Z is for Zen

Z is for Zen

A quick scan of the internet shows that the definition of the word Zen is a troublesome one. The most basic, factual one is this: a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures.

Urban dictionary comes up with a nice one: One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.

Sun is warm, grass is green.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=zen

The Cambridge dictionary’ s version is pretty poor: relaxed and not worrying about things that you cannot change:

Don’t worry about doing the right thing with your baby – be more zen about it and you’ll be happier.

I tend towards the Urban dictionary version and it’s pretty much what I felt when I began this blog. Walking a tightrope is a powerful metaphor for the way my life is; ages back, someone suggested just letting myself fall. It scared me; it still scares me. My collection of essays from this blog, Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking, is my account of my discoveries and explorations of a life dominated by depression; my recent collection of poems A Box of Darkness is intended as a treasury of what I have found in that darkness.

I thought of the blog title several years before I began blogging; it sprang to mind instantly. There have been a number of blogs using Zen in the title; many are using it in a very different way. Some reflect the philosophy of Zen and the Art of Archey, some Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (reviewed here). But I am proud of my blog. This, by remarkable coincidence, is my 1000th post here. Z is indeed for Zen, and it’s also the end of this A-Z not-a-challenge. I hope you have enjoyed my meanderings and excursions.

<departs left, pursued by a bear>

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig(a review of a classic book)


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig

 This classic icon of twentieth century philosophy is regarded as almost a myth; my daughter’s boyfriend indeed believed it to be an actual urban myth and not an actual book, and I doubt he is alone. First published in 1974, the book has been a corner stone for some of the hippy movement and yet, its subtitle, An Inquiry into Values seems at variance with this. Indeed, one of the central themes of the book, the careful and loving maintenance of motorcycles seems also at variance with the hippy movement too and this is one of the many apparent contradictions this book throws up.

It’s a truly disconcerting book to read, because it fits no genre and it shifts at intervals between both style and format. The book starts simply enough, as an account of a road trip taken across America by the author and his young son Chris, and for a while two friends as well. You get the sense of a fractured relationship between man and boy, in the process of being mended, as well as an uneasy friendship with their two travelling companions John and Sylvia. There is a focus on the minutiae of their daily life, on the mechanics of motorbikes, both of which are at once alien and familiar, that many might find dull or even boring. Persist with them; to some degree these are important background. You’re not reading a simple story.

The narrative shifts to a kind of flashback to a different story, the tale of someone who lost the plot and lost himself in the process. Phaedrus, the man who lost the plot, is central to the whole book, but I shall say no more about him now. It’s best you discover his story for yourself.

The other facet of the book is a kind of overview narration that links together the road-trip with its focus on details and meticulous attention to them with the story of Phaedrus. It’s this aspect of the book that really, really messes with your head. Let me explain.

I was given the book as a Christmas present by my friend J, but like books I know are important, I wanted to read it during a time that gave me both time and context in which to read it. I read extremely fast, but that’s not always a good thing, so I wanted to have an opportunity to read in segments dictated by an external force I had little control over. So I read it during a road trip of my own, this time across France during a work trip in May. This was the same trip that brought back the photograph that rocked my world when I went home, to be seen here. But during the six days I was away, I had a number of times where I did wonder if I might not actually return at all. During the quiet moments during my trip, lying on my hotel bed or sitting somewhere out of the way, in various places like the centre of Caen, in Bayeux, at Disneyland(for about five minutes as I could not concentrate) and most memorably, sitting outside a French hypermarket, I dipped into the book and read.

I sat there, on a marble step, by a display of plants, trying to take in what I had just read. I watched the ants, ferrying food backwards and forwards, and tried to keep my mind from bubbling out of my ears. It felt like an earthquake in my head.

I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us- these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road- aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see, We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From this awareness we must select and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p 82)

At this point, or shortly after, I shut the book and stuffed it back into my rucksack and waited till the students came back to meet me. I felt disjointed, and uneasy but in the kind of way that you get when you know you are onto something important but that you need to tread very very carefully. I knew also, don’t ask me how, that my own sanity might well be at risk at this point if I rushed it. These things take time to sink in and you do well not to try and grasp them all in one go. Once, as a student, in a senior common room I had no right to be in but had been invited in by a lecturer in astrophysics, I had Relativity explained to me. For about three minutes, I grasped it but I let it go when I realised I could not hold that concept in my head for long without going slightly mad. I wasn’t ready for it.

So I stepped away that day, because I was working and descending into catatonia was possibly not the best thing I could do at that point. I am still digesting the concepts and the implications of those concepts now. I am no philosopher, in all honesty, but I am a seeker after meaning. This is a book that has given me more tools in my own search for meaning.

