2:05PM Jan 25, 2022
Today is Sunday, January 23, 2022. I'm going to be talking this morning about a topic it's hard to - I still don't really know exactly what, what to call it. But it's something I got onto - went down a rabbit hole and can say it's the whole question of restlessness and attention.
I'm kind of revisiting this topic, we've talked about it before. But it is something that's seen in the term intensive - when people talk about the commitments that they're making, and they make reports on how they've done and whatnot. This whole issue of having our minds hijacked by either things that we have to do or devices we feel we need to carry with us - it's a it's a problem. It's something that doesn't go away simply by thinking about it and making a few efforts. It's something that everybody in this age, is struggling with, in one way or another, struggling with or succumbing to.
It seems reading what people say so called experts, that it's getting worse, that people's attention spans are shorter than they were before- although it's always suspect when fingers are thrown out and knowing exactly what's been measured and what the situation really is. But it does seem like just looking at myself and other people reporting how they are, it's harder to read a long book and I have a little less patience than than I had, it seems like I had in the past.
I think with every new technology that comes down the pike, going back to the Advent, say of reading, people have predicted that humanity was going to fall apart. And people are resilient, and they're adaptable. And all those people walking around with their noses in their phones, maybe they'll be okay. But I don't think that's sure by any means. It is definitely the case that more people these days are reporting anxiety and depression than just five or 10 years ago. And there is a spike in mental health crises, suicides and suicide attempts. And think it's safe to say that civilization still has some discontents. I got onto this, I was sitting outside Wegmans in the car waiting for my wife for Chris to pick up a few items and come on out. And I was parked there by the employee door. So I saw all the kids who work at Wegmans coming in and going out. And remarkably, there was not a single one who did not walk in and out with their phone out in their hand and their neck bent and looking at it. And just struck me This is so different. You know, maybe for somebody who's younger, and you know, just grew up with it, it's it's not such a striking thing, but I just sort of can't get over how quickly people get wrapped up. And wonder what the what the outcome will be. And also wonder what we can do to take care of ourselves to guard our own minds and to to progress on this path as well as we can.
short time later, I got on my phone, a link that my daughter sent me to a podcast. And that sort of blended together with my previous ruminations. And I'm gonna share some of the writings by the people who are on that podcast. Their name is names are Benjamin and Jenna story. They're both academics, teachers at Furman University. I think they're on the conservative end of the spectrum. I get the idea looking at the various talks they've given, pays places like the American Enterprise Institute. In interviews with the Wall Street Journal, they're sort of you know, white of ways very conservative, but that conservatism sometimes points out some things that are really, really helpful for us to understand. And I think it's quite legitimate to have some criticisms of the way society is set up criticisms that we would have as well. So I just want to dip in and share with you some of what I read. The other reason I was sort of a sucker for them is that they base a lot of what they're teaching on some of the foremost French philosophers, starting with montain and then to Pascal Tocqueville, and Rizzo. People will remember Pascal, he's the one who famously said, all the problems of mankind of man come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Think I've tried that one out more than once. So I'm going to start off reading from an article written by the two of them Benjamin and Jenna's story. In the title is the pause on learning to live well with time. They gave this Sir They wrote this, I guess, for the Institute for classical education.
And they're commenting about life in the pandemic, says to sit still at home. This was one of the many challenges brought by the pandemic, a society whose equilibrium depended on perpetual motion suddenly had to stop. People trained for unrelenting activity were left to spin their wheels for the indefinite future. For those fortunate enough to stay healthy and keep their jobs, the paws also brought a strange of somewhat guilty relief. The cancellation of the seemingly urgent activities began to bother us less and less. Lunch with the kids proved more satisfying than meetings with coworkers planting a garden broad gratifications that adding lines to the resume never did. Of course, this article is lying on their resume. Having put the mundane insanity of our lives on pause, we were given a chance to reflect on how we were spending our days, many of us said, I'm not going to let myself live like that again.
