Saturday, February 25, 2006

Artificial Distinctions

Sometimes you can find in the Congressional Record tallies of votes on various legislative agenda items. Most votes are 'yeas' or 'nays.' But not all of them. Sometimes, rather than yea or nay, a legislator votes "present." For a long time that seemed to me to be a cop out that meant, basically, this: "I haven't been paying enough attention to have the slightest idea of whether I should be saying 'yes' or 'no,' but I want to prove that I was actually here in case anyone cares about attendance."

With that general (and uncharitable) view, I have lived life for a while. And the longer I live, the less I'm inclined to think that voting "present" is a cop out, after all.

Because sometimes, exercising judgment entails no particular merit.

A number of yoga teachers have reminded me from time to time that if you pick up one end of a stick, you also pick up the other, whether you want to, or not. This is a concept that is central to my tradition of Mormon thought, as well, presented in passages of The Book of Mormon such as this one:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not
so...righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither
holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a
compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as
dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness
nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

2 Nephi 2:11

You can't apply the concept of “good” to judge something to be good, without simultaneously defining “bad.” You can’t seek to create “beauty” without, at the same time, creating “ugliness.” No more can you “be honest” without becoming “dishonest.”

In a dualistic world, the dualism traps you. “Wait,” goes my mind when confronted with such teaching, “you’re saying I shouldn’t do anything.” No, I’m not. I’m saying that it can be useful to lay aside judgment and simply to live without regard to being right and opposing wrong, seeking good and eschewing evil, supporting allies and opposing enemies. The way you live, even without exercising those judgments, may look exactly the same from the outside. You may get up at the same time of day, shower, and go to work. You may perform the same work, eat the same lunch, drive the same commute, and sleep in the same bed without those judgments as you do with them. The issue isn’t one of changing your actions per se. Instead it is discovering how your actions are controlled by those judgments, and how your actions, even those aimed at “doing good” are as involved in doing evil. And how unnecessary striving to “do good” actually is. What would happen if you were to discover that you do as much “good” without trying as you manage when you strive for it?

The Sufi mystic Rumi once wrote: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”


I’ve gotten into intricate arguments and discussions at times with people whose intellect I respect much more highly than my own about the dualistic (on/off, yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad) nature of existence. They tell compelling stories of how any exercise of intellect is an exercise of distinguishing “this” from “that.” They argue that even when I argue for the opposite – for monism – I’m really formulating arguments in dualistic terms. My efforts to prove them wrong actually prove them right. They’ve persuaded me that they’re right. I’ve come to agree with them: intellect is dualistic. Language is dualistic.

But here’s the thing: there are ways of living that allow the intellect to engage in its strivings and discriminations, but that enable me to experience something unified beneath or beyond or past or through or inside or outside (pick your preferred preposition – words don’t really work in this context) the dualism of the intellect. Sometimes it happens in vipassana meditation: by assigning my mind the “naming” task, I give my intellect a bone to gnaw – it is tasked with identifying each thought as it arises, labeling it according to its nature (“judgment,” “fantasy,” “memory,” “imagination,” “sensation,” “emotion,” etc.) and then waiting for the next one. After a while of this (literally) busy work, the mind becomes aware of the experience of awareness, of the background to the vagaries of thought. Sometimes it happens spontaneously when I hike in red rock canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Once it happened during a mundane breakfast of Grape Nuts and raisins. Occasionally it has happened in the middle of a yoga asana practice, as I connect not just to the motions and breathing, but to the field of space and time in which those things occur, finding that space and time, too, are a part of One thing. The Tao Te Ching calls that background “the Way.” Zen teaches that it is the “No-Self.” Yoga calls the experience of such perception of union samadhi.

Ok. The point is not what linguistic label we slap on it to help the intellect. In fact, it isn’t distinct from all of the rest of existence – rather it IS all the rest of existence. My mind, though, doesn’t notice it most of the time, as it tends to be entranced by the dancing lights and sounds projected onto the screen. Intellect and discrimination rule. But as my mind delights in knowing This from That, I try to remember the Upanishad’s instruction: Tat twam asi.

That thou art


So when I think of my duly elected legislative representatives voting neither "yea" nor "nay," but rather "present," I now hope that they really are present, mindfully choosing not to be enmeshed in artifice of minds.