Sunday, February 22, 2015

Not Zen 150: Pretense

They put the dog on a leash and walked her around the block so they could discuss David's divorce where no one would overhear. The 'no one' they were concerned about was David's daughter, Julia. They left her playing with a neighbor friend in the front yard.

On their walk, his brother David explained how he didn't really like people. He felt that he was a logical thinker and other people weren't logical. His brother had heard the complaint before.

"Despite being anti-social, you married an extremely social woman," he pointed out.

"She proposed," David said.

"You accepted. And she got tired of having a sensible family life."

"And left me, yes, I know. That's how I ended up with custody of Julia." David shook his head. "There was no way out. I'm not comfortable with it. I mean, I'm doing my best. But she's so different. Mostly, I feel I have to send her to a good school and just hope they know what they're doing."

"Maybe that's enough."

Near the end of their return, the dog began to bark. She strained at her leash, ran in a circle, and bounded against the fence twice to make it rattle. David's daughter ran up to the gate. Her friend was nowhere to be seen, apparently gone home, and she had changed into a costume that consisted of moccasins, a pretend-leather smock, and a feather headdress. She held the headdress in place with her right hand while she lifted the latch of the gate with her left. That earned her a lick from her dog.

"What are you supposed to be, Julia?" her father asked. The dog bounded into the yard beyond them.

"I'm a Powhattan princess," she declared. She squinted at her father.

"Please don't do that, dear. Come on inside now."

Julia stomped her foot but she followed them into the house. She hung up the headdress on the hook next to the door. It seemed as if she had been told before not to dress up and she'd expected the reprimand. She returned to the front door to whistle for the dog. For a moment, the dog considered whether or not to come inside. As the door started to swing closed, the dog dashed through and into the living room. 

"What's wrong with her fantasizing?" he asked David when they passed the living room and reached the dining room. "Do you have an issue with the princess thing?"

David shook his head.

"I've been taking meditation classes lately," he explained. "They help me calm down. This kind of meditation is the one in which you pay attention to how things are."

"Sounds good so far."

"You don't imagine you're somewhere else. You don't pretend."

"I see where you're going." He sighed and took off his hat. He combed his fingers through his hair. "But that's only during your meditation session, not during her playtime."

"Meditation is powerful," David insisted. "Awareness should be something that everyone practices. Pretending things is the opposite. It's the antithesis of calm awareness."

"Who said that? Your meditation teacher?"

"Pretty much."

He looked around at David's living room and dining room. Since his wife had left, a few details had changed. David preferred things to have their place and to stay there. He'd kept his wife's candles above the fireplace but he'd arranged them in order, tallest to shortest. He'd left the black and white prints along the wall but he'd removed the two that had added color. Those, he'd replaced with Zen ink paintings of mountain tops. The only color they added was gray.

"Do you know what a 'true believer' is?" he asked his brother.

David nodded. "Someone who takes an idea to its logical conclusion."

"Funny, I would say that it's someone who tries to apply one idea to every circumstance."

"You've already told me that you're concerned that I think like that."

"Let's limit this talk to your daughter. You asked for advice." He paced the dining room with his hands behind his back. "Well, imagination is an essential trait for her and for everyone. Children have to pretend. So do adults. The more you pretend to be other people and the more you read novels from a different point of view, the more empathy you have for everyone else."

"I think I've read results from studies about that, yes." In David's view, the confirmation of scientists was necessary even for things that were intuitive - perhaps especially those.

"Please don't discourage her empathy. It's a trait that everyone needs."

"I don't think role playing is an essential human trait," David said. "I never did much of it."

"You weren't always the most empathetic brother. Maybe it would have helped. The ability to pretend is essential to more than humans, you know. It's vital to all social animals."

"Oh, now you're humanizing animals."

David found it irritating when people claimed to understand non-verbal communication, especially with non-humans. He didn't like pets. Oddly, the dog had been David's idea. He had sent his wife and daughter to the kennel to choose one for him. Very likely, his brother thought, David would have been happy with any dog they brought home.