And then, without quite thinking about it, we acquiesce to the annihilation of our newfound stillness. We allowed the virtual world to colonize the time the pause it opened up, we moved meetings online, we turned seminars into webinars, we wrote more emails, lunch with the children got canceled, the weeds retook the garden a lot of us have noticed that, that progression
go on shut down life became just as busy if not as satisfying as life before the virus. Why do we flee the stillness we know we need and then she quotes from Pascal the great French POLYMATH. Man's unhappiness arises from one thing alone, that he cannot remain quietly in his room. Pascal suggests that we flee stillness, because the pressure of sitting, the pressure of sitting still compels us to reflect on ourselves. When we do so, we find ourselves facing the unedifying spectacle of lives every minute of which has been reduced to an instrument, a resource we burn up in pursuit of an ever shifting set of goals, many of which we don't remember why we saw it in the first place. I'm a little reluctant to accept that completely. I think. Our impulse to free stillness kicks in before we've even thought about what a mess our lives are. It's not like people have some downtime and then they immediately begin reflecting. What happens is we have downtime and then some well formed habit clicks in And we have suddenly the impulse to pick up the phone or to ruminate about some problem that's been bothering us or reflect on this or that. And sometimes it is reflecting on ourselves and feeling uncomfortable. But the fact of the matter is, there is that impulse, the minute there's nothing else going on, to do something, to break the stillness. There's a story I told once before, but it's a favorite story. So here we go. Again, a guy walks into a Starbucks. And this person for whatever reason, doesn't have a phone or an iPad, or a laptop. And he just sits at the table, drinking his coffee like a psychopath. You feel a little like a psychopath. If you're just sitting. It's something you can get used to. It actually can feel pretty good. But yeah, we all feel the sort of social pressure to be doing something I remember when I quit smoking, want to go? My whole question is, what do I do with my hands?
They go on, we treat meals as refueling stops necessary to permit the continuation of work best kept brief, we treat work as a set of tasks we must get through to move on to other things, which themselves come to seem, but more chores, even the commemoration of our deepest attachments, is often reduced to a list of reminders, call mom, book, the bounce house for the birthday party, buy flowers for Valentine's Day, realizing that we have reduced our lives in this way depresses us. For lucky enough to realize.
If it does depress us, that's probably a good thing. Until we realize how we're suffering, we're not going to find a way to change. They go on to avoid the sad spectacle of our restlessness that confronts when we sit still, we throw ourselves back into the world of chores. Where we find at least the momentary solace of checking things off. That's such a fascinating thing I make, I make lists of things to do. seems an intelligent way to go about getting done, what must be done. But there is that little squirt of dopamine when you check that box off, and I always make little boxes, and I always use checks. And it's, you know, it's just a little addiction. It's a little habit. And one of the things you realize when you think about habits is that we are whether we want to be or not. We are creatures of habit. We do things because we've done them before. And once a pattern is laid down, it stays with us.
What we need to do is to reflect on what are the habits I've cultivated, and do they move me towards where I want to go? Because we can have habits that are great. I have a habit of doing Cezanne when I wake up in the morning, I like that habit. There there are many, many more. Having the habit of when we're upset, scanning the body, feeling what's going on. Having the habit of looking people in the eye seeing what's going on with them. Having the habit of noticing when someone needs help stepping up.
But turning back here, find at least a momentary solace of checking things off. Strangely, the awareness that one is instrumentalizing all one's time can seduce one into instrumentalizing one's time still more completely. As Pascal knew. The charm of busyness is that it distracts us from existential emptiness.
That existential emptiness is our friend. It's exactly what we need. Need to find our home there? Sitting quietly in a room alone. There's a something I read a while back that Henry Miller wrote the author. Most people are familiar with him think he was censored for quite a while
says this, to be silent the whole day long. See no newspaper, here, no radio, listen to no gossip be thoroughly and completely lazy, thoroughly and completely indifferent to the fate of the world is the finest medicine a man can give himself
some break not only from constant doing, but from constant compulsion. From I've got to do this, I've got to do that I've got to think this way. giving ourselves the freedom to let time stretch out in front of us, is good medicine. We'll say more about that. As we go along.
They continue, we tell ourselves we will rest when our work is finished. But that completion never comes. And it never comes because we're such poor estimators of how things will work out. People really don't know they don't know what's going to make them happy and what's going to make them unhappy. And everybody underestimates how much work is involved in any project that they take on, or how soon they'll finish. I learned this lesson when I was a painting contractor. Because when you miss estimate there, you don't get paid enough. Gradually, I realized, yeah, figure out how long it's going to take and then double it. And you might be close to what it actually is. We tell ourselves we will rest when our work is finished. But that completion never comes. Urgency is recurrent, expansive and invasive. It must be assigned a limit for it will not generate one on its own. people the world over have known this and have made pausing a requirement, institutionalizing it in forms such as the Friday prayers of Muslims, or the Sabbath of the Jews. I'm not quite sure where they came up with the phrase Friday prayers of Muslims, as far as I know and my son converted to Islam when he got married. The prayer routine is to actually pray five times a day at sunrise at noon, in the afternoon at sunset and at night. If you go on the on the internet, you can find the times for any location spelled out to the minute. I think there's some leeway about exactly when you do the prayers. But it is it's a it's a structure that's built into that kind of life. That serves a really admirable purpose. Same with the Sabbath, whether it'd be Jews or Christians it's something that we get with a regular routine of of Zen, whether we're here and its residents or people living on their own, who can set up a structure. So helpful. He says they have contained the urgent by sanctifying a portion of time requiring the requiring themselves to acknowledge the ultimate. In Zen terms, the ultimate we could put it is to experience directly to be to see who we are. They say our commercial and technological society tends to undermine all such obligations in the name of freedom. But the line between being able to work seven days a work week, and being compelled to do so quickly disappears. A society that does not grant a pause to everyone from meat packers and delivery drivers to software engineers and CFOs is a society that is not truly left slavery behind. Properly remembered, the pause might teach us that the only limits the urgent will recognize are mandatory limits. Such obligations alone can accomplish the most essential liberation, a mortal being can know the liberation of time.
