“The elbow,” Zen teachings tell us, “does not bend outward.” As a longtime Zen practitioner, I have heard that saying more than once, but in recent years it has come to seem ever more germane.
That might have something to do with my growing older. On certain mornings, the elbow is not the only bodily component that doesn’t want to bend outward—or inward, for that matter. But a reminder that elbows do not bend outward can be of benefit to all of us, regardless of age, not least because it returns our hyperactive minds to a physical reality. Beyond that, the saying might also provide a countervailing motto for the twenty-first century, particularly as it pertains to the tempo of our activities, the volume of our consumption, and the realism of our view of life.
If you are a musician or lover of music, you know how important tempo is to musical performance. Every musical composition, it might be said, has its optimal tempo. In classical music, such terms as lento and adagio indicate a range of possible tempi, but the range is not all that wide, and even within it, one tempo is likely to feel more suitable than another. Played too slowly—or, more likely, too fast—the piece being performed will not be fully realized and may well be sorely compromised.
What is true of musical performance is also true of the most mundane activity, be it raking leaves or attending to e-mail or unscrewing the lid of a jar. Each has its appropriate tempo; each can be nearly effortless if performed at that tempo. But to the extent that we devalue common chores or do them by rote, we may give scant attention to the pace at which we’re working. Ignoring the inherent tempo of the task at hand, we may be unwittingly bending the elbow outward.