Sunday, November 30, 2014

Not Zen 138: Silence

The hiker spotted the old man he was looking for at the top of a hill to his west. The fellow's head leaned back to gaze up toward the sky. His shirt sleeves were rolled, hands resting on his knees, despite a steady wind.

The hiker turned west. In front of him, the slope rose sharply from the road. He trudged into the grass. Soon, the stalks grew above his knees. He cursed as he slogged upwards to his target but he smiled, too, because the inconvenience was a good sign. In other places, he'd questioned monks. He'd engaged abbots in debate. But some of those old fellows had been senile. This one ahead was only a village wise man but if he had the alertness to rise early in the morning and the stamina to tromp through the underbrush, at least he wasn't feeble.

"Hello!" he waved.

The weathered fellow above him let his gaze drift down. His eyes twinkled slightly with curiosity but otherwise he didn't seem surprised to receive a visitor.

"I heard that you perform your morning meditations in this area," he explained as he marched closer. "It's a big area. I was lucky to find you. I'd like to speak for a moment and get your opinion on a few things."

The wise man's eyes dimmed. He took a deep breath and waited.

He remained quiet while the hiker introduced himself. In a few minutes, the newcomer got the sense that he ought to get on with what he had to say. That was no problem. He had questions in mind similar to those he'd asked at the monastery.

"If nirvana is only attained through the destruction of desire," he said. "doesn't that mean we must destroy our personalities? Aren't our characters partly defined by what we desire? I think a lot of you teachers I've met have seemed the same. It's because you don't have many desires."

The old man sighed. He shook his head, apparently lost in thought. Then he resumed looking at the sky.

"Is something wrong with my question? Aren't our personalities determined mostly in our minds? Your philosophy, I hear, deals a lot with the nature of our minds."

The old man bowed his head. After a moment, he shrugged and resumed his meditations.

"Although, come to think of it," the visitor continued, "our personalities are also determined by our bodies. And by how people respond to us. Those responses give us our expectations and desires."

The old man didn't stop looking at the sky but he nodded.

"You don't feel my questions are good? You don't feel a need to respond with your words?"

That question got a smile.

"Is silence your response to everything?"

The old man glanced at his visitor. Then his head snapped back to his view of the landscape. He pointed.

"That cloud, right there, is beautiful," he said. "Did you notice?"

"No, I didn't." The visitor turned.

It was a large cloud, threaded throughout its bulk with shades of grey and white. The flattened base changed in texture from moment to moment as it swept toward the hill. The higher layers re-arranged even more dramatically. For a long moment, both men studied the cloud as it slowly changed shape in the sky.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not Zen 137: Long View

The girls grew up as neighbors, both in pigtails, both in overalls. Their parents joked about how interchangeable they seemed.

"Emma and Alma," said Alma's mother. "Even your names sound similar."

They spent summers in the same park, in the same sandbox. On rainy days, they played games together. When it came time for school, they went to class with the same level of reading. They learned to write their names. They learned to count.

"They'll be best friends forever," said their parents.

The girls started out with average grades. Emma, the one with slightly lower scores, had to work more to keep up. Her performance improved. Encouraged by her success, she worked even harder. She got so good in the first school year that both girls forgot they were equal.

"You've always been the sharp one," said Alma later. They didn't remember a time when things had been different.

As teenagers, they played on the same volleyball team. Alma, as she grew to be tall, enjoyed easy success. Emma remained the shortest in their class. Even with extra training, she couldn't match her friend's level of performance. Working harder let her keep a place on the team. Later, they both remembered being athletic.

"You could spike," Emma recalled.

"But you could dig." Alma nodded. "And set."

After school, both moved out on their own, living in poverty and on charity from their parents. Alma spent more money. She bought her furniture on credit. Emma bought hers at yard sales. Alma got a new car. Emma saved up for a used one. Over time, Alma fell into such debt that she had to move back to her parents' home. Emma built up savings, even though they earned the same money. She decided to travel.

