Wednesday, August 22, 2012

before standards took hold

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the American rich were rich and the American poor were more widely ignored, gentlemen of means were known to possess cigar cutters, devices described by Wikipedia as "designed to cut one end off a cigar so that it may be properly smoked." Those of lesser means who enjoyed cigar smoking simply bit off the end of a cigar and either spit it out or chewed it up ... a déclassé approach not approved by ladies or gentlement of  'good breeding.' There were standards, after all.

Cigar cutter
A similar imposition of standards was visible in the 18th century when an early-American primer I read once and have never been able to find again advised, "... and if you must spit, spit in the corner." There were standards, after all.

This morning I am thinking that standards of decorum and good behavior arise with a certain wealth and cultural stability. Up until that point, life could be, as Thomas Hobbes suggested, "nasty, brutish and short." It is only with enough food and enough safety within which to enjoy it that there is time to kick back and contrive social norms. And so, perhaps, standards are a reflection of a leisured society ... or leisured mind. 

It can be argued rightly that some standards are just the finicky secret hand-shakes of those who have too much time on their hands. It can also be argued rightly that standards oil the social wheels and restrain me from clubbing my neighbor when I notice s/he has something I want. The British television show "Monty Python's Flying Circus" used the former politesse as the butt of innumerable jokes. And police departments everywhere stand testament to the latter usefulness of standards.

What got me off on this cigar-smoking kick this morning was the thought that everyone possesses a leisured mind when it comes to spiritual endeavor. Spiritual endeavor is for those with the wherewithal to reflect -- a luxury not afforded to everyone. There is "right" and "wrong" in personal spiritual endeavor and these luxury items deserve attention because they rest and rely on a foundation in which right and wrong do not play a role. Failing to investigate and acknowledge this arena relegates spiritual endeavor to an endless world of cigar-cutter politesse. Such politesse may be a social wheel-oiler, but it misses out on the wide and living richness of life in general and spiritual life in particular.

Oooooh shit! I can hear the dogs of ethical behavior beginning to stir in their den. In my own chosen persuasion of Zen Buddhism, all sorts of fisticuffs have evolved from the suggestion that "Zen has no ethics." Some have even acted on such a statement or persuasion and the results have been predictable -- plenty of harm done to others ... as vile an approach as ever there was. 

Zen -- or any other spiritual persuasion -- does have ethics and it does have the standards of luxury. But my suggestion is that it is important to investigate and acknowledge what came before such standards, what realm (not necessarily "nasty, brutish and short") gave rise to those standards and pointers.

This is a personal effort, not one to make into the laid-back luxury of a standard. It is an individual willingness to go the distance within, to look and see rather than to elevate or excoriate. There is "right" and there is "wrong," for those with the wealth to afford it, but before "right" and "wrong," well ... what was that like?

Everyone who travels this route may come up with an individual appreciation or understanding, but maybe this world without standards might be described as one in which there is stuff "to do" and stuff "not to do." Why's and wherefores and meanings and explanations and beliefs and cigar-cutting breeding are not yet in play. To call it "animalistic" is to resort to more standards. Good and bad are not the point. The point is -- for individuals bent on spiritual honesty -- what is. And not just "what is," but "who is."

It's a sticky wicket and a razor's edge because those who choose to investigate here sometimes get stuck or fall off into "undifferentiated" realms and other well-bred nonsense. There are standards after all and they plan to adhere to them... and they get stuck in the oooooeeeeeooo of things.

What coming to terms with the "to do" and "not to do" carries with it is a very normal, down-to-earth, simultaneous and inescapable necessity to act in ways described by others as "ethical." But their descriptions no longer hold water and no longer freight the scene. Being "good" or "kind" or "clear-eyed" is no longer a standard adhered to by the well-heeled mind. 

There is just "to do" and "not to do" according the circumstance.

And circumstance is all there is ... or not, depending on your point of view.

Pass the cigar cutter, please.

1 comment:

  1. I had a very nice silver cigar cutter once that my wife had given me. Unfortunately it fell underneath my deck never to be found, as I was reaching for the whisky. I have a plastic one now that works very well though.