I have a steadily decreasing tolerance for spiritual dogmatism, whether of the religious, mystical, New Age, or any other variety.
So when I need some inspiration, I don't look nearly as often to people with supposed answers to life's mysteries as I used to. Instead, I resonate with people who focus on facts rather than faith, and probing questions rather than superficial answers.
Which is why I enjoy Susan Blackmore's book, "Ten Zen Questions."
Alongside my science I have explored many alternative world views from witchcraft to spiritualism and Theosophy to chakras, but in spite of their superficial appeal they all proved deeply unsatisfactory.
They provided answers all right, but the answers were dogmatic and confusing; they didn't fit with scientific understanding, and neither did they lead to any new discoveries. Worst of all, their doctrines did not change in response to change, but remained rigidly dependent on ancient books or the claims of their proponents.
That is, until I stumbled across Zen. I was encouraged to have 'Great Doubt', told to 'Investigate!', and taught how to do it.
...Although based on the teachings and insights of the historical Buddha, Zen puts far less emphasis on theory and studying texts than do other branches of Buddhism, and far more on practicing meditation to gain direct experience of one's true nature.
This may be why, from its appearance in the West in the late nineteenth century, Zen has appealed to academics, philosophers, and other thinkers who enjoy its strange paradoxes and who don't want to be involved in religious practices or dogmatic beliefs.
Like science, Zen demands that you ask questions, apply disciplined methods of inquiry, and overthrow any ideas that don't fit with what you find out. Indeed Zen is just like science in being more a set of techniques than a body of dogma.
Blackmore talks about how, for seven weeks, she worked diligently on trying to live in the present moment and avoid thoughts of past and future. She describes some findings.
Letting go of what you've done immediately afterwards is enormously freeing but, in conventional terms, rather worrying. A natural fear is that you will behave idiotically, make a fool of yourself, do something dangerous or, more worrying still, that you will let go of all moral responsibility.
Oddly enough this did not seem to happen.
Indeed, the body seemed to keep on doing relevant and sensible things, apparently without all the agonising I had assumed was essential. Time and again I found that mind had summed up the options, chosen one, carried it out, and moved on.
I didn't need to fret over every decision, or ask whether it was the 'right' thing to have done. It was past.
Last night I heard a crash in the part of our house that had been set up as a separate apartment area. My wife, Laurel, had tried to pull a shade down because the sun was coming in.
But the entire shade fell off, leaving a gouge in the bottom molding and apparently a broken string, because after I put the shade back up, it wasn't working right.
After the shade fell, Laurel said, "I had to lean awkwardly over your mini-trampoline to reach the shade." I told her, "I know you don't like my mini-trampoline, but don't blame it for the shade falling down."
We were both irked at each other. I went and did something else for a while.
Then I returned to the apartment living room and started to take off the handles on the side of the mini-trampoline. Laurel was watching the TV in the living room.
She asked what I was doing. I said, "Since you don't like the mini-trampoline, maybe it's time to get rid of it."
In line with how Blackmore spoke of living in the moment, I hadn't given a lot of thought to selling the mini-trampoline. It just seemed like the right thing to do, because it had led to a mini-argument between Laurel and me.
"You should leave the handles on," Laurel said. "That way you can take a photo of it and advertise it as it actually looks." "I'm just taking the handles off so I can roll it into the bedroom for now," I told my wife.
This is how the apartment living room looks with the mini-trampoline removed. It had been sitting in front of the windows on the left, where I could look out upon our yard when I used it. I have to admit that the living room looks more open, with more room for the potted plants, without the mini-trampoline.
So Laurel is happy about that.
What I realized, though, after I'd rolled the mini-trampoline into the apartment bedroom, is that there was plenty of room for it there. Again without much thought, last night I put the handles back on the mini-trampoline.
That made me feel better, because I really didn't want to sell it. I also didn't want to have Laurel upset. What happened, then, is by doing what felt natural at the time, without thinking much about it, resulted in a win-win situation.
The lesson, which I hesitate to elevate to a "Zen lesson," but will just for the heck of it, is that following feelings as honestly as possible often leads to a desirable outcome that a bunch of thinking couldn't have accomplished as easily.
It always was possible to put the mini-trampoline in the bedroom. I just hadn't thought of that before.
But when I simply did what seemed like the right thing to do -- decide to sell it, take the handles off, roll it into the bedroom, see how it looks there, decide not to sell it, put the handles back on -- a series of present moment actions led to a positive result.
To explain the Zen method more clearly, John used to say, 'Let it come. Let it be. Let it go.' This roughly means -- when any ideas or feelings or troubles come along in meditation [or I'd say, out of meditation], don't fight them, don't engage with them, don't push them away or hang onto them, just go through the same gentle process again and again: let them arise in the mind, let them be whatever they are without elaboration, and let them go in their own time.