The mystic Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
We are in a time in history when fierce battles of righteousness are being waged. In the US, in the wake of the bitterly contested elections (and long before), we are outraged by the actions and perspectives of others, who are also outraged by our own actions and perspectives. There are calls for unity but often these call for adversaries to unite behind our own positions. Is there another way?
When I worked in Africa I heard a story at a school that stuck with me. At the boarding school, a student was caught stealing from other kids. Based on the honor code, the student had to be expelled. On the morning he was to depart, he was encircled by other students and teachers who knew him well. One by one they spoke, sharing the things they appreciated about him, naming the good he did and was, and wishing him well. While the student was expelled for his actions, his actions didn’t negate the good that he represented. It was important for him to hear this. It provided a basis for healing — for him and them.
When I was in Arizona visiting a Native American settlement, I heard of a tradition of how spirits would come to visit a village seeking out naughty children. The parents would loudly call out an apology for the child’s misdeeds but also name all the good qualities they had, beseeching the spirits to spare the child. The spirits were of course fellow villagers in costume and the calling out of the good qualities by the parents was not for the spirits to hear, but for the child. We can certainly name the wrongs others have done, but we can also see and acknowledge the good that they do?
Along with a couple of colleagues, I have created a tool for community dialogue named I See You (https://cometta.co/i-see-you). It is meant to help us see and hear others. The expression I see you comes from the Zulu greeting Sawubona. What does it take to see someone more fully? Part of this is hearing their story, their struggles, their hurts, and their dreams. This builds empathy.
In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill attacks in the US, I was struck by a statement offered by a protestor from North Carolina, the state where I now live. The 67-year-old retired landscaper had said: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”
Indeed, people everywhere are hungry to be seen. I believe that much of the harm that we do to others is a result of the pain we feel. The columnist David Brooks who writes about the state of America honed in on this as well. He said:
“Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone. People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension. Employees feeling invisible at work. Husbands and wives living in broken marriages, realizing that the person who should know them best actually has no clue.”
The call to see others is a call not to ignore them but it is also not a call to ignore the actions that have may have caused harm and hurt. In the African practice of Truth & Reconciliation, truth-telling precedes reconciliation. Our actions have consequences and there is a need for justice and restitution. Yet, the Truth & Reconciliation process recognizes that we truly want in the end is peace and reconciliation.
So, we have much that we disagree about today, much to feel angry about, and much we want to change. We want others to tune in and pay attention to us. Will we offer them the same? Listening is not offering agreement, but in listening, we might find an open space to build a fresh relationship. This is the field of possibility that I believe Rumi invited us to discover. Let us meet each other there.
The New Year is a time when we focus on setting goals, framing intentions, and sharing aspirations. We think about what we want to create in our lives. Wanting things that are different and better is a part of being human. It is also a delicate dance with acceptance of what we get and may not want. There’s an old story that illustrates this.
A stonecutter was laboring chipping away at the face of a mountain. It was hard work, and it was his reality day after day. As he cut the rock, a wealthy merchant passed by, carried on a palanquin by a team of porters. How fortunate is he, said the stonecutter to himself, while I labor endlessly his life is effortless. How I wish I were him. There must have been some magic in the air because he was immediately transported into the body of the merchant. He found himself on some plush cushions. Ah, this is life, said the stonecutter. But in a few minutes, he began to sweat profusely. It was a hot day and the sun was beating down. His silk gown was soon soaked. Glancing up, he said, how I wish I was the sun. It is up there unencumbered, overlooking everything.
Once, again, in an instant, he became the sun. Up in the sky, he could see the world. But soon the sun found his rays blocked. There was a giant cloud. Again, discontent kicked in, the stonecutter wished to be like the cloud who could float through the sky and block the sun. And, in an instant, he was the cloud, floating freely in the sky. Suddenly, however, he found himself being pushed firmly against his will. It was the wind moving him around. How I wish I was the wind, said the stonecutter quickly. And he became the wind. The wind roamed about, rushing through the sky, through the trees. And then, it was stopped abruptly. It had collided with the mountain. I wish I was the mountain, said the stonecutter, and once again, there he was the mighty mountain, standing tall and firm. But, only for a moment, for there was a sharp pain at his base. Looking down, he saw a humble stonecutter, chipping away. The stonecutter wished himself back to his original form.