And once you get used to the switching focuses on the book, the story itself becomes utterly gripping and strangely moving. You feel for the people(they are not characters, because it’s a true story, in the main) and you hope for them.

I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to delve deeper into what life is about, but I would also suggest that you give it the time and attention it deserves. It’s not a beach read to entertain you but a book to unsettle and disturb and challenge you.

Are YOU up for the challenge?


( for more information about Pirsig and his work, look at  http://www.levity.com/corduroy/pirsig.htm or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_M._Pirsig

Being in the Moment- a reality check

Being in the Moment- a reality check

I started writing something about being in the moment a week or so ago and circumstances made sure I never finished the article. I was trying to explore how I feel about the people I call Bright-siders (from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-sided”, “Smile or die” in the UK ) who always seem to find a good side to everything. Ms Ehrenreich was herself suitably appalled, not by solely by her breast cancer, but also by the movement that seems to exist that declares that far from being a catastrophe, breast cancer might just be the very best thing that has ever happened to you. 

I’ve heard this sort of thing before and it’s never ceased to amaze me how people can do this. Forgive my cynicism but hold on one moment…Cancer is good? While I am willing to accept and understand that after a serious event in one’s own life, it is possible to see collateral benefits of that devastating illness, that heartache, that bereavement, that job loss or that destructive divorce, I must stress that this can surely only be afterwards and only apply to your own acceptance of the outcome.  

The other train of thought that has been thundering through my mind lately has been that I simply do not understand how those who speak of the Bright-side also speak about being in the moment. Now being in the moment is a buzz word, an “IN” concept. I have heard of it first via Zen Buddhist practices and subsequently in almost every self help manual I’ve ever come across. Basically the practise consists of seeking to maintain the mind(and therefore the self) entirely in the present moment, without looking either ahead at the future or back at the past. Forgive me if I have oversimplified or misunderstood this but this is how I have understood it. In self help manuals it then stresses that doing this somehow magically transforms everything. I’ve read and heard comments to the effect that when a person started to live more in the moment, their life was transformed. I don’t understand this. I understand that a detachment from either the future or the past can be very liberating but it is the same people who preach this who also tend to be Brightsiders. The two are incompatible.  

Imagine the scenario. Life is going very badly for whatever reason. To try and improve it one tries to seek the good within the bad. This automatically pulls you out of the present moment and into the future, of seeing where this experience will benefit you or where it may take you. 

Pain is probably the most effective teacher of being in the moment. Serious chronic pain, or sudden acute pain catapult you into the moment by moment endurance of life. I don’t recommend either form of pain. Grief too, is another effective teacher of being in the moment, though most of us seek any sort of comfort we can to escape the unendurable agony of losing someone. In both these cases, this is where the Brightsiders have the most difficulty in coping. Pain and grief make you exist moment by moment and it’s then for me, the futility of trying to find a good in bad becomes most evident. What’s good in the death of someone I love? Nothing. That they were loved and that they are beyond pain now is besides the point. Those are tattered rags of comfort that flutter in the roaring gale of pain.

 Later, perhaps, comes philosophy and acceptance. Later comes the realisation that the void their loss brought has been filled by something else that could never have come before. But these are things one can see(truly see, not imagine in an orgy of denial) later. At the time, these are not just irrelevant but inconceivable to someone who has truly lived through the moment by moment, inch by inch of pain and grief. 

There are times when people offer words of comfort that seem to proceed from a need to relieve our pain. These words, sincerely meant, can be poorly received. A parent who has lost a baby does not want to hear their baby is safe in the arms of Jesus; she wants that baby in her arms.

 I have no answers. I walked to work today, fighting tears. I wanted to escape into my mental landscape where the sorrow I face does not exist. I did not; I found I could not. I realised also that joy is the dark sister of sorrow. No, I make no mistake here. Joy is what balances the sorrows of our life, but joy makes us complacent. Joy makes us believe we are beloved and chosen by God for special care and favours. So when sorrow comes, we believe ourselves to be cursed, or abandoned or that the joy we once felt was an illusion because how can something be that bright and that beautiful and that fleeting? Sorrow is as much a gift from God as joy is. For every birth there is a death, for every day, a night. You cannot have one without the other and while we crave the light, we demonise the dark. Dark and light are two sides of the same thing, just as joy and sorrow are twins joined at the heart. Ever noticed that the place we are said to feel both emotions is the heart? 

I do not wish to be in the moment now but I seem to have little choice but to take one day, one hour, one moment at a time and live as the day takes me. And my God, it hurts.

At the eye of the hurricane

……there is said to be a centre of deep silence. Yesterday, much to my surprise, I was that deep silence.  An extraordinary Zen-like moment of stillness inside me radiating outwards into a force nine gale. Yes, really. I’m still reeling from it.

