Enabling Truth

Posted in Psychache on May 17, 2009 by lushangxinku

“After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading centers and to the hired soldiers who defend them.  They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices.  This indifference strikes home; their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies.  Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it.  Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound, and perished with cold.  Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, 1961

"Genie," a mysterious, feral survivor of abuse from California, sees the ocean for the first time.
“Genie,” a mysterious, feral survivor of abuse from California, sees the ocean for the first time, 1970
“Genie” spent the first 13 years of her life strapped to a podie chair in a dark, locked room.  She was force-fed and beaten if she made any sound.  Her father, who orchestrated this utter isolation, shot himself upon her discovery.  Her mother did absolutely nothing to stop the abuse, or to stand up for her daughter at all.
The piercing light of late afternoon froze me as I heard about it for the first time; the Fritzl case.  Time seemed to stop in the quiet bakery as I listened to a British podcast; a remarkable tale.  A man had imprisoned his own daughter, turned her into a sex slave and had seven children by her.  Details of the dungeon and the family slowly sprawled out into the room as I stood there dumbfounded.  An immense amount of sorrow and empathy flowed from me, towards Elizabeth Fritzl and her children.  At the same time, deep down, I felt a sense of alarm, that such massive decades-long destruction could come of the instincts of men- I had already become deeply alarmed about the predatory nature of male sexuality for other reasons.
Never in my life had I come so close to the knowledge of another man’s monstrous treatment of a woman, before those long months- months of quiet listening, agony over someones situation I could not improve or change- someone trapped within blatant disregard for their well-being, their feelings, their wants and desires, their freedom.  Constantly belittled and ignored, shunted aside, and threatened.  I wanted so very badly to protect this person; to make them realize that intimacy was something more sacred than dominance; that closeness did not entail abuse; that love truly existed.  But for whatever reason, I failed to convince them of any of this.  Power, connections, and money spoke louder than any voice I’d ever had, and like the shadowplay of Fritzl’s threat of poison gas that never existed, they worked.
From what I understand, the Fritzl case was at its heart about control.  He felt his daughter was going astray, staying out late and drinking with dangerous boys.  So he felt as if the dungeon would protect her from herself, and from the many dangers in the unknown, outside world.  Genie also was a product of these malformed instincts; her father felt profoundly protective of her, wanted to shield her somehow.  The very instinct of men to protect and provide crosses over into monstrous realms of power and control quite easily.  But not until the last two years had I come to see the manifestation of such realms within my sight.  It led me to question even my own sexual desires towards a woman.  Did I simply want her for physical contact, for mutual pleasure, for a closeness rare in this world of isolation and competition?  Or did my desires lead me to a darker place of confinement and smothering exploitation?  Did I want an exclusive, monogamous relationship out of a mutual sense of partnership and trust, or because I wanted to own and control her actions somehow?  Although I knew deep down that my intentions were always straightforward, giving, and caring with her, still this small nagging occurred.  I was so totally repulsed by the Fritzls of the world I felt conflicted about wanting anything from, or with,  anyone.
Still, a door was open and my instincts helped push me through- the faint chance of true life partnership was too sweet to pass up.  And after being led through that door by hopes and dreams and a commitment to marriage, I stumbled into a dungeon of power and control where the verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, the lies and abandonment, outshone even the crass betrayal of my ex wife many years ago that destroyed my marriage.  And, like Genie’s father saying he had to do it because she was “slow,” and Elizabeth’s father saying he had to do it because she was drinking and staying out too late with dubious company, blaming the victim ensued.  The abuse was my fault because I was insecure, and my unhappiness was an unforgivable crime, while the abuse was because I was unhealthy- I created this unhealthy situation and brought the lies and abandonment upon myself.  Right.
This experience led me to a new and strange kingdom, where love, caring and giving weren’t quite enough.  A place where I realized that enabling abuse, enabling issues of power, control, exploitation and dominance, was like helping Fritzl with the door to the dungeon, or tightening Genie’s harness to the podie chair.  The right not to be abused is a human right, regardless of gender, age, or anything else- and respecting that right has slowly become more important to me than respecting the right for abusers, exploiters, bullies and other cruel people to continue practicing their craft.  It’s strange how factions of American society actually claim that torture itself is not as much a crime as the actual acknowledgement of the truth that the government engaged in torture; likewise, the abuse, lies and abandonment I have suffered are supposedly not nearly as egregious as my acknowledgment that these things have happened.  In fact, resisting forms of domination, control and bullying is perceived as highly irrational or tiresome behavior on my part.
But now I warm myself by a fire that no one else has lit.  My ethics now have undergone their own post-colonial battle, and though they are the same material, it is now fashioned into something that bullies and users, dominants and abusers, can’t recognize, can’t fathom, can’t even approach.  Genie and Elizabeth Fritzl are there, as are all survivors of traumatic abuse, and as they emerge from their cells and dungeons and squint in the sunlight, the cycle of dehumanization is broken, and the uncontrollable, indiscernible flow of wind and air, clouds and rivers and mountains, shines with a truth that is deeper and older than the tantrums of those who think they can control or own such mysteries.  We’re all such enigmas, and whatever put downs, lies and acts of control or abandonment thrown at us really just tumble down into nothing, scraps of paper drifting into an open canyon, where a thin river waits at the bottom to soak, drift and eventually rot such nonsense away.