Alma married a local man, a handsome one, who she felt was a prince to save her from her debts. In her travels, Emma met an educated man, not as handsome. She agreed to settle down with him if he would live in her hometown for a while.

"I think you married a bit of a frog," Alma said to her friend when they met again.

Emma shrugged.

"He is, a bit," she admitted. "But he's willing to work to get more princely. And anyway, I'm not a princess."

They lived in the same town for a few years. Alma had her first child. She relied on Emma to help with childcare. Often, the two went out together. Sometimes, they left Alma's toddler with his grandparents and spent their time at parties, at museums, or on dates with their husbands. One night when they were out, they got into an accident.

The accident broke bones in both of Emma's legs. It punctured her left lung. As her lung filled with blood, the ambulance team and then the doctors tried to drain it. When her heart failed from the strain, the surgeon revived her. He repaired her lung and pinned her stray rib into place. The hospital scheduled three other surgeries to repair her legs and hips.

When Emma awoke, she practiced moving. At first, that meant exercising her arms. It was all her nurse would allow. Later, she learned to roll her body. After a week of limited movement, the nurse agree to let her sit up.

"Your friend hasn't even gotten this far yet," said the nurse.

"Alma is here, too?"

"We moved her off of this floor. But you won't be able to see her until one of you can walk."

Emma learned that Alma had suffered a broken hip and a broken leg. She'd endured a surgery similar to Emma's. In fact, the same surgeon who had saved Emma's life had pinned Alma's bones to allow them to knit.

As soon as she could travel down the stairs, Emma went to visit. She found her friend alone. Her prince of a husband was at work, unable to visit that day until he finished his evening shift.

"You're up!" shouted Alma. Her face lit with surprise. But she barely moved.

"You're not!" said Emma. She leaned on her walker. In a moment, she would need to rest. For now, the mixture of exhilaration at her friend's health and frustration with her friend not exercising kept her upright.

"Well, no. It hurts to sit up."

"Of course it does." It had hurt her, too. That's what broken bones did. "Alma, I saw your scans from yesterday. All of your bones are fine enough to move."

"But my joints aren't," her friend complained. "I don't think I can make the same comeback you did."

"You damn well can." She tried not to stomp her foot. It would have sent jolts of pain through her.

"Then why am I not out of bed and you're walking?"

"I put in a lot of work, right from the start. I knew I had to, to get this result."

"But I don't really do that, Emma." Her voice lowered. "I never have."

The shorter woman sighed. She moved her walker to the front of the guest chair. Carefully, with one hand on the armrest, she took a seat.

"I can't leave this room until I see you do work. Move something more than your toes and fingers. I know it hurts. Sit up anyway. Heck, just show me you can roll a little."

"Emma, I'm tired." She moved enough to pull her blanket to her collarbone. "I can roll later."

"Your husband is coming. Don't you think he wants to see you sit up? He needs you." She considered trying another line of reasoning. "What about your little boy?"

"We don't let him visit." At that, Alma blushed.

"You've never liked putting in hard work for a distant payoff. But you're going to have to do it now."

"Right," the taller one laughed. "Because you're willing to put in the work to get the result out of me."

"First, you do step one. Then you do step two. Then keep going." Emma pulled her walker closer to her chair. She tried to stand but had to put out her right hand to the armrest and ease back down. "Alma, I didn't bug you to work harder in school. You were fine by me. And I didn't bug you to work in sports even though I think you could have been a star. You just didn't like it that much. But I can't stand by and watch you not try, not this time. We have less than a year to get our physical strength back. That's what the doctor said."

"That's a long time."

"Now it's only eleven months. You've got to get up. Look, a job like this can seem too big in the beginning. I know. It can make you freeze up in panic. You have to do the little thing that's next. Keep doing the little things."

"And then what?"

"And then, in the long view, you get done. All you need to do to accomplish a big thing is to start. And keep going."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Not Zen 136: Mental Judo

"How did you win your first two games?"  He shook his head at the poorly chosen shot.  It hadn't come close.  The cue ball rolled to the center of the green, felt table.  The position set up a good turn for him.

