Friday, July 10, 2009

But what's it all MEAN, man?

[Note: I wrote this bit of absurd randomness as a Note on Facebook - look me up if you Facbook. That's where I waste most of my Internet time these days.]

I'm beginning to learn why Zen masters are so reticent to share their accumulated wisdom.

I've got degrees in philosophy and theology, and have spent my adult life either working in or rebelling against churches. On top of that, I've spent most of my life neurotically asking questions that emerge from anxiety but pretend to be deep. I've been locked in a relentless struggle to wrestle meaning from the universe.

So, if you're having some kind of existential crisis, and you either know me or know someone who knows me, I'm the guy you go to. I'm the guy you bring your deepest, darkest questions to.

And I love it. I really do. It is an honor to be of some use to someone who is wrestling with whatever it is we wrestle with from time to time. That divine being who was locked in combat with Jacob, wrenched his hip out of socket when he wouldn't let go, and then gave him a new name: Israel. "Isra" "El," one who "wrestles" with "God."

Interestingly, that prefix, "Isra," has multiple meanings in the Hebrew. In keeping with the strange story of Jacob and the divine being, it means "to wrestle," "to struggle," or "to fight." And so, Israel is the one who wrestles with, who struggles with, who fights with "El," a generic Semetic word for God. But, "Isra" also means "to live." Israel, "Isra" "El" is thus not only the one who wrestles with God, but also the one who lives with God, who shares space with God.

That "to live" with and "to struggle" with are the same word isn't a huge shock, perhaps, for those of us who have ever tried to live with someone. Perhaps not a shock, either, for those of us who have even tried to live, which I hope is all of us. Life is a struggle, a fight, a giant wrestling match that is both interminably long and over in a blink.

But what is it that those of us who live, and who struggle, are fighting with? God? Ourselves? Some bad pizza we ate too late last night, chased by too many beers?

I can't answer that question any more than I can answer the stoner's question that serves as the title to this hastily assembled "Note" or "post" or whatever the hell this random scribble is supposed to be. And that brings me back to the Zen master who won't divulge what she learned in her moment of Satori, her point of enlightenment.

Well, it kind of does. It actually, first, brings me to movies.

Movies often point to a disaffection with life that also shows up in too many works of philosophy or theology. Movies like the Matrix, or the Thirteenth Floor, or Vanilla Sky, or Dark City (my favorite of the lot, which my friend Chappy once described as the Matrix on a bad acid trip with a baseball bat crying out "here kitty kitty kitty") follow a similar pattern, not in their plot so much as in their psychology. They begin with a sense that things are not as they seem. That something is fundamentally wrong. The normal, the mundane, is not only empty, but in its emptiness somehow sinister.

But(!) as the plot unfolds there is a kind of answer to the existential problem, the fundamental wrongness of the here and now, the given. That answer is the Other. The unveiling of some hidden reality, that then mysteriously enters the wrong given and somehow rights it.

As a Christian, that appeals to me. But, as a human being, it sometimes leads me astray.

I've spent my whole life wrestling with, searching for, trying to uncover that Other, that hidden reality that will then swoop into my fucked up current situation and miraculously make it all make sense. And, there have been moments when I think I may have peered behind the curtain, sometimes translucent, sometimes damn near opaque, that divides the here and now from the Other, the - to use the terms employed by Mircea Eliade and others - "profane" from the "sacred."

So where has that gotten me? I'm not sure. Distracted, perhaps, more than anything else.

There's a book sitting in my library - I won't bore you with the details of it, because it isn't worth reading - titled "Quest for Meaning." That title sums up the whole enterprise. Life is some sort of a puzzle to be solved, a riddle whose meaning is to be teased out, a mythic quest that ends at some concrete point, some grand destination. Except that, the longer I life and the longer I wrestle, the more I think it isn't.

"What's it all mean?" I often get asked. "What's this all about?"

I don't mind the question, but more and more I feel like that Zen master who, when faced with that great existential question responds with "just breathe."

"What's the point?" To live. To breathe in and out, each moment of each day.

"What's it all mean?" Who says it has to MEAN anything.

Life is life. Plain and simple. And while I don't mind asking those great unanswerable questions (I've already got two degrees for doing that, and am hoping to start working on a third next year) I wonder if those questions aren't used lazily. It is, after all, far easier to ask a question and expect an answer than it is to live life each day, every day.

My advice to anyone who wants to know the meaning of life is to sit down and breathe. Or go look at a tree. Or follow the flight path of sparrows. Or watch grass grow. Or stare into the eyes of a child. Or cook a decent meal. Or really, do ANYTHING, so long as you are fully present, fully engaged in the activity.

Because that breath you took doesn't mean anything. And that tree you stared at doesn't mean anything. And the flight of the birds doesn't mean anything. And the grass doesn't mean anything. And the child's eyes don't mean anything. And the great meal doesn't mean anything.

Not anything you can say out loud, anyway. Not anything you can write down in a book. Not anything you can even think. Not rationally, anyway. Life can't be reduced to meaning. And human beings can't expect to be happy constantly looking away from life to find the meaning in life.

And the Zen master can't tell you what she learned in her moment of Satori. Because she didn't learn anything. She was just sitting there, breathing in and out. Living.