Low-Swinging Venus

Posted in Intention on March 10, 2009 by lushangxinku

“…melancholy people have two reasons for being so: they don’t know or they hope.”

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, 1942

The planet Venus, yesterday evening from the bakery

The planet Venus, yesterday evening from the bakery

A few years ago, after walking home at dawn under the gaze of an especially bright Venus, I wrote a journal entry.  I spoke of the love and admiration I felt for the mysteries of the heavens, pulsars and planets, nebulae and vast dark unknowns.  I spoke of the absurdity, it seemed to me at the time, of loving a fellow human in such a way; to bow down to the beauty of a human, in my orientation, a female.  This feeling seemed absurd to me for years.  A cartoonish rush, an objectification where selfishness, vanity and egotistical pride seemed to be vaunted over kindness, sharing, co-creation.  A fleeting physical pleasure, commodified and fetishized into tradable human stock.  Traded for power, for submission to power, not for love.  Humans kept each other and themselves well-milked, and if they didn’t on a consistent basis, all allegiances, all loyalties, all loves, all bets were off.  In a culture of instant gratification and sensory over-stimulation, lying, betrayal, adultery and shadowy bedroom deals became commonplace, and as soon as better or different sex was made available, human beings became as disposable and forgettable as Styrofoam popcorn stuffed into a box.  For over a decade I steered clear of playing this game.

Last night I looked up at that same planet, now in a different part of the sky, at a different time.  What else has changed?  I have now glimpsed the promise, companionship, intimacy and magic of human love, and I accept that from my perspective, the paradigms of head games, objectification, power relations and sex quotas can all easily be smashed, evaporated by a blazing light that seemed to be much bigger than me, distant but close enough to be startling, able to burn me if I strayed too close, like a renegade Venus swinging down from the sky.

I did not know, did not feel the possibilities of my own emotions before.  I had known once, long ago, but eventually forgot.  Now that I do know that the silly game Western sexuality has become like some grand emperor without clothes, like some barking television clown without wisdom, I have no choice but to hope; that there is reciprocal, sensual, authentic love that can exist in this life, in this cultural reality.