The player who had just missed the shot shrugged.

They hadn't been close friends.  That was why they hadn't seen each other in five years.  They'd marched out of their first class reunion in a group of a dozen to find the nearest pool hall.  Like most of the group, they'd bought drinks at the bar.  One of their mutual friends got the bright idea of holding an eight-ball tournament within their reunion class.  So they'd put their drinks on the stands next to the pool tables, paired off, and competed like the rest.  After two rounds, they met in a game.

"I hear you own an aikido studio," his opponent said.  He propped his pool cue between his legs and leaned against it.

"Yeah.  I'm doing okay."  He rolled up his sleeves.  It made him conscious of how he was one of the few in their class who had remained athletic.  "I earned my shodan when I was still in school.  And I'd always wanted to start my own business."

The aikido master made his shot into the corner pocket.  He'd left himself poor position, however, so he rimmed around the next one, an attempt at a side pocket.  His opponent stepped up, aimed a different ball at the same side pocket, and sank it.

"You used to be the worst," said the master.  "You were sick all the damn time or claimed you were.  You had panic attacks when girls talked to you.  Now you're an emergency technician?  Those are the folks who ride around in ambulances."

His opponent nodded.

"How did that happen?  The sight of blood made you vomit.  Actually, I was just thinking about how you freaked out in friendly games like this one.  When the pressure was on, you froze up.  But you seem better now."

"Oh."  The emergency technician set down his cue for a moment.  He picked it back up in his weak hand and, without bothering to set his feet, he tapped the cue ball into the corner.  It was a deliberate move to make the next shot hard.  "I decided to be the guy who's great under pressure.  You know what I mean.  When times are tough, one guy gets calmer and more sure of himself.  I decided it needed to me."

"Just like that?"  He checked the lie of the ball.  It made him curse.  There was no easy shot.

"It took me a while.  But I made it in less time that you might think, about two years.  You might count it as three or four if you saw the extra practice that I put in."

"How can you practice something like that?"  He wandered around to a different side of the table to see if he could find a better angle.  The pool hall kept the lights bright over the tables but dark everywhere else.  The shadows cast by the balls were sharp.

The emergency technician sighed.  His voice lowered.

"I've never told anybody," he confessed.  "It's funny that you're an aikido master.  At the time, I thought of what I was doing as mental judo.  After all, confidence comes from success, right?"

"That's how it worked for me."  He gave up aiming.  His eyes told him there was nothing he could do.  "And for everyone, I guess."

He poked the cue.  His shot scattered a cluster of balls.  The two players watched the balls bounce off of the rails and listened to the clacks of them as they made contact with one another again.

"Yeah, but you were always pretty successful.  Not me."  He strode up to the white ball. With a smile, he gave it a gentle push at a corner shot.  It rolled slightly off line, a miss. "Confidence comes from success but confidence is necessary for success.  To get good at anything, you have to feel good."

"That seems pretty much right."

"But I was prone to panic."  He rested the cue stick on his shoulder.  "I spent a lot of time in self-loathing and depression.  I couldn't break out of it without confidence.  And I couldn't find the confidence without a success I didn't have.  There had to be a trick.  I had to take momentum from somewhere."

The aikido master put out his hand and waited for the emergency technician to continue.

"You have to have to decide to have confidence.  You make it part of your inner nature.  I know it sounds crazy but I started to put myself into all of those situations I hated.  I talked to girls.  I played basketball."

"Wow, I remember you in the gym.  You shot like crap.  Horrible."  The image that came to his mind made him chuckle.

"I got better.  Want to put some money on this game?"

The emergency technician was down by a ball.  The cue ball lay near a rail but it wasn't trapped.  It was the aikido master's turn and he had a clear advantage.  The emergency technician hadn't been wealthy while in school and he hadn't dressed up for the event.  He wore jeans and a plain shirt.  The stakes he'd be able to put up would be low.