That's one way of putting it. In several of the articles I looked at, people bring this business up about restructuring society in a way that can help us out. And I'm there is a role for that. One example I read was in France, it's now illegal for employees, to employers to email their employees during non work hours. And protecting the workforce from the constant drip of things to pay attention to and things to do. And that'll help if that happens, whether we can make it happen or not, is another matter. But those limits can also be established by each one of us in our own lives. And that's a more realistic approach in my humble opinion.
So Zen, which is such a break, stepping out of time, can't just be one more thing to do. And it's easy for it to get that way. I hear from people and you know, it's like yoga and exercise and Tarzan and I'm not sure which one to do. There's there is the need to prioritize, there's a need to decide this is what I want to do. And maybe for you, it won't be as as in but for most people here it will be. When we sit we have to be able to unplug. That's why it's so important to find a quiet place to sit. Find a good time, when you can do it when you can be undisturbed. Early in the morning is wonderful. It's also why it's so great to be able to sit at the center, I deeply regret that right now in the pandemic. We can't have people coming in and sitting with us. Hopefully that's coming back.
It helps to sit with other people makes it easier to drop a restlessness. It's one of the reasons why the Zoom sittings that we've been doing have been pretty popular. I know. I wouldn't have expected the numbers to stay so high for so long. Obviously, a lot of people are finding that structure really, really helpful. And there many people now who are sitting I think more during the pandemic, with zoom as the wind under their wings, sitting more than they did beforehand. It's a great thing.
When you first start to sit, you do run into that restlessness that Pascal points out that version to sitting still, I remember that clearly from my early days, I would especially notice it if I was traveling was almost impossible to sit still in a motel or some new place. But that passes. Over time, we develop a taste for a quiet mind.
Basically, the only way that we can deal with our penchant for distraction, with our habits of running off into busyness, or computer screens, phone screens, is to replace that habit with something else. Don't think there's any other good way to work with habits. I said before, once once it's laid down once we've done it a number of times, it's kind of etched into the brain, all the neurological connections are wired up and they're not going to unwire in a year or two. It's one of the things that can you learn in a is for somebody with a drinking problem. You can go for 20 years. And when you pick a drink up again, it kicks back in. The roads are all laid down. So the best strategy for anybody who wants to change what they do is to replace what's harmful with what they'd rather be doing. has to be something that you like If you hate it, it's not going to work. But it can be anything. It's a great area to experiment in. Next time you have an urge, I know one person there, they're there. One cool trick that habits hate was to just take a sip of water, go get a glass of water, and that just sort of broke the spell. Another really good thing is just to take a breath, one mindful breath
and everything resets.
Gonna take a look at another little bit of another article of theirs. The title of it is hope for the lost souls of liberalism. And evidently, this was done for the A he I the I think it's the American Enterprise Institute. And actually know what it is, is it's an interview of the two of them, Benjamin and Jenna story by somebody named Barton Swaim, who writes for The Wall Street Journal. And he begins by talking about all the trouble liberalism is in and I'm going to skip over that and get to our to two philosophers here. He says a little bit about them, Mr. And Mrs. Story 46 and 45, respectively, teach political philosophy and run the Tocqueville program at Furman University. And apparently, there were spent a year as visiting scholars at the American Enterprise Institute. So he went there and interviewed them. And he mentioned that the core of their book is the reflection, that educated people in modern liberal democracies are very comfortable with proximate arguments, and not at all with ultimate ones. And then any rephrases that, in other words, the moderns can debate means, but not ends. We can talk about how to do things, we can talk about intermediate steps, but there's very little discourse in this country, about the highest good about our ultimate aim. It's easy to lose sight of that when you're a member of a Zen Center. And you know, you hear people giving encouragement to talks and have people that you're practicing with, but in society as a whole, people don't talk about that much. And I remember as a parent, I always felt really diffident about instructing my children. You know, I think it was probably a mistake, I think it would have been better to be explicit. But who knows? Who knows? Sometimes the the things you hear from mom and dad are the very things you want to put aside, find your own way.
