This week I received the latest book from Brad Warner, The Other Side Of Nothing (subtitle: The Zen Ethics Of Time, Space, and Being), and to say it was timely and what I needed is an understatement.
For those who don't know: Brad Warner is the guy who got me to take Zen and Buddhism seriously as a practice, instead of just an intellectual occupation. I bumped into his first book Hardcore Zen in a library sale, and it remains to this day the best $1 I've spent on a book. Warner was the last person you'd expect to become a Zen teacher: he played bass in a punk band and worked for the company that makes Ultraman, but over a period of years his interest in Zen as a ... what would be the right term? ... spiritual technology, I guess? ... deepened. He realized this Zen stuff was a better answer to all the Big Questions he had about life, and ended up devoting himself to it in a freewheeling but totally serious way.
The Other Side Of Nothing is a more structured introduction to Zen and what it means than Hardcore Zen — not quite as much fun, maybe, but meatier, a little more elegantly written, and far more systematic. If you're new to Zen, it might not be the first book you read, but it could very easily be the second. It's also a good book to sink into, and I sunk pretty deeply into it, as readers here can tell I've had a fairly chaotic couple of days, and I needed something to tell me there are ways to make sense of the universe.
I always thought one of the best descriptions of faith, or religion, or spirituality, is "what to do when you don't know what to do". Most of the time we know what to do: we have jobs, we have easily understood responsibilities. But then we realize we're going to die, or that the universe is this mind-bogglingly big place in which we don't even register as a blip, or that we spend an entire weekend wondering if our entire mouth is going to fall apart.
We need to have some kind of framework to handle all this. It takes a lot of work to get to the point where you say, "The universe makes sense to me." For most of us nothing makes any sense. It all just feels like we're at the bottom of a hill where a dumptruck is unloading. Belief systems provide a way to make sense of things, even if the way they make sense of things itself doesn't make any larger sense.
I have a quote I keep pinned to the top of my Twitter profile: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." The words of Václav Havel, and I have come back to them countless times over the last I don't know how many years. Definitely during the last five or six. If nothing else, we can put some faith in the idea that human beings, clever fellows they are, can cast their eyes over something and eventually find in it some kind of coherence.
The part of our brain that uses narratives to cast the external world into something manageable for our own internal use will always take its cut. It wants to make sense of the universe, and so we might as well work with that instead of against it. We might as well have narratives that make sense of the universe in constructive and nurturing ways.
Before Zen was really a Thing-with-a-cap-T for me (that is, before I actually started practicing), I had a component to my personality that could be charitably described as dark-'n-edgy. I was one of those folks who believed — without really having that belief tested in a significant way — that the highest measure of a man was how deeply they could stare into the abyss. Eventually I realized such a view amounted to nothing more than a macho meathead hornswoggle, an endurance-test theory of the psyche to no good end. The answer wasn't chicken soup for the soul, but the cultivation of equanimity. That which does not kill you only makes you stronger until it finally bloody kills you.
The best way I've found to make sense of the universe, at least thus far, is to understand as completely as you can that you are not In Here and the universe is not Out There. You're a piece of it, and it doesn't exist in the form it takes without you somewhere in it either. Martin Buber's "I and Thou", in other words. Such perspective requires cultivation. We do all have it, but the lives we lead do not give us much of a chance to find it, and so we must strive to find it on our own. To the degree that I've been able to find any of it at all, I'm grateful.