I am not talking about metaphorical or emotional or spiritual hurricanes but a physical one, albeit one generated in an environmental tank.

Yesterday afternoon I took some of my students to our local college, which was originally purely a maritime and boatbuilding college for an experience in the pool used for training rig workers, lifeboatment, pilots and so on in the basics of escape and rescue at sea. I know this seems a strange thing to take language students to, but I do what I am asked. I don’t always ask questions.

The pool is basically a very deep swimming pool, equipped with machinery to simulate extreme weather conditions. The students who were not going in stayed up on a gantry-style platform about 3 or 4 metres above the water. This not only kept them safely out of the way but kept them from getting soaked when the waves were in action.

My first concern was whether they would have a lifejacket to fit me. I am rather well-endowed and it did somewhat worry me that they would have to cast about to find one big enough… but I worried needlessly and before long, safety talks done, we trooped down to the pool and leaped in. It took me five minutes to get used to not needing to tread water and let the jacket do its work.

We arranged ourselves in a circle and the waves started. Big waves, crashing all over the place. That was rather fun, though I mistimed a few and swallowed a fair bit of water. Then out and back up onto the gantry. I totally bottled out of the 4m jump; truth to tell I wanted to try but my knees gave way when I looked down. About half of the students(some were English, from the college itself) did and then the instructor upped the odds and had the lights OFF for jumps.

I rejoined the pool the less scary way by leaping in off the side for the next exercise which was the life raft. Now when you see them in films, you kind of wonder what’s so hard about getting into one. Big round inflatable thing with a sort of pyramid/cone for cover, and handy little ropes hanging off it, what’s so difficult about that?  Eerrm, where do I start? The sheer effort required from upper body strength to heave a fully clothed body(did I mention we had to be dressed and shod for this? No. Well, we were in leggings, t-shirt and trainers over bathing suits) out of rough water, into a wet rubber thing, is enormous. No one managed it unaided, including the two fit lads who went in first. Then they helped haul the rest of us in. I did tell them to leave me for the sharks but they kindly refused and I lay soon gasping and floundering like a landed fish on the floor of the raft. I struggled to move out to the back of the raft because it was bucking like a demon possessed bronco. I elbowed a student in the face at some point. I think she’s forgiven me. Propped at the back, gripping some inner ropes I leaned against the wall of the raft and the last of our ten person crew flopped in and then everything changed again. The waves and the wind and the rain began and we were flung around like a cork in a whirlpool. Everyone was screaming, partly out of excitement and partly out of real fear. I wasn’t. I squealed once and then stopped.

The lights went out. Almost total darkness and the storm raged around us, flinging the raft around, whirling it like a leaf and artificial lightning leapt across the blackness. The screaming intensified. I went deeper into the quietness inside and became the silence. I seemed to be totally withdrawn from the emotional responses I had been feeling seconds before. I’d been close to total sensory overload and now, all was stillness. I was stillness and silence and utter peace. I didn’t understand why people were screaming. Could they not feel what I felt?

The moment passed and the storm, controlled by the instructor waned and stopped and we all flopped out, swam to shore and the next group got the perfect storm while we stood and dripped. We were asked to climb a rope wall from the tank, which is unbelievably hard. I tried twice and fell off twice; my arms simply not strong enough to haul my sodden (and let’s be honest, bulky) body out of the water on a ladder that swung and slipped and took the skin off the palms of your hand. We all had a chance to be winched out, which was quite fun and then it was over.

Back in the changing room I reflected first on the fact that at sea I would have died, probably from cold, because I wasn’t strong enough to climb out alone and then on where that peace had come from. It was a totally awesome moment, using the word in its truest sense and not the slang meaning.

I didn’t sleep much last night. Aching muscles and an over active mind saw to that. I’ve got through a hard day today on about three hour’s kip but I keep returning to that still silence at the eye of the hurricane. 

At the eye of the storm is a point of peace; how often can I become that point of peace in a troubled world?

Nothing to do with Zen, really

This blog is intended to try and chart my own battle to maintain a form of balance in my life, my head and my spirit.

I have an odd relationship with the concept of Zen. I try not to look at it, in case I frighten it; glancing sidelong works, and I get a feel for it without ever really taking it in.

I’m quite  good at tightrope walking, in a less than literal sense. I’m better at stilts, but that’s too mobile and has too many possibilities, so I shall stick with the tightrope. It gets you from here to there, no frills. It does the job, as long as you don’t fall off.

Weclome fellow seekers and circus performers. Draw up a crash mat, put on the safety harness and let’s go!

by Viv