Open and closed (post redux)

Traveling by car is like watching life on a screen, writes Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, his now classic account of a motorcycle journey with his 11-year-old son that is really an inquiry into values.“You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone.”

The secret of motorcycle maintenance—and of living a life that has value—has to do with drawing our attention to the quality of what confronts us here and now. No matter what we are thinking about or doing, according to Pirsig, we can cultivate a double awareness—attentive to our thoughts and the work we are doing, yet sensitive to the quality of what is happening, to what is unknown.

Somethims life delivers great shocks that give us a taste of what it means to be open to quality, or a new quality.  Right after the attacks on September 11, there seemed to be a new quality of presence all over Manhattan. One local journalist noted a general “suspension of distraction.” New Yorkers on the subways and streets were making eye contact, acknowledging that we lived in a shared world, surrounded by mystery. It was as if the shock of what happened had jarred most of us loose from our self-enclosed thoughts and certainties. There was widespread acknowledgment that we didn’t know anything about the way the world worked.  But we knew that life had value.

“The only thing we know is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom,” writes Tolstoy. Briefly, New Yorkers were wise. But this soon passed.   Then we got to see what it means to be closed, to contract in fear.

On Christmas Eve in Grand Central Station, I’d seen heavily armed National Guard troops and police officers surround a deranged old homeless woman who had pushed her shopping cart into the terminal to take shelter from a freezing winter rain. She’d stood clutching a broken doll, looking bewildered as the officers poked through the possessions that were spread out on the ground around her. I noticed one young officer in particular. His stance was stern but he had a pitying, questioning look in his eyes, as if he were watching himself and was incredulous that all that training and readiness to face danger had come down to this. Life can be like this, I thought as I watched him. It can carry us along passively, even when we have the best intentions.

The real truth of who we are is situational. It appears in the midst of real-life situations.  It cannot be taken out of context.  Everything has a different quality up close, as Pirsig writes.  Events have hidden reserves, surprises, meanings–quality–up close.

We (or at least I) want to be aware and present and we don’t want it. We (I) long to be more open, to be liberated from our separation from others, from life. Yet another force in us pulls against it, insisting on our views and opinions, as if we (ok, I) can only bear so much reality.

This tendency to split , to close the borders, defend ourselves against invaders, goes deep. Thomas Merton compared the way our ego-centric consciousness splits off from the selfless awareness of Being with original sin. If this is the case, even single-cell organisms–even our own cells–are sinners, because they can discern the difference between self and other, reflexively defending itself against invaders.

Yet it is always also possible to go beyond the mechanical, beyond what has come before. These days, scientific studies are revealing that even genetically identical E.coli bacteria express individuality, behaving in different ways in identical conditions. Even in microbes, the same genes and the same genetic network can lead to different fates.

What does it take to be open?  How can we stay open longer?

Comments

  1. Does an innate moral sense exist independently of our socialization or does our socialization create an inner moral compass? Gandhi believed in an innate moral sense. He believed in the existence of Satyagraha or a truth and love force within all humans. And Marcus Aurelius believed in the existence of an innate moral sense. He believed that we all possessed an inner reason that could conquer emotional responses. Were they right?

    Or are we a blank slate shaped by outer forces, forces that teach a sort of moral and ethical perspective? I can’t help thinking Lord of the Flies. And I do love the Enlightenment ideal of the power of education to transform a person, especially a ruffian.

    But then, I think of the truly greats like the spiritual ones: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Rumi or the political ones: Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen, King or the cultural ones: Picasso, Da Vinci, Michelangelo…the ones who were seemingly born different, born already possessing some mysterious spark that could not be contained but reached out and illuminated the whole world.

    And I am conflicted between a fundamental egalitarian access to the whole of moral, social, cultural, and political greatness and a Plato-like “philosopher king” sense of some who possess the finer stuff needing to shape and lead the rest of us.

    After all, while there are many Buddhists, there was only one Siddhartha.

    Is it possible that we all possess an innate moral compass but that only a few individuals have intimate access with that portion of their souls? And perhaps that those individuals in sharing their journeys and reflections with the rest of us encourage us to reach to heights previously unknown. Sort of like breaking the four minute mile. First, one reveals that it is possible. And then once possibility is realized, others follow.

    The good mother, the good society, the good teacher share one commonality: They are living examples of the possibility of realizing an innate moral sense. And in seeing it and experiencing it, others can discover it within themselves.

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  2. “We (or at least I) want to be aware and present and we don’t want it. We (I) long to be more open, to be liberated from our separation from others, from life. Yet another force in us pulls against it, insisting on our views and opinions, as if we (ok, I) can only bear so much reality.”

    yes. i can agree with that. i find it intriguing even. i see myself as in the middle of an urge and a non-urge. action only takes place when i let go of the critic, the second guesser, the lazy one, the scared of what might happen one.

    today is sunday and the beach is reported to be perfect. a very good friend even half expects me to brave the weekend traffic. part of me wants to stroll on the beach and enjoy all the sights and sounds. but two days ago he was here. i treated him to sushi and we had a three hour talk in my apartment. and i am doing fine right here. the sun is shining in my little yard and i am content.

    who is content? not I, certainly, we are seething with desires and expectations of adventure, the chance of meeting new people or the pleasure of visiting old friends.
    i have long since known that the cure for ‘stick-in-the-mudness’ is just to say yes to life; outside life.

    “go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is.” if you like someone, tell them. if you have an urge to help a homeless hopeless case, do it. that’s just the way i am, why fight it?

    think of all the opportunities, the spheres of influence missed by puttering around at home.

    o.k. that does it. i’m going to the beach!

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  3. I agree with Thomas Merton – Adam and Eve (or the metaphorical start of mankind they represent) make the choice for original sin via free will. If not, then I have to think that they were simply pre-programmed automatons from the Factory of No Compassion, their actions having no meaning. This, is what I suppose I would expect of a thuggish god, the type who would allow only SOME of his creations to access their inner moral compass, or further condemn trillions of pre-Christian Chineese to Hell because he put them at the wrong time and in the wrong place to hear the message of Christ -none of which could be conceivably said to be their fault, through free will. And the socialization of man does not in and of itself necissarily correct this – Hitler, through free will, took the most broken of societies and within a few short years turned it into what was arguably the most physically powerful society on Earth – yet I cannot imagine any sane person believing that as a society they possessed an inner moral compass. This is Job’s – and our dillemma – how do you prevent the ego from either passively OR actively intellectuallizing away the value of human lives in community – either our own or others? How do you remember to allign youself with the moral field that comes from God? (moral, not ethical. Ethics are made by man and are thus temporal – Morals by definition come from God. and are thus eternal)

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