This story illustrates at one level that desire is endless and no existence is beyond hardship. Many spiritual teachings emphasize acceptance. This act of making peace with our lot and finding meaning in it is illustrated in another story, that of a stonemason.
A man was walking through town when he saw a team of men stacking rocks. What are you doing, he asked one of them. The man glanced up, annoyed, can’t you see?, he said, I am stacking this pile of rocks. The walker turned to a second man and asked again, what are you doing? The man looked at him with a joyful smile and declared, I am building a cathedral.
This story illustrates the power of transforming our lives by transforming the meaning we attach to what we do. As you likely have, I have encountered and been inspired by people doing repetitious and difficult work with a sense of grace and joy. I wrote about this in a blog post when I lived in Mauritius (The Power of Positivitylink).
Yet, desire and discontent is an essential trigger for improving our lives. Because we want things to be better, we work to address problems and create new things. Without this, we’d be relatively static, stuck wherever and with whatever we find ourselves. Our modern socialization emphasizes agency, empowerment, and innovation; it differs from the times when people were encouraged to be content with their lot and not rock the boat. People thus accepted lives of great hardship and poverty because that’s what was expected. Yet, because they accepted this, they may have suffered less than we who have much more and are less satisfied.
Finding the balance between desire and acceptance is among the biggest balancing acts we face as humans. Continual desire for what we don’t have can place us in a constant state of stress and turmoil, where nothing is good enough. Passive acceptance of what is given to us can put us in a place of being at the mercy of circumstance and sometimes exploitation.
Finding the place between action and acceptance is delicate dance. The sweet spot is expressed in the Prayer of Serenity by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
The quote speaks of wisdom. Finding the wisdom to know the difference between what to accept and what to change is not easy or obvious. In the parable of the stonecutter, it is often what we only find through lived experience, finding that advancement doesn’t necessarily mean that problems go away. As we set our goals for the future, we need to leaven our desire for change with grace and acceptance for what happens. Finding ways to rise with courage and fall gracefully is a dance (much more on this in future posts). 2020 has given us much experience in encountering the unexpected. We can build on that, even as we reach forward with new hopes for the future. The future may not be as we hope but our effort matters in shaping outcomes. May you step boldly towards your goals in the year ahead and may you find grace in the dance.
We’re at the end of an exceptional year. The passage of one year into another is a time for reflection and intention. What do you leave behind? What do you carry forward into the future?
There is a story of two monks who were making their way home when they encountered a woman by the side of a stream. She was on her way to a wedding and dressed elegantly. She didn’t want to wade through the water and asked the monks if one of them could help her cross. One of the monks stepped forward, picked her up, and carried her across the stream. He splashed back across the water to his colleague and they continued on their way back home. On the way back, his colleague scolded the monk who carried the woman: “As monks, we’re not allowed to touch a woman! How could you have done that! How disgraceful!” The torrent of outrage went on and on until they reached the monastery. The monk finally turned to his friend and said, “I only carried the woman across the stream but you have carried her all the way home.”
Sometimes the other monk accompanying us is our own inner voice. What is it we carry and keep repeating to ourselves? This pattern of playing a memory over and over in our heads — the act of rumination — can color our mood and our outlook and, continued over time, our very state of being.
The sage Lao Tzu stated, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
While we can replay the bad things that happen in our minds, we also can also choose to return to the good we have experienced. We can savor positive experiences, filling ourselves with a sense of wellbeing and gratitude. The practice of gratitude (more on this in future posts) is a superpower.
