Monday, May 13, 2013

A matter of orientation

This morning, while I was sitting against the wall, a mosquito began to buzz my ears. I let it be, and it went away.

Then I heard it buzzing my coffee cup which rested on the desk nearby. The cup was warm from the coffee I’d just finished before starting my meditation. I suspect it was warmer than I, for I think it was the cup’s warmth that drew the mosquito away from my ears. I made this hypothesis quickly and returned my attention to the wall.

Then I corrected myself, for to ignore the mosquito and face the wall then was, in a sense, a failure to be present. The mosquito was here, resting on my cup, and I had not really observed it.

So I quietly lifted my reading glasses from beside the cup on the desk, put them on, and watched the mosquito. The mosquito landed on the outer wall of the cup, its front legs splayed out before it like the curved runnels of an old sleigh. Finding nothing to bite it hovered and landed again. For a few moments it probed the porcelain surface of the cup with its stiletto proboscis, and eventually finding no pore, lifted off. In a moment it was buzzing again around my ear.

The experience got me thinking afterwards about my habit of making quick assessments and moving on – I rarely really observe anything but glance, quickly “figure out” what is there, what is going on, and then turn my glance upon the next thing.

Of course, I prefer close observation, to stop myself and see – study  – what is there rather than to see briefly, noticing only what I expect.

Not that I observed the mosquito all that well. The room was dimly lit in the morning dark by a single bulb the other side of the desk. But I’m glad to have looked again at the mosquito, for I did notice that it wasn’t simply a little slit of gray wings resting on the side of the cup, but that it had the hunched head and shoulders of a microscopic stork and the front legs of a winter sleigh, and I wouldn't have noticed those features if I’d relied simply on memory, the prototype of a mosquito I had carried around in my head.

I read the following passage from Shunryu Suzuki. He was quoting the Zen master Tozan: “The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

This passage reminded me of a poem by Dogen:

All my life false and real, right and wrong tangled.
Playing with the moon, ridiculing wind, listening to birds…
Many years wasted seeing the mountain covered with snow.
This winter I suddenly realize snow makes a mountain.

The Tozan quote helped me make new sense of the Dogen poem, the idea of both independence and dependence, that the mountain depends on the snow, just as the snow depends on the mountain, and that a snowy mountain is made by snow just as much as it is made by mountain.

I suppose the self is a parallel case – being utterly dependent on everything in its sphere (and all spheres beyond), and yet distinct, itself. The self is and is not. It is independent and dependent. It is distinct as a wave in water: we can point at a wave and understand its being in a sense separate from the water generally and yet also know that it is not separate from the water at all but part of it. Likewise, we can speak meaningfully of a self, and act accordingly. We do it all the time. We must do it or perish. Even so we are simply separate waves emerging for a time upon an ocean of water only to slip back into it eventually.

The contrasts between dependence and independence, mountain and cloud, snow and mountain, self and not-self serve to orient us. They are, like many of the oppositions we decorate our lives with, useful distinctions, good (albeit distracting) to think.

They are like the contrasting white and black keys on a piano. There is nothing in the color of the keys that is essential to the sounds they make. There is nothing about the contrast that is essential.

Except for one thing: the contrast, the difference – or rather the différance of Jacque Derrida – the contrast orients the player’s hands to the keyboard.

This matter of orientation is the key thing, and returning to the idea of the self, is the deciding difference: the idea of a separate self orients us vis-à-vis the rest, the not-self, but does not exist in itself any more than the contrasting keys of a keyboard exist in the sounds that they make. The idea of the self (as the “idea,” the contrast, the différance between the keys) is orientational, helps us make the next move.

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