He goes on what do they mean by ends? And then he quotes some Mr. story. I teach Plato's Gorgias. I hope I'm pronouncing that right. I think that second G is a hard G. Plato's Gorgias. Socrates is arguing with Callicles, about what the best way of life is. And so I will ask my students, what is the best way of life just like that? And the standard responses? What are you talking about? They look at me as if to say, you can't ask that question. So it is he thinks in liberal societies generally, let's let's just make clear that by liberal societies, we mean democratic societies, societies that aren't run by an Ayatollah or a fascist. I don't think anybody here is going to argue that our way of life is better than a lot of others. But liberal societies do have their problems. Says so it is with liberal societies. Generally, we're allowed to debate all questions except for the ultimate ones. We're assuming we can't have an answer to these questions without even asking them. In the classroom. He says both he and his wife tried to shift students from a stance of dogmatic skepticism in which they assume before the inquiry begins, that you can't ask ultimate questions to a place of Zetetic are seeking skepticism. Zetetic means to proceed by inquiry. Maybe it's Socratic, I'm not sure. In which you recognize it. Despite all your doubts and apprehensions, you have to at least ask questions about God and the good, and the nature of the universe.
Then he gives a little bit of history, and I'm a sucker for this. Having been a history major when I was in college. And I learned things about the formation of our modern world, just reading these guys that I never knew. It's really it's kind of helpful, at least I find it that way. So please forgive me for sharing. It says liberalism began in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a response to the violent political struggles of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the so called wars of religion. And these wars were real wars, people died, people were killed for believing the wrong thing. It's easy for us to forget how intolerant our ancestors were. European philosophers and political leaders sought a political worldview in which a man was able to hold his own views, and practice his own religion, without reference to the mythology of the dominant culture around him. to oversimplify the ideal in public, he would behave as a loyal citizen, in private, he could affirm or deny Transubstantiation, or decide he cared little either way. Some something we take for granted now.
But in order to get that in order to get to that place, we had to take those societal forms away. It's different if you grow up in a deeply religious country, then it's just in the air you breathe. But for us, the air we breathe is sort of empty of ultimate goals, empty of purpose for many people. And it's probably one of the reasons that there is so much much restlessness, and people find it so hard to turn to what's meaningful. And why it's so important for us to find that in our own life.
As track as attractive as liberal worldview is, the stories think it has ceased to satisfy. It was designed to solve a different anthropological problem from the ones we're facing. We're different people. We were different people and we came up with our liberal institutions to solve the strife of war and persecution. The political institutions of liberalism, she says were designed for people who were already strongly committed to churches, localities, professions and families. But when private lives have broken down, families, dissolved localities, less important religious life, absent liberalism's framework institutions no longer makes sense. The Montanan life, which is the life of imminent pleasures, taking pleasure in the things you do, working in the garden, brushing your teeth, various amusements that are for themselves, that kind of life just isn't enough for them. It has no transcendence, they're going to go beyond it.
In the way of going beyond it begins with as Roshi Kapleau used to say, begins with a cry for help
when we have the courage to face up to our own shortcomings. When we see the need, we have a felt need. Then we have the motive power and we can make change and things can change for us. We don't even direct the change, just our willingness to sit quietly bring the attention to our practice to whatever is in front of us. The atmosphere we swim in changes. Begin to know, a joy that's not based on the latest acquisition, the latest award at work begin to enjoy ourselves. There's a story of I think it was Bertrand Russell at a party back in the early 1900s, I believe. And his hostess came up to him and said, Mr. Russell, I hope you're enjoying yourself. And he said, it's the only thing I am enjoying
Okay, I'm gonna dip a little bit into one other article. I think we have time for that. And it starts off like this. She has done she has done everything that college has asked of her only better. The star student of two departments. She has notched impressive summer internships, spent several semesters abroad, founded one club served as president of another and collected her five Beta Kappa keys last spring. As graduation approaches, she has come to us to talk about her future. This should be easy. Law school or PhD. For years, she has had her eye on these goals, and is now well positioned for either, but then the options she puts before us begin to diverge. Maybe teaching plausible, maybe firming, not so plausible. Maybe a year abroad, perhaps a return home, perhaps more schooling, perhaps an end to all schooling. She wants to do good in the world and speaks passionately about her favorite political causes. But she is also nostalgic, and speaks wistfully about family retreat and quiet. As she detects the discordance of the possibility she is contemplating she's unnerved, the tightness of her face. The finger picking at the plastic tabletop, the skittish darting of her eyes, make her look look less like a very fortunate person. Choosing