zen and the art of intellectual maintenance

February 27, 2008

Now Reading: "Thank You and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan"

I'm always intrigued by Zen ideals. (Current incessant Zen meme: Comparisons are Odious.) Alas, I've never demonstrated enough commitment to a Zazen sitting meditation practice, said to be the one indispensable part of Zen.

Today I started wondering about the parallels between meditation and reading. Both are ways of letting the mind seal itself from outside distractions, though reading is invariably about something-- something external to current moment and place-- and meditation is thought best when "about" as little as possible.

(Probably one reason I've been so bad at starting a practice of ritualistically clearing my mind is, fundamentally, I don't want to. Letting my thoughts ramble and tangentially meander is such a pleasant and productive experience that deliberately shutting that off seems like blasphemy. I guess I previously noted that about the Yoga "corpse pose")

Having a grand variety of reading material available at prices most people can afford is a recent phenomenon. At the risk of oversimplifying, reading a book seems like such a more intellectually worthy pursuit than watching television or a movie, or even most conversation, that it's tough to keep a disparaging historical context in mind. I think back to the old penny-dreadful days, how just about all novels were considered such trash reading. And I suppose to a non-secular society, any time engaged in reading non-religious writing will be deemed less worthy than hitting the holy scriptures.

So what does it mean that we can so easily immerse ourselves in other times and other places? At the risk of sounding like a mid-80s public service announcement, reading really can be an adventure, our mind's ability to take itself out of the current moment and into an elsewhere is quite remarkable. An offshoot of our evolved abilities to think in terms of hypothetical situations, to successfully model situations so that we can estimate the outcomes at a fraction of the cost and risk of actually going and doing it. My first thought was that the recent phenomenon of cheap books was an unprecedented revolution, but now I wonder if there isn't a tie-in with humanity's love of telling one another stories. (You can almost think of some shamanistic storyteller at the camp fire disapproving of the solitary pleasure of a book; sort of an intellectual "solitary vice".)

Anyway, back to Zen.

I think I'm confused about Zen as it should be practiced; specifically, I think I tend to over estimate its drive for pure stoicism. For example, it's said that when you're eating, you should just be eating, not conversing, not reading, just focused on the task at hand. But is the goal to then enjoy the food, and the sensations there entailed, or are you seeking a kind of non-judgmental emotional flatness, accepting it for what it is and only that, so as to avoid the path of desire and suffering, if only by contrast? I think I should be more sure of the answer to that by now.

As long as we're on the topic of my dimestore interpretations of Asian spiritual practice... at the most recent meeting of my UU Covenant Group, the topic was "spirituality in the workplace." I think that entails something different for a programmer than for most other professions. While quality relationships with your peers and management staff and others is crucial, it is fundamentally less personal interaction based than many other careers. Coders are some of the last modern craftsmen/artisans out there, so it's our relationship to the computer and our software that matters the most.

This is less dehumanizing or "robotic" than it sounds; any programming code base worth getting paid to maintain and extend is so complex, so difficult to fathom, with so many interactions that modern programming is something akin to biology. Programmers spend huge swaths of time and energy finding out why the programs aren't meeting their expectations. I wonder, then, if a more appropriate model might be that of Shintoism. My knowledge of the faith isn't deep, but from what I know of its animistic approach, being respectful and maybe a bit ritualistic about dealing with the spirit of your tools and materials, there might be a useful parallel there. Computers with their "ghost in the machine" feel a lot more like Shinto than, say, Confucianism and its strict sense of rules, order, and predictability!