Thursday, August 20, 2015

Becoming What We Do

[This piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the July/August 2015 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced her with permission.]

They lived thousands of miles apart on different continents, in different centuries – two men that would go on to become the most influential philosophers in history. They never met, but they shared a common question. What are the mechanics of moral transformation?

In 6th century B.C.E. China, Confucius taught that action precedes internal transformation. We become what we do. Confucius believed that human nature was essentially good, but our innate goodness existed only as potential. In order to actualize our potential, we need to cultivate three primary virtues: shu, ren, and li.

Shu is the consciousness of empathy; the imaginative understanding of how our actions impact others. For Confucius it came down to one simple rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

On this empathetic foundation one then cultivates ren or kindness, the willful decision to work for the good of others with no thought of what we might receive in return. Moving from quid pro quo toward altruism, Confucian morality favors duty over self-interest.

Still, the seeds of shu and ren bear no fruit until they are embodied in the actions of our everyday lives.

Li means proper behavior or decorum – all of the little rituals of life that demonstrate our care and respect for one another. For Confucius, human excellence, like any other art form, is realized through conscious choice and willful practice, in the same way one masters the violin. You don’t get good at violin by thinking about it, or admiring it from afar. You have to pick it up and play. After a lifetime of practice, virtuous behavior becomes internalized and unconscious. What began as rote repetition attains graceful naturalness in time. Our innate goodness is externalized through action. We become good. And everyone benefits.

A century after Confucius and half a world away, a young student at the Platonic Academy in Athens began to formulate his own ethical theories, eventually emerging from the shadow of his famous teacher Plato. Like his mentor, and in a curious alignment with Confucius, Aristotle taught that humans were by nature good, but our goodness was a seed that would flourish only with proper cultivation. For a human being to reach their full moral potential, four things would have to happen: education, reason, habit, and character.

Education is essential because it trains our faculty of reason, and reason is required to discern the good. Then the good must be practiced repeatedly until it becomes habit. And habit constructs character. As Confucius argued a century earlier, we become what we do.

For example courage.

For the ancient Greeks, courage was the most important virtue because without it none of the other virtues are possible. One must be brave to be compassionate. But how do we zero in on courage? How can we tell if we’ve stopped short in cowardice, or overshot into rashness? For Aristotle only reason can make this determination. Critical thinking and rational deliberation are requirements for moral action because they correctly identify the Golden Mean, the virtuous middle point between the vices of excess and deficit. On this Aristotle and Confucius agree – we cannot become good without first developing keen discernment and an iron will.

From the Confucian and Aristotelian perspective, the mechanics of moral transformation are fairly straightforward. Correctly identify the good. Practice it until you embody it – act courageous until you embody courage, choose compassion until you embody compassion. Watch old habits fall away, replaced by new habits that give full expression to your innate goodness. Thus is the good, both individually and communally, realized.

We aren’t talking about mere conformity to arbitrary norms or obedience to whatever fleeting laws currently hold sway – we’re talking about becoming who we really are.
In the end, by embracing transformation and embodying virtue we become integrated, no longer in conflict with ourselves. Our thoughts and actions align with our innate higher nature resulting in serenity, freedom, and happiness. For Confucius and Aristotle, the fully realized life is natural, joyful, and deeply rewarding. Who doesn’t want that? And it begins with action.  

Time Away

Music is impossible without silence. There is silence between every note. The best musicians learn how to play the silence as well as their instruments.

There is empty space between every solid object. Even the atom itself – the building block of the so-called solid world – is 99.9999% empty space. Emptiness is an essential component of somethingness.

Every sixteen hours we drop into eight hours of unconsciousness – paralyzed, deaf, dumb, and blind in our beds. Sleep is a requirement. Without this daily oblivion we would die.

The surging forth of spring and summer are only possible because of the retreat of fall and winter. New life emerges from nutrients freed up by the dissolution of earlier forms. Decay and death form the foundation of all that is. There can be no advance without the oscillation of retreat.

How then can we align our own ebb and flow with these inexorable maxims? Are we not also a part of nature, a drop of dew in this great, unbroken cosmic morning?

A Day of Rest

            Shabbat is Hebrew for “rest” or “cessation.” In the book of Genesis the seventh day was set aside – one day a week to step away from productivity and toward stillness; to change from a human-doing back into a human being. For Jews and later Christians, there are many ways to practice this principle, some strictly observant, others less so. Whether these are your traditions or not, there’s something wise about stepping off the treadmill once in a while to catch your breath.

By leaving aside the world of work and accomplishment we enter a sanctuary of peace, a place where we are not measured by our work product, but by our inherent value. We come to embody the knowledge that who we are, right now, is enough, no matter what we’ve done. This gracious self-appreciation solidifies our foundation and strengthens our core.  Far from diminishing our productivity, the respite of the Sabbath lengthens our reach. By temporarily setting aside our professions, our personas, and our ceaseless activity we heal wounds our busyness masked. Our marriages are strengthened. We come to know our children as the rich and nuanced human beings they are. We see the beauty of the natural world, and the sacred comes into focus. As the familiar Jewish saying goes, “It is not the Jews who keep the Sabbath – it is the Sabbath that has kept the Jews.”