The game at this point is complex and pressured, like steam pulsed through a spaghetti tangle of pipes, heat that will scorch but not warm, and, once redirected, rapidly cools into memory.  The gender roles once applicable through long millenia of hunter-gatherer society have come in forms of anxieties and syndromes, disorders and seething misunderstandings.  The females of this current society are faced with what has been called the triple-bind.  They must conform to a huge amount of trimming and preening, painting and glossing, to be appealing and acceptable not just to men, or to other women- but to themselves.  This occurs like a spectrum, the far end being chronic obsession about looks and outside opinions placed above all else- binging, purging, starving, compulsive exercise, laxatives, tanning beds, chemicals to be applied to faces, hands, legs, sprays to be misted, hairs to be plucked and shaved.  And underneath all of this she is still expected to be successful, brilliant and a good mother, or potential mother.  The pressures from my perspective seem to be extreme and irrational, self-defeating and draining, like the ancient Mayan concept of beauty, filing teeth into sharp points with no anesthetic.  Instead of the focus being how others are treated, these boxed-in souls spend hours reviewing perceived physical flaws in front of the mirror.  Instead of embracing notions of true companionship, lifelong partnership able to weather any and all coming storms, the man or men engaged are considered to be pets that must occasionally be walked, employers or generals, teachers or cops, to be pacified, cajoled, and marginalized into manageable corner shelves.  The tortuous, stressful, exhausting road to social value takes so much out of a person that their loved ones, their closest friends, enjoy nothing but the frayed shell of the person they know, irritable and defensive, finally buying in to the manic cruelty that has been served to them through these intricate webs of pressure and expectation.

What role have I played in such a system, or will continue to play?  I lack the Victorian hangups Foucault ridiculed, and I see a place for human sensual pleasure in the context of interpersonal dignity and open-minded acceptance, where no one is an object, pet, task or beast to pacify.  I hope that stability, honor and mutual growth can nurture interaction, heeding the glare of the renegade Venus and remaining accepting of its drifting shadows.

And so no longer happily, firmly contemptuous of this immense human game, I level my gaze to my surroundings, and wish every woman I pass, peace.  May the callous, self-serving hunger of the men not stand in the way of eventual true appreciation, careful listening, empathy and friendship; and may the tortured compulsive runners and dry-heavers resist against such arbitrary pressure and turn their massive courage and capacity for suffering into strengths and creativity that the world so desperately needs right now.  The players can co-create a new game, one respectful of the awe of the heavens, one that dares to be saddened by windows of hope, instead of mirrors and toilets of compulsion.

Erasing The Face

Posted in Intention on March 2, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Students of the Way should be sure that the four elements composing the body do not constitute the ‘self,’ that the self is not an entity; and that it can be deduced from this that the body is neither ‘self’ nor entity.  Moreover, the five aggregates composing consciousness do not constitute a ‘self’ or an entity; hence, it can be deduced that the individual consciousness is neither ‘self’ nor entity.  The six sense organs which, together with their six types of perception and the six kinds of objects of perception, constitute the sensory world, must be understood in the same way.  Those eighteen aspects of sense are separately and together void.”

Huang Po, b. ?- d. 850 CE

"Hour of the Erased Face" by Salvador Dali, 1934

"Hour of the Erased Face" by Salvador Dali, 1934

There has been talk over the last few years of a Mayan prophecy concerning the end of this cycle of human existence in the year 2012.  The manic glee of a highly eccentric coworker comes to mind, her eyes gleaming with the notion that some earth-shattering cataclysmic event would descend on this corrupt world and smash governments, economic systems and jails in one fell swoop.  I thought of her today as I stumbled upon a CD she had left here at my apartment, many many months ago.  Missing her and smiling to myself at her red-headed sassiness and hallucinatory charm, I loaded the CD into my itunes library, thinking about the role of nihilism in some of the most magical lives I have known.  Taking it a step further from mere declaration of the transitory nature of things, they seemed to embrace a subtle conception of reality as a toy- and a deceitful one at that.  Not only will everything change and end, but the “everything” itself is something to be eyed with a certain degree of suspicion.

The idea that there is nothing whatsoever to hold onto could take individuals in startlingly different directions.  Ayn Rand, shortly before her death, announced that the world actually ends when the individual dies; and not just any individual.  Her and her alone.  Everyone and everything else was just her mind playing tricks.  No wonder she saw no worth in compassion.