I recently watched a video of people who had lived past 100 years (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AThycGCakk). What struck me was their sense of happiness and appreciation for their lives. This was not because their lives were bereft of hardships — they’d been through wars, loss, and waves of difficult times — but because they chose to focus on what was good and the things they still got to enjoy, however small (more to come in the future on practices for dealing with hardship).
So 2020 may have been a very tough year. As we begin the New Year, we can choose to leave the carcass of 2020 behind, the ruins of defeat and loss suffered, and the blot of the things that tore at our souls, and carry forward the good and growth we experienced. For even in loss there is love experienced and good to be found.
So let’s leave what burdens us at the stream and carry forward the good we want into the year ahead. Happiness is a choice. Happy New Year!
We’re at the end of a remarkable year. With the outbreak, loss and death have also been on our minds. Death seems like a sharp and final event but is there another way to look at existence?
There is a story that I heard about Steve jobs. In the story, Jobs was invited to join his child at elementary school for a ‘bring your parent to school’ day. They were given creative tools, LEGO, and erector kits, and asked to spend time creating something together. Not surprisingly at the end of this effort, the Jobs duo had produced something marvelous. When the teacher and everyone had a chance to look at all the parent-child creations, she asked everybody to put the stuff away back in the boxes so they could be reused. Steve Jobs protested. He created something remarkable and he wanted it to be put up on permanent display at the school. The teacher agreed that it was indeed marvelous but said the real point of the day was really the engagement with the child and parent. Putting the materials back would allow other parents to have a similar experience. The story invokes the question of what is truly important. We often focus on tangible outcomes rather than the experience and intangibles.
If we see ourselves as single, solitary beings with a specific form, death is indeed an ending. If we see ourselves as parts of larger living systems — the way an individual cell is in our body — then we are present in things that continue and the contributions we make to others. A fruit falls down to the ground releasing the seeds. The seeds are carried away by animals who eat the fruit. The fruit itself may be gone but it is present in new plants and part of the animal itself. From this bigger perspective, the start of our existence began with the beginning of time and will only finally end when time ends — just changing form all the while.
In the Tibetan practice of creating a mandala. monks gather and work painstakingly for days with grains of colored sand to assemble an elaborate circular image that represents the universe. At the end, when the creation is visible in its full majesty, the sand is blown away and the creation is dispersed. The sand exists, only the manifestation is gone. This ritual is meant to symbolize the nature of creation and dissolution. The nature of impermanence. This is understanding that all that we create in the end is reduced to dust. Yet what remains is the creation that lives within ourselves, the beauty that we created, the experience we had, the collaboration that emerged. The journey is not the destination. Neither are our lives just the things we create, rather it is also the experiences that we have and the impact they have on others.
In the West, as encouraged by Dylan Thomas, we tend to “not go gentle into that good night,” and rather “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yet, death can also be encountered with dignity and grace, like Jesus on the cross offering compassion and forgiveness, knowing that his contribution was only just beginning in death, and would be carried forward by the handful of disciples to billions of people in time.
With this lens, we can consider not just our experience but what will live on because we did. Acts of kindness and courage ripple on in different ways than negative deeds. As in the story of Steve Jobs, if we hold on to just the visible manifestation of creation, then the end is the end and life is fleeting. What the teacher understood is what has the greatest staying power are relationships, memory, inspiration, and learning. This is what lives on in time. What remains of Jobs today is not his presence but the vision and inspiration he engendered that changed the world in many ways.
So, our choice is to associate ourselves with endless energy or fleeting form. If it’s the latter then our presence is bound like the momentary manifestation of the grains of sand in the mandala. If it is the former, we have space to create enormous ripples of impact that live on long after we do. In 2020, hardship abounded, so did human kindness and generosity. My hope is the legacy of the good that flowed into the world will live on far longer than the hardship that we lived through.
Our refrigerator stopped working last week. The freezer was icy and the fridge was warm. We had to unplug the unit, empty and defrost it. I was forced to look at what was lurking inside, the things unseen and unpleasant that had been pushed to the back. We then wiped it clean, threw out the bad stuff, and restored the good stuff we wanted to keep. Plugged back in, it was back to humming cheerfully again.