Yet in the end, this principle transcends any single faith tradition. What Jewish and Christian teachings point to is a universal truth – without ritualized rest we lose our essence and become what poet T.S Eliot called “hollow men.” We are not ciphers or machines who “measure out our lives with coffee spoons,” – we are living, breathing manifestations of the mystery of mysteries. Only in rest can we come to understand this deep and vibrant truth about ourselves.

Growing Stronger

            In our efforts to grow stronger, it turns out the most important element is rest. When you run or lift weights you cause traumatic injury to your muscle tissue – it literally rips apart. It is only when you step away from the gym that your muscles heal, building new muscle tissue as they repair the damage. It may seem paradoxical, but it is only in a resting state that muscles grow stronger and larger.

            This is true in other growth processes as well.

            Time away from your instrument makes you a better musician. A brisk walk through the neighborhood does more for your writing project than hours of staring at the screen. And as we grow deeper into our relationships with each other, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is leave people alone to be who they really are without meddling and interference.

Time Away

            There’s a reason they call it recreation. When you take time off to play, you literally re-create yourself cell by cell, returning to your default settings and restoring your natural rhythm. Tastes vary, but the universal truth remains – we all need time away.

            For some it’s an hour with a good book. For others it’s surfing, hiking, camping, cooking, or bicycling. Or picking up an instrument and playfully exploring some untried direction or style. There are as many ways to recreate as there are human beings – some sedentary, some active. But the common element is this – if we do not break away from the monotony of our ordinary, routenized lives we lose touch with our authentic nature – that part of us from which our best creativity and productivity emerge. We may know how to work, but we forget why. Time away from the treadmill helps us recover the core values that fuel our passion.

            It’s not how we recreate that matters, it’s that we recreate. The most important piece is abandoning routine and discarding normal patterns of behavior. It is vivifying and revitalizing to remove one’s customary support systems and go it alone.

No one saw it coming: Cheryl Strayed’s little memoir Wild becoming a monster best-seller and now a Reese Witherspoon movie – a story about a grieving, recovering addict with zero backcountry experience attempting an ambitious hike of the Pacific Crest Trail all by herself. It evidently struck a nerve – permit applications for the PCT have leaped tenfold from 300 a year to 3,000.

Strayed’s ordeal may seem far from restful, but here’s the parallel: by going into the wilderness and relying solely on her own wits to survive she discovered a bottomless well of resources within. Though our Sabbath, our time away, may take less extreme form than Strayed’s we too can tap into this wild inner strength.

There is a deep and abiding hunger within us to be reborn, to leave the confines of this womb – once comforting, now confining – and step out into the unknown. It is rebirth we’re after, nothing less. By shattering our limits we come to know ourselves more deeply, an impossible feat when ensconced within the insulating layers of the known world.

            It’s not too late to plan a wild summer getaway. Find a three-day gap in your upcoming calendar. Block it out. Scrape together some money. Get away from this, whatever this is. Go alone, or with a trusted other. Show the kids the resiliency they have hidden and unrealized deep within them. Wake up in a strange city. Find your way. Meet who you’re going to meet. See what you’re going to see. Let the mystery reveal itself to you. You have nothing to lose but your complacency.

            When you return, you’ll bring with you an abundance of perspective and conviction. You’ll see with new eyes and once again remember the reason you chose this field of work, this spouse, this home. Or this – you’ll realize that your life is off-track and you’ll have the courage to make the necessary changes to recover your original joy and purpose.

            But none of these benefits will be yours unless you find the courage to stop what you’re doing and take some time away. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Trusting the Mystery

As I turn another year older – just a couple of clicks now away from 60 – I grow more and more convinced that the single-most destructive force to peace, beauty, humanity, and all that is good in the world is certainty. Or the presumption of it anyway, since all but the most foolish among us have long ago abandoned any pretense of it, along with the tired and thoroughly discredited notion that popularity plus bombast equals truth. Just because a proposition has long been proclaimed to be true by a great many enthusiastic people is in no way a guarantee of that proposition’s veracity. In fact, it’s often the other way around. Group-think and confirmation bias prop up a hollow idea long after its circular logic has collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. Extremists of every stripe, on all sides of issues, speak for no one but themselves leaving the mass of humanity somewhere in the middle, busy putting bread on the table, appeasing the landlord, and keeping abreast of ever-changing tax policies, and when there’s time to breathe, maybe picking up the guitar, grilling some hot dogs, and playing fetch with the dog.

