Sunday, July 27, 2014

Not Zen 120: Telltale Fears

When she was young, her older brother protected her from the bullies among the calves of the wildebeest herd.  As he grew older, he encountered bullying himself from an older male, probably their father.  Their father tried to drive away the younger male.  However, her brother was still immature, not yet ready to try to establish a springtime territory of his own.  He kept trying to return to his mother. 

So his younger sister faced down her father rather than see him injure her brother.  He was a terrible, strong bull.  She placed herself between him and her brother.  She kept her father from doing damage, although he tried again and again.  She always placed herself in his way.  Sometimes she got knocked down for it. She was too young and too small to help any more than that.  But within a month, her father endured as much shame as he could.  He'd hurt her and drawn wrath from her mother and from his peers.  He bowed to the consensus of the herd, gave up his anger, and left his son in peace.  A few months later, he disappeared from the herd entirely.  She never saw him again.

She grew to a young, strong adult.  She endured hard marches.  During her first  drought, she found that she needed to walk miles between watering holes.  Weaker wildebeests collapsed on those journeys.  She persevered.

In her second migration, she pressed into the front of the group.  She felt a thrill as she explored the grasslands.  The company of other forerunners, mostly males, acquainted her with kindred spirits. 

One afternoon during a grueling march, she smelled water.  Within half an hour, she glimpsed a rivulet running through a plain of mud.  The herd neared the banks of a stream that had been a wide river once during an earlier season.  A jolt of fear shot through her as she strode toward its shore.  She noticed movement.  The wet sands ahead were covered in alligators.  She slowed.  But the herd behind her kept driving toward the smell of water.  They were parched. Many wildebeests had to drink or risk death.  And she was in the lead.  It was her decision.  She crept closer.

The alligators would not move aside for her.  They watched her with glinted eyes.

"All right, then," she told herself.  She charged.  The alligators hesitated, then scattered.  She strode through the mud where they had been a moment before. 

"Nicely done," said one of the males as he caught up to her.  Other young leaders snorted and stomped through the footprints of the predators.

Months passed.  Rains ended the drought.  A warm summer ended the rainy season.  She mated for the first time.  The herd migrated from their mating grounds.  Grasses grew tall and lush around them.  She bore a calf in the midst of plenty.  One morning, as her wildebeest herd approached a river, they encountered a hyena.  The wildebeest leaders stopped and stared.

Another hyena trotted up behind it.  The first one lifted its head and let out a yell.  Other members of the hyena pack began to appear to the west of the herd.

"Should we run?" The father of her son approached.

"I don't think we should turn our backs on these," she replied.

He studied their mottled hair, sharp teeth, and thick bones.  They gazed back with darting eyes. Everyone in the herd felt the force of their anticipation.

"Well then," he said.

She nodded.  Together, with their child behind them, they charged the hyenas.  A throng of wildebeest followed, about a hundred strong. 

The hyena pack scattered.  They re-gathered behind the herd in an attempt to pick off the laggards.  But the leaders and their children were safe.

"Why are you so brave, mother?" her calf asked after it had regained its breath.

"I'm not, child."

Her mate snorted. 

"Well, if I am," she allowed, "it's only because life taught me to move towards my fears, for they tell me what problems to solve."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Not Zen 119: Art of the Moment

"It's time, ladies. Rise and gather your mats." The instructor marched through the exit less than a minute later, as she'd warned she would. She had another meditation class to teach.

Her students gathered their belongings in silence. As they departed, one of them propped open the outside door so the moist summer air mixed with the cool but stale atmosphere of the room. In the center of the mediation studio, two women continued the conversation they'd started before class.

"My first clue," said the shorter, auburn-haired woman, "Came when I threw a surprise party for my best friend. We were in high school. I was a working artist already, with a local gallery show at the mall, and the party proved to me that events are an art form."

"I don't see how events are related to the rest of your craft."

"Do you practice any arts? Painting, maybe?"

"I'm a homemaker nowadays." The older, taller woman shook her head. "I make a few scrapbooks. That's about it."

"You've seen how people react to what you make. It's exactly like that. The party showed me what art is. My high school teachers hadn't talked much about it. Good thing, too."

"Wouldn't a teacher have been a help?"

"No. On my own, I was able to see how planning a party, putting everyone in their hiding places, just so, putting others in motion, leading my friend on a trip, talking to her to prepare her mind for the surprise ... well, it was exactly the kind of thing that I try to do to create an explosion of emotions in someone's head. It's like my paintings and sculptures. But better."