"Just observing." He turned his gaze to Julia for a moment as she and her pet played in the living room. "Social animals live in groups, like humans or dogs. Don't you think your dog guesses what you're going to do?"

"Maybe sometimes she does." David nodded. "Dogs are in touch with their surroundings more than people are. She watches what I do. She doesn't show any signs of imagination."

He gave David a smile. After he leaned his head in the direction of the kitchen, he strode in. He walked to the treat jar, which sat on the counter at the imaginary edge between the kitchen and dining room. He turned to face his brother. He kept his hands at his sides.

The dog burst from the living room into the dining room. She dashed around in a circle and wagged her tail. Then she gazed meaningfully at the treat jar.

"If dogs have no imagination," he asked his brother, "how does she envision what I'm going to do before I act? She's never seen me go to the dog treats before. She only heard where I stopped in your kitchen. Yet she imagines that I'll feed her. For that matter, how did you think about what I was going to do next unless you put yourself in my place?"

"I didn't know what you were going to do."

"What am I going to do now?" He nodded his head toward the stainless steel refrigerator.

David shrugged.

He took three steps to his brother's refrigerator. After a hesitation as he made the decision, he put his left hand on the freezer door handle. He swung it wide. Sure enough, there were frozen popsicles and four different flavors of ice cream on the shelves. They were the only items in the freezer aside from ice cube trays.

He was tempted to wonder why his brother didn't have more food. Instead, he merely waited. He heard Julia's footsteps. She came running from the living room, down the hall, and into the kitchen.

"What are you getting?" she asked.

"I'm still thinking," he told her. He turned to David. "Your daughter seems quite aware of her surroundings even without meditation."

"Yes, well, I think that she imagined that you would give her a treat."

"Right. Your household seems to have good awareness, imagination, and empathy. We can, all of us, imagine what it's like to be someone else and what we'd want to do if we were them."

"That's not being aware in the meditation kind of way."

"It's still a form of awareness. Not every part of consciousness is covered by your meditation. Empathy is a step toward being nice to one another. For instance, I can see two members of your household who are disappointed that adults spend so much time considering the consequences of their choices." He grabbed a tub of ice cream. He stretched with the other arm to pick up the dog treat jar. "So, treats for everybody."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Not Zen 149: Lusts

"I could keep on dancing all night."  Prema threw out her arms.  Her husband intertwined his fingers with hers, left hand to right.

"We nearly have," he reminded her as she spun. She twisted into his embrace and then unwound herself back out for another step in the dance.

"More," she whispered with a smile.  She whipped her right leg behind her left and turned.  The band on stage swung from the end of one tune to the beginning of the next.  She kept dancing and kept pulling her husband along with her.

For three years in a row, their temple had held a charity dance.  Prema had thought it sounded boring so she'd ignored it until this year.  Another couple had asked them to come along.  Many other friends had attended, too, all dressed in their finest.  She had expected a sedate affair and, in a sense, it was, all in formal clothes and populated with middle aged couples.  She found herself pleasantly surprised by the music, the lighting, the conversation, and the company.

Late into the evening, she laughed and she danced.

Finally, the hosts cleared the floor to introduce the final speaker of the evening.  Prema recognized this one.  She was an ordained woman from the temple, Vidula.  Prema and Vidula had been raised together in the temple school.  Prema had left for marriage.  Vidula had stayed and, apparently, had progressed in her career.

"As you know," the speaker said, "these charity events allow the temple to sustain a monastery, a nunnery, a traditional school, and a music school.  The clergy partially support themselves but, of course, the children do not."

She spoke for a few minutes on the need for charity and also the opportunity of it.  She listed a few of the top donors.  Those included the names of Prema and her husband.  The speech made Prema wonder what her life would have been like if she'd stayed on for ordination as her friend had done.

