Let's Blow This Popsicle Stand

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-07-02 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

Back when I was what I could call a "confused radical utopian" in my worldview (this was roughly my college to mid-twenties years), one of the things that appealed intermittently to me was the idea of ditching everything and becoming a monastic of some kind. I knew full well this was impossible, at the very least supremely irresponsible.

Still, I had to confront the appeal of the idea, and it didn't take long to extract the meaning of it: when you are faced with a world this chaotic and nasty, maybe the only sane response is to reject it, to cultivate a contempt for the world and use that as your bulwark. What was even harder — but more rewarding in the long run — was learning to reject that idea. Ironically, I have Zen to thank for that, a path that many people associate, not always with the best of evidence at hand, with solitude.

My knowledge of Zen long preceded my functional interest in it. I didn't start actual practice until around 2006 or so, and some of that was spurred by some personal crises that in retrospect (the retrospect Zen itself provided) were nothing much at all. But once I started doing zazen in earnest, and studying material that wasn't pop Zen, a few things became clearer.

First, the point of Zen practice is not to isolate yourself. In fact, it's the exact opposite of that. It's teaching yourself how to exist with grace in the world that we have right now, with all its mess and contradiction. Folks who teach at monasteries or go on retreats may isolate themselves from the world periodically, and that can be helpful, but they always come back out again to do their worldly business, because that's where the action is. A zendo may be a place where people can sit undisturbed for a time to work on their sitting practice, but the real fruit of that practice is what they do the other 23 hours of the day in the rest of the world.

Second was how contempt for the world only breeds a further form of retreat from life's inevitabilities. It generates no actual solution, just a bunch of crummy simulations of same.

When I was much younger I had a friend — one of those tempestuous but brilliant people that today we'd call "high maintenance". At one point things got really rough for him, and he had to be hospitalized for a few weeks. When he got out, he vented to me about the whole experience, and how all of this had only made him that much more averse to human beings since they'd seemed like the source of the problems. To run off and live in a log cabin somewhere seemed like a solution, when so many other things that still involved human contact did not.

I didn't say much to any of this. I was just old enough to understand that when someone vents, your best course of action is just to let them exhaust themselves and then, later, when their feet are back on the ground, circle back with whatever insights you feel appropriate. But it was still jolting to hear, out of his mouth, some version of an idea I'd entertained on and off, and for many of the same reasons: people are no damn good, best to just walk away from them.

When I heard it like that, from someone else, I realized the problem with this view. There is no "walking away", because whenever you try to "walk away", you always take some piece of whatever you're "walking away" from with you.  His problems with other people being jerks was not something he could escape by leaving other people behind, because he himself was one of those "other people". The Unabomber could not "walk away" from human society because he was himself a product of it, and he carried countless artifacts of its legacy with him wherever he went.

This understanding didn't cause an overnight turnabout in my thinking, but it lodged within and exerted an influence afterwards. By the time my Zen study ramped up, it had matured into something that Zen was able to bring to more complete flower. You can neither run nor hide, because you are an embodiment of all you are trying to run and hide from. And the idea that you can purify yourself of such a taint, that you can somehow extirpate the roots of whatever alleged worldly human sins you bear with you, is equally misleading. It isn't even a taint in the first place; it's all that conspired to make you exist at all.

Fearlessness and courage take many forms, and one of them is the simple determination to coexist with the world as it actually is, not as we want very badly for it to be. None of which means we can't work to improve things; if anything, this makes it easier to do that, because our work is less cluttered by false expectations and ego games.

Towards the end of Jack Finney's marvelous short story "I'm Scared", the narrator laments how the longing of billions of minds for escape might be slowly tearing the fabric of reality itself.

For the first time in man's history, man is desperate to escape the presence. Our newsstands are jammed with escape literature, the very name of which is significant. Entire magazines are devoted to fantastic stories of escape — to other times, past and future, to other worlds and planets — escape to anywhere but here and now. ... Yes, there is a craving in the world like a thirst, a terrible mass pressure that you can almost feel, of millions of minds struggling against the barriers of time.

I read those words for the first time when I was probably no more than ten years old, in the massive hardback anthology of SF that served as my formal introduction to the genre. Those words left me with a lifelong question: for those of us who traffic in fantasy or escape of any kind, what is it that we owe others, apart from a ticket to ride?

I know Campbell's "hero's journey" template is rather worn at the edge from criticism, but there is one part of it I think has absolute validity. It is how the journey is cyclical, or at least circular. The hero leaves home and undergoes his trials and adventures so that he might come back and share what he has learned along the way. Zen teacher Seung Sahn's notion of Zen as a circle that goes from -0 to +0 shares the same conceit. ("The only difference in a man before and after Zen is that during Zen his feet are a little off the ground.")

Whatever it is we owe the world when we offer people a short escape from it, it should always be in the form of something that will bring them back to their world, and in a greater manner than simply allowing the story to come to an end. We owe people an escape, but with that we also owe them a way back. The escape allows them to see new things; the way back allows them to return to the world with what they know.

Tags: Buddhism Zen psychology science fiction society sociology