            But the din of absolutism intrudes upon our tenuous serenity from every angle. There is no rest for the weary as we are preached to endlessly by the indefatigable curators of dogma who bolster their claims with passages from ancient texts, the same texts that a few pages later spout savage nonsense no one any longer believes – executing people for working on the Sabbath for example. Do the fundamentalist, self-appointed stewards of scripture really think a quote from Leviticus, a provincial record of specific religious doctrine, social rules, and tribal history from 25 centuries ago, has any universal authority in today’s global, multicultural, and pluralistic world? Yes, they do. Because the ancient Hebrews were clearly squeamish about gay sex – that’s just how some tribes are – dogmatic literalists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam decree that it is “God’s Law” that homosexuality is a most grievous sin demanding a great deal of scrutiny, suppression, and in extreme cases, violent elimination. Adultery, in stark contrast, although equally taboo in Leviticus, earns at most a passing glance and is considered largely a private family matter. Thankfully, extremists in the Abrahamic faiths are increasingly outnumbered by more moderate voices.

            We know so much more now about human sexuality and the fluidity of gender designation and sexual preference. These days most of us accept the fact that sexuality is a mystery. When someone tells us who they are and who they love, we believe them.

            In his autobiography Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, preeminent religious studies scholar Huston Smith wrote, “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.” The bracing honesty and disarming humility of this declaration catches us off guard, for it is at once an affront to our own carefully maintained belief system, and a bold affirmation of our deepest suspicion – that none of us really knows what we’re talking about.

            We don’t know what being born really is. Where did we come from?

            We don’t know what being alive really is. What is a person? Protoplasm with an urge? A spark from Divine Mind? A worthless sinner?

            And if we cannot answer those questions, how can we say what death is?

            Still, you can’t throw a stick without hitting someone who thinks they have all the answers. They know what we are, why we’re here, who made us, and where we’re all going. They’ve got the whole enchilada rolled up, plated, and ready to serve. They’re deaf to the criticism levied by the mystics of all faiths: that any explanation of the mystery distorts more than it reveals. The wordless silence of contemplative prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and compassionate service far surpasses the recitation of learned scrolls, no matter how reverent.

            It is in our blood to wonder; of this we can be sure. The philosophical quest, undertaken in all cultures and utilizing every conceivable method – reason, revelation, and metaphor to name three – is a long and winding cord of interlacing strands, like the veins of a river delta viewed from space. Claiming that your strand is the only one requires willed ignorance of the wide array of thought-systems all around you.

            Living with uncertainty requires great courage and considerable elan. Your unwillingness to plant your flag in anyone’s camp makes you a threat to all of them. But you’re no longer content to simply shop for the best entrenched position to which to pledge your allegiance. You are flagless, beyond all borders, and alert to the fragments of truth hidden beneath the surface of all contradictions. You’re willing to change your mind as more is revealed. As Walt Whitman wrote in his poem Song of Myself, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” If we are part of the mysterious whole, then provincial partiality seems dimwitted at best, dangerously arrogant at worst.

            The world’s scriptures are the invaluable creations of our ancestors struggling to understand their place in the mystery. Through the lens of their entrenched sociological structures, tribal belief systems, and unavoidable personal biases they framed the mystery of existence in vocabulary inherited from their fathers. Any claims of authority, let alone divine revelation, must be met with tentative and respectful skepticism. Theology is born in disputation and therefore always has a ring of belligerence to it – what made it to the page was fought for long and hard. We can therefore forgive its authors their bold assertion of infallibility. But we have come too far to remain bound to arbitrary traditions that belong to another time, another place, and a completely different set of circumstances. It is for us now to read with our inner sight the writings of the ancients, and come to trust our own interpretive authority. We can be emboldened by the way Jesus and Paul rejected the orthodoxy of the Temple leaders, or the way Muhammad criticized the tribal codes of Bedouin culture, or the way Buddha defied the authority of the Brahmins. The founders of the world’s religions were revolutionaries who pushed boundaries, challenged injustice, questioned authority, and drew deep from the well of direct experience. Let’s learn from them.

            As the Zen teacher Matsuo Basho cautioned his students, “Don’t seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old, instead, seek what they sought.” It isn’t enough to pick a group and join it. It isn’t enough to follow a teacher, no matter how wise and illumined. It isn’t enough to assuage your fear by subscribing to a ready explanation that puts your tribe in the winner’s circle. If anything, let the discomfort and angst of your uncertainty sharpen your edge into a blade with which you cut away falsehood. Being uncomfortable is good. Insight is born from the chaos of cognitive dissonance and takes root in lived experience. When you’re knocked off your seat you find your feet. Teachers, traditions, rituals, texts, and communities are all powerful tools we use to build our lives. But they mean nothing if there is not beneath it an inkling of one’s own, a gut feeling, a resonance, an alignment, a beam of light unbidden that rises up and feels at once familiar and known, even though its origin is a mystery. Moses trusted his mystery. Muhammad trusted his mystery. Jesus trusted his mystery. Buddha trusted his mystery. Why do we not trust our own?