Another extreme would be the one that strikes closer to home for me; rampant drug and alcohol abuse, hallucinogenic free-for-alls, where the only worth existence had was the ability to escape it while moving through it, creating thick and destructive cocoons which no calamity and no love could pierce.  Through our actions we expressed a glaring disdain of the illusions of self, ego, capitalism and empire, domination and servitude.  It all boiled down to a crafted inner escape, and the substances required to get there.  Not only were we convinced that governments, armies, wars, police, jails and the elite rich would eventually fall into the graves they had dug for themselves; in another sense, for us, the world had already ended, precisely because it never began in the first place.  It was a deception, an illusion, and from this standpoint those who embraced the world fully were the lost ones, putting stock in a cosmic house of cards that reeked of hypocrisy and lies.

Eventually though, this extreme of individual indulgence took its toll.  I saw too often the ugly hunger of the addict, realizing that instead of transcending all systems I was feeding a bloated black market of spoiled dealers and lying middlemen, and a darkness deep inside myself that was more than just self-abandonment- it went further, to the growing, feeding and freeing of the fierce dragons that craved these substances at any cost.  This was no dignified response.  Merely the crawling of beetles who don’t realize when to stop consuming mounds of feces.

I did take important lessons from those lost years, though.  I retained a healthy disdain for the notion of a separate self, a separate reality.  And in feeling the urge to get past my own hungers, I embraced fully the joys and pains of service and celebration with others, my ex-wife in particular.  That experience truly showed me that love and compassion are true ways to get past the illusions of self and daily life.  Engaging in the flow of diplomacy and giving, playfulness and loyalty, we both figured that even if the world never started, and so is already ended, even if some Mayan prophecy will wipe it all away, even if a nuclear attack, asteroid, gamma burst or government will trash everything familiar to us, we still had each other, a bond stronger than one person may have to themselves alone.  This, like all things, ended too- much more quickly than I had anticipated- but I took the lessons with me.

Love, not ego, not drugs, not mere sensory perception- love itself is the only dignified response.  Will the world end?  Of course, this assumes that there is a world, one world, in a fixed reality, entombed in chronological definition and limitation.  These are deceptive assumptions.  Will love end?  It does every day, especially in these times of quick fixes, instant gratification and runaway hyper-individuation.   But it comes back, for those who can work through the nonsense and get past themselves.  So if by “the world,” one means “love,”  there is no permanent end.  May I live to one day whisper this into the ear of a beloved- to assume that love ends forever is to put stock in a world that deceives us on a cosmic scale.  Don’t let it.

Shadowed Senses

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Pity the man who has lost his heart and does not know how to recover it.  When people’s dogs and fowls are lost, they go to look for them, and yet, when they have lost their hearts, they do not go to look for them.  The way of learning is none other than finding the lost heart.”

The Book of Mencius, 6A:11; 371-289 BCE

The author at an extremely young age.

The author at an extremely young age.

The acrid piercing scent of roasting espresso beans wafted across the wet air.  I strolled wordlessly through the dark alleys and stairways, looking askance at buildings now torn down, tattered fences and barren plots.  A branch tangled in powerlines balanced and trembling in the early morning wind seemed like it floated there, but was a remnant of a tree now torn down.  Change is easy to see through the campus of the public university, yet I still stroll at dawn, covered in flourdust, satchel held in one hand, watching the sky and its movements.

I sit down for a second on my journey, the pavement cool against my thigh.  For a moment I reflect on the idea that blogging or journaling is a narcissistic endeavor.  I try to step back further enough from the concept to see some of its roots and causes, and feel that this wide brush with which I was painted also held other colors- accusations that I was too self-denying, masochistic, devoting myself so fully, giving myself away so completely, that it was sad and unhealthy.  I must be able to look clearly at such criticisms, but at the same time I must see their contradictions and absurdities.  The only two things that they have in common is that they constantly come from the same people, and they are thoroughly destructive.  Everything else is absurdly contradictory.  If I am resented for being hot, so be it, but if I am simultaneously resented for being cold, I must remember that the resentment itself is really the problem, not me.