It reminded me of relationships that can get taken for granted and gradually accumulate bad stuff in the back. They too need a pause, attention, and some cleaning to be refreshed and restored. If not, they likely get frosty and stop working.
While you’re home over the holidays, check out the fridge and also find those relationships that may need attention and restoration.
If you’re like me, you are often caught in conversations about what is really going on, about what is real. So, what’s real?
There is a story about a turtle who dropped into a pond and encountered a fish. “How’s the water over there,” he asked. “Huh?” asked the fish, rather puzzled, “Water? What water?”
The story indicates that the things we’re deeply immersed in are often invisible to us. The fish, without an experience of being out of water, didn’t have an understanding of water.
Reality is a squishy thing. What we perceive is a function of our beliefs, learning, experiences, senses, and socialization. It is as much about the internal filters with which we see the world as it is the world outside us.
The writer Anais Nin said, we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. In India, the concept of maya suggests that reality is something we project onto the world rather than the other way around. A well known Indian story describes a group of blind men who are brought to an elephant and each asked to reach out and to declare what they have. The man holding the tail says it is a rope. The man holding an ear, says he has a fan. The one grasping a tusk believes he has a spear. The one with the trunk finds himself with a snake. They all have a piece of the puzzle but the whole is unseen to each one alone.
We are all caught in some version of this story as we hold different experiences and perceptions of what’s true. The deep political divides we experience are an example of this in play. Our perspectives may very well clash with a very different reality that someone else holds. We might assume they are misguided or even deceptive, but it could be that their filters are simply different.
A lesson in the story of the blind men is to listen and share what we see to arrive at a fuller understanding with others. If we couple this with the concept of maya, we also recognize that our projections have a lot to do with our identity. In rejecting the views of others, we are also rejecting who they are.
David Brooks, writer and columnist focuses on finding the middle, says that a lot of problems in the world are because we don’t feel seen. This suggests that the problem is less about seeing reality than seeing people.
The classic expression of empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing with their eyes. Yet, the need to get there is as much about listening to someone’s voice and hearing what is in their heart. From this understanding, we can better get to agreements. This course takes grace and wisdom (https://spiritualsushi.com/what-the-wise-ones-know/).
In my leadership development work in the world in conflict zones, we found that a way to deal with groups locked in disagreement was to set aside debates of what should happen but to get people sharing who they were and what they cared about. This enables empathy and the desire to find mutually beneficial outcomes. Theodore Roosevelt the pragmatic president observed, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’
To help us get better at seeing, I have with others launched a project called “I See You” (https://cometta.co/i-see-you) that is about getting people to share perspectives using images. While describing the meaning of images they see, people are really describing themselves. Rather than just hearing what they think about things, we also hear who they are and what matters to them. And when we do, it invariably widens our own worldview. Turns out that being a fish out of water can help us discover what lies beyond our own little ponds.
The Indian sage Ramana Maharishi was asked, “How should we treat others?” He replied, “There are no others.”
For years I’ve signed my emails with One Love. These are no casual or trivial words. One Love invokes the Bob Marley song but it also speaks to the older and widespread concept of “oneness.” This core idea of interdependence, interbeing, of common humanity and common source can be found in a broad spectrum of cultures, both ancient and modern. This idea is at the ethos of the African idea of Ubuntu, which translates into “I am because we are.” It exists in the Native American idea that we are all part of the “web of life.” It is manifest in the Indian greeting of Namaste, which expresses that the divine resides within us all. It is in the teaching of Christ who calls us to love one another. It is within the Jewish call of Tikkun Olam to heal and unite a broken world. Marley’s invocation of this idea was a call to love and unity, and a reminder of our origins and destination — “As it was in the beginning (one love), so shall it be in the end (one heart).”
One Love, however, is not about sameness. It is about individuality and unity, together. Bob Marley was a talented musician who made soulful — and rebel — music. Marley understood the potential of harmony as well as the power of an individual voice.
