Sunday, August 19, 2012

Within conditions

When I arrived in Shanghai last Tuesday night, I called my wife to let her know I was okay, only to find out she was in the hospital. The company truck had run over her left leg.

 By the time I got to the hotel, I had already advised my company I had to go back to the United States, and—literally— within 15 minutes of arrival, I was booked on a flight back home. What followed was two more days of sleep deprivation and anxiety.

 The good news is that Neal is okay. Her leg, while badly injured, does not have any broken bones—only compression injury (which looks positively awful, let me tell you.) It will take weeks for her to recover.

All of this, and the subsequent caregiving tasks I need to shoulder, remind me once again how essential the life of service is.

We serve ourselves in life; but not in the right way. We serve our egoistic impulses, rather than our humility. We serve our arrogance, rather than our compassion. If there was any presence in us, it would see this immediately in any given moment, yet we have little. And we don't question that—the machine has an endless number of excuses for the way we behave, doesn't it?

There was an article in the New York Times this morning—it's on the front page of the Sunday edition—about how machines are replacing human beings in more and more factories. The question of what kind of work people will have left to do if the machines do it all for us goes unasked—and, of course, unanswered. But it seems clear that human beings without real work will get themselves into trouble. On the scale of societies, it almost always leads to violent revolutions. Unsurprisingly, no one is discussing this. We will, as usual, run over the cliff and then fall screaming to the bottom, rather than stop and think about what we are doing.

Perhaps we can infer that our own automatism, the machine in us, takes work away from the real parts of us that need it as well. There are all these parts that ought to get regular exercise in us—our attention, our compassion, our intuition, our sensitivity, our instincts, our love, our intelligence. Each one of them needs to be directly engaged with the world most of the time in order to get the right kind of exercise, and to have the work that is necessary for it. Yet we put ourselves on cruise control, and let the machine, the factory, stamp out and assemble parts that seem to be suitable for the life in front of us. We force the parts to fit regardless of whether or not they're appropriate for the moment; and all the parts of us that might intervene to create a more flexible and intelligent relationship are left frustrated and wanting.

Who knows how much of this is the reason that men go insane, that they snap and commit acts of violence? And how much of this failure to be present to ourselves, to be mindful of who we are and to be within the conditions we are in, causes the terrible problems we see on the planet today?

Letting machines do all the work, whether inner or outer, seems to be a good, businesslike solution—it's efficient. Unfortunately, efficiency has no emotional quality; all it does is create an atmosphere that is effective. It could be effective at feeding poor people; or it could be effective at building gas chambers for ethnic groups one doesn't like. Both things happen. Without the intelligence, the compassion, the presence that a man or woman can bring to life through inner effort—work he or she needs, work that cannot be done by a machine—terrible things will surely go wrong, and they do. The inner machine keeps stamping out the same parts to interface with life, over and over again, even though the situations are constantly new. The parts don't fit; things go wrong; anger and tragedy ensue.

We need to stop ourselves occasionally and see that our inner machine is doing most of what needs to be done. It's at moments like that that mindfulness can enter, and perhaps change something. Mindfulness helps us to be within conditions; and if we are not within conditions, we are nowhere. We aren't even there.

Conditions may be bad. Maybe that's why we would prefer to avoid them by not being mindful. But every condition is exactly as it should be. We cannot argue with objects, events, circumstances, and conditions. They are an irrevocable part of the Dharma, all constituents of what we call Truth. We have to inhabit that truth mindfully if we wish to know what is true. Machines really aren't capable of that. All they do is stamp out parts.

 I think service consists of using our intelligence to be more than just a machine. We have to bring more of ourselves than the usual reactions to life.

That's something that can only be done in the moment, and can only be done if we stop to see where we are.

 I respectfully hope you will take good care.

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