Across the parking lot was a small cemetery.  I looked at its old trees and stone and drifted into the memory of my first experiences of the mountains.  The cool air, the achingly sweet smell of verdant green forest, the brutal gnarl of ancient white oak and lichen in a biting churn of cliffside windgush.  The low clouds,  the fog.  Was there a valley down there or not?

This memory took me back even further, when as a child I watched dust motes drift through afternoon sunbeams in my parents’ den, imagining each one a planet, each one dancing across the light, alone but alongside others.  This was a shadowed sense; a perception only there if I put my self to the side, out of the way.  Like the swirls of a tree bough spiraling through a streetlight at night.  Like staring at something openly until it is seen clearly, in all its manifestations and possibilities.  Like hearing a secret language whispered by insects in the woods, their pauses significant, as if waiting to make sure the hearer got the message.  Like sitting by a creekbank until faint voices can be heard through the bubbles and splashes of current.

And who is the hearer of such things?  What sort of mysterious transformation propelled me from the child in the photo to a grown man in black boots, hands now worn and calloused from their labor?  The prominent commonality is a sense of play, a shadowed, subtle thing, shining as I pull bread from the oven and thump it down, hearing the crackle of the crust; shining as I sit and daydream alone at dawn, manifold awe in sky, pavement, stone and wood; shining as a lovely old tune is rediscovered, cradled in my body as I listen intently with headphones.   The secret to all of this is a sense of play, coursing through my body, imagination seeing magic everywhere.  Even the silent meditation leads back through these shadowed senses, sights and sounds, smells and textures almost missed, as delicate as a forest cobweb sprinkled with dew.

When the insects pause, when the stones become clouds, when water becomes a voice, no justice or logic, no validation or reciprocation is necessary.  This is the awe of the mystery of existence itself.  The shadowed senses beckon, and I indulge in their playfulness with a quiet smile, and a heart reclaimed once more.

Along The River

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Zhuangzi and Huizi were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River.  Zhuangzi said, ‘The white fish are swimming at ease.  This is the happiness of the fish.’

‘You are not fish,’ said Huizi.  ‘How do you know its happiness?’

‘You are not I,’ said Zhuangzi.  ‘How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?’

Huizi said, ‘Of course I do not know, since I am not you.  But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of the fish.’

‘Let us get to the bottom of the matter,’ said Zhuangzi.  ‘When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how.  I knew it along the river.’ “

Zhuangzi, Cht. 17, between 395-295 BCE

3.6 million year old hominid footprints, southern Serengeti
3.6 million year old hominid footprints, southern Serengeti

“The eruption of a volcano spewed a layer of ash over the plains.  Soon after, there was a brief, light shower and then, while the ash layer was still damp, some 20 different kinds of animals scurried, ran, and slithered over it, leaving their prints on the soft and slippery surface.  These included hares, baboons, a rhinoceros, two types of giraffe, hyenas, many birds, a three-toed horse, a saber-toothed cat- and three hominids.  At one point, one of the hominids stopped, paused, turned to the left and then, perhaps reassured, continued on.  Under the heat of the equatorial sun, the ash dried, setting like concrete, and soon the footprints were covered by more ash and windblown silt.  The trail on the left was made by the smallest of the hominids, perhaps holding the hand of the one to the right.  This one, the largest, was followed by another smaller hominid who walked in his or her footprints, partially obliterating them.  The prints on the right are those of a three-toed horse.”

I remember many years ago having a conversation in my bedroom with a girl.  There was a cat, eyes squinted, purring loudly as I scratched its neck.  I mentioned something about how happy the cat was, and I remember the girl asking me how I knew…how anyone could really be sure of anything.  I have no convincing answer for those who are firmly convinced that there can be no firm convictions, or those who declare absolutely and universally that there are no absolutes or universals, not allowing any relativity in the belief that everything is always relative.  I knew that cat- I knew it was tickled to death, loving the moment.  I knew it because I felt it, like a musical chord from one instrument harmonizing with another.  Understanding isn’t just an exercise of the intellect- it is an emotion, resonating with the furthest depths of being, singing from marrow.  I can only safely know what I have felt, because I felt the knowledge itself.

