Tuesday, May 11, 2010

marvelous stuff

Anyone who has involved themselves seriously in spiritual endeavor -- who has applied a determined, long-term and constant effort -- may be surprised to wake up one morning and realize that what may once have seemed pretty extraordinary is really pretty ordinary stuff.

Yesterday, at my son's baseball game, I was chatting with another dad who is a National Guard maintenance chief at a nearby airfield. The airfield, which was once a smallish support center, has grown in the last few years to be one of the front-line hubs when it comes to defending the United States. It is from Barnes, for example, that F-15 jets scramble when an airborne danger -- from attack flights to shoe bombers -- is detected over the Atlantic or elsewhere. And Todd and his men are responsible for keeping the base in shape -- buildings, aircraft, runways, etc.

Todd and I were chatting idly about the changes at the airfield over the years (it used to be that he knew everyone by name, but not any longer since the mission at the airfield was revised). We would chat and then splice in applause for the batter or defender who had made a good play on the field. Naturally, as dads, we kept an eye out for our sons ... that's what dads do, among other things.

And in the midst of our conversation in the sunshine, Todd remarked that the sun and rain were a maintenance man's enemy. "The very stuff that is necessary in order for us to stay alive is also a danger ... and a downer." Rain and sun crack the runways. Sun blisters paint. Mud can create all sorts of havoc.

What is absolutely essential to life can pose life-threatening dangers. What is good is also bad. What sustains and even ennobles can be the stuff of our undoing.

Poets and others inclined to notice things may see and wonder at the dichotomy.

So, in the Libyan fable it is told That once an eagle, stricken with a dart, Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft, "With our own feathers, not by others' hand Are we now smitten."
-- Aeschylus

And listening to Todd made me wonder why anyone would fret and struggle and spend years with a discipline like Buddhism when any ancient Greek playwright or maintenance chief can see what is so obvious.

That which was good becomes bad; that which was beloved becomes a source of anger and distress; that which was reviled is revealed in a new and positive light; what was famous becomes infamous; what was strong becomes weak and what was weak becomes strong.

None of this is rocket science: If a poet or maintenance chief can see and marvel at it, how difficult or complex could it be?

But the crucial point is not the marveling, however delicious marveling may be. Does marveling create peace of mind or a wiser life? No, it cannot and does not, though many may make quite a profession out of marveling themselves or others with their keen observations. Marveling simply calls the attention in wonderful or horrific ways. Are wonder and horror enough? I doubt it.

So as I wondered why anyone would fret and struggle with spiritual discipline when even a Greek playwright or maintenance chief can observe the obvious, it occurred to me that when it comes to peace of mind, steps need to be taken to get beyond the marvelous ... to go further than wonder ... to examine with care what anyone might imagine they have examined with care.

Is the two-sided nature of things enough to see, enough to live by, enough to honestly answer anything? OK, the two-sided or limitless potential of all things is a marvel. But what does such marveling imply? Doesn't it imply that the one marveling has got a skewed view of things? The obvious is just the obvious ... why should it be a matter of wonder?

And the answer that strikes me as obvious is this: Things are a matter of marvel or wonder simply because my view is skewed and mistaken. And if this is the case, marveling is not really enough to assure peace and happiness. Marveling requires examination. The marvelous after all does not say it is marvelous ... the marvelous is simply a fact; it is simply obvious to a Greek playwright or a maintenance chief or anyone else who cares to take a look. The wowsers quality of what is marvelous or surprising refers to me and my perspectives. And if that is the case, some examination of this "me" and "mine" could use some rethinking and, it seems, some revision.

And it is here that spiritual endeavor can be of some use. Spiritual endeavor, when it is serious, does not rely on the marvelous ... it looks more and more and more closely and what creates marvels and what creates horrors and what invariably seems to link the two sides of one coin.

Rain brings life. Rain brings death. Sun grows crops. Sun kills crops. Love fills the scene with joy. Love fills the scene with sorrow....

It's marvelous stuff, but running around mindlessly calling it all a "blessing" or a "curse" ... well, does this really work, does this really assure peace?

Patience and courage and doubt -- and perhaps fretting and sweating and straining at some disciplined endeavor -- tell a marvelous tale. But marvelous? It's just ordinary, isn't it?

But it goes to the heart of what a Greek playwright or a maintenance chief or some exalted religion might cast in a marvelous framework.

The heart of things ... isn't that worth the extra effort?

How else could anyone enjoy a son's baseball game?


  1. Then why is it still bloody painful, adam?

  2. The first step is locating the problem and getting marvelled. The next step is "examination" as genkaku said.

    These are the first and second Noble truths.

    My take

  3. Anon -- It's only painful if you keep shooting darts.

  4. It is not like if the "wise" talk is going to help. I don't personally see the bridge connecting peace of mind and shooting darts/not shooting darts.

    It hurts to shoot darts as you said genkaku, but it also hurts NOT to shoot darts. I am bound to quench my thirst. I believe here you will say; "time to meditate" and i won't disagree.

  5. Adam what does 'shooting darts' mean? (Sorry I'm dense, no-one said Zen students couldn't be blithering idjits :))

  6. "So, in the Libyan fable it is told That once an eagle, stricken with a dart, Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft, "With our own feathers, not by others' hand Are we now smitten."
    -- Aeschylus"

    When it comes to darts, we have to look to ourselves, don't you think?

  7. Yes, OK, thankyou for the responses.