The 4th-century Chinese Taoist Zhuagzi told this to his disciples:
“I dreamt I was a butterfly.
I awakened and there I was, myself again. Now I do not know if I was a man, dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in fearing death I am not like a man who, in leaving home as a youth, has forgotten the way back?”
Interesting question. Maybe one better pondered than answered.
Like a Koan.
A koan is a riddle that seems like a paradox but is used by Zen Buddhists to help abandon reason as the method of insight to great truths. It is meant to jolt us out of ordinary thinking. A koan can help induce a paradigm shift that opens the mind to creativity and moves it away from a rigid belief structure.
The most well- known Zen koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That’s a good one but there are many more, some even more enigmatic, such as “Why is a mouse when it spins?” and “How do you pass through a gate-less gate?”.
A koan can force you to change your perspective and see things differently. You are not able to think yourself to a solution. Some questions are meant to stir us to seek something more than mere answers, like empathy, forgiveness, or acceptance.
The point is that sometimes it is good to be less reflective and rational, and be more intuitive and spontaneous. It is not simply our ability to think, to be rational, that distinguishes humans from other species, but our ability to be irrational- to pick up a sea shell and put it in our pocket just because we think it is beautiful.
A koan can also remind us that the answer to a problem might be more simple and obvious than it seemed as we did our mental gymnastics. The sound of one hand clapping? The answer need not be clever or too complex. One answer could be …….silence.
Monk: “Please teach me. “
Master: “Have you had your porridge? “
Monk: “Yes master.”
Master: “Then wash your bowl.”
Basho taught his disciples, “If you have a staff, I will give it to you. If you have no staff, I will take it from you!”
“The wind is moving the temple flag,” one monk said.
The other said: “Just the flag is moving.”
The Master replied, “Neither moves. Your mind is moving.”
Definition of a Journey:
“I’m an idealist, I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”
I read once that the definition of a preposition could be anything that a squirrel could do with a tree. You know, “under, above, on, in, at, beneath, etc.” In any discussion, it’s good to define the terms so that everyone agrees on what you are talking about.
One definition of a journey is when there is a change in your geography. Another might be your progression through time–like to your sixtieth birthday. Caroline has changed her geography, she is on the other side of the world from home and from me. At the moment, I’m doing my traveling closer to home, but it’s still a journey.
Parenting as a Journey:
I think raising children can be defined as a journey. I know it qualifies as an adventure, an arduous one for which we can never be adequately prepared. We hear a lot of advice about how to go about it, from friends and grandparents, or in the form of self-help books and talk-show guests. Opinions on child rearing come and go with the same frequency as weight loss diets or hairstyles, but their recommendations can be too generic. We read or listen to the experts and think, “Could you be more specific?! What do I do with my kid in this situation?” It’s like we are being sent out on a trip with an armful of maps but not the directions to where we actually want to go.
It’s hard to get through the parenting thing without wishing we could have some do-overs, but that’s not an option, of course. We get just one shot per kid and then have to rely on the love and forgiveness of our children for all the times we fell short. One thing that comes out of it is that having children of our own can make us see our own parents differently and allows us to be more forgiving ourselves.
How a child turns out is a mysterious thing. It’s hard to figure why a kid who grows up in very troubled circumstances can turn out happy and successful, while another who seems to have all the advantages can go off the rails. The psychologists debate whether it’s about nature or nurture but, whichever it is, we always have the parents to blame.
One problem is that we can’t control everything, not that we’d want to if we could. Still, as parents, we wonder why our children don’t acknowledge how smart we are and just follow our instructions. We’ve already been there, so why not listen to us and avoid all the troubles? Why do they have to make the same mistakes we did and learn it all over again for themselves. Whether as individuals or as societies, people seem to have a propensity for learning things the hard way.
I once posed the question to Caroline, “Why don’t young people learn from the experience of the elders so they can avoid all the problems?” Caroline answered, “Maybe the elders aren’t right about everything.”
That sounds like a safe assumption. She makes a good point. Each individual’s wisdom is partly handed down from those who came before and partly from what they learned on their own. If one generation does nothing but follow the lead of the previous one, then how do we ever evolve and improve? The adage about how we are supposed to learn from history–that’s not so that we can repeat it, but rather so we will do better the next time.
“Make your children independent and they will come back to you.”
Joseph Kennedy (he should know)
“We need to get some parenting in here!”
Caroline (when watching an episode of “Stranger Things”)
For sure, parents get it right often enough. But not every time, and sometimes we don’t have a clue. That becomes more evident as our children get older and the problems get harder. One of our children has been going through some difficult times lately. There has been a lot of uncertainty and heartache, and it’s hard to watch. As a parent, a part of me wants to step in to fix things. But it’s not like before; the problems now are not ones I can fix. And the truth is, I shouldn’t even if I could, because there comes a time when it’s better in the long run if our children find the way through on their own.
Wisdom of children:
There’s what we teach them and what they figure out for themselves. You just have to hope your kids find the right balance, that they take from you what rings true for them, but are able, at the same time, to find their own truth and follow their own path. Joseph Campbell said, “If there is a path, it is someone else’s path and you are not on the adventure.”
The “father-child” talks evolve over time. When they were little, my kids would take much of what I said as gospel. Now they know better. They listen respectfully, but learn to take it with a grain of salt. Now, when those heart-to-heart talks happen, I hear myself speaking and think I’m Andy Taylor (sheriff of Mayberry) or John Walton, sharing my wisdom, but I wonder if what they hear doesn’t sound more like Clark Griswold.
Parenting is another one of those journeys without a final destination; it never ends. In the beginning we think that the job of parenting will be complete in 18 years, but we couldn’t be more wrong. As I said in the previous post, we never stop being a parent to your children and they will always, in some way, be our little boys or girls.
A milestone in life is reached when we recognize that somewhere along the way our children become wiser than we knew they were, maybe even wiser than we are. My son Adam and I were skiing a few years ago, and we rode up a chair lift together. I don’t know what got me started but I felt like saying something profound. All I could come up with as we ascended the mountain and looked down on the people skiing below was, “It’s all based on gravity.”
That’s not a very astute observation, and Adam, understandably, didn’t have much to say in response. The conversation progressed to topics that actually were profound, including our past and his childhood. We had a lot of good times but also some that weren’t so good, and I told Adam that I was sorry about those times. He listened to my apology and then said simply, “It’s OK, Dad, we just take a sad song and make it better.” Adam was talking about the two of us, but he could have been speaking for all parents.
When we have children we become desperate for things to be better.
The wisdom of young people: sometimes they learn from us and sometimes we learn from them.
The Journey of the Moon and the Sun:
There aren’t many things in life where the reality is better than the expectation. Usually, we build things up in our minds enough that there is a risk of disappointment when it actually happens. Not so for a total eclipse of the sun.
I knew it was going to be interesting but wasn’t ready for the emotional impact of watching the moon completely cover the sun in the middle of a warm summer day. It was fascinating to look through the glasses and watch the moon slowly block the sunlight, and the temperature become perceptually cooler; but when the moon was finally in place and I took off my glasses, I was looking at something singular and sublime.
There is a tremendous difference between a partial eclipse and a total one. Where is there a better example of how much can change by going from 99% to 100%, how different “almost” can be from “all-the-way”? (Maybe sky-diving is one). A partial eclipse is nice to watch, but a total eclipse is riveting – something else entirely, like comparing pickles and ice cream.
It was a moment of awe and humility that was shared by millions. Many people said how inspirational it was that for a few minutes everyone was able to stop what they were doing, look up, and be in agreement about something. It made me wish we all could have held hands while it was happening.
We get so caught up in things down here that we forget that we are these tiny things, standing for a very short time on a rock in the middle of nowhere, hurdling though space at a million miles per hour. It reminded me of what Carol likes to say -that each of us is made from a bit of stardust. That’s true; the iron in our red blood cells (and many other elements in our body) was created during the formation of galaxies a long time ago and far, far away. Knowing that, like watching an eclipse, puts things in a new perspective. It places the idea of community and brother/sisterhood on a grander scale.
“We are here to awaken to the illusion of our separateness”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Dreams – The Night Journey:
Everybody has dreams, but how well we remember them varies – from person to person and from night to night. Caroline remembers most of hers, though sometimes she wishes she didn’t. She has more nightmares than I do, usually as variations on the theme of being lost or trapped inside a building with many rooms, or of being chased by something, or someone, bad. The villains are usually odd, quirky characters arising from some strange corner of her subconscious mind. In one dream she is being pursued by “oriental strangers.”
Most mornings I wake up with a memory of a dream, but they are usually more mundane. I sure never dreamed I was a butterfly. Not long ago I dreamed I was getting a haircut, which might sound to some like the world’s shortest dream.
Caroline had a dream that she attributes to encouraging her on the journey that she is on now – the interior one and the Bali one. She is traveling near a familiar ocean when all at once the hi-way is gone and she is driving across the sea. At first she is frightened because she is not on the road, but then she realizes that she should trust that she is safe and getting where she needs to go despite her inability to see a clear path.
Just before she left, Caroline dreamed that she was saying goodbye to people, and wondered if, perhaps, ” I was really saying goodbye to the old me?”
Journeys When They Separate:
Caroline is settled into the Yoga retreat center in Ubud, Bali. The volcano she sees from her shala(house) is rumbling but has not erupted yet. From what I can tell from her texts, her schedule is rigorous. Her days are very full, starting at 5:30 am with asanas (yoga poses), pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation. There are morning and afternoon lectures and quizzes, more asana workshops and meditation later in the day, and homework every night. There are strict rules of conduct that the center believes helps the students to achieve the full benefit of the course. It is important for them to be fully present and to minimize all distractions, so they are to observe strict silence from the time they arise until the lectures later in the morning. No talking, but also no texting, journaling, or touching each other. No eye contact. No running or other exercise outside the scheduled curriculum. They actually discourage any texting at all, because to have much contact with the outside world will only distract from what they are trying to accomplish– an immersion into Yoga practice, philosophy and lifestyle. I get that; it makes sense to me but, from my perspective, it serves to make the separation more complete.
