Sunday, November 10, 2013

Not Zen 84: Emotional Reflexes

A boy brawled with his classmates. He argued with his teachers. He was the youngest boy in his home but he fought his bigger, stronger brothers. He teased his sisters. Eventually his parents sent him to military school. 

On graduation, he joined the army. He rose in the ranks and fought in wars. He was many times decorated for bravery. He found that in the field, in the midst of fighting, he felt at home. In the process, to his surprise, he discovered that he was loved as a commander. He hadn't felt much affection before. It made him proud. However, as he grew older and wiser he realized that, his troops liked him but his fellow officers did not. That meant his soldiers often got bad rations or bad equipment. 

For two decades he rose higher in the ranks. The more promotions he received, the more his manners seemed out of place to his peers. His superiors demoted him and returned him to battle. That suited him. He was again awarded for bravery. He received an elevation to field general. 

In a few months, he was rude to a governor and got demoted again. 

On the advice of another general, he went to see a roshi. This roshi practiced swordsmanship for sport so he and the general had something in common. They met and fenced on their first day together. The discussed tactics, met again, fenced for a few hours, and discovered that despite their different styles they were well matched. 

“This is fun,” said the general after one long session, “but I'm not as young as I once was. I need to rest. And you, young man, are supposed to help me with my manners.” 

“I am not an expert in manners,” said the roshi. “It's possible that I'm the wrong person to teach that sort of thing.”

“I've been referred to experts in manners before. I've failed them. My colleague recommended you for a reason. I don't understand him, I must say. I find you to be as rough as me.” 

“Yes, well, I'll try to help you in honor of our mutual friend. There are simple rules for dealing with other people. I understand some of them by process of observation. I see them as practical tasks. So I won't lecture you on the morality of politeness.” 

“Good. One expert told me that putting my feet on a chair is disrespectful,” the general snorted. 

“It may be,” said the roshi. “But instead of looking into the reasons for actions, as I would normally do, I'll try to teach you politeness as a conditioned reflex. In that way, it will seem more like martial prowess.”

“Are you comparing a 'thank you' to a parry with a sword?”

“No. But that thought might be in line with what I intend. After all, you are a good swordsman because you've developed an understanding of the simple rules of cut, thrust, and parry. You don't need to think. You react.” 

“When someone strikes, my reflexes take over.” 

“When I am finished with you, I want you to automatically respond correctly when a governor greets you.”

“I may not be an easy pupil, though I'll try. What's the way to generate a proper greeting reflex in myself? What are the rules?” 

The roshi put down his sword and demonstrated. He played the role of the governor. He played the role of the general. He switched roles and encouraged the general to practice. 

The general attended to his politeness reflexes for many weeks with the help of his roshi. 

Things began to happen in his life that had never happened before. His peers in the military started to invite him to social events. He was given an appointment to show his troops to politicians - ordinary for most generals but long denied in his case. The commander of the army, who had previously demoted the general back into the field, appointed him to an advisory post on the headquarters' staff. 

“Is it really this simple?” the general asked the roshi one day. “Did I have the wrong reflexes all this time?” 

“That may be the case,” the roshi allowed.

“It's a good thing I didn't learn these rules as a child,” said the general. “I would never have gotten into any fights at all. I would never have joined the army or become a general.”

The general tapped the roshi's sword with his own. The roshi laughed and nodded. 

“I'm shocked to discover how simple this is,” the general continued. “How has my life, all along, been so guided by these reflexes?” 

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