Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wake Up

In Everyday Blessings, the book about mindful parenting which I mentioned previously, there is a chapter called "Live-In Zen Masters". In it, co-author Jon Kabat-Zinn talks some about his Zen training: "It's all about mindfulness and non-attachment, knowing who we are at the deepest levels, and knowing what we are doing, which paradoxically includes both not knowing and non-doing." He compares Zen training to parenting: "They both appeared to be about waking up to life itself. . ." and sees babies as akin to "live-in Zen Masters":
Zen Masters don't explain themselves. They just embody presence. They don't get hung up in thinking, or lost in theoretical musings about this or that. They are not attached to things being a certain way. They are not always consistent. One day does not necessarily have to be like the next. Their presence and their teachings can help us break through to a direct experiencing of our own true nature, and encourage us to find our own way, now, in this moment. They do this, not by telling us how, but by giving us endless challenges that cannot be resolved through thinking, by mirroring life back to us in its fullness, by pointing to wholeness. More than anything Zen Masters embody wakefulness and call it out of us.

Children are similar in many ways, especially when they are babies. The older they get, the harder it may be for us to see it. But their true nature is always present, and always mirroring our own, if we are willing to look, and to see.

Children have what might be called "original mind"--open, pure, unencumbered. They are undeniably and totally present. They are constantly learning, developing, changing, and requiring new responses from us. As they grow, they seem to challenge every place that we might be holding an expectation, a fixed opinion, a cherished belief, a desire for things to be a certain way. As babies, they so fill our lives and require so much attention to their physical and emotional needs that they continually challenge us to be present totally, to be sensitive, to inquire into what is actually happening, to risk trying something, and to learn from their responses to our attempts. They teach us how to be attuned to them, and to find joy and harmony in our connectedness with them. There is little time for theory, and it doesn't seem to help much anyway unless it is connected to practice.

Of course, children are not really Zen Masters. Children are children and Zen Masters are Zen Masters. But if we are able to look at our children with openness and receptivity, and see the purity of life expressing itself through them, at any age, it can wake us up at any moment to their true nature and to our own.
I read this passage last night, and a few things struck me about it. For one thing, the language about "knowing" and "not knowing and non-doing" reminds me specifically of Thomas Merton's essay titled "Love and Solitude", collected in Love and Living, an essay I had particular trouble with. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of "Love and Solitude":
No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and the peace that is "heard" when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.
I remember having trouble with this essay and that it reminded me of those kinds of writing that have given me the most difficulty--the kind of writing I've been struggling with recently, for example writing by Blanchot and Heidegger. It strikes me now, in copying out the passage above, that another pass at this Merton essay may be helpful to understanding Blanchot's "essential solitude". And words in the Kabat-Zinn passage, words like "fullness" and "presence" and "wake us up", also remind me of Blanchot and Heidegger (in my admittedly limited experience with each).

Of course, many people in the West have been drawn to Eastern traditions, such as Zen Buddhism, because they are dissatisfied with the spiritual life of the West. The West is often seen as spiritually bereft, as overly analytical or "rational", and so on. I'm sympathetic to this charge, though I am neither inclined nor prepared to enter into a detailed treatment of the topic in this space. As someone about to become a father, I am thus far persuaded that there is great wisdom in the approach to parenting described in Everyday Blessings (how well I will do it remains to be seen). What interests me here, however, are the ways in which the language at times reminds me of that language used in the writing I find difficult (but which in this context I do not find difficult), and what that might tell us about the philosophical and literary project of these writers--which matters to me because of how I conceive of its importance in the grand scheme of living in the modern world, including the ongoing project of living my own life, and the importance of art, literature in particular.

It seems to me that, among the reasons Blanchot and Heidegger are difficult, is that they are writing about ideas and concepts for which we lack either the sufficient vocabulary or the sufficient kinds of experience, or vocabulary for noting experiences, which perhaps amounts to much the same thing. It could be that we lack the vocabulary because we have been, for centuries, falsely employing concepts carelessly borrowed from our ancient predecessors. And it could be that the vocabulary we do use is confusing because it is unable to properly express the concepts under discussion (much as, in English, we lack a word sufficient to express the French jouissance).

I know I've made some claims that are both vague and grandiose, but I hope to be able to make at least some headway in future posts in articulating what I mean, along the way towards my understanding of it myself. I'll finish by saying that I hope it will become clearer why I insist on writing posts that are about some combination of babies and writing and philosophy and politics, and why most of those posts that seem unconnected are in fact connected, and in certain ways about the same thing.


Matt said...

I've been meaning to read this book for quite a long time now.

Richard said...

I highly recommend it.