Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Living the truth

"Jesus was going to speak at the Bank of America World Headquarters."
--Black Velvet Dreambook

After years of working in a large organization, a conflict broke out between my inner self and life with my corporate career. I got good money as a database computer trainer in the corporate headquarters. I was unhappy with life in my "organization." I wanted my organization be an organism -- alive and interconnected. My daily experience, however, was more like the "night of the living dead."
On the bus to work I read a passage from Krishnamurti, "Live the truth." That phrase exploded in my mind. I must say "No!" to those aspects of life that are false or do not work. That same day I got up before my trainees and felt a pit growing in my stomach that gradually moved up to my mouth. After writing a sentence on the blackboard, I turned around and said, "I can no longer do this work. We are not real with each other in this company. We ignore each other. There is no love in this place. I quit." As I walked out, half the class looked stunned while the other half applauded.
Back at my desk, I felt a powerful stillness. I saw everything in a new light. The desk, the walls -- everything present was suddenly there. An emotional and spiritual fog had lifted. Gradually, people came by and wished me well. Some felt that I had contacted a deep need in themselves.
Socrates showed us that thinking the truth is not enough. Truth demands to be lived. He was tried and condemned to death by his community for his fearless inquiry into the truth. The decaying democratic society of his time would not hear the questions he had to ask. Partisanship won the day. His friends arranged to bribe the jailer -- Socrates could have walked out. But he argued that to do so at that moment would undermine the very principles for which he had lived.
Our living philosophy is in how we live life. The philosophy that we claim should pull us toward a new way of life. Too many words make talk cheap and eventually crowd out silent lived wisdom. Philosophy becomes hypocrisy when its labors are an avoidance of life's duties or a flaunting of mental ability. Wisdom comes from a humble acceptance of reality. The truth of our lives is stated in how we are rather than by what we say.
Truthful living begins with an enlightened view of life, immediately followed by enlightened action. For example, cultivation of the ability to see one's self in others. Skin, bones, temperament and social status do differ. Tolerance, patience, honesty, respect, and love allow us to recognize our "basic self" in everyone -- this leads to empathy and compassion. We become naturally concerned with fairness in our sexual, family, social, and cultural arrangements.
Just before leaving my corporate job, I would often sit on the 38th floor of my Market Street office building in San Francisco. I would look down from my sealed window. One day I realized that if that window could open, I would have been tempted to jump. I was having a crisis of meaning. My work paid the family bills, but did not tie into some greater sense of meaning other than economic security.
In my spare time, I attempted to create meaningful projects for myself and my friends. A serious conflict developed between the time and energy consumed by the company and my other more meaningful life. My best friend suggested the importance of "abandoning doing for being". This meant that to cultivate stillness and let action spring from the well of stillness rather than being driven from one blind activity to another.
In the months and years following my corporate resignation, I searched for my "basic self." I spent increasing amounts of time in the backyard with my friends contemplating being, truth, God, and the study of Martin Heidegger's Being and Time . I began to understand the power of stillness within myself.
One night I dreamed about a large audience gathered in the Auditorium at the World Headquarters of the Bank of America in San Francisco. The speaker was Jesus. He was dressed in pinstripe suit and was clean cut. The financial world was gathered to hear him talk.
The years have unfolded around that dream. I have imagined what Jesus might have said to that crowd. He spoke from the fullness of lived experience. Jesus put on a suit and tie to get a hearing. The message went beyond the appearances of clothes and social status. A finance of compassion would proceed from the spirituality of compassion. A strong ethic of sharing across all boundaries.
What does it mean to live the truth? If it is a mere matter of acquiring more knowledge, the place to find the most truthful living people would be behind the walls of universities. If it's being fearless, the ranks of the military infantry would be the best place to find the truthful. If a contemplative life is equated with living the truth, then monks would probably rank higher than the rest of us.
Corporations have shaped our world. Can we humanize ourselves to the point of humanizing our institutions -- rather than having ourselves institutionalized? Living the truth is almost impossible in this life. We are paid to lie to ourselves by "dressing for success" and pumping ourselves up with positive thinking sales lectures.
T. S. Elliot used the phrase "the timekept timekeepers." The exacting control of time can destroy a person's authentic sense of self-existence. There is a deep conflict between family time and working time. To advance in the corporate or institutional ladder, the price is our time, our life. Time is now controlled by institutional rather than organic life circumstances. Family life has become monetized. We pay baby-sitters and nursery schools for the job of fathering and mothering. We give our money over to junk food instead of cooking. "Time is money." The time of mothers and fathers is sold in the market place.
We manifest obsessive acquisitive behavior similar to mad gamblers mesmerized by slot machines. The more we attempt to acquire, the higher the costs of living. Consider what would happen if we dropped this acquisitive madness: The heart of humanity would become more concerned with quality, rather than quantity. Objects would be made and exchanged with a sense of the value of life all around. We would need fewer luxuries, since our contact with life itself would be more fulfilling. Saints and yogis need little, not because of self-denial, but because of a greater satisfaction level due to few trivial desires. Want less, and the economics of consumption would fail. GNP would drop. People would indeed produce less, but would feel more productive. Life would slow down. More attention would be paid to the direct production of food and shelter. People concerned with cornering markets with the intent of raising the prices would be considered antisocial rather than honored members of society. There would again be time for the great pleasures of conviviality, reading, music, and family growth.
The self is like a seed that grows in response to its environment. Maple seeds produce maple trees. Whether a tree is healthy or ill depends upon how the genetic material in that seed responds to its soil and climate. In the corporate world, I lost myself in a maze of daily entanglements. As I became still, I returned to the financial district after a seven year absence. Being in the world need not mean being lost in the world.
My resignation was needed so I could remove myself from the center of action -- out toward a quiet zone to recreate myself. One of my teachers suggested that in this life we are "either businessmen or employees." It may be possible, however, to find a way of life in terms of doing work as love and service.
Organizations can be organisms. They can and often do provide a sense of community. One of the keys is development of basic human trust rather than relying on the application of managerial control. This is true of families, institutions, and entire societies. Speaking the truth is easier when we trust each other. We are mirrors of one another. But when trust fails, we demand control. Our conversation becomes corrupted by a passion for mastery over each other through intellectual and physical display of power.
Trust grows from seeing our common basic needs for love, food, shelter, wisdom, enlightenment, joy, and freedom. We are often afraid to drop pretenses. Miracles occur when trust happens between people. The walls of our false personalities start to come down -- we begin to work together. Due to lack of trust, people often need drugs in social gatherings to help drop their personas. We have built psychological wall against psychological wall, showing to each other somewhat dull and gray faces. As the years pass, the laughter of childhood gets pushed down until it is gone.
There is something very impersonal about life -- at any moment our lives may be ended by forces completely beyond our control. But we can add a great deal of dignity to our fate by admitting and facing reality with a good heart and clear mind. We become stewards of the small acre of creation that is our very own individual life. As we respond, we are responsible and whole human beings. This is living the truth.
"Living the Truth". First published as an article in Footsteps. October 1992.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The art of coffee drinking

