Archive for December, 2013
There’s a Taoist parable by Zhuangzi about a praying mantis in the woods. The praying mantis is about to eat a fly, but while its attention is on the fly, a bird swoops down to eat the praying mantis. Then, as the bird is about to kill the praying mantis, the bird is unable to see nearby a hunter aiming a bow and arrow at the bird. The hunter just so happens to be Zhuangzi himself. He is so focused on the bird that he doesn’t notice a game warden approaching behind him (Zhuangzi is on private property hunting illegally, I might add). Before releasing his arrow Zhuangzi pauses for a second, sees the warden in time, and then scampers away to safety.
PAUSE – COME UP WITH YOUR OWN INTERPRETATION OF THIS STORY BEFORE PROCEEDING, please
OK. My interpretation is that we all have a blind-spot. And that blind-spot gets a whole lot bigger when we’re focused on one thing. I have an example of this in my life, and though it doesn’t entail hunting birds in Ancient China, it still makes sense.
I have a bad habit of looking at people on their cell phones. ‘Looking’ is a nice word. I glare.
The people I’m referring to are not just anyone on a cellphone, but the ones who stumble around the sidewalk oblivious to their surroundings. Especially the ones with a kid with them they ignore or a dog they’re walking that they’re not really walking or just when the day is beautiful and they don’t notice it, like this one guy I saw so engrossed in his cell phone that he didn’t notice a humming bird hovering over his head.
I was excited the first day this winter below freezing because I thought it would stop people from walking and texting because their hands would be too cold and they’d have to wear gloves that made it impossible to text, but then I walked past a chalkboard sign in front of a store advertising “Texting Gloves” for sale. Somebody less judgmental (and more savvy) than me recognized a need and filled it. I on the other hand (pun intended) continued to burn in resentment, fixated on these texters like a praying mantis about to eat a fly… while I was riding my bike…
… BAM. I ran into a car! No, not really. But I almost did. It would have been a very painful lesson (and a better story)- but like Zuangzi I looked up just in time to brake. What happened was I was so pre-occupied with somebody else not being aware of their surroundings that I lost track of my surroundings. Simple enough. But the question still lingers- why do texters piss me off so much, anyway?
I have a few answers, but I’m more amazed that I’m even asking myself this question, because it puts me on the defensive. For the longest time I just took it for granted that they were idiots and deserved my silent ire- if not an outright confrontation. Actually, I fantasized about standing right in front of the woman walking her dog and saying HEY DON’T YOU REALIZE YOUR DOG DOESN’T KNOW WHERE THE FUCK IT’S GOING!? But I didn’t. And I still haven’t answered the question at hand: why do they piss me off?
THEORY- it’s human to recognize each other and when someone’s glued to their phone there’s no chance for mutual recognition- THEORY- there’s a thing in each of our brains called mirror neurons that allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (fact) so that while they do something we ourselves imagine ourselves doing it even if we’re motionless. Mirror neurons are the reason we enjoy watching high-caliber athletes perform amazing feats of physiology, because we get a sense of their finesse. On the flip side watching someone hold onto a pile of Christmas presents awkwardly also triggers mirror neurons making us nervous and wobbly ourselves. Extend this principle to the texter, plodding along unawares, crouched over their cellphone, tense at the shoulders and neck, and we feel that same tightness and uncomfortably in ourselves, and want it to stop, yet can’t look away- THEORY- I feel bad for the neglected dogs and babies in strollers, I feel bad for them, the texters- THEORY – I think the world is an infinitely beautiful place from moment to moment whether it’s a humming bird or something mundane and that to not bear witness to this essential beauty is to miss out on a cosmic gift we get only one chance to enjoy – LAST THEORY- I simply enjoy feeling better than them.
As if I never stumble around texting; as if I never move in the world without grace; as if I don’t have blind spots; as if I don’t ignore the beauty in every moment. Of course I ignore the beauty. I got shit to do and it takes a lot of energy to pay attention to anything else.
Wrapping this up, if I can glean anything from today’s talk it’s this: the point isn’t to see everything, but to become aware of the fact that we don’t see. Over and over, again and again. What I could do, rather than glare at texters, is to stay present myself. And maybe guide them along by example…
But that’s my interpretation. Circle back and re-read the parable to see what resonates in you. Share below! Lennon said it best, ‘I’m not the only one (who has a resentment toward people on their phones)’.
I went into the Whole Foods to find some produce that hadn’t been treated with pesticides. I can’t stand the thought of my vegetables being sprayed with a synthetic chemical. I imagine a giant tractor driving along a massive, corporate farm field, spraying from a huge hose with a sprinkler-like attachment on it a steady stream of clear-yellow liquid. Poison.
The guy operating the hose making sure to get every single plant- tomatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, etcetera, he douses the whole plant: the stems, the leaves, the fruit, he drenches them with the yellow liquid to make sure the roots are soaked with pesticide. He makes sure to get every plant so that not a single one runs the risk of being attacked by bugs and thus, be unavailable for sale.