A recurring dream I used to have:  A wide plain stretching ahead, unkempt, tall golden grasses swaying gently.  I’m unsure of who or what I am, or what type of eyes I am seeing out of.  I am still.  The slow shadow of some gliding creature about drifts across me onto the rolling meadows ahead.  I felt watched, hunted.  Then the dream ends.  I used to wonder if seeing from ancient eyes would be much like this dream.  The evolutionary roots of our consciousness are still based in the way that we have lived for millions of years before, up until several thousand years ago.  It is not keeping up with the rapid pace of technology and the social intricacies of modern life.  So the serotonin and cortisol, the dopamine and testosterone, which served for our survival once in time, now drive us to extremes of chronic anxiety, hatred, fear, depression, and all the horrible things done between people that are rooted in such primal triggers.  A lot of us just don’t know anymore.  Jerked around like marionettes by emotions we cannot fathom.  Causing incalculable damage to those around us, those who care about us most.  Others militarize and hunker down what they feel- inside there are curfews, rations, and various propaganda, all trying to make sense of a war that will never, never make sense.

The little family that made those tracks long ago were surely faced with predatory threats, hideous diseases, lives we now may see as short.  But seeing it from another perspective, it was a family together, headed in a similar direction.  There were no tracks of divorce lawyers, psycho-pharmacologists, sugar daddies or princesses.  There was no evidence of a coke deal gone wrong, or a home foreclosing, a layoff slip or a credit bill, no mark of a flagpole in nationalist fervor or drag mark of chains of sexual slavery, no vomit trails from binging and purging bulimia, no reason for the little group to lie to others about the fact that they were together, no feverish, paranoid attack on the idea of pair bonding, primacy, or long term partnership.

As humans we carry millions of years of survival in our genes, our DNA.  We carry a little piece of all of our ancestors within us.  I remember a Cherokee friend who went with me once many years ago to an ancient village site in Swannanoa.  He had tears in his eyes for the buried dead there, like they were sweet grandmothers and strong grandfathers who cradled, watched over and guided him in his distant youth.  In a way I feel the same for these hominid tracks.  There is a colossal set of unknowns here- I glance across the millions of years as a man would gaze into deep waters.  But, walking along the river, sensitive to its churn, its spirals, its push downstream, I feel as a kindred to those ancient walkers.  And somehow I know that they felt moments of ease, moments of co-creation and play, and that for at least a while, they walked together.  A bittersweet lesson in these troubled, confusing times.  For with all our technological advances, with all our medical breakthroughs and magic pills, I still see all around me direct evidence of people out of touch with what they feel and what they know, deep down- people incapable of anything but the lust to be entertained or anesthetized, anything to prolong the avoidance of the resonant knowledge that the purring cat, the lazily swimming fish, the strolling hominid, knew a sense of ease.  Once the gate of recognition is open, love flows through it.  Love is risky and makes no sense.  It is much safer to remain oblivious, safe, and distrustful, cutting off all loves and friendships periodically because they bore us or no longer serve a particular purpose.  Knowledge resonating in marrow has no due date, deadline, deal-break or grounds for dismissal.  It perpetuates through all dangers and confusions.  I only know this because I feel a calling to walk along the river, and carefully look down.

A Rising Cloud

Posted in Uncategorized on February 11, 2009 by lushangxinku

“The fire god comes looking for fire;

how much light do the pillars and lamps begrudge?

Buried in the ashes, though you search you don’t see;

lighting it up and blowing it out,

it goes into action again.”

Eihei Koroku, Dogen Zenji; 1243 CE

"TV Buddha" by Nam June Paik, 1974

"TV Buddha" by Nam June Paik, 1974

 “Video Installation with statue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.”

