Sunday, August 25, 2013

Not Zen 73: Time Management

Early one morning, three runners set out along a road. The sun lay on the horizon as they left. Birds rustled in the boughs of trees. The air was cool. All three dressed for the heat. They set a brisk pace.

The leader trotted to the front of the group. He steadied his rate to let his sister catch up. They ran side by side for a mile or so. Her husband loped along behind. The patter of their shoes on the pavement fell to a steady rhythm.

"Did I tell you?" he huffed. "I'm on a roll at work."

"You hadn't said," his sister replied. "But I could tell."


"You have a pattern," called his brother-in-law from a few yards away. "You leave your kids with your wife more often, like today. You get tied up with your job more. Your wife complains about seeing you less. Eventually, you don't do anything else but work, eat, and exercise."

"That's efficient," he asserted.

"And when you exercise with us, you talk about your job. It goes on for weeks. Then you burn out. You can't sustain the pace."

"You have no idea." Irritated with his running partners, he increased his speed. "I haven't reached my peak yet."

He distanced himself from his companions. For a long while, he bounded along in silence. Beneath his shoes the pavement turned to concrete, the concrete to grass, the grass to dirt. The clay soil path widened as it ran alongside a stream. In time, his emotions flagged. His speed faltered. His breath grew labored as he reconsidered his pace. The muscles in his left leg stiffened.

His sister blew past him. She jostled his shoulder as she went by. But she never said a word. He watched her back as she put extra distance between them. After a half a minute, he heard his brother-in-law's soft footsteps growing close.

It occurred to him that his sister wouldn't listen to what he had to say. He wanted to explain himself. He spoke over his shoulder to his brother-in-law.

"I'm getting so much done at work. It's nice. I'm really going all out on a project."

"That's the worst," his brother-in-law told him.


"It means you're trying to do more than anyone can really do."

"But I can do it."

"Not really. It's a problem of the human condition, I suppose. Animals don't make the mistake of planning more tasks than there's time for. They don't imagine solutions that don't exist or that time can be compressed or expanded at need."

"I don't think that's what I'm doing."

"Bright people have no problems conceiving of things getting done more quickly than possible."

"Well, maybe a little of that," he allowed.

As they rounded the mid-point of their training circuit, his sister slowed down to let them catch up. They swung back along the trail they'd just run. The three of them strode nearly side by side. He decided to continue the conversation as if she hadn't joined.

"But all I need to do is maintain my peak performance," he said.

"Peak performance is just that," replied his brother-in-law. "It's the pinnacle of what you achieve. Humans don't sustain a peak. Even machines don't sustain peak performances."

"Just because you can run a marathon in two hours doesn't mean you can run four every workday," his sister snapped.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Not Zen 72: Considerate Songbird

A student complained to her guru that he talked too much. She noticed that whenever he spoke, everyone fell silent, even the other teachers nearby. They all stopped to listen to her guru.

“You’re the best teacher,” she said. “But you’re intimidating to others.”

The guru remained seated on his mat. He had excellent students but he judged this one to be among his best. She’d learned a tremendous amount in a short time. He knew that he might not see many more students as adept as she. He rubbed his beard.

“Let’s say that there was a songbird who sang so beautifully that all of the other birds in the forest fell silent,” he said. “But he was a considerate songbird. He wanted others to sing. He wanted his wife to sing, too, and she didn’t like being silenced more than any other bird. So the songbird felt ashamed of his fine voice.”

“I’m not your wife,” his student said. She folded her arms.

“I don’t think birds have students. Anyway, this songbird decided to silence himself. He remained quiet so others could speak. Of course, his neighbors grew accustomed to this very quickly. They sang loudly at him, sometimes wrongly, but he did not complain. His voice grew out of shape. His voice had been important to his life and he noticed the loss of it. In the next mating season, he did not sing. His wife left him. Even then, he didn’t sing a note of complaint.”

“You think your students would leave you?”

“Why would they stay if I didn’t teach?” He closed his eyes. “For years, the bird remained silent.  He felt wise, loving, and content, so he reasoned that he had no real cause to speak. But towards the end of his life, he looked out on the forest floor and, struck by its perfection, sang a short song.”

“And did all the other birds shut up?”

“No. His voice was barely a whisper. They hardly took notice.”

“I don’t like this comparison.” The student stepped back to find a chair. “A songbird is just a bird. It sings to live. It can’t worry about other birds. They’re no more virtuous than it is.”

“I’m a teacher,” he replied. “I have a message for those who want to hear me. That is my life.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Not Zen 71: Sense of Importance

A man traveled late at night in the rain with his wife by his side. He thought about enlightenment and how hard it seemed to be to achieve. He needed to do everything he could to keep up his study of it. This trip he was on with his wife seemed to be one of many things in his way, a chore to be done.

He couldn't find a balance between his meditation practice and his everyday life. He was making lists in his head of all the things he needed to do. It all seemed very difficult, important, and stressful.

In the dark, his wife laughed. The noise interrupted his thoughts.

"What?" he said, irritated.

"Did you ever lie down at the top of a hill and roll to the bottom?" she said.

It took him a moment to remember. "Yes.  As a child."

"Well, that's what I was just thinking about."

"Oh." He stared in wonder at her for a moment. He thought about the grass around him on a hill he'd climbed as a child. He forgot about his lists. He watched the road ahead and the rain.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Not Zen 70: Creatures of Habit

An elderly monk sat on the banks of a stream, as he did every day in the summer. Each morning, he put out a begging bowl to collect money and food while he preached his thoughts on the Dao. Each evening, he threw away his food trash from the begging bowl into the stream and returned to his monastery.

On one particular afternoon, he received several visitors. Some wanted his advice. Some wanted to share his shade next to the stream. The next to last visitor was a wealthy young woman who came to donate money to the temple.

“That's wonderful,” the monk told her as he accepted her cash. “The summer has been dry and our harvest is poor. This will allow us to buy food for the winter.”

The woman bowed courteously and said she was glad to help. The monk tipped out the remains of his food into the water. Then he put the donation into his begging bowl.

As the master contemplated the gift, he received his last visitor of the day, a former monk. This man had given up the monastic life to become a businessman. He never donated to the temple. He never visited the dormitories. He simply dropped in on his former friend at the spot next to the water. It had become one of his habits.

At the end of each afternoon with the master, the businessman threw his food trash into the water and returned to his home in much the same way as the master emptied his begging bowl and returned to his monastery.

“You have gotten lazy,” said the monk.

“It's true.” The businessman nodded. He ate a pinch of fried dough that he'd bought for both of them. “I've gotten dependent on material wealth. I wear fine clothes. I eat meat and sweet desserts. I drink wine. All of this makes me fat.”

“You talked about this last week,” the monk observed. “Why don't you just break those bad habits of yours?”

“It's not so easily done.  I like all of those things.”

“Bah!” The monk threw up his arms. “You must control your habits or they will control you. You must see the patterns of your life. Understand them, let them guide you, and steer them or step out of those patterns when appropriate. That is what an enlightened man does. He is not a slave to habits.”

“Are you not under the power of any such habits?” asked the businessman doubtfully. “Not one?”

“I control myself completely, as all men of good spirit must do. It would be shameful to let any habit become the master of me.”

The monk rose, bowl in hand. He was irritated with his old friend and wanted to leave. The businessman, taking the cue, also stood. He dumped the crumbs of his fried dough into the stream.

The master, as was his habit, emptied his bowl. The donation to the temple fell into the water.