Thursday, July 28, 2011


A crazy Zen story imagines a Buddha sitting atop a hundred foot pole. Where to from here, old one?

Consider the balance required of such a feat. Lean one fraction of an inch, slump even a hair, and crash.

I don’t believe the story is just about posture, or spatial balance. I think it’s also about temporal balance, which I find harder and more perilous.

Spatial balance requires a vestibular system, mechanisms in our inner ear that detect deviations forward and back, side to side, and rotation, such as the swivel of one’s head.

Without these mechanisms we fall down.

Most of us lack a similarly sensitive system for balancing in the present, the here and now.

Think of how often we lean to the future or past, or drift to a present-time but imaginary, hypothetical, or intellectual elsewhere. I lean, I slump, I drift, I lurch, I rush off to think about one thing or another that is not here right now.

Not paying attention is not just the cause of falling down. In a temporal sense, it is falling down.

Learning to be present is not simply a matter of posture, though that probably helps. It is also a matter of paying attention.

The body’s posture undoubtedly helps as a sort of metaphor, or mnemonic, for temporal posture. Sitting upright reminds us – reminds us – of the present.

We learn how to balance our bodies standing up, walking, running, riding a bicycle. In a similar way we learn how to balance ourselves in the present moment, and it’s a process that requires practice and attention.

I say all this because I’ve just come off a couple of years of having my attention pulled by the internet, especially email.

At any given time I have had one or another manuscript out to a publisher. That meant that at any given time a publisher might contact me to say yes or no. So I checked email, sometimes several times an hour. Sometimes more than that.

Over the course of those months, my attention was interrupted, fragmented, splintered dozens, even hundreds, of times a day. When I got a “smart” phone it only got worse. Even when I was working on something – writing, reading, thinking – I had the phone nearby and would check it.

I lost track of why I was checking. It was an annoying habit, like finger tapping or jingling keys or snapping gum.

But as much as I see this now as a distraction, I also know the human hunger for information is as natural as our hunger for sugar or fat. We are curious animals. We are wired to want to know what is going on in our ever-expanding sphere.

Moreover we require affirmation, or at least attention, from others. If my body is a place it is not sufficient unto itself. It needs others, other places, other bodies, more information from elsewhere.

The tricky thing, when you think about it, is defining the divide between the present, the here and now, and the elsewhere of past or future. Aren’t they in a sense always contained by each other? The present is both product of past and producer of future.

Similarly, the Buddhism that reminds us to be here now also reminds us that here is not delimitable from there, myself from you, now from then.

This gets confusing. I am intuitively aware that I have a problem dwelling as much as I do on thoughts and speculations and memories that inhibit my awareness of what is happening around me right now. I am not alone. But I am also intuitively aware that my capacity to do all that, to spin a stream of speculation, is what I am, it is human, and that riding those streams is (dare I say “as”) important as learning to be here now.

Perhaps the wisdom of the crazy Zen story is not so much in sitting atop a pole but the miracle of balance.

No comments: