Yeah, whatever

Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause.

Sponsored by the University of Eastern Finland, this study of 1449 subjects with an average age of 71 found a striking correlation between high degrees of cynical distrust and subsequent incidences of senile dementia. Those who looked at the world though cynical eyes, the researchers discovered, were three times as likely to develop dementia than those who did not. * “If that’s really true,” a friend in his sixties quipped, “I’m going to be babbling any day now.”

To be sure, the Finnish study has yet to be replicated, and it only demonstrated a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship. But whatever its validity, this disturbing study might prompt us to examine elements of cynicism in our own outlooks–and, if we so wish, to cultivate a counterbalancing alternative. And toward those ends, the practice of Zen meditation has something substantial to offer.

When we practice zazen (sitting meditation), we sit in an aligned, relaxed, and resilient posture. Bringing our attention to our breathing, we feel the life force within and around us. Depending on our method, we may choose to count our breaths, recite a mantra, explore a koan, or merely rest in “choiceless awareness.” If our mind drifts into worries and dreams, we bring it back to our breath. If we begin to slouch, we correct our posture. After ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes of this practice, we may notice that our breathing has deepened and our minds feel clearer. In classical Zen teachings, this process is likened to mud settling to the bottom of a  jar, leaving the water still and clear.

Should we direct this poised clarity of awareness toward the external world, we may find that our vision of the day’s events, global, national, and local, has also become more balanced, impartial, and inclusive. Reading or watching the news, we are likely to encounter reports of petty and large-scale violence, corruption, greed, exploitation, and inhumanity generally. Far from shielding us from those social realities, the practice of meditation may make us more aware than ever of what Zen teachings call the “three poisons” of craving, aversion, and ignorance and the suffering they engender. But by deepening our outlook, meditative practice can also make us acutely aware of the complexity of human motives, which include not only greed and hatred but also loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and the desire to relieve others’ suffering. Resolved to “welcome everything” into our awareness, while putting our preferences in abeyance, we may be less inclined to reduce the human condition to a single, cynical view.

By the same token, if we bring a balanced awareness to our inner lives, we might discern a complex amalgam of thoughts, feelings, motives, and habits of mind. If one of those components is an habitual cynical distrust, we might look into what the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “roots and fruits” of that attitude. Snide comments and cynical posturing can be entertaining and win us social approval. Could a desire to entertain or gain social acceptance underlie our expressions of cynical scorn? Or might their origin lie in our life experience–in some deep hurt or emotional trauma, which our cynicism serves to mask? Merely by bringing awareness to the roots of habitual cynicism, we can mitigate its power. And even as we examine the foundations of cynical distrust, we can also contemplate its “fruits”: its probable effects on our own lives and those with whom we come into contact. If we habitually say “Yeah, right” to any sentiment that expresses optimism, or hints at a vulnerable naivete, what impact is our attitude having on our fellow workers? Our friends and family? Our children and grandchildren? And what, in the long run, is its legacy likely to be?

Cynicism is sometimes viewed as the obverse side of moral idealism. Idealists, as they age, become bitter and caustic cynics. In contrast to other aspects of the aging process, however, such a change is not inevitable. If a cynical outlook is harmful to ourselves and others, why cherish or nourish it? With the help of meditative practice, there are changes we can make, and salutary things we can do.


* Neurology, May 28, 2014.

Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. Continue Reading »

800px-Red_River_of_New_Mexico_Picture_2010For more than four decades Joseph Goldstein, an internationally known teacher of Buddhist meditation, has practiced mindfulness of the body and mind. First as a monk in the Thai forest tradition and later as a Western practitioner, he has trained himself to be aware of what is occurring, within and without, in any given moment.Yet one afternoon, while walking along a river in northern New Mexico, Goldstein slipped on a wet rock and hyper-extended his knee. At the time, he was conducting a retreat, and later on that day, after giving a talk in the cross-legged position, he found himself unable to stand or walk. For the next few hours he berated himself and worried that he would not be able to complete the retreat. But in the midst of his anguish, he reports, a “sort of mantra” arose in his mind: Anything can happen anytime. To his surprise, that “mantra” provided a great sense of relief. Since then, he has found it “amazingly helpful in accepting change with a deepening and easeful equanimity.”* Continue Reading »

148. Making whole

Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara

“Do not lose yourself in the future,” Buddhist teachings advise. “Look deeply at life as it is in this very moment.” Under most circumstances that is sound advice, but it can also be devilishly difficult to follow. It is human nature to dwell on the future, especially when the future is replete with uncertainties.

So it was not long ago, when I learned that I needed minor surgery, and I met with my surgeon for a pre-op consultation. A seasoned professional in his sixties, he explained the nature of the procedure, including its history and technical details, and outlined the stages of recovery. During the first week, I would be laid up and managing pain, but by the second I would probably be feeling “fifty percent better.” By the end of the third, I might well be free of pain, though patients sometimes report “nuisance discomfort.” Six to eight weeks out, I would probably be able to resume my customary activities.

That forecast was reassuring, but by their nature forecasts focus on the future, and they leave open the question of what the patient, his eyes on the horizon, should be doing in the meantime. In a recent article (Prevention, January, 2014), Sister Dang Nghiem, MD, a Western-trained physician and a Buddhist nun, offers this prescription: Continue Reading »

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. Continue Reading »

SelfieOver the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.

In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that. Continue Reading »

The Crown Bar Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Crown Bar
Belfast, Northern Ireland

“For Ben Howard, well met in Belfast, July, 2004.”

So wrote a gentlemanly Irish poet, whose work I had long admired, in the flyleaf of his most recent book. At the time, he and I were having lunch in the upstairs dining room of the Crown Bar, a storied old pub in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. I had come up on the train from Dublin to meet him.

Of the many inscriptions I have acquired over the years, few have proved as memorable as the one above, partly because the poet’s chosen phrase, faintly archaic but resonantly apt, sorted well with the Crown’s Victorian decor–its ornate tin ceilings, stained-glass windows, and dark-paneled “snugs.” Regrettably, “well-met” is no longer current in North America, either as a description or a greeting. Once the equivalent of “Nice to have met you,” that old-fashioned phrase evokes a singular event: two people meeting, in the fullness of human relationship, at a particular place and time. Continue Reading »


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