A guitar has different strings tuned to different notes. Together, they create harmony. What is needed is tuning to harmonize the notes and skill to play in tune with others. Skill is something that can be acquired with practice. And, playing in a musical ensemble, requires collective attunement. When we listen to a band, we can hear the individual instruments but we hear the music as a whole created by the musicians. It is not a zero-sum game. Each player adds to the value of others. Something bigger is born of the interactions.
Jazz as a form of music relies heavily on improvisation. It necessitates that the musicians listen to each other and pick up on unspoken cues. This is possible in small systems, but how does it work with large systems and strangers?
Consider two sports teams meeting on a field for the first time for a game. Each team seeks to win but the game, which can unfold in countless ways, operates by a common set of rules. In yet another space where we interact — with higher stakes, literally putting our lives in the hands of strangers — is on highways. We don’t know who is in the other cars, where they are headed, or the level of their driving skills. Yet we trust their competence by default. Accidents do happen, but far fewer than we might expect. This is because we generally follow a set of rules for driving — staying in our lanes, signaling, overtaking in a certain way, following road signs, etc.
Driving in India, where I come from, is far different from the US because people have a different understanding of what the rules are. Watching Indian traffic move seems like chaos but sped-up looks like a ballet (https://youtu.be/KnPiP9PkLAs?t=29). The patterns of the flow, seemingly chaotic, become more apparent and choreographed.
These indications that we can be socialized to play together, suggests a lot of room for cooperation and individuality by strangers operating in shared spaces. When there is a breakdown of shared understanding, we collide.
Today, the pace of change requires much adaptation and we are uncertain of what the modes of behavior should be. With the pandemic that is underway, there is no consensus on mask-wearing or quarantining. The government can institute rules but people need to opt in to comply. Part of this is a dissolution of trust and a lack of belief in fairness. Some efforts have tried to reframe mask-wearing not as an infringement of personal liberty but an act of kindness and love for others.
Love involves trust and a desire to see the people we love thrive. We love our families, we love our sports teams, we love our countries, we love our pets, we love certain places, we love specific kinds of music and songs. When we do, we feel a togetherness, a comfort in presence and interaction. We want what’s best for the ones we love. This simple act of wanting what’s best for others affects how we behave. When we have the opposite, we mistrust the actions of the people we hate and seek to harm them. It becomes a zero-sum game. Imagine a musical performance, football game, or driving down a busy road if we are to operate with a zero-sum orientation.
In dystopian scenarios, we find ourselves in these zero-sum situations — a breakdown of trust and competition without rules of engagement (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/compassion-contagious-too-lyndon-rego/). We revert to our baser instincts. When we imagine utopian scenarios the opposite is true. Everyone is happy and engaging together kindly.
This is illustrated in a story of the difference between heaven and hell.
In a dream, an angel demonstrated the difference between heaven and hell. The dreamer was shown two doors. Inside the first one was a group of people gathered around a table with bowls of fragrant, steaming soup. Yet everyone around the table appeared sad and famished. They each had spoons with extraordinarily long handles that they could dip into the stew but which were too long to reach into their own mouths. That is hell, explained the angel.
Then the angel said, let me show you heaven. They entered the second room and it appeared just the same. A large table, many people, delicious stew, and long spoons. But everyone was happy and well-fed. The dreamer was puzzled at first and then saw what was different. What the people here did was to use the spoons to feed each other.
Love is a verb. Unless it manifests in actions, it is empty and invisible. When we truly love something, the love we feel for the other is visible and expressed. When we are unable to show love or share it, fades. Love is not a zero-sum game. It multiplies.
Relationship researcher John Gottman, has found that the mathematic ratio for happy relationships is not the lack of negativity but the ratio of positivity. The ratio is 5:1. This means that for every negative interaction, there are five positive interactions. Happy couples share more positive actions than negative ones. It is a reminder that if we create negative interactions, we need many more positive ones to offset them.