His orders are to douse the vegetables in so much poison that bugs cannot have a bite. The only ones to have a bite are people, people at supermarkets buying vegetables for their kids because they want their family to be healthy. But they’re not. The food is straight out of Rachel Carlson’s worst nightmare, and the kids of these well-wishing parents develop nausea, ADHD, anxiety disorders, anemia, depression, autism, cerebral palsy, early onset diabetes, early early onset Alzheimer’s, mood swings, debilitating indigestion, cirrhosis, itchy skin, cancer and stunted growth.
These kids are the most well-fed children on the planet. By all external appearances they’re healthy. But on the inside they’re rotten, as rotten as a tree being eaten from the inside by termites. Inside are chemicals that aren’t even meant to be consumed by insects, let alone a growing human being.
When the kids are tucked in at night, after taking their mood stabilizers, after their nightly diarrhea (an occurrence so regular no one thinks it as odd, anymore- just as the weekly headaches, vomiting and emotional pain- all of it normal, now) once they’re tucked in and fast asleep, then, and only then, a giant truck begins to prowl around the neighborhood.
On the top is man spraying from a massive hose chemicals meant to kill mosquitos and their nests, so that families can enjoy a nice time around their brick patio eating fresh vegetables and steak without being molested by the bloodsuckers. The guy handling the hose is instructed to get every single home; not a single property is to be left open to the propagation of mosquitos. The yellowish liquid falls like a cloud on each house, covering their children, their eyes, their necks, and their little faces.
While they dream I am buying organic vegetables at Whole Foods. And that’s only the vegetables. I’ll let you use your imagination for the meat.
The Giant Beaver, or, How Drinking Tea and Not Coffee Frees You From the Obligation of Building Your Own House— for Better or Worse
I have worked at a coffee shop and I have worked at a tea shop. By now I can tell whether a customer will order coffee or tea as soon as they enter the door. The coffee drinker throws open the door, strides toward the counter and says: two coffees.
They don’t say please. They don’t say Hello. They don’t say “I would like”.
As you start to fill up their cups you ask questions like “cream or sugar? for here or to-go? how’s your day going? that’ll be five dollars, please”. During this time the coffee drinker will glare at you, perturbed by what appears to be you dawdling. But they don’t dare interrupt you because you stand in between them and their fix. That’s what it is, ultimately. A fix.
The tea drinker, on the other hand, nudges the door open and closes it gracefully behind them. They absorb the room’s ambiance, meandering up to the counter. Before talking about what they want they ask you how you’re doing. In fact, they don’t know what they want. You must guide them through all the different kinds of tea: green, oolong, pu-erh. The list is literally endless, all the varieties. What do you want today? Oh, I don’t know. What am I in the mood for? Would you like something grassy and sweet, or how about something citrusy? Ooh, I know. Have this white peony. It tastes like straw with a hint of chocolate spice.
After they select their tea it still takes you another three minutes to make it. After that they will probably linger, staying for one or two more infusions. In all that time you could have served over 30 coffee drinkers.
Our country is decidedly a coffee-drinking culture. Coffee is the emblem of capitalism: powerful, efficient, cheap. It gets you moving to where you need to go fast so that you can do what you need to do soon. If coffee and tea were running for president no way would tea be elected. Coffee is decisive, tea is introspective. Coffee is confident, tea is curious. Coffee is ready to go to war, tea thinks it wants to study art.
Tea and coffee stand for a symbol older and more fundamental than either: yin and yang. Yang is the active force of the universe, the sun that starts seeds to grow. Yin is the necessary rest after a long day, the shade beneath the tree. The ancient Chinese devised this symbol with the understanding that wherever there is yin there’s yang, and wherever there is yang there’s yin. They’re inseparable. Our part is to keep them in balance within ourselves. Harmonize the active with the passive, temper the blinding light with darkness.
My hunch is we are a ‘yang’ culture. Growing up, I satisfied people by always having an answer ready. Even if I didn’t know the answer I had an answer ready. In short, I bullshitted. These days, when somebody asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer- and if I’m keeping good watch on myself- I say, “I don’t know”. And you know what? Some people don’t like it. But it’s a helluva lot easier. And more honest.
I met a guy once form Quebec who said that his people work to live, while most Americans live to work. It’s true. Who the fuck has time? I don’t. Time is like the Giant Beaver that once populated North America, thousands of years ago. We know it used to be here, but it’s not anymore. All we have now are these tiny, pathetic beavers. “I can squeeze you in Tuesday from 2-3”.
But the tide is turning. I think a lot of us see that it’s more important to live a fulfilling life than a successful one. And in some cases that means coming up with our own definitions of success. In order to live the Good Life we’re gonna need a certain portion of loafing, wandering and tea.
I’ll close with a concrete example (just because one of my readers has told me that I’m supposed to start with a concrete example and extrapolate from there). Give a coffee drinker a to-do list and they’ll kick the shit out of that list. But they’ll be worn out by 6pm, and one or two of the things on that list will be done poorly. Give a tea drinker that same to-do list and they’ll pause to reflect and prioritize what really needs to be on that list… without getting around to it.
That’s why we need both together. Yin AND yang. Lately, I’ve been cutting my to-do lists in half— but actually DOING them. I also make sure to put somewhere on there “nothing” or “day dream” and take that as seriously as everything else on that list. Dead seriously. As serious as a giant beaver drinking coffee, busily building a dam while its whole damn species goes extinct.