I subscribe to the idea that we are the byproduct of a dumb, deterministic universe, although I stop stop of acceptance of full-on causal determinism. Everything, everywhere came about because the physical constants of the universe all permit stuff to happen. Worlds form, stars fuse hydrogen and galaxies fly away from one another into the black void because one or another constant is just so.
And this is observable: cosmologists tell us the story of the universe by looking at the stars. On a smaller scale, geologists look at coastlines and mountains to trace the slow drift and continents. Stellar physicists know when and how the sun (and Earth) will die from looking at similar stars. I know I will die because I see other people die.
I diverge on the point of consciousness. Unconscious systems follow an unconscious law of cause and effect. Adage: given a suitable understanding of a system, there are no surprises. But a conscious mind makes irrational decisions independent of laws of logic and cause and effect. A conscious mind observes, quantifies and grants itself the ability to transform a deterministic system in a directed and meaningful way.
That’s where we are: we can call the night sky beautiful, alter the course of our lives on a whim and change the universe to be more amenable to life.
We are already special even before you consider the lack of an extra-temporal component. There are no souls, no gods, no angels or demons. There isn’t a happy hereafter waiting for me after I kick the bucket. I am the end result of seventeen billion years of cause and effect, unbroken from the first atoms to coalesce through to today. I wasn’t around before I was born. I will be dead and gone when I am dead and gone.
So what does this have to do with Zen? My universe is bleak as shit. When you die, that’s it. You’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone. The ideas of utter obliteration and the fundamental transience of the self are oppressive. What I gave given myself is framework for how to die in an mechanical universe, but I need a way to live in it too.
Frank Herbert peppered Dune with Zen concepts: The epigraphs to chapters are in the form of koans. The Bene Gesserit use sharp Zen questioning to shock the self into action. The Bene Gesserit also cultivate an innocent naïveté. Leto Atreides himself says:
Here I am, here I remain!
The book is so packed with allegories, ideas and references that some of them cannot help but stick!
A few years later Eadaoin gifted me a book on Mindfulness. The book tried too hard to sell itself. I gave up on chapter three because the authors were still reassuring me that ‘this book isn’t woo!’ Fuck, man, if I’m reading your book then I am already sold.
Mindfulness also has the problem of abstraction. The book, the authors, the wiki articles and the practitioners all reference Eastern philosophies at the same time that they wave away the details.
A quick trip to Google confirmed that Mindfulness is a presentation of Zen Buddhism.
I started with Miniatures of a Zen Master by Robert Aitken, then graduated to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryū Suzuki. Some it makes sense, but most of it does not. I supple that counts as a good start.
Zen’s cultivates innocence through discipline and practice. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind warns against the so-called ‘expert mind:’ confidence your knowledge of the problem stop you from proper consideration the problem. I ran into this in the real world last week, and my (negative) experience prompted a lot of thought which led to this blog post.
I caught the flu two weeks ago. It came, it went, and I got better, but my weakened immune system uncovered another problem. In the days after I experienced worsening back pain and other symptoms. The pain was bad enough on Tuesday that I went to the Swiftcare clinic in Dundrum after work. First, the doctor at the clinic convinced herself that I have diabetes. She tested sugar levels in my blood and urine, and twisted my answers to fit her pre-diagnosis of diabetes.
Then, since she couldn’t be sure it was diabetes, she sent me off to the Casualty department at Saint Vincent’s Hospital. The triage nurse told me that the problem was in my head. He gave me the lowest priority and left Eadaoin and I sit in the waiting room for five awful hours.
At 2am, the doctor asked me a few questions, mulled my answers for a minute, and diagnosed a bladder infection. I’d complain more (I was grouchy by 2am), but the experience opened my eyes to the lessons of the book. Two medical professionals put their expert knowledge ahead of consideration of the actual problem. My experience confirmed the lesson of the book and highlighted my own problems at work where I put my own know-how ahead of the given task.
In closing: I don’t know where I stand in regards Zen except that it makes sense in a way that other things haven’t.