There is a kind of love that moves beyond exchange and is extended regardless of reciprocity. People with religious faith love God and believe that God loves them in turn. This belief is felt within themselves and validated by the benevolence they feel in counting their blessings — for food, shelter, health, family. They express gratitude in prayer. This gratitude, like Gottman’s ratio, provides a sense of happiness. Gratitude is something that can be cultivated within us (more on this in a future post).
I created an effort called CoMetta (www.cometta.co). Metta means loving-kindness and CoMetta is shared or community loving-kindness. Metta is a practice of wishing others well (more on this in a future post). As we related in the story of the dogs in the house of mirrors (https://spiritualsushi.com/indras-net-the-amplified-universe/), when love radiates, it reflects and returns to us.
The Christian mystic, Thoman Merton wrote: “Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
The Sufi mystic, Hafiz, also expressed this eloquently in verse:
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.”
The abundant light of the sun — shining for billions of years — manifests from within itself. Like the sun, we have a capacity for love that can be generated from within us. We all know people who shine and radiate kindness regardless of the hardships they face. They seem happy. We are happy to bask in their presence.
The Dalai Lama is a shining example of the kind of person who radiates happiness, even as a celibate monk, a person in exile — a refugee — and an agent seeking the liberation of his people. His happiness is all the more impressive with these barriers. He explains: “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” He states, “When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
There is this internet meme that expresses this idea well.
So, One Love is intention and expression. It is a skill to be developed, much like the musicians who play together. It is a choice we can make. Its source is not finite for it can be generated endlessly from within. And when it is generously given, it returns with abundance, advancing our happiness.
This is great a great truth is why the mystics, sages, and Marley speak and sing repeatedly of love. Perhaps, one day, we will join them in this expression.
I hope one day you will join us, and the world will be as one — John Lennon
When that day comes, when we manifest the intention, skill, and readiness to radiate compassion to all around us, the light of love will illuminate the earth, brighter than the rays of the sun. This is our original source and our ultimate destination.
As it was in the beginning (one love), so shall it be in the end (one heart) — Bob Marley
The Way that can be named is not the true Way — Lao Tzu
The menu is not the meal — Alan Watts
There is an Eastern story of a scholar who was determined to learn all there was to learn. He was relentless in this pursuit, studying vast bodies of knowledge at renowned schools of the day. What else is there to learn? he asked his teacher as he completed his final course at an illustrious academy. Well, said the teacher, there is a sage who lives on an isolated island in a lake who is said to have mastery over many deep mysteries. The scholar immediately arranged for a boatman to travel to the island.
On the island, he found the sage sitting in quiet reflection in a little hut in the woods. The scholar introduced himself, his credentials, and his great quest for learning and asked if the master would teach him something truly important. The sage obliged, reciting a mantra about humility. In a flash, the scholar interrupted him, correcting the master’s pronunciation of the verses. He then recited the verses in the way he had learned at a distinguished school. The sage followed the scholar’s instruction, dutifully reciting back the verses. The scholar, deciding that he had little to learn from the old man, swiftly gathered his things and made it back to the boat. On the way back to the mainland, the boatman stopped rowing suddenly, his mouth agape. The scholar turned around to see the sage walking on the water to the boat. When he caught up with the boat the sage bowed and asked the scholar, “can you recite the verse again? I wasn’t sure I got it quite right. “
The story illustrates the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The scholar was learned with a vast internal library of knowledge, but the master was wise with great capability and humility. Asked to teach, he was able to discern what the scholar needed to learn, and then taught not by telling but by example. In this way, he didn’t simply add incrementally to what the scholar knew but transformed his very worldview.
The Book of Proverbs says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” The Tao Te Ching echoes this point. It begins with the verse, the Way you can see is not the true or eternal Way. There is always something beyond our knowing. The wise ones know that the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know. This is because we are most aware of what we don’t know just on the periphery of our knowledge. When we know little, the periphery of awareness is small. To learn, a Zen teaching offers that we must first empty our cup a little, for the cup that is already full can hold no more liquid. If we think we know, we can’t learn.
