February 8, 2014
When I was a boy, I loved recess. It was a break in the school day from the drudgery and oppressive silence of the classroom, a brief opening into noise and laughter and play. I suspect I did more real growing during recess than in any amount of time I spent in classes, all the way from Kindergarten through undergraduate school.
So you can imagine my shock and confusion when I got out of college and prepared to join the workforce, only to find that my nation’s economy was in a recess-ion. How could something so fun and free and supportive as recess have become a verbal symbol of pain, poverty, and loss? If the economy was having a recess, then it should be regenerating, letting loose a little, playing, and in fact growing. That, in any event, is what my experience of recess had taught me.
That may have been my first moment of feeling hoodwinked by my government, by my society — just that stupid and incongruous play on the word recess. I had lived through a youth of lower-class, borderline impoverished parents; Vietnam and Nixon and Watergate; but I had never felt deceived by my society, by my nation, until then. I began to ask, incipiently, within myself: “how much can I trust in what they tell me?”
Of course, this mainly meant little more than this: I was finally starting to pay attention. Now I had a stake in the game; I had to make a living like everyone else before me. The time had come, at last, to start asking some hard questions.
I continued to pay attention, though rather sporadically. After all, I couldn’t possibly understand all of this, not when I was 20-something and there were women and bars and drugs and so many other wonderful diversions. Yet as each recession arrived and left its wake of desolation in every succeeding decade; as each bubble rose, approached the sun, and then burst and rained down a shroudlike, dangerous entropy, like a cloud of shattered black glass falling from the sky, new questions began to visit me.
It was coincident with the time I began to be interested in spirituality and Eastern religions. The contrast between what I was experiencing of the oddly practical, piercing mysticism of Zen seemed to throw light onto the blind, stony, and fundamentally disingenuous faith of Christianity in which I had been raised. For the recessions all seemed to breed politicians and promises that vaguely, in their bearing and behavior, reminded me of faith. The politicians came and went; they were of both major parties; and they gave the same assurances: that if we all “work hard and play by the rules” – and, of course, keep them and their agenda in office — then we should be rewarded. The formulation was nearly identical no matter who was speaking, though the “rules” were rarely described, and when they were, seemed as mystical and strange as the initiation rites of some aberrant religious cult, the kind led by an apocalyptic leader with a pitcher of Kool-Aid.
Indeed, the rules all seemed to be founded on faith. Accept your place, trust in authority, pull your weight, and obey whatever rules apply to your position, station, and class. They may as well have been inscribed onto stone tablets and carried down a mountain as delivered through the electromagnetic mystery of the television tube.
Faith is, of course, a form of belief founded on hope, on the blindness of disenchantment and the impulsive desire for change. Faith says, “trust in the new order; we will make it all as it should be for you.” But every new order brought the same chaos. I began to wonder what these voices of Order really meant by “trust us”.
The early Christian church was a new and revolutionary order; the word gospel, of course, means “good news.” But it wasn’t long before it became clear that the Church wasn’t bringing an end to recessions and wars and plagues and injustice and immorality. In fact, it was creating more of them all. So this reality spawned other parties — other churches and sects, all of them built on the same foundation of faith: trust in what is unseen, unproven, and outside the sphere of human experience.
So I began to see faith for what it was and still is: a kind of stolen trust, twisted and hijacked into an ideological monster or a monument made of shadows. Natural trust is not like this: its foundation is not hope or belief but experience. Whenever I have trusted someone in my personal life, it has been based on experience: promises made and fulfilled; commitments made and deeds done. So I began to perceive that there were more than “structural” issues (as the economists say) at work here. The structure was only a secondary fault to all this; the primary fault was in the foundation, which was a grid of shadows, a dark web of lies. I began to realize what Thoreau had meant when he said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
Trust, unimpeded, undistorted, and free, never steals anything from anyone; but it is robbed and tortured regularly. Late in the 19th century, corporations (or proto-corporations) in America got out of control (as they are again now); and this incited a series of legislative movements in the early 20th century that resulted in Congress’s passing a number of regulatory bills that were designed to break up and prohibit monopolistic and predatory business practices. These became known as “antitrust” acts. I wonder, even now, how different things might have been had they been called “antifaith” acts.
In one of his popular lectures, Alan Watts talked about the distinctly monarchical structure of spiritual government. In every major Western religion, and in a few of the East as well, Heaven or Nirvana or Paradise is ruled by a King. In the org-chart beneath Him, there are flights of demigods and angels and prophets under the King who share in His bounty and His Law, in both their blessings and execution. It is the primordial trickle-down theory of them all.
Our governments and legal and economic systems are all modeled after that monarchical scheme. So it is not that, as Churchill claimed, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That is an unverifiable and unfalsifiable statement, for it has never been subjected to experience, to scientific judgment. Every time something called a democracy has been erected on this earth, its institutions have been modeled after monarchical structures. Go to work tomorrow, into the office or the factory, and tell everyone you want to start a democracy, and see how long you last. In the days of feudal and imperial governments, it was marginally possible to obtain an audience with the landlord (a term that persists, by the way, in our own real estate culture) or the king or the emperor. Go and stand outside the White House and pass your petitions to the guards there and see how soon you are announced to the King.
We play at democracy; we pretend. I supposed you could say that democracy has been, and is, at recess, in recess-ion.
So I am growing old. But if I pause to think critically about that language for a moment, the question arises: if you are still growing, you are not old. Doesn’t that make a little more sense than “I am growing old”?
The Pali Canon — one of the oldest and most primordial of Buddhist texts — speaks of a net of gems as a metaphor on the totality of existence, in which each being is a gem within a vast web or net of interconnection and interdependence. The individual stands alone in his, her or its unique dignity of independence, of potential and actualization; and is also supported and enriched by the reflection of every other gem in the net.
The veil of opposition and duality is stripped away by such a vision of inter-independence. I need no longer worry about being my own man or belonging to another; being the lone wolf or the cog in the machine. For it is when these apparitions of belief are the only options that we hear the siren’s call of death as the mud of dependence rises to our hips. The narrow choices that we are so often trained to see as necessary are really the weakest and most superficial of all. The law of the jungle is actually the reign of delusion, a kingdom of blind entropy. The jungle’s foundation is made of shadows; therefore it crumbles under the light of the net of gems.
This is a wisdom that we can use now — not because it is ancient, but because it is alive. It might be 2,000 years or 2,000 seconds old; it doesn’t matter, so long as it keeps growing within each person who touches it with the heart of sincerity and the mind of simple awareness. Wisdom is not a gift of age, but of Life.