Caroline and I have been sharing a brief few minutes of texting at the only time she has free — bedtime for her and early morning for me– but today she told me that we should stop texting. She is getting busier every day — this is only day three of twenty-six — and she needs to keep up with the demands of the curriculum and get all she can out of her time there. I can understand that. It was a little hard to accept at first, but I know she is right, so I do accept it. When we were texting, what I really longed for was contact, not communication, but I can see how it is a distraction and that I need to give her the space that she needs. Her mind, body and spirit are taking a journey and I know that too much external input will only complicate matters and make it harder for her; I don’t want that. I just hope this journey eventually leads back to me. She assured me it will and I believe her.
To be honest, I know that I can be a bit distracting. Caroline has told me that I “sometimes you go off the deep end”, and she’s right, of course. There are lots of examples of that. When someone leaves on a long trip, it’s custom to give them a card or letter to take with them, so that they can open it sometime later and be reminded of home. When Caroline left home I gave her fourteen cards. One of our friends, Chris Garofalo, asked why I hadn’t gone to Bali while Caroline was there. I told her that this is an important thing for Caroline and it is best that I not be a distraction. Then Chris read my first blog post and she emailed me, saying only, “I can see how you would be a distraction.” So we’re all agreed on that point.
I don’t want to be one, so for now we are on our separate journeys, Caroline and I. I do miss her, though. I feel it’s silly how much, and a little embarrassing. Sixty years old and a long- time married. It doesn’t seem like it should be that big of a thing –a month on opposite sides of the earth– but it is. I am aware of a deep absence, like what I might feel like if I was suddenly missing a limb or one of my five senses.
I’m sure it’s good for me in all kinds of ways, but bitter medicine just the same. I wait expectantly for a text, but when one comes through, I just crave another one. I wonder what Buddha would have to say about that, the Second Noble Truth (the source of suffering, or dhukkha, is our ceaseless craving or grasping) so plainly on display. No amount of texting from Caroline is ever enough, and sometimes it just makes me want to climb through the iPhone after her. I am reminded of the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song Caroline likes to sing :”I could drink a case of you darling and I’d still be on my feet.”
I’m actually getting along okay. I know that what it comes down to is making a conscious decision to be okay, and that happiness is often just a matter of making a choice to be happy now, and not wait for the situation to change. That’s the choice I make.
From my point of view, distractions are what it’s all about. I will spend the month exercising and spending more time at the Yoga Studio, with family who are still here, and with friends, and doing doctor stuff. I went to visit my son’s family in Oregon last weekend and have something in mind for later in the month. I’ve made it point to change my daily routine from the one I have when I live with Caroline to one that is all my own. I’ve been writing a blog –as you might have noticed; writing down my thoughts and feelings seems to help me deal with them. I’m trying to learn the lessons that are so plainly in front of me and attain my own share of self- knowledge.
The Journey of Self-Knowledge:
“I am looking for the face I had before the world was made.”
In a koan, the answer is as enigmatic as the question and might seem hardly related to it at all. The trick, they say, is to ponder not about the koan, but about yourself. Some say that “Who am I?” is the universal question of all koans. That seems like what Zhuagzi was asking himself when he dreamed about the butterfly.
Sometimes, if you’re having bad day, someone will say to you, “You’re not yourself today.” And then you wonder, “Really, then who am I?”
“Who am I?” is a good question, but not one to ask other people; they don’t know. Ask yourself. When you do, don’t confuse the roles you play — parent, child, spouse, citizen, worker, etc– with the interior you, the actual you; a unique center of consciousness in the universe, the one who can step back and watch those roles being played out. You are not the voice in your head that incessantly narrates everything that is happening. You are the one who is capable of quietly and dispassionately observing it. It’s like being in a movie theatre, where you can get lost in the story being depicted on the screen, your emotions rising and falling with those of the characters, but are also able to mentally back away from the events being portrayed and realize you are not up there; you are the one sitting quietly in a theatre watching a movie.
In a similar fashion, it is also possible to mentally separate from the events and emotions of your everyday life, to step out of the big “story” that is playing nonstop in your mind, to get out of the “narrative” mode and just watch. That is how I am trying to cope this month– by stepping out of my melodrama, the “Story of Jeff” and just watch it. It is the essence of meditation, and a principle of a happiness, to be able to just listen and observe with nonjudgmental acceptance.
Patanjali, the first sage of Yoga philosophy, said that the ultimate goal of yoga is to “rest in one’s real identity.” Caroline says that yoga, as another form of meditation, is “just listening”, and can be a doorway, or toolbox, for the inner journey to self-knowledge. She told me that yoga has helped her figure out who she is, and before she left, she said, “I am more me now than I have ever been.” She also once told me, “I believe there is something beautiful in our brokenness and who we are right now. I would rather be okay with who I am than feel that I need to change.”
It seems like a worthwhile project to be working on – becoming your true self. I miss Caroline, but understand why she went to Bali.
All of us have experiences that could change our lives– if we will let them.
“She loves me all that she can…
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine”
Edna St. Vincent Millay