Wednesday, June 1, 2011

bores my socks off

Awoke this morning on a vaguely airy-fairy frequency, remembering a story my mother told me and wondering whether the shoe fit or whether I was trying to fit my life's foot into a glass slipper when I clearly wasn't Cinderella. There is something comforting about finding "purpose" and "meaning," but it's like eating potato chips ... not very nourishing. This does not mean I can't scarf potato chips with the best of 'em.

My mother told me that when I was a baby, she rolled me out to some New York City park so she could sit on a bench and read and I could soak up some rays. As she sat on the bench, a neatly-dressed, middle aged woman stopped next to the baby carriage, looked down at the baby who would become me and said, with a slight accent my mother took to be Scottish, "Ah ... a minister." After which, she just walked off.

Perhaps what set off this morning's case of the munchies was a short to-and-fro email exchange I had yesterday with a minister and Zen organizer of my acquaintance. He wrote that he had only two more sermons to go before he got a vacation he was looking forward to and needed ... he was tired. Without any significant, concrete evidence (I've never been a minister), I felt sympathy for him: How confining and exhausting, I imagined, always being a position of trying to help others, seldom getting a chance to just be on an equal footing ... an equal footing once left behind in search for an expert's 'laudable' role and position.

My own version of "be careful of what you pray for -- you may get it" is not "be careful what you pray for -- you may get it" but rather, "be careful what you pray for because you will get it."

It's not entirely clear to me why I think that the goodness business is much different from any other, why its threads and snares should be much different from the wiles of becoming a CEO or a garage owner. Perhaps it is just my interest in spiritual life that brings on an extra helping of sympathy. Whatever the case, I am interested in those who may wish to be at peace and at ease in a business that purports to confer peace and ease. In my imagination, I can hear a small voice whispering, "how do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?!" You get the satisfactions; you get the plaudits; you get what you signed up for and now ... well, as the old song used to ask, "is that all there is?" What was once wide open as the sky is now narrowed and ... tiring.

In Zen, there was once a reference to those who assumed a teacher's mantle ... it was like "an iron cangue around the neck." It may be the same for everyone, in whatever choices they make in life, but somehow I imagine it as being extra constricting in the goodness business. In the goodness business, there is all that goodness, all of those adroit explanations, all of those wily and elevated 'understandings' to go through. The whole effort makes Indiana Jones' advance through a thousand spider webs in a treasure cave seem tame.

But this is just my imagination. I have never been a minister or even very good at the goodness business. When I was a newspaper reporter, I used to purely love the work. But I came to dislike hanging out with other reporters. They were, in my mind, too damned boring, too narrow, too constricted ... they were always talking about reporting ... fuck that! And the same thing goes for the goodness business -- those who are interested seem to bypass the stuff that is interesting in favor of making everything tidy with goodness. The richness gets lost in a miasma of meaning and neatly-taped Christmas presents. Fuck that!

No, I am too old and fat and lazy and inept to be a "minister." I like the whiz-bang appropriateness of trying to find a bit of peace in life (what the hell else would anybody do?) but the expertise of an adept leaves me cold. Go bore somebody else, I want to say.

And yet, for all my tastes and distastes, which one of us does not add bit by bit to a storehouse of expertise? More and more knowledge and experience piles up and produces skillful abilities. Get married, get a job, buy a car, hike on a mountain ... drip, drip, drip ... and the expertise mounts. The stupidity and ineptness that arises without some expertise can be frightening and dangerous and worse than dumb. So I guess everyone gathers whatever expertise they want, seeks out meaning and purpose and importance and skill.

But it's an honest-to-goodness koan or insoluble riddle ... fucked if you do and fucked if you don't. As time passes, our own expertise can bore the socks off us. The cangue constricts and confines and the longing for some open-field running, some equal-footing to replace the unequal footing once longed for, rises up. Wily and goodness-prone Buddhists will say it's all on account of "attachment." They have a point, but such an expertise is also pretty boring after a while. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki got in some pretty good licks when he suggested, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." It's just that there's no other real choice: For any sort of meat-on-the-bone peace, expertise needs to see to its own dissolution.

Is there any other choice ... when everyone is Jesus, who could possibly be Jesus? When everyone is a minister, who could possibly be a minister? These are inflammatory questions since they are likely to come freighted with some imaginary goodness. So let me put it another way: When everyone is a plumber, who is the plumber? When everyone is a daisy, who is the daisy? When everything is, as the goodness merchants sometimes put it, "one," then what is it that is "one?"

It's good to know stuff. It's good to gain experience. It's just common sense based on the circumstances that arise. Go ahead and be an expert, go ahead and be a minister, go ahead and be a daisy. But really I think it's worth keeping in mind....

No need to bore the socks off ourselves or others. Life is fun-er than that.

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