"Sure," he said.  He pulled out his wallet.  "How much?"

"How much do you have?"

"Shoot, I've got a whole week's take from the studio."  The question surprised him.  He had meant to take the money to the bank deposit slot but he'd thought it might come in handy at the reunion.

"That's a lot."


His emergency technician friend took out his wallet in turn.  He kept a lot of cash, enough to cover the sum of the studio receipts.  He counted it out.  A lot of folks around the pool tables looked at the stack of bills.  But the emergency technician didn't seem worried.  "I've got it that much.  Let's play for it.  Shake on the bet."

"Crap, man."  He shook hands with his opponent.  Immediately, he felt misgivings.  The more he thought about taking that much money from an old school acquaintance over a bet, the less he liked it.  "You're down by a point.  And I'm pretty good at this.  Do you want to start over?"

"Do you?"

"I don't know."  The other man's calmness unnerved him a little.  Could he lose that much and be fine?  Maybe he was wealthier than he looked.

"Let's see what happens."

The aikido master steeled himself.  He spent longer with his aim than usual, took his shot, and sank it.  Now he was two points up.  The cue ball rolled into a decent position for another corner point.  He took his time but he knew, when he struck it, that he wasn't on line.  His follow-up rattled out.

As the emergency technician played, his limbs steadied.  He started to smile before his first shot, which he landed in a corner pocket.  Then he was down by only one.  He lined up his second shot.  The physical effects of his mental judo were visible.  His movements were smooth.

"At first, I would make trick basketball plays all alone in my backyard."  He paused for his pool shot.  He sunk the green ball in a side pocket.  That tied the game.  "I would pretend people were teasing me.  Then I would pretend I was the cool-head guy.  And I would shoot."

"So you did practice!"  The aikido master smiled.

"Yeah."  His friend smiled back at him.  "I practiced against real people, too.  I would talk trash.  They would get pissed and try to throw me off my game.  But I was the cool-head guy, right?  To myself, I was.  Even when I missed my shot, I knew it was because of me, not them."

"Were you sure?  Really?"

The emergency technician leaned down for this third shot in a row.  This one rolled straight and true.  It tapped the brown ball and pushed it to the corner pocket.  The touch was a trifle too gentle.  The ball rolled to a halt at the lip of the pocket.

The aikido master felt the hairs on his arms prickle.  That had been close.  His palms sweated.  He wiped off his right hand onto his pants.  The week's worth of salary burned in his pocket.  He didn't think he could allow himself to lose it.  It was on his mind as he surveyed his position, which didn't look good.

He had an open shot at a side pocket.  That was the one to take.  But he was aware that he hadn't made a shot in a side pocket during the whole evening.

"Crap."  Even as he let the cue stick slide, he knew he'd missed.  His aim was worse than ever.  His cue ball passed to the right of its target.

"Bad luck," said his opponent, somewhat generously.  He eyed the lie of the white ball.

Behind them, a door swung wide.  The smell stale beer and the fresh, outside air wafted over them.

The aikido master expected his opponent to aim at the brown ball that sat at the lip of a pocket.  But his opponent tried for a more difficult shot.  He knocked in the yellow ball at the far side. The cue ball rolled back to him in perfect position to aim at the brown.

"After a while," he said, "I was only showing myself that I'd become who I thought.  I was good in the clutch.  I was that guy."

He sank his shot.  He had only one ball left, the black eight.

"This corner," he said.  There was a tournament rule that they had to call the last shot.  He gestured to his stick where he was going to put it.  Then he leaned down, poked the cue ball, and bounced the eight into the corner.  For a moment, the aikido master held his breath.  He thought he might escape.  But the shot fell in.

"Oh crap."  The master slumped.  He put his hands on his knees and took a deep breath.  "A whole week's cash."

"Yeah.  And then something important happened."

"What could be more important?"  He was thinking of his rent money.  He hadn't paid for his studio space this month.