"It's seems more mundane, like things I do, not better."

"It's the act of creating a moment. And it was better for me than painting. I could see the blossoming of emotions in my best friend's face, understand her confusion, witness her laughter and then her tears of joy. It rewarded me in a way that other forms of art didn't."

"Ah, because your paintings are hanging in a distant city somewhere. You don't get to witness the reaction."

"That's part of it."

"So that's the art of the moment."

"A little, yes. But then I went off to college. That was good for me in some ways but it was a mistake as far as thinking about creativity. The professors had their own narrow ideas about art. They told me what to believe and I did. I forgot the facts. I forgot what I'd been creating."


"Not completely, no." Her hair had been pulled back in a knot for the meditation session. She loosened it. "How can I put this? I sorted the idea into a subset of performance art. That way, it had it's own category, nice and neat. But that was shit. It was a stupid idea to make real art, the best art, seem small. It wasn't until a few years after I left school that I started straightening out my perceptions. So now I see art as a very big, very useful concept, much bigger than what they teach in school. All types of human creation fit into it."

In a few years, the homemaker's children entered school. She trained herself as a yoga instructor. Her artist friend took her classes. They continued their discussions as they prepared the yoga studio for each class.

"A long time ago, when we talked about art of the moment, I didn't agree," said the instructor. She laid down stretch bands beside each mat. Her friend set down towels with them.  "But I've changed my mind. I think deliberately created moments are basically art."

"Everyone creates art," her friend replied. "I can see that you do it in these classes. You craft your interactions with your students."

"But most people aren't thinking this way.” She hesitated as she placed the last band. “So they make crap art. Or hurtful interactions."

"I'm not sure. I think about this a lot.” Together, they walked back to the shelf of supplies. “Everyone creates things all the time, whether they're doodles in meetings, baked goods with their kids, evening events out with friends, or whatever. They don't think of what they do as art. But I notice that a lot of people pay attention to the affects their actions."

"Teaching someone about their body, I think that's an art." She turned back to survey her studio. Everything was laid out perfectly.

"Yes, and I'm glad it's working out for you. But I notice lots of folks are creating things, making nice moments for others. And people make joint creations, too. I don't think they're aware that they're making something together. I see their work, their actions, join to form something completely new. It's interesting."

In time, the artist stopped studying yoga with her friend. She let her auburn hair streak with gray. Her friend stopped teaching yoga. They gained weight and, years later, they enlisted in martial arts together to improve themselves.

They practiced one-step forms, a kind of ritualized fight. Both of them came to think of one-steps as a sort of dance where the moves were known in advance.

"Yes, I think this is art,” said the painter. “But the last time we were talking about this, I was coming around to the idea of cooperative art. Events flow together naturally. I realized that I didn't need to do anything to disturb natural art."

"You can't do nothing, though. That's impossible.” The taller woman blocked the ritual strike. She swiveled to touch her friend's leg with the counter-strike.  “Even standing there after the end of this, you're breathing and you're beating your heart."

"You know what I mean.” She straightened. She tugged her uniform back into place. “I don't have to move a mountain to create a moment that's a molehill. In fact, all of the moments are mountains. They're connected. They flow together, a mountain range of moments."

The older woman put her hand on the other's shoulder. "That doesn't sound creative."

"Maybe not. I'm changing the way that I paint, too. My style has become simple.” Her arms dropped to her sides. Across from her, her partner adopted a similar position. “I'm learning to letting moments create themselves. Oh, sometimes I'll give them a little nudge. I think, sometimes, that I could do the best art by taking no action at all. I would stay where I am and let everything flow, just observe the art that's being created."

"You would have to observe art unfolding all of the time, then."

"That's about right.” She took a deep breath. Her gaze drifted over the other martial arts students standing in two rows, each paired, each stepping through the forms. “Sometimes I recognize the moment in advance. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I see the art of the moment as it passes into another piece. Sometimes the sense of events passing disappears. It becomes one big piece of art to me, all events happening together, not separate at all."

Behind her, their instructor had approached to see why two of her students had paused in the one-step practice. She had listened to their conversation for a while. She cleared her throat. They noticed her, turned, and bowed.

"So. You call this 'the art of the moment?'" she asked.

They replied that they did.

"I almost feel that I've studied something similar,” the woman said. “Your words are a bit different. You, painter, do you feel that you understand each moment?”

"Oh, not at all,” she sighed. “They're beyond my understanding. That's what's so beautiful about it. The art of the moment is so small and so big. The best I can do is enjoy the part that I experience."