from the bountiful banquet, she earned the right to enjoy that she does a terminally ill patient choosing from a grim variety of palliatives. She has made the most of her American birthright to pursue happiness wherever it leads, and her very success has left her at a loss. Okay, let's question that. She'd been pursuing happiness. She'd been doing what she's told would not even told explicitly would bring her happiness, but just what she's expected to do. She's just excelling. So easy to do what society expects of us and to measure ourselves on that basis. But when they say her very success has left her for a loss. I hope they're saying it ironically, because it's not a success. If you don't know yourself, and you have no way of making a difficult decision, how is that success, summed it up and say years of steady progress, have culminated in a strange and restless paralysis. Another student taught us the name for this paralysis. What promising young people like him most fear he told us his spending their chips, staking all their carefully cultivated potentiality in any particular indefinite way of life. They prefer to hold back as long as possible, remaining in the condition of the stem cell. A pluripotent might be that is not exactly anything yet. They make the point, one can double or triple major in college, one cannot attend medical school while working at Goldman Sachs. People put so much importance in where they stand in the progression of setting up a normal life. Good job, finding the right wife. Getting the things that a responsible adult should have in our society coming of age means you get to the point where you're supporting yourself and you have those things. But that's kind of empty It isn't the ultimate good. It isn't a life of spaciousness, and connection. Just checking off all the boxes. But the that expectation is so ingrained in our society that's what sort of come in and taking the place of a jealous God. So what we have instead of Marxism or some other fanatical political belief, it's just all sort of loosey goosey. And it ends up being the treadmill, the endless busyness. It's hard for people to just say, the way I am is okay, I don't measure myself by those standards. And so, to drive the point home, going to turn wait for it to Anthony de Mello. He's gonna pick it up right here, a small time businessman, 55
years old, is sipping beer in a bar somewhere. And he's saying, well look at my classmates, they've really made it the idiot. What does he mean they made it. They've got their names in the newspaper, you call that making it. One is president of the corporation, the other has become the Chief Justice, somebody else has become this or that monkeys, all of them. Who determines what it means to be a success? The stupid society, the main preoccupation of society is to keep society sick. And the sooner you realize that the better sick, every one of them, they're Loony, they're crazy. You become the president of the lunatic asylum, and you're proud of it, even though it means nothing. Being president of a corporation has nothing to do with being a success in life. Having a lot of money has nothing to do with being a success in life. Your success in life when you wake up, then you don't have to apologize to anyone. You don't have to explain anything to anyone. You don't give a damn what anybody thinks about you, or what anybody says about you. You have no worries, you're happy. That's what I call being a success. Having a good job or being famous, or having a great reputation, has absolutely nothing to do with happiness or success. Nothing. It is totally irrelevant. All he's really worried about is what his children will think about him. What the neighbors will think about him, what his wife will think about him, he should it become famous. Our society and culture, drill that into our heads day and night, people who made it made what made asses of themselves, because they drained all their energy getting something that was worthless. They're frightened and confused. They're puppets like the rest. Look at them strutting across the stage. Look how upset they get if they have a stain on their shirt. You call that a success. Look at how frightened they are at the prospect. They might not be reelected. You call that a success. They are controlled, so manipulated. They're unhappy people. They're miserable people. They don't enjoy life. They're constantly tense and anxious. You call that human? And you know why that happens? Only one reason they identified with some label. They identified the AI with their money or their job or their profession. That was their error.
Did you hear about the lawyer who was presented with a plumbers bill? He said to the plumber, hey, you're charging me $200 an hour. I don't make that kind of money as a lawyer. The Plumber said, I didn't make that kind of money when I was a lawyer either. You could be a plumber or a lawyer or a businessman or a priest. But that does not affect the essential i It doesn't affect you. If I change my profession, profession tomorrow is just like changing my clothes. I am untouched. Are you your clothes? Are you your name? Are you your profession? Stop identifying with them. They come and go.
So liberating to realize nobody's really keeping score. It's wonderful to do things and become famous. I mean, it's not terrible. It's okay. But that's not the ultimate purpose. It's not what we're here for. to be that kind of success we really only have this one life it's a limited life we have only the certainty of death, the uncertainty of the time of death can really take that in then we find the motivation to work wholeheartedly. Not having one foot out the back door can really pay attention can really stay present
so sad to see people caught up in how they appear to others
but each of us passes away. Then whereas all that success go back to that Italian proverb at the end of the game, the Queen and the pawn are put back in the same bag Okay, we'll stop here and recite the four vows