"I came across a traffic accident.  It was a bad scene with a guy bleeding out.  No one was doing anything."

"Even little spots of blood made you throw up."  He tried not to think about the rent.  Someone dying should be more important.  But it had happened years ago.

"I was the cool-head guy now, right?  I pulled the glass out of his arm.  I applied pressure to the wound and to the artery leading to it.  He was losing consciousness when the ambulance arrived.  I was a mess, blood all over my shirt and pants.  But the emergency technicians took a look at what I'd done and said I'd saved the guy's life."

"Nice."  With a sigh, he pulled out his wallet again.  He knew it was best to get this over with.  Then he could think about how to come up with the money for rent.

His emergency technician friend took out his wallet, too.  The master started to hand over the money.

"Just give me one bill," said his friend.  He pulled it from the middle.  It crinkled as he folded it, without looking at the amount, into his wad of cash.  "Put the rest away.  Don't bet too large with me again, not unless you can really lose it, okay?"

"Okay."  He took a deep breath.  "Yeah."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Not Zen 135: Grateful Mistakes

He took a deep breath as he sat down.  Bill hadn't been to his parents' home for years because his work had taken him to a distant city.  For many months, he'd wanted to bring his girlfriend home to meet his family but he'd never seemed to find the time.

The smell of baked bread wafted into the room.  His father had burned it.  Bill's nose detected the roasted hen, too, from his older sister.  She'd brought sweet potatoes, butter, green beans, and other dishes for the visit because she lived a block away.  His older brother, who lived in the house with his father, had bought canned peaches.  They gave off a syrupy perfume as they sat out in a bowl, an item to add to the salads.

His girlfriend had insisted that they make pies but, at the last minute, she'd bought them from a store.  The pies sat on the table to her left, a little too far for him to reach but close enough for the cinnamon and nutmeg to combine with the other food scents.

"Good to meet your fiance, Bill," his brother whispered into his right ear.

He nodded.  His brother accepted the loaf of dark-crust bread from their father and found a spot for it at the table.

"I'm sorry your mother can't be here," said his father as he sat down.

His father's wife, Bill's step-mother, had died two years ago due her refusal to wear her medical bracelet.  When she'd gone to the hospital emergency room for ulcer pain, she accepted a treatment she shouldn't have, which made her pass out.  Then the doctors administered medicine contraindicated by the warning on her bracelet.  They wouldn't have prompted the reaction that killed her if they'd known.

"Me too," he said.  He felt sorry for his step-mother and also for his birth mother, now remarried and not in a position to see her grandchildren.

"Yeah," said his brother and sister.

"But I'm grateful for another year," his father continued.  "Let's go around the table and give thanks, please."

The oldest, his sister, clasped her hands and bowed her head.

"I'm thankful that my husband will finish his prison sentence this month," she said. "I'm grateful to be off drugs.  I'm thankful for diabetes medicine.  I'm thankful for my daddy.  I'm thankful for my little girl."

Bill watched his fiance.  Her eyes widened.

After a short pause, his brother took a turn.

"I'm thankful that my son can be here with us tonight," he said.  "His mom didn't want him to come.  I'm thankful for the doctor who reattached my pinky finger.  I'm grateful for the car my little brother gave me.  It's nice to drive to work again."

Bill's fiance already knew about his brother.  She hadn't heard about him cutting off a finger at work.  She nudged him with her foot under the table.

"I'm thankful for Uncle Billy!" shouted his brother's son.

"Me, too!" said his sister's daughter.  "And for his girlfriend.  She's pretty."

"How sweet," his girlfriend remarked.  "I'm grateful for Bill, too, and I'm happy to meet you all."

Bill had finished reading a lot of legal papers earlier.  When he raised his clasped hands, he found that he smelled like dry books.  He took a moment to contemplate how fortunate his life had been.  He was the only one of the three who made a good living.  On top of that, he hadn't injured himself or caused himself medical problems.

