What Does It Mean To Be Mechanical?

How naturally the subject of God and what it means to be good flows into the subject of the next Parabola theme: Man and Machine. In this space and in the readers’ forums, correspondents have shared comments and questions that revolve around the observation (that was also St. Paul’s) that we cannot do the good that we wish we could do. All we can really do is be open, receptive, to what is beyond all our machinations. Sometimes that willingness to go beyond our self enclosed thoughts and be with what is leads to a moment of liberation or grace. People speak of the experience in different terms but it includes the feeling that one has been brought into alignment with a higher order, liberated from a sense of fragmentation and separation or dismemberment and re-membered or made whole, made one.

The Merriam Webster definition of a machine is “an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner.” Take away our usual surroundings and seeming certainties, and what we are really like gets revealed. In the upcoming “Man and Machine” issue, a contemporary woman describes what it is like to go from ordinary busy life to a silent Buddhist retreat where the radically simple conditions show her how far from unity she was, how captive to mechanical patterns.

We can have the same insight in the midst of a great shock or disruption or in front of an unusual demand. This happened to me on the Metro North train just after 9/11, on that day that my 11-year-old daughter lamented she wasn’t born in Middle Earth. The train pulled into a station, the doors slid open and a young woman got on and sat down next to Alexandra and I. As soon as the train started rolling again, the woman asked us if we would mind watching her lunch box while she went to the rest room. We happened to be facing a shiny new poster that read: “If you see something, say something,” meaning that passengers should alert conductor to any suspicious objects or activities because they might be bombs or bombers.

After hesitating, I nodded yes to the smiling young woman and Alex looked at me and did the same and the woman trotted off up the aisle. After all, this was clearly a perfectly innocent lunch box and we had to guard against losing all civility and reason in the wake of this tragedy, didn’t we? But the woman didn’t come back for what seemed a very long time.

Alex and I put our heads together to confer. Should we really turn this lunch box over to the conductor? It wasn’t ticking. Still, the technology of the terrorists could be subtle and didn’t this woman’s very niceness make her the best candidate for a terrorist? This is the way everybody thought in those days. It’s strange to remember now how it seemed in those days as if anything could happen.

“I hate this!” Alex said. “I want it to be over!” I agreed, and I didn’t just mean this lunch box incident but this whole time when no one seemed to trust their own senses or instincts or their ability to reason their way through things–this time when I felt like a ghost hovering over what was happening instead of a real self. How hard it was not to know what to do, to feel so confounded. Waiting is mental torture, I decided. The inner attack dogs, bred of old hurts and fears, start to stir. I had to do something.

I suggested to Alex that we open the lunch box and look inside to put our minds at ease. She looked at me like I was crazy. Hadn’t I seen any movies or TV shows in my whole long life? If it’s a bomb, opening it will make it explode! She snapped open her CD player, took out the stormy, dramatic Fellowship of the Rings disk she’d been listening to, and clicked in a CD of upbeat music. She explained that she was picking a soundtrack with a happy ending.

I told her this was magical thinking, that I was confusing real life with a movie. She asked me if I had a better idea. I did not. Just wait, I said, which felt like a helpless response, an admission of powerlessness in the situation. In about a minute, the young woman swept back into her seat and thanked us. Alex turned to me with a smile of satisfaction.

Spiritual truths are situational and particular. What we understand is specific to that time and place and to our state of being. Unlike scientific truths, as Ravi Ravindra discusses in the upcoming issue, spiritual truth is qualitative rather than quantitative, repeatable.

It feels more authentic to me to draw spiritual truth from the real material of my life rather than trading in abstractions. In hindsight, “Just wait” could have been passed off in the telling as a reasonable thing to say and a wise approach–when in doubt, do nothing…don’t just do something, sit there. What I really felt, however, was a great gaping lack inside…of clarity, of inner balance or coordination. I wasn’t all there. I was just parts, bits of thought and sensation, captivated by what was happening.

What do you think it means to be mechanical?

Comments

  1. Rather than what “I” think it means to be mechanical, a much more challenging question would ask what it means to not be mechanical. In attempting to answer the first question (“What does it mean to be mechanical?”) “my” thoughts are always already conditioned by “my” mechanicality. “There’s no way out of here” sings David Gilmore; Whatever thought may emerge, it is always already the thought of a machine, albeit a very sophisticated “three-brained” biomorphic one. However, attempting to envision or imagine a state of being in which “I” am free of all conditioning, habit, and pre-configured emotion truly makes it feel as if continuing in such an effort after long endeavour and assiduous concentration will bring about something very different than the usual conditioning “I” am used to. It reminds one of St. Paul’s definition of faith which is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Imagining a state of non-mechanicality appears to be an exercise in imagining the unimaginable – a task that just may be impossible enough to become spiritual.

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