growing dark. The universe was displeased with me. I was no longer part of all that was. I was separate, and it was painful. There was no longer anywhere to go. There was no longer anywhere to be.

Image References

Common frog (Rana temporaria) in a pond in Simo, Finland by Estormiz via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank