I was walking down to the Zen Center for morning meditation last week, when I observed a woman stop her car in the middle of the street. I didn’t think much about it, because often, someone does this to deliver papers to front porches in the early morning. So I was shocked when I observed her step out of her car and empty a bag of trash into the street. Before I could say something, she quickly jumped in her car and raced off.
This seems so cowardly to me. It’s disrespectful to treat our world, our neighborhoods like our personal trash can.
I don’t own a car, so I spend time walking or riding my bike. Recently an add from Sprint has begun appearing on our Chicago buses that reads, “A new network for avoiding eye contact on your commute.” When I first saw this, I took the same kind of double take as on that morning when I watched the women empty her garbage into the street. Our digital gadgets are increasingly becoming a way to live in a bubble and avoid each other, and now Sprint’s brand even encourages you to do so.
I’m not a flaming Luddite. I use and enjoy technology. I use a computer to create my art work. So I’m sure I’d be lost without it. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to keep everything in perspective.
Digital vs. Analog
Computers are digital. They respond to on-off. This is their strength. They can make computations at speeds we could never dream of achieving with our slow, clumsy bodies. For we are after all, not digital but analog. We take time to know and to feel. We require context and narrative to make meaning and purpose in our lives. When we don’t differentiate between digital and analog, we lose track of ourselves. We become increasingly disembodied and disconnected from ourselves until we implode.
While our technology has brought us many improvements and conveniences, it’s important that we appreciate what we have disowned in the process. For technology gives us a false sense of control and security. Real life is uncertain. It always has been, and always will be, and no amount of technology will remove that uncertainty. The attempt to remove uncertainty from the world, actually makes your world more fragile and susceptible to unpredictable catastrophic events.
I will never forget the sinking feeling I had in my stomach as I listened live to the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up as it launched into space on January 28, 1986. I had imagined the technology was invincible.
It’s disillusional to think technology is going to save us. We are blind to the shadow side of technology. Our technology has created climate changes that will have hugh impacts on our future civilization. Our technology has let the genie out of the bottle, and it’s hard to imagine how it will get put back again. The nuclear industry has spawned over 100 nuclear power plants in America alone, and has left us with the crippled, fragile and highly dangerous disaster that is Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. And yet, there is very little news about Fukushima in the mainstream press. We are in denial, and our cell phones allow us to live in this bubble of disconnectedness.
A Relevant Creation Myth for Our Time
In most creation myths there is a separation between subject and object. Our most common creation myth is about how God creates form and beauty out of chaos. But the Chinese philosopher, Chuang-tzu told another creation story to compensate for this overvaluation of order over chaos.
The Death of Chaos
The Master of the Southern Sea (Brief-Sudden) was the one with many facets. In the middle was Hwun-tun (Chaos-Unconscious). Brief-Sudden often met in the middle with Chaos-Unconscious. Chaos-Unconscious was always friendly, so Brief-Sudden thought it would be important to reward Chaos-Unconscious for his kindness. He thought, we humans have seven orifices, so that we can see, hear, smell, eat and breathe, but he has nothing of the kind. So let’s reward him by making an orifice in him. Every day they drilled a hole into Chaos-Uncosncious, and on the seventh day he was dead.
And that’s the end of the story. The Chinese character for “Chaos” is translated by Richard Wilhem as “the Unconscious”. In the English translation, the Master of the Southern Sea is called “Brief”. The German word is Schillernde which means iridescent. So Brief has many moods or facets to his personality. His is not a reflective consciousness. He is one who is impulsive and seizes quickly. He is the one who interferes too soon.
This is typical of a Taoist story which generally values the unconscious over the conscious. This myth balances the overvaluation we place on consciousness and technology. And in attempting to remove all uncertainty from our lives, we have removed and killed a deeper part of our humanity.
For the Time Being
You and I belong on this planet. It is our world, our home. But when we imagine ourselves to be separate, we create constructs of time and space which further separate and alienate us from ourselves and our world. When you experience time as an abstraction, as a unit of measurement, and as something that is passing you by, this stirs up the energies of Brief-Sudden. You become restless and impatient to proceed. You become disembodied and disconnected from yourself and alienated from the world around you.
It does not have to be this way. You can make friends with yourself and your world. You can synchronize your body and mind through the practice of mindfulness meditation. You can experience your existence as time itself. You can belong here, on this beautiful, amazing planet earth.
Dogen Zenji puts it this way in his article “Time-Being”
“An ancient buddha once said:
For the time being, standing on the tallest mountaintop,
For the time being, moving on the deepest ocean floor,
For the time being, a demon with three heads and eight arms,
For the time being, the golden sixteen-foot body of a buddha,
For the time being, a monk’s staff or a master’s fly-swatter,
For the time being, a pillar or a lantern,
For the time being, any Dick or Jane,
For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky.”
a loose translation by Ruth Ozeki from her novel, A Tale for the Time Being
I have no easy answers to the problems we face today. They are serious and they are complex. They are going to require all our creative resources. They are going to require our scientific resources as well. They are going to require our courage to face them, without denial. They are going to require that we face ourselves. And maybe someday, they will ask that we again make eye contact on the train, as we make our way to and from work.
by Robert Joshin Althouse