After the speech, Vidula stepped down from the stage.  She strode to the head table and conferred with the elderly guests.  Then she turned from those wealthy couples and came to Prema.  At first, Prema rose and gave her old friend a wide smile.  But Vidula did not return the warmth.  Prema and her husband had risen together.  They were holding hands.

The expression of disdain on Vidula's face could not be mistaken.

"You should be refraining from lust, my dear," she said.

"I believe that I do."  Prema resumed her seat.  So did her husband, who let go of his grip.  Prema found his hand again and placed it in hers.  "Nevertheless, I do not shy away from enjoyments of the body."

"That is saying the same thing."  Vidula crossed her arms over her robe.

"It's not," insisted Prema.  "What is the difference between lust for one pleasure of the body and lust for a different pleasure?  I know that you regard pleasure as a snare but if so, it's one that we must all learn to handle daily."

"No, I see no need."

"Perhaps you don't.  But other nuns have gotten caught up in the pleasures of the flesh, such as food, and those pleasures have the disadvantage of not being the associated with love."

"Those others had different experiences that shaped them.  Their weaknesses do not excuse yours.  You're fooling yourself if you think you're not caught up by pleasure."

"I may sometimes allow myself to be caught up by sexual desires and yearnings for the love or affection of my husband."  She squeezed his hand.

"You see, it is a snare for you."

"It's a disservice to speak of it that way."  She let go of her husband in order to speak with her whole body.  "Sex is a pleasure essential to us.  Without love and sex, there would be no life.  There would be no children, no religious thought, and no understanding.  It's a necessary thing, like breath.  And there's no more or less wisdom found in sex than there is in breathing.  Breath is a subject that some people think is a fit subject for meditation."

"There's no talking with you about this."  Vidula's eyes widened for a moment, then closed in thought.  She practiced such a meditation.  "I apologize for bringing it up."

"No, you don't."  Despite their different circumstances and views, she found that she still liked her old friend.  "It's a good subject.  It's one that I've thought about a lot.  But why is sex singled out from other lusts?  It's petty of the clergy to do so.  After all, I take great joy in dancing.  I hold an attachment to the delight it gives.  But you did not reproach me about that.  In this temple, dancing does not receive the same disdain as sex."

"I do not really approve of dancing.  But the reason it doesn't receive the same attention as sex is  because it doesn't entrap as many people."

"There's no great snare in sex except in the love it engenders.  The pleasure we derive from each other encourages us to form attachments."

"You see?  And we are supposed to be detached."

"That is all the more reason to love and to learn.  We must hold lightly to our pleasures so that we let go when appropriate.  Getting wrapped up in the denial of pleasure is as tight and binding an attachment as any lust.  It is an inappropriate religious focus."

She took her husband's hand again.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Not Zen 148: Immunity

The inner door of the urgent care clinic swung open. A family of three stepped into the hall from the lobby, a tall, middle-aged man, a woman with a swollen neck, and their crying child. The father held the door for his wife as she staggered through. He pulled on his daughter's arm after the oak slab swung closed behind.

"Come on," he whispered.

The nurse waved for them to move forward. The family was her first appointment of the day.

"I was going to ask what was troubling you," she said to the woman. "But it must be your neck. Are you having trouble talking?"

The woman nodded.

"That's fine. I'll have your husband answer the easy questions. If we leave out something important, just wave or speak up."

"Thanks," he woman huffed. With effort, she followed the nurse into an office and pulled herself up onto the examination table.

A few minutes later, the nurse left with her notepad filled with answers. The doctor arrived not long after, a short man with dark hair and a bald spot. He held the same notepad. He read the patient report as he walked.

"Problems breathing?" he said. He glanced up. "Oh my. She wasn't exaggerating about the neck."

He introduced himself. The husband shook hands with the doctor. The daughter hid behind his leg. The doctor had everyone sit in chairs while he did a physical inspection of the woman's ears and nose. He pulled out a stethoscope and listened to her breathing. He took a tongue depressor from a drawer and peered down her throat.

"Yep, there's membrane on her tonsils." He sighed. He asked his patient, "You aren't having chest pain, are you?"

She nodded and gave him a smile. Her right hand went over her heart. "Hurts."

"You have myocarditis. This is very serious."

"What did you call it?"

"Myocarditis is a heart problem. The bull neck, the membrane in her throat, and the myocarditis are three classic symptoms of an old disease. It's called diphtheria. Her diphtheria has reached an advanced stage. The heart issue may be life threatening. Likewise for the membrane partially obstructing her throat. We need to get her to the hospital."

"What's diphtheria?"

"It's a respiratory disease. When it's bad, it kills. Diphtheria was fairly common in our country a long time ago. Now it's rare. I'm pretty sure she's the first case in more than a year."

"It's awful."

The doctor leaned his head out out the office door. He called for the nurse.

"Will she be safe in a hospital?" The husband stood for a moment. He made himself sit back down, hands clasped in front of him. "Hospitals transmit diseases."

The doctor barked a laugh. He turned to the husband. After he closed his eyes for a second, his expression grew calm.

"Yes, sometimes people catch diseases in hospitals." He shook his head. "But in this case, your wife will put others at risk, not the other way around. There won't be anything in the hospital to threaten her as much as this."

Her husband frowned. He looked at his clasped hands.

"I haven't seen you come to the urgent care center before. Are you new to the area?" the doctor asked.

"Yes," croaked the mother. "It's my husband's job."

"We move around." Her husband raised his gaze to them. "My business transfers me."

"Have you been overseas?"

"Oh yes." They both smiled, the wife with some difficulty. "We just got back."

"I see. Maybe you skipped some vaccination shots." The doctor began to pace.


"Why?" He threw out his hands.

"We were moving fast." The father scowled. "And we both felt that the vaccinations themselves are a risk."

"There are hardly any negative reactions at all." The doctor looked to his patient for confirmation. She had a scowl on her face similar to her husband's.

"The shots have mercury in them," the fellow continued. His wife nodded in agreement. "That's poisonous."

"That's totally wrong in every important way. They have thiomersal. That has mercury atoms."

"It's still mercury." Again, the wife nodded in response to her husband's words.

"Not to your body. How can I explain? This is basic chemistry. The atoms of mercury are tied up in a safe, stable chemical compound."

"I don't know what that is."

"Okay. You know that chlorine is deadly, a poisonous gas. Sodium is deadly. But your body can't live without sodium chloride. That's a stable, chemical compound."

"It doesn't sound safe."

"It's table salt. Sodium chloride is salt and it's essential to your diet. Chlorine and sodium don't come apart in your body and kill you. It's the same for thiomersal. It doesn't react with anything to form plain old mercury, which would certainly be a poison although still not as deadly as chlorine. Didn't you learn any of this in school?"

"Chemistry? Not much. Neither of us are eggheads. Anyway, it's like the old saying, 'The learned are not wise.' We don't trust in science."

"Lao Tzu, right? He wrote that as he was describing the problems of scholars who like to argue for the sake of appearing smart."

"Sounds like eggheads."

"This seems like a great example of latching onto a saying out of context. You shouldn't cite Lao Tzu as if it somehow makes you wise. Ignorance is not a noble thing. And learning isn't foolish. You may not understand the science of vaccinations. That's understandable. But now you need to fix that. Aha."

The nurse appeared in the doorway. The doctor motioned her over. The two of them leaned their heads together for a moment. The doctor whispered. The nurse looked at her hands as if she wanted to wash them. 

"I'll make the call. I'll ask for the disease containment unit," she said.

"Thank you," the doctor replied.

The nurse turned to go. At the edge of her vision, she noticed the little girl. The girl was red in the face from her whining and complaining. That had been minutes ago and she still seemed flushed. The nurse knelt and stretched out her right hand. The girl walked over to it. While she held the girl with intertwined fingers, the nurse raised her left hand to the girl's forehead.

"I think you should look at this," she called.

The doctor had been trying to reassure his patient that the disease containment unit would let her move around. Why she wanted to move around, he grumbled, he didn't understand. When his nurse called to him, he took a deep breath.

"What is it?" he said. His gaze drifted downward. He saw the young girl. "Oh."

He knelt and stretched out an arm. His gesture was gentle. The girl didn't shy away. He touched her throat. She winced.

"Her, too."

"What?" said the husband.

"She's got it too." He pulled out his otoscope and popped off the part that fit into the mother's ear. Now it was a flashlight. He opened his mouth at the girl. She opened hers back, wide, and he looked in. "Yep. She's getting the membrane covering. In kids, the disease works faster. Let's skip waiting a day and get her right to the hospital."

"How did she get it?" her father wailed.

Her mother let out a burbling noise. She started to cry. The doctor seemed unmoved.

"Not considering the consequences of decisions doesn't make you immune from them." He rose to his feet. "And sometimes the consequences fall on others."

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Not Zen 147: Immediacy

In the morning, a sloth chewed on the leaves of a longipes tree. She clung to the longest branch as she fed. Her position let her spy on the animals below. She had a view of the lizards on the forest floor, the ferns, the white flowers, the ant hills, the brown snake near the ants that probably thought it was hidden, and the birds on branches above her and below her.

A tribe of capuchin monkeys passed under the forest canopy, headed for the watering hole. Most of them ran across the ground and the piles of rotted twigs. A few leapt and swung from low branches as they made their way. They screeched to one another when they saw the snake. Only one failed to vocalize, a white-bellied fellow. He dashed ahead of the others. Then he stopped to sit. He sprinted ahead past two trees. Again, he stopped to sit. As the sloth watched, she became intrigued by the strange monkey. He moved faster than the others but stopped more often. He pulled himself up and sat on branches, always in the same position.

The sloth suspected there was something wrong with him. She couldn't see a wound but perhaps he was sick.

In the evening, the same troop of monkeys passed through, headed the other way. The strange, white-bellied fellow dashed ahead again. He ran too close to an anthill and had to pick an ant off his leg. Then he ran to the longipes tree. He clambered up to a low branch and sat. Since the sloth had moved downwards in the tree, the newcomer was only a few feet below her.

"I am curious, little fellow," the sloth called to him. "Why do you stop and start?"

The monkey smacked his lips. He glanced up at the sloth, apparently irritated. His chest heaved. With a sigh, he controlled his emotions.

"It is my philosophy," he replied. He lowered his gaze. "I think much."

"You pause to think?"

"No, the opposite." He closed his eyes and resumed his ritual position. "I pause free myself from thought. I focus my mind on the immediate moment."

"And this is important to you? This is the way of the capuchins?"

"This is my way." He nodded. "It is wisdom passed on to me by an elder. Enlightenment is found through sitting."

"I know something about holding still and being aware."

"Yes, I expect you do." The monkey gazed up at her with awakened interest in his eyes.

"It is a good habit, a good way of life. But it is not everything."

"It is everything important."

“Really, it's not. Living in the present moment is good. It is useful. But it is not sufficient. Also, that is not what you are doing.”

“What do you mean? I am being aware.”

“You must give thoughts to the future in order to live a good life. That is why you look for the fruit in the trees, the water in the brook, the snake who may strike, and the ants who may bite."

"My teacher said to give no thought to the future."

"Perhaps she meant to avoid obsessing over it. And surely you see that you must give consideration to the past so that you may learn.”

“I strive to disregard the past.”

“Except to remember the words of your teacher, it seems. Wise monkey, despite what some other wise monkey told you, thoughts are important. Awareness is important, too, but that is not what you have been achieving by sitting."

"To one such as you, my sitting and being aware may not seem like much but it is a start."

"It is. There is a difference, however, between being occupied by your immediate circumstances and being preoccupied by the idea of living in the present. You are preoccupied with that idea and I can see by the way you live that you are less aware than you should be.”