The Zen symbol of the enso, the incomplete circle, represents form (what is seen) and void (what is unknown) in a graceful dance (more about this concept in the future). The visible form of the line sits in the greater field of the unknown.
This acceptance of the larger field that lies beyond what we know was also expressed by Gandhi who said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” But Gandhi was willing to be continually challenged and evolve his thinking.
The sage in the opening story offered a lesson about humility with no words of instruction, only action and example. The menu is not the meal, said Alan Watts. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon is a famous Zen saying. The sage chose not to cocoon himself in libraries but in solitude, near nature and the greater source.
In the story of the sage and the scholar and expressions of Watts and Gandhi, we see that wisdom is not ignorance nor the acquisition of more and more knowledge; it is seen in the willingness to embrace what we don’t know and to bow to the mystery of all that is unknown with grace and humility. To paraphrase Shakespeare: The wise man knows he is but a fool. Only a fool believes himself to be wise.
For my part, I see that much of my own quest has been like the scholar chasing knowledge. I accumulated degrees and filled my home and office with piles of books and papers that covered every surface. I was hungry to absorb as much knowledge as I could, yet each door led to more doors. Much of what I read quickly vaporized, for it was not truly experienced or lived (more on the process of learning in another post). What stuck with me were the simply stated and somewhat inexplicable expressions found in short works like the Tao Te Ching that challenged my worldview. What these works offered, much like the sage in the story, was a call to contemplate the question and the empty space beyond the lines. The biggest revelations came to me not within the pages of books, but in space of reflection. My journey continues and I try to throw open the doors and windows of my rooms rather than fill them with books. I understand better now the wisdom of Rumi: Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.
There is an old concept from India called Indra’s Net. It envisions the starry skies as made up of a net of gleaming jewels that radiate light. What is particularly profound about Indra’s Net is that the light of each jewel shines in the other, so that it is not possible to say which single jewel is the source of the light. And, because the jewels reflect each other’s light, they amplify the light.
There are many messages embedded in the story of Indra’s Net (some of which I will write about later) but one key idea is that we’re all reflections of each other. We’re shaped by our interactions and exchanges.
When I was younger, I’d make remixed tapes that I’d share with others as gifts (yes, another form of sushi-making). It took a lot of effort working with a stack of tapes and a double-deck cassette player. What emerged was an expression of myself made from music created by others. It was a way to say this is who I am and here’s what I like. We do this remixing far more easily today via social media. We are constantly consuming and rebroadcasting things. We each are curators telegraphing a point of view via what we choose to share.
There is something wonderfully democratic and dangerous about this unfettered flow of ideas on social media. Unlike the process of a mixtape which required intentionality and effort, we can broadcast ideas and emotional states with ease on social media. And the ease in which ideas can be rebroadcast — forwarded and retweeted — amplifies some expressions. A retweet is an endorsement of the idea or meme. Some memes rise almost as tidal waves, a surge pushed by thousands of people, descending on us from multiple social media feeds.
Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter watch what we like and share and return more of it to us. We can get caught in echo chambers. There is a story of two dogs who wandered into a house of mirrors at a fair. The first dog, angry and snarling, saw hundreds of snarling dogs facing him. The second dog, happy with a wagging tail, was met with hundreds of friendly dogs looking back. Each exited the tent more agitated or happy than before. This is Indra’s Net in reality too. The power of this amplification is evidenced in the polarization we experienced in recent elections (a theme for another time).
So, a question for us is what are we tuning in to, remixing, and broadcasting? Can this be a more intentional process?
Messages of positivity share the light and illuminate the lives of others. Currents of negativity suck us downward. As in the parable of the dog in the house of mirrors and the grand message of Indra’s Net, what we absorb becomes part of us and what we radiate is reflected back on us. With the holidays upon us, it is a time for us to be more aware and intentional in the nets we cast. Let’s amplify the good, let’s be the light we want to see reflected in the universe.