"You don't even guide it? You let the art happen?" Their martial arts instructor gave them a wide grin.

"I'm sorry, master,” said the taller one, cautiously, “but why does it seem funny?"

"It's delightful.” Their instructor closed her eyes a moment. She sighed in satisfaction. “It did not occur to me, ever, that someone could take this path to such understanding."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Not Zen 118: Correctness and Gentle Words

Part 1: Correctness

During his release from prison, a former monk was questioned by his warden.

"It says here that you were arrested by order our previous administration.  That was for attempting to incite riots.  Is it something you may do again?"

"Since I never incited a riot, I think it is unlikely."  The monk nodded as he spoke.

"You have been excommunicated by your former religious order.  A few years ago, they provided your home.  Where will you go?"

"I will go someplace where I'm needed to do good works."  He put his chin in his hand for a moment and considered his prospect of release.  "Warden, may I return to my hometown?"

"Your parole board has not placed any restrictions on your return.  You are to be free travel to your home."  The warden frowned. "In my experience, people who speak out are trouble makers.  They tend to speak out again.  You were condemned by your own religious leaders for it.  That's pretty bad."

"They condemned me when I revealed secrets of our former administration."

"That's right."

"When I spoke, I knew that many others would not, out of fear.  In fact, they said bad things about me each time I pointed out injustices, saying 'this is not the way of peace' or 'he has concerned himself with something that is not a religious matter.'  They wanted me to stop talking about injustice.  But I think it is a narrow view, this idea that cruelties and thefts are fine to tolerate."

"You had some influence at the time.  What about using your words for peace instead?  Did you consider that?"

"We need to peacefully work to make the world better.  Sometimes that means saying what is wrong so it can be fixed.  Wrongdoers may feel offended.  But we must not be fooled by the umbrage they take at having their deeds exposed.  To speak about the injustice is the way forward.  It is the beginning of our social health."

Part 2: Gentle Words

When the man returned to his home town, he discovered that his government had approved construction for a new highway. Officials had designed the road to cut through grassy burial sites, hundreds of years old, on the east side of town. The approved path also leveled the earthen mounds that had been left by an ancient civilization a thousand years before.

The government had held bids on the work. A construction company had won. Already, there had been violence between the construction crews and the townspeople over desecration of graves. The former monk went to confront the company managers about it.

With him came the former caretaker of the town's park, a fellow who had recently retired. Although he cared more about the mounds and ruins than the recent graves, he had useful experience with bureaucracies. Together they located the office of the supervisor of the highway project. They camped outside the door for a few hours until that fellow agreed to see them.

"I think I know why you've come," the project manager explained. "But I can only give you a few minutes. There's no point in more because I'm sure I can't do anything for you."

The former monk had grown impatient during his wait. He spoke directly to the violence, its consequences, and its causes. The road had been planned without consulting locals. The government had treated his friends and neighbors as if they didn't exist. The project destroyed graves without a permit, which was illegal, and would butcher the archeology of the ancient site northeast of town, which might not be illegal but surely it was some kind of higher crime as it wiped out the heritage of the town.

"None of the officials who approved the project knew about these things," said the highway project manager. "And it doesn't matter to the bureaucracy. The time for objections has passed."

"You have to change the project."

"I can't." When his visitors refused to leave his office, the project manager called his security guards and had them thrown out of the building.

At they stood outside the doors, the one-time park manager turned to the former monk.

"Did you see the troops sent to protect the construction crews?" he asked. "They were gathering around the town armory this morning."

"I did. Between those troops and the panicking project manager, we know that the town has them worried."

"Well, those troops worry me right back. But I find the manager encouraging."

"How so?" asked the former monk.

"He's young. He thinks he has no power. On paper, that's true. But he doesn't understand that what's on paper is unimportant. He can do a lot for us. His company is taking the concept to reality. We can work with him."

"I thought your plan was to take him to court."

"That's how I'll work with him. I've done that part before. You, though, will need a different way. You're in the right position for it. But it will be new to you. It is not a protest."

"Why not?"

"You need to help the company. Do field work for the young manager."

"That's impossible." He considered further. "Or it is immoral."

"Right now, the road builders are angry that the townsfolk place more value on the land than the highway project. After all, the workmen build roads. That's all they do. If the road is stopped, many of them will be out jobs. Businesses that want the road in order to grow will fail to benefit, so they will complain, too. Yet the town is right is right to protest. You presented it correctly. The road was planned without concern for our ancestral homes or our businesses or our way of life, all of which will be destroyed by the road if it's made wrong."