Paleoanthropological research has shown that the brains of our ancestors grew in size not as much to deal with sudden climate change but more involved with their dealings with each other.  This holds true for other primates as well; an increased brain size is found to directly correlate with the size of the groups in which the primates dealt.  The larger brained primates were found to travel in larger packs.  A certain degree of social cohesion became necessary as cooperation and clear communication help ensure the survival of the pack as a whole.  And so our evolution slowly guided us toward not only a larger sense of self-awareness, but a deeper recognition of the feelings and thoughts of others.  Larger brain size meant that we could truly consider consciousnesses outside our own, and with each added layer of complexity, the mind grew.

Now, though many seem to be incapable of such nuances, we can not only tune in to what we think of ourselves, but what another may think of us.  We even have the capacity to think of what someone thinks about someone else, and what someone thinks about the person who thinks about our acquaintance, who is thinking about us while we think about them.  We can even consider what someone is thinking about someone who is thinking about someone who is thinking about someone who thinks about those two in addition to thinking about someone who thinks about the person who thinks about us, while we think about them and everyone else.  Carefully considering the humanity and dignity and commonality of all these hearts and minds, one can hold interaction in a compassionate way.  And at the root of it all is the ability to reflect on the self.

But to wonder about the self, Dogen admonishes, can lead to a strange and convoluted search for something that we already embody- fire looking for fire.  If we get this fundamental part wrong, our interactions with others can become cumbersome and problematic.  If we only focus on ourselves there is no room left for empathy or compassion towards others, and if we only regard them in reference to ourselves, narcissism and selfishness become the order of the day.  We become someone looking at a reflection of themselves, one that looks back at us, swallowing up all our thoughts and feelings.  This is especialy dangerous when social isolation has become the situation.  Cut off from others, fire obsessed with its search for fire, a dark cave shielded from the vast open sky.

The key, it seems to me, is empathy, kindness, understanding, communication.  Stepping off the platform of self-reference into the shoes of others.  But how is this accomplished in isolation, or in the midst of blind and tragic misunderstanding?  The light goes out, and must be lit again.  Going out again, it must be lit again.  And so on.  Maybe this is how true companionship, balanced friendship, and a priceless sense of community can be nurtured.  I must not only watch the fire but follow the smoke trails, watching as they merge with the open sky.


Thorns, Axes, Oaks

Posted in Intention on February 9, 2009 by lushangxinku

“In hewing an axe handle,

the pattern is not far off.”

Ode #158, from The Book Of Odes, Zhou Dynasty, 1111-249 BCE

"The Survivors" by Kathe Kollwitz, 1923
“The Survivors” by Kathe Kollwitz, 1923

“World War I and the soldier’s death of her youngest son strengthened her commitment to social protest and her concern for the suffering of mothers and children.  Protest against war and compassion for suffering constitute the content of her “War” series.  From 1933 until her death, the government tried to efface her presence and her work.”

When I read the ancient song about the axe handle, I can close my eyes and feel the wood in my grasping hand, the tendons tensing up for the swing.  I can see the metaphor clearly; if you’re wondering how to make the shape of the handle while chopping away at the wood, you could just step back for a second and look at the tool in your hand.  It reminds me of a Buddhist sutta that speaks of using a thorn to remove a thorn- using something similar to the problem to help remedy it.  The Buddhist comparison was in application of the paradox of desiring to be free from desire.  Both desires are thorns, but their true import is actualized in their use.  One is a desire that causes great suffering, the other having the potential to help alleviate that suffering.

Both stories point to actualization in use.  I create things bearing a resemblance to whichever tools I used to create them.  I change the perception of what I see by the state of mind behind my eyes at the time.  But being aware of the coloring of the mind, and the influence of the tools, I can at least approach a creation that is understood, or a visual image that is clear.  And the understood creation, the clear vision, can be used in a way that helps define its meaning, like the Buddhist analogy of the thorn.  Will I use my creations, my visions, in a way that inflicts suffering, or to help pry out the suffering that is there?  The axe is an indifferent force that can cut chains or lose limbs, clear out unhealthy underbrush or chop down the most venerable of oaks.  Its use implies its temporary identity.

