This is Who We Are

What a shock to return to city life in Austin, Texas. Things quickly became complicated. It was wise to take a couple of weeks to make the 2000 mile journey back.

I was gone for seven months. Most of that time I was either on the Appalachian Trail, or camping in the woods. Life had become very simple. On the trail, I had honed my pack to a lean 20-22 pounds, not including food and water. That included more than everything I needed: shelter, bedding, clothing, kitchen, toiletry and first aid. Suddenly, with my truck and house, I was surrounded by all this “stuff”. Oddly, I wasn’t any happier.

For the first time in months, I checked the national headline news. I was hoping for hope itself. Yet I was greeted by the sparring and conflict between Greta Thunberg and President Trump. One, a young teen mature well beyond her years. The other a seasoned and chafe con artist struggling for the civil maturity of a middle school bully. The young lady was looking for ways to raise awareness about the future of our global environment. The president was looking for ways to bullishly and usuriously obliterate it. Conflict was inevitable.

I wonder why so many people go about in such a hurry. We’re never happier anywhere else than we are wherever we are, and hurrying to get somewhere else doesn’t seem to help. Also, I wonder why so many people need so much “stuff”. We’re never any happier with “more” than we are with “less”. I wonder if anyone ever looks deeply at the blind rat mazes of hurrying and consuming.

While on the trail, there were periods, sometimes days at a time, when I did not hear any man-made sounds. The prominence of Nature was overwhelming. In the city, I struggle to hear the sounds of Nature, it’s drowned by traffic, sirens, air conditioners, and construction. I get the sense that we’re on a run away hell-bound train that has a certain and inevitable consequence looming just around the turn. On the trail, I was fortunate to participate in the interconnectedness of Nature and Life. From the beauty of the mountains and rivers, to the blessing of my own physical limitations of hunger, and weariness, I felt connected to all that was around me. In this city, as we speed hastily in the roulette of traffic encased in flimsy tin and plastic projectiles with wheels and airbags, we depend on being separate from each other to justify our aggression.

Through it all, I will admit that I’m part of it, I’m not separate from any of it. At this point in our collective history, more than ever before, we’re being called to come together. It’s true for each and every one of the inhabitants of this planet: we’re either part of the solution, or we’re the problem itself. There was a popular TV series called Millenium in the late ’90s that had a tag line I come back to in times of duress: “This is who we are.

The Source of My Suffering

In a previous incarnation, that was not all that long ago, I had the opportunity to commit to a daily meditation routine. When I changed jobs, study of the new location placed me in the proximity of an early morning Zazen meditation group that met in the early morning. I could show up at the Meditation Center for the 6:00 AM sit, park my car there and walk the remaining mile and a half to work. Even though I have been been practicing meditation for many years, this opportunity for consistency was welcome, so adapting to the new routine was welcome as well as easy. I was able to follow this process for several years, and it solidified a regular practice into my daily routine that is indescribably rich and now innate.

An interesting aspect of meditation that I’ve noticed, and I’m sure this extends to any other discipline, is that it takes consistent, long-term application for the benefits to be realized at the deeper levels of the human psyche. No doubt this is true of athletics or similar routines. There’s something about meditation that seeps in deeply when it’s applied over a variety of the personal dilemmas that inevitably surface, such as seasonal mood swings, various conflicts, physical challenges, etc. When the practice is utilized throughout a spectrum of the natural biorhythms, it becomes innate at the cellular level. Some might say that “new neural pathways” are being forged. In short, full benefits are realized by sticking with it. As Nike says, “Just do it”.

I was very consistent with the meditation routine at the Zen Center. I rarely missed a morning there. When the bell rang at 6:00 AM, I had typically already been on my cushion for 15 or more minutes. The way the schedule worked was that we sat Zazen until 6:35, then walked for 10 minutes. There was a second sit from 6:45 until 7:15 for those who wanted to stay. However, I typically left after the first sit so I could walk to work and be at my desk by 7:00 AM.

On one particular morning, I was not in very good shape or spirits for the sit. I had not slept well. Indeed, my tossing and turning were products of a previously bad day. However, undaunted, I showed up and was there for the first bell. This particular sit was extremely tormented. For some reason, thoughts consistently ran through my head that the person next to me was criticizing me, and I was “doing it wrong”. At first, in the early minutes of the sit, the thoughts weren’t terribly overwhelming. But as the session  progressed, the thoughts became extremely persistent and overwhelming.

I was sure he was criticizing my breathing for being too loud. When I moved my hand slightly, I was convinced that he looked at me condescendingly. No matter what I did, which wasn’t much, I was sure he was thinking judgmentally of my ineptitude and incompetence. The way the Zendo was arranged, we sat facing the wall. Candles burned on the altar behind me, and as the shadows danced on the wall in front of me I could swear the they were in collusion with the person next to me, mounting an attack of criticism that was circling through my head like blender blades. It took every ounce of psychic effort I could muster to just sit there and not act upon the sharp and painful thoughts.

Finally, after what seemed like 35 years, which was only 35 minutes, the bell rang to indicate the end of the sit. I pushed back off my cushion and stood. As I stood, I noticed that the person next to me didn’t get up, he didn’t even move. I looked over at him. He was asleep.

There was nothing, and no one, outside of myself, that was the source of my suffering. Correspondingly, and by extension, I am equally responsible for my own happiness.

Head in a Fish Bowl

I once had a large fish aquarium in my living room. It was a prominent piece, a 90 gallon tank, that contained several fish. The aquarium had a system of automated lights that would cycle on and off to give the fish a consistent amount of light each day.

One evening, after sunset, the lights in the aquarium were on, but the house was dark. I was walking through the living room, and the fish followed me as I passed the aquarium. Interesting, I thought. So I walked back the other way. The entire cadre of fish followed me once again, the other direction. It seemed odd. So I stood in one place, then moved slightly, They sat staring at me, following me as I shifted. Then I realized what they were up to, I actually felt like I gained some insight into their world, their thought pattern.

They didn’t realize that the limit of their life, their environment, stopped at the glass wall of the aquarium. They had no idea what the “bump” of the glass was when they ran into it. They thought that the entire room was their environment, and I was in the tank with them. They had no idea that the world beyond that “bump” was completely different from theirs, that they could not survive in the greater environment, outside their limited world.

Simultaneously, I had a broader realization. What if, by comparison, my environment is limited? What if the limit of my senses is not all there is to the Universe? What if the limits of our physical realm are only a “tank” that contains us, and we are the products of a much larger, more pervading Entity? Further, what if the limits of my thought patterns, my experiences and mental projections, are not the full extent of the contents of the Universe? Could it be that I,  all of us together, are caught in a world limited by our interpretation of available sense perceptions, oblivious beyond the “glass” of our constrained conclusions?