March 8, 2014
I got a job, and therein, as they say, lies a tale.
I was taking a short walk around downtown Albany, getting the lay of the land around my new environment, the place where I’ll be spending a third of my daily life’s hours, when I saw a branch of the bank where I have been a depositor for over a decade. It is the Canadian financial monolith called Toronto Dominion, or TD Bank.
I went inside and was greeted by a lovely young female teller. I wanted to register a change of address and find out the account balance, as I had set up direct deposit to the account when I onboarded with the consulting agency that had hired me on behalf of the State of New York.
The lady made a computer inquiry and said, let’s go into the office, and she led me there.
“The account has been closed for having a negative balance for more than 29 days,” she told me. I would have to pay off the negatives, including all fees and charges, and then open a new account. Until then, my paycheck deposits would be rejected and my employer would have to issue me physical checks.
As I left the bank (having done nothing at all), a few ideas came to me, as they often do just after we have left the situation in which we might have expressed them. I actually thought of turning around, going back in, and talking with this woman again; because it seemed as if there was a teaching opportunity at hand. But I had to get back to my desk at work, and anyway I’ve never been very articulate with beautiful women.
TD Bank had given up on me. No one from the bank had called or written to ask what had happened or if they could help. They had just given up on me.
I would have told them that the very same thought — closing my account — had occurred to me several times over the past year or so. Not suicide, mind you, but a closing of the account of will and hope and the sense of purpose. But all of that is my wealth — the only wealth I had remaining amid financial poverty and after being forced into what Paul Ryan has called the “hammock” of public assistance, welfare. Leave it to a politician to mistake a bed of nails for a hammock.
But I didn’t quit. TD Bank did. Granted, all the visible evidence was on the bank’s side: this man is a loser, he has no future left, no promise or potential remaining. His balance is all negative: Close his account. Our entire society’s institutional force — what I have called the collective ego — is based on this short-patience-span foundation. If a man is poor and broken outwardly, then he must be so inside as well. That is, useless to us, lacking in the drive and ambition to make it as one of our valued depositors.
Yet TD Bank failed to account for the most crucial aspect of a person’s being, the invisible — what cannot be seen, counted, measured, or recorded. I have had my doubts about that myself. The difference between us lies in how we variously responded to doubt, TD Bank and I.
TD Bank, being an institution of the collective ego, equated doubt with despair, and quickly gave into it on my behalf. It is the cornerstone of the fundamentalist cynicism that informs our age: to doubt is to close the account of self-determination. To doubt ourselves is an act of surrender, to lie willingly down on the bed of nails, to deliver ourselves from prosperity to impoverishment, from the carrot dangling amid the smoke of the collective’s air to its stick of humiliation and loss.
My approach to doubt is somewhat different. I choose to explore it, to ask it questions, to examine its body with the impassivity of a forensic expert. That is to say, I practice meditation.
For doubt is always led — dragged, you might say — by thought. And thought is, of course, pervasive, unrelenting in its presence and persistence within us. Now there are two ways to deal with this reality: we can take the procedural approach — I will call it the TD Bank approach. Where there is doubt, close its account, eliminate it with any force or means available and necessary.
How, then? Specifically, with what means? With more thought of course: kill the doubt with the instrument of its creation and expression; drown it with positive thought, even with denial if need be. Isn’t that like removing a tumor by injecting the patient with more cancer?
One of the interesting things we learn by practicing meditation — by regularly watching the mind at work and examining its movements — is this trained propensity to “close accounts”; to deny, to cover up the unpleasant or unwelcome invasion of elements like fear, guilt, and self-doubt.
What we learn is that the activity of closing accounts works from the same cynicism as that which creates them. Pandora’s box cannot be closed; but its contents can be watched, examined, monitored. The great Zen teacher, Shunyru Suzuki, once said that the best way to control people is to watch them. This is to say, drop the impulse to control and you will gain some control. Stop trying to close the account, and its negative balance — all of your fears, hatred, resentment, guilt, doubt, and demands — will dissolve under the liquid gaze of awareness. That is how we can learn to deal with thought in a regular practice of meditation.
Patience and procedure are not pleasant bedfellows. There is no procedure for meditation; there is only patience. In Herman Hesse’s classic novel Siddhartha, the protagonist is asked what abilities he possesses and he answers, “I can sit, I can think, I can wait.” What the TD Bank mind fails to recognize about this is that waiting is active: meditation is an extraordinarily profitable business (“busy-ness”), precisely because it separates from the impulse toward profit.
Thus, my message to the TD Bank lady would be: never try to force closure. For when you make such an attempt, you open wider the gulf of ignorance, the abyss of fear, the grave of doubt. Just as my seeming failure was an illusion — a hallucination that tricked TD Bank into an impulsive procedural action that will end in costing TD years of future deposits from me — so too is the negative balance within you an illusion. Examine it instead with the clear, still, formless eyes of cosmic clarity, and the red ink of despair and entrapment and self-doubt will dissipate beneath the flowing, luminous energy of emptiness. For once you learn to dispel your fear of Nothing; then you will indeed fear nothing.