As far as presumptive identity, I was struck by Kollwitz’s lithograph not just by its haunting, stark imagery, but by the title.  One may first look at this piece without knowing the title and assume that it may be “The Victims.”  But what the title did for me was to lead me to consider the two words of identity that resonated loudly to me: “victim” and “survivor.”  Both seem on the surface to be defined by or limited to the experience of trauma that they reference.  But when I see these words in my mind’s eye, I see “victim” as moss, clinging to the soil by which it was created.  I see “survivor,” however, as an old gnarled oak, firmly gripping the earth of its experiences with deep roots, while simultaneously soaring silently above it, and continuing its slow growth toward the sun.

There is no happy victory or flag-waving in Kollwitz’s piece; these are survivors of something that clearly silences cheers and lowers flags.  There is no relief in their eyes, no quaint resolution to the lingering pain they are experiencing, no pithy resolve to refuse to feel what pulses within their chests.  There is no glee in the suffering of the people behind their traumas, and no fury or rage at certain other groups, individuals, or countries.  There is shock; there is protection of the weakest and most vulnerable among them; there is no sense that the huddled group is just a set of individuals thrown together who in fact are solely concerned with their own well-being.

I have met victims in my time.  People so lowered and pressed down that they remained like the moss, clinging to familiarity, even though the familiar was the trauma itself.  Others who brushed off any notion of trauma and simply refused to acknowledge what was going on with them; moss that had convinced itself it was a tall oak, and would rage and blame with all sort of bile and fire if anyone pointed out their actual growth.  This was coupled with a profound sense of aloneness and a total lack of empathy for similar trauma victims. 

I remember speaking to a man about the y2k bug and how the electrical grid may break down, affecting water and heat, and some of the conveniences of modern capitalism, leading to possible severe hardships for the sick and the elderly.  He gruffly claimed that whatever happened, he and his dog would be ok and that was all that mattered.  I and the rest of the sangha exchanged glances of mixed concern and amusement.  This was supposedly the voice of wisdom and compassion itself, a Buddhist priest.  Moss, pretending to be oak.

I remember more recently having lunch with someone while the economic collapse was beginning.  Again, a similar response- my only concern is myself.  I know I’ll be safe and fed and cared for and will have a job that will remain steady no matter what, and that’s all that matters.  A reflection of the dangerous notion that capitalism is something natural.  That competition and hyper-individuation is the only sane way to go.  That we must help ourselves at the expense of others, and if something bad happens to them it’s their fault anyway.  I often wonder, if there was a food shortage, or even a medication shortage, who in my daily life would band together and help, and who would lie, betray and jump at each other’s throats in the name of petty creature comforts for themselves, no sense of empathy for others.  The ones that already lie and betray and attack those they used for friendship or companionship for a short time make it easy to decide.  Many of them consider it actually a sickness not to promote one’s own insipid comfort at the expense of the rest of humanity. But there are some who, I think, could go either way.  Moss, or slow-growing oak.  As the axe is only defined by its use, they could use what they go through to become either thing.  Victims claiming to be survivors, moss shouting about its oakness, or true survivors, their arms reaching out to enfold their fellow beings, reaching out to help, to pry out the thorns that may plague us.

I have also met survivors.  Thoroughly in tune with the grounding of their experiences; thoroughly striving to slowly grow.  As they imperceptibly internalize what has truly happened, they help shield the saplings below, and even the shouting, proud moss.  And they do not speak as if the history and the memory that forms the very ground beneath them, doesn’t matter.  They do not look down at the saplings and moss below with a sense of superiority, or abandon these beings who may just be slower to grow.  They shield, and embrace, and help, and actualized through their use, the trauma itself provides nourishment and sparks effort.  In this way an axe once used to cut down, is used to create.