Ask the cat.
the blog for all things Vernonistic
Ask the cat.
The wisdom that he who knows he has enough is rich dates back at least as far as Laozi, a/k/a Lao Tsu. Countless studies have since established that material prosperity does not equal happiness. And while it is one thing to nod your head and say yes I agree with this proposition, it is quite another to acquire direct knowledge of it through experience.
I have had the good fortune to suffer enough of an economic reversal to be able to learn about having less money, while at the same time not having my essential economic security — food, shelter — seriously threatened. And I am pleased to report that you can be happier with less money in your pocket. Having bills come due with my checking account balance running as low as $124 is inconvenient, but it is little more than an inconvenience. Again, especially when one is still gainfully employed and can expect some relief at the next paycheck, within a couple weeks at most. One comes to appreciate that other aspects of life truly are more valuable and important than your checking account balance. Indeed, having that balance plunge and not caring is immensely liberating.
One also learns something about fear and anxiety. I stand in the very situation that terrified me couple of years ago when it was an abstract possibility: having to make do with less, paying a hefty child support obligation while also maintaining my own household in an area where the cost of living is high. And yet here I am, and not only is it OK, it’s a good deal better than OK.
I am reminded of something my teacher once said, à propos of anxieties that come up during zazen: we should be grateful for them, because we often discover that the thorny problem we were so worried about is not thorny, or if it is, the thorns are not as dangerous as we thought. The logic is rather subtle — why does that mean we should be grateful? I suppose the reasoning is that you should be grateful for the teaching that eventually comes out of those anxieties that arise while you are studying the paint on the wall.
So it is with having less money than you previously did. I like to joke that if I had a more abundant money supply, I would permit myself two self-indulgences. One is that I would buy a great wheel of high quality parmesan cheese, far more than I need. This would be for pure greed and amusement. I think it would be a kick to have that much cheese in the house. I would give away big hunks of it. The other eccentricity I would indulge in is reading glasses. I would buy perhaps a thousand inexpensive pairs and scatter them everywhere: every surface of every room, every pocket of every garment. That’s because I frequently misplace them. The reading glasses market is highly volatile in my household, not suitable for the risk-averse. My reading glasses portfolio can gain and lose large percentages of its value in a single afternoon. I start with two, then I have seven, then one. I would insulate myself against those shocks by owning a large reserve — very large.
So there you have it. Not having a lot of cash to spare is not bad. If I had more, the only things I would change are my parmesan cheese and reading glasses inventories. But I don’t, and am quite happy to buy these items in modest quantities.
The other day one of the teachers in our zendo gave a talk in which she likened the practice of zen to classical ballet: one of the most painfully demanding of disciplines. Dancers must show up for a 90 minute class every single day without fail, no matter how experienced and accomplished they are or think they are. Always showing up, always striving, tuning, preparing for the stage — that’s what it’s about. So it is with the Zen practitioner. You show up at the zendo for formal zazen as often as you possibly can, regardless of whether you feel like it or whether it’s convenient. Formal zazen is essential, a necessity. LIkewise, extended sittings such a as zazenkai and sesshin are not optional add-ons. They are what you do when you’re a Zen practitioner.
This idea was reinforced by a scene that I recently saw in an episode from the fifth season of the venerable HBO series The Wire. During a prison visit, the incarcerated father admonishes his son to apply himself with greater diligence to his work in the drug trade. Either you real or you ain’t, he says. Irony notwithstanding, this paternal advice underscores a valid point. The teacher’s talk was evidently aimed at students who she thought needed to hear it. She might as well have said, either you real or you ain’t.
I was reminded of something my family has said about me over the years: you are a fanatic, an addictive personality. When you set your mind to something, you go at it relentlessly, obsessively. I have always tended to think, well, ok. When they suggested that going away for a week-long sesshin last summer was an example of my fanaticism, I figured, whatever. Now I am not so sure. Sesshin is what zen practitioners do. Why do this at all unless you’re serious? Either you real or you ain’t.
Looking at the above three months later, I see the fallacy in the argument “I am not a fanatic; sesshin is what Zen practitioners do.” Sitting in meditation several hours a day for a week is extreme — fanatical, even. Dedicated Zen practitioners are fanatics.
I make a remark to my teacher and he says, you should write this stuff down. You don’t have to tell me twice, for I love to write stuff down. So here is the first of what I expect will be a series of observations about the practice of Zen.
It is said that Zen is above all a practice, not a theory or philosophy. Experiential, not academic. And therefore one is supposed to do it rather than talk about it. And yet here I am talking about it, and planning to continue to do so. Oops.
OK, enough talk for now.