The art of coffee drinking is, along with tea drinking, one of the crowns of "the art of living." It can be practiced everyday, under different conditions.

I've gone to coffee houses for being alone -- especially to get away from the people at home, so I can write, think, speculate, ruminate, or do business. Then again, I go to coffee houses to be with people in a light way.

One of my very best friends told me that we need only plan having a cup of coffee each day! The rest takes care of itself. For us, this became a spiritual practice much like the Japanese tea ceremony. Of course, many things may happen in one day. But the art of coffee drinking is in the ease, the gentleness of the act. The simplicity of the situation. Life is good when kept down, for a moment, to a single point.

Sometimes, we would go to a place, like The Coffee Mill in Oakland, and talk about books whether, Martin Hiedegger's Being and Time or A Course in Miracles, and take periodic "mind breaks" that we called "twelve seconds." These mind breaks consisted in looking at a spot on the wall or remembering just one word for twelve or more seconds, until the mind experienced a moment of pure stillness.

That is the essence of the art of coffee drinking: to bring the mind to an active stillness. To be relaxed, yet wide awake. We naturally get this state when we drink good coffee in a good coffee house or in our favorite spot at home. Most of my best writing happens in coffee houses such as The Coffee Mill in Oakland or The Cafe Mediterranean on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. For me, going to the same places over and over again has a way of stimulating the writing process. But I write just a little bit each time. I don't write continuously, for that would turn the coffee house into an office, a place of work.

The power of simplicity can be seen in almost all aspects of life. The judo master flips the opponent with a thought. Remember when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev shook hands in front of a fireplace -- and the world felt like it was moving closer to peace between the superpowers.

Going to a coffee house and drinking that cup has become like a church mass for some of us. It is part of the ultimate order of life itself. A sign that things are working well enough for at least a few moments.

When the mind is alert and at ease, miracles begin to happen. Clear conversation between people becomes possible. If you go to the same coffee house regularly and often, you begin to know an extended community of fellow lovers of life. The alienation of modern human existence is reduced.

A cup of gourmet coffee is a joy to the palate, just like fine wine. The flavor is rich, but not bitter. The acidity is low and not a disturbance to the stomach. Coffee should be taken in moderation -- it is a drug not a food. Treat it with respect. Two strong cups a day can be more than enough. Better yet, only one cup. We should get high on life itself -- not caffeine, alcohol, or whatever.

We get the most from coffee when we practice the high art of coffee drinking. Drink it slowly. Don't gulp it down. Do not ruin the experience with "to go" coffee. Sit down. Look out upon the passing world and the people all around. Know that there is time.

My cup is now empty. My writing pad is filled with these notes. Time to go to the word processor.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Timekept timekeepers

I journeyed to London, to the timekept City

      --from "The Rock"
      T. S. Eliot
Shortly after graduating from college, I developed the habit of being late for work. Even during college I was often late for classes. I would constantly look at my watch and race against it to be "on time." I once read a novel where the main character got so frustrated with time that he tore out the hands of a clock. But the clock kept ticking anyway!
One day my wrist watch fell into the toilet. It was waterproof, but not toilet proof.! I lived without a wristwatch. Soon I discovered that I did not need a wristwatch. Clocks are everywhere. Banks have signs flashing the current temperature and time. A clock is located on the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. The radio announcer tells the time on the hour. There are clocks in supermarkets, offices, and classrooms. The majority of people wear wristwatches. Cell phones, PDA, microwave ovens, computer screens, and even ball point pens have internal clocks.
In the mid-Twentieth Century the concept of "flex-time" at work was revolutionary. You came into work before 8 A.M. and started at exactly 8 A.M. Just like the days in school. You could almost hear the bells ringing in your head.
I averaged five to fifteen minutes late. This was a source of constant strain between me and my supervisors. At first I thought that this was only my problem. But later I found that all of my co-workers struggled with time. My supervisor worried about looking too slack regarding this time issue. Top management knows that "time is money". Time wasted is money lost.
Many cat and mouse games were played over being on time at my workplace. We claimed that our work (much of it mental problem solving) happened on "off hours". Were we compensated for solutions to problems while we took our showers in the morning? No. Mind work does not really stop and start at the time range of 8 to 5. But as management pressed harder for our being there exactly at 8 A.M., one of our best people started reading his newspaper. He would not start doing his real work until about 8:10 A.M. It was a quiet of protest.
I stopped being late after my wristwatch drowned in the toilet's yellow waters. I discovered that I did not have to race the clock as I adjusted down my expectations of what could be done in ten or fifteen minutes. I began to realize exactly what I could do between two events, I felt like I had more time. I used to look at the spare 10 minutes in my watch, and fill up that time with something rather than going to my appointment -- naturally, I could not do all those things. I am a human being not a computer slicing nanoseconds.
In the 1920's a French critic of modern civilization argued that toward the very "end", things would speed up. We would have more and more choices, more things to acquire, and more things to do. This, he wrote, would be the human condition just before the collapse of Modern Civilization -- a civilization based on an almost exclusive devotion to the demons of money and time.
Our current lack of time is a symptom of cultural bankruptcy. We have more options than a human being can manage. We are supposed to be parents, good workers, sexy mates, and personally well developed in every way. There is just not enough time.
There is clock time and natural time -- these two kinds of time may or may not match. It's possible to be "on time" by the clock, yet early or late by natural time. We can never be "on time" by racing against the clock -- the clock will always win, if not by the numbers, by wearing us down and making us die young of high blood pressure.
When we are on natural time, we are always "on time". We are not either waiting or rushing. We are always in the right place at the right time. Doctors used to advise that newborn babies be fed at regular intervals such as 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., etc. This was one of the first ways of taking away natural time from our lives.
The art of living is that of harmonizing clock time with natural time. Clock time holds the modern world together. So we need to adjust our clocks to fit human needs, not human needs to fit the clock. Airlines need to run on schedule. But human beings should just "show up" and move on as they will. I rarely look at bus schedules, I just show up and wait. If there are enough buses coming up, I don't worry about when the next bus comes. If I plan my days properly, I move through my appointments with time to spare.
Thumbnail image from Corbis.