"I'm glad that I knew everything that my older sister and brother did as we were growing up," he concluded with a sigh.

"Amen," said his girlfriend.

There was a pause and a grateful smile from his sister.

"Is that all?" his father prompted.

"And I'm happy we're alive.  The bread smells great, dad."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Not Zen 134: Attention to Words

The sun cast a warm light across the city market. Two women wandered through the shops and stalls. Patrons jostled one another. Shop owners called out. Bicycles weaved through the rows of pedestrians. Taxis crawled between the stalls and bikes. Through it all, the women wandered at their leisure.

They saw an elderly fellow step out of a shop down the street. He hesitated, a bag in each hand. Someone knocked his elbow from behind. His groceries tumbled to the ground.

"This is yours," said the quickest one. She stepped forward and scooped up a can of beans as it rolled. Her friend grabbed a plastic bottle as it spun in place. Other folks nearby saw what they were doing. They crouched, each to pick up an item and return it to the bag.

"That's what I like to see." A stranger approached. His clothes looked expensive and well tailored. He extended his hand in greeting. "I like helping people. And I like people who help others."

The older, shorter woman shook his hand. She felt a professional grip, strong and energetic. She looked him in the eye as he described how he was running for re-election as their state representative.

"I'm just here to remind you that I'm looking out for you," he concluded. A tall woman in a business suit walked up and touched him on the elbow. Another aide approached. They pointed up the street and headed off.

"That man is a criminal," said the woman who'd shaken his hand. She wiped her wet palm on her clothes and shook her head.

"Yeah, too bad," agreed the old man. He had stepped out of range for the handshake.

"How do you know?" asked the younger woman.

"Didn't you see the way he behaves?" Her friend pointed to the politician's back. "His friendliness is calculated. His gaze is hostile. His hands and posture betray his intent."

"He didn't pick up any groceries," the man added. "Help came from all around, thank you very much. But not from him."

"He represents us. He votes for us."

"And you're fooled by that?" The shorter woman pointed up the street. There, the representative and his aides had re-positioned themselves. They rushed to greet a family as the family exited an expensive shop. "Look, the baby starts crying as he approaches. The baby understands. But his parents don't."

"I'm sure his parents are listening to his words. They hear what he says and try to give him the benefit of the doubt."

"When a politician announces that he supports family values, look to his actions. Has he worked hard to keep his marriage good? Has he supported his children? Or does he ignore his family in favor of mistresses?"

"You can't pay much attention to anything that anyone says," the old man agreed.

"Including you two?"

"Be skeptical of everyone. Why not?"

"Well, what about friends?"

"As your friend," said the older woman, "I'd say that you should judge everyone. If someone makes a promise, watch that they keep the promise. Otherwise, words aren't much use."

The younger woman had been the first to leap to assistance. She had also been ready to trust her representative. She remembered voting for him.

"All sorts of words are important to me," she said. "They affect my feelings. What about complements? What about insults?"

"Insults are people being mean. That's the action to watch for."

"What about lying?"

"Lying is important not for the words but because it's cheating," said her friend. "When someone spins the truth out of self-interest, it hurts others. That's why I don't pay much attention to anyone's description of events or of themselves."

"Statements of intention are probably false," said the old man. "Or incomplete."

"They can be sincere," the woman allowed. "But they can be wrong despite the sincerity. If you want to know how someone really thinks, watch what they do. That's the way you can understand if their words have meaning."

The man they'd helped nodded and waved for a taxi. The first one passed him by. Then another slowed for him but it proved to be full. He set his groceries by his feet and hailed with both arms. The women joined in. After a minute of calling and waving, they managed to pull over a taxi for the fellow.

"Thank you," he said. He picked up his grocery bags.

As he stepped toward his ride, the state representative and his aides hopped into it. They slammed the door behind them before the old man could reach it. The representative shouted to the driver. One of his aides waved to the women who had hailed the cab. The other waved to the family with the baby.

The old man sighed. He set down a bag and raised his arm for the next taxi.