"Or if it's made at all."

"The manager with whom you spoke employs foremen. After the fighting in town a few days back, those foremen are afraid to show themselves on the streets. They would welcome the chance to hire someone who can mediate between their crews and the locals."

"Will the manager let them hire me now that we've argued?"

The older man shrugged. "Does he even know your name?"

Not only were the foremen willing to hire a mediator, in less than a week they were willing to bring in local labor. Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the park supervisor, the construction company leaders overcame their fears of local sabotage. They saw financial benefit to enlisting the natives. They felt they could put an end to the hiring discrimination lawsuit before it reached trial. They hoped, too, that use of native labor would overcome environmental resistance.

Between the candidates sent by the former park supervisor and the interviews conducted by the former monk, now the project mediator, the road construction team collected a work crew who were all opposed to the desecration of the graves and the mounds.

Over the course of weeks, they made small decisions, trivial ones, each of which changed the course of the road. One worker noticed a problem with the grading of the asphalt and so brought in fill dirt to angle the road and to lift it above the herd migration paths. Another dug the edges of the road to the west in order to avoid a mound to the east. Later, they noticed a water buildup problem and laid a large pipe underneath a rise in the earth.

Although all of the decisions seemed ordinary, their effect was large. The surveyor noticed. But after he talked with the locals, he filed an exception for the road near the mounds so it could "go around an obstacle at need." The foremen understood, too. At first, they tried to change the road back to match their charts but their local laborers refused. The head foreman asked the mediator to step in.

The mediator found a compromise and the work resumed. As part of the compromise,the local workers paved their access road to the project. That sped up their arrival to the work site every morning. Now the highway, which had been designed without a local access ramp, had one.

Eventually, the project manager noticed. Even from his office, he could tell the highway construction had deviated from the original plans. When he visited the site, he saw that the road would avoid the graveyard and therefore another pending lawsuit. So he deducted the deviation expense from the budget he'd been granted to handle the attorney fees.
When he saw the gradation difference, his only question was about the tunnel beneath it.

"This is a very wide and tall water pipe," he remarked. "It has animal tracks in it."

"Yes," said the former monk. "The local shepherds and the migrating deer come through the pipe."

"I'm pretty sure there was another lawsuit from the shepherds. How much did the solution cost?"

"It wasn't much. The foremen say we're under budget."

The project manager wrote up the solution to make it official. Since he'd saved another set of attorney fees, his superiors sent him a written commendation.

Over the course of a few months, the highway meandered between the mounds. It passed next to the graveyard but not over it. Construction continued outside of town, to the south. Some local workers stayed on the job and became permanent construction employees. The former monk was not one of them. He attempted to resign. But the foremen pleaded with him to stay. He had, they said, enabled them to build the road.

The local news reported that the project was a victory for the forces of progress. The officials who designed the road agreed. As a consequence, the monk's former friends reviled him. They called him a traitor to the town. Each time he heard from them, he thought of the soldiers arming themselves to ride against his neighbors. He thought of the detours the road had taken, which showed on no official map, the gravesites left intact, the ancient mounds never plowed down.

He agreed to stay on the job.

Years later, he visited the grassy footbridge underneath the road. The shepherds planted sod in it every spring. It didn't look like a water pipe although that was still how it appeared in the blueprints. The migrating deer, wolves, and farm animals treated it as a shaded lane.
A local man who lived near the road came out of his home. He brought the former monk a chair. He carried one for himself, too.

"You've visited here before," said the old fellow.

"I have." He bowed his head and accepted the seat.

"Are you sad for the life you've chosen? I remember you growing up here. Do you miss your old neighbors?"

"My job is hard for me. It's not what I would have chosen for myself. But aren't all jobs hard? The reward for me is that I've made a few places like this, refuges for people and nature. What about you? You worked on this, too. Do you regret the bargain you made?"

"No one asked me before. But no, not really. The road made some people rich. Not me, but that wasn't what I needed. I had to save my old town. That was enough then and it's enough when I look back on it now."


"You were such an ass when you were a boy. Smart, yes, and usually right. But it was only when you worked to fix this road that you settled down."

"An older fellow, I suppose he was about our age now, gave me good advice."

"What happened to him?"

"Long gone. But he had it right. I'm saying the same things that I was before. Only my tone is different. I'm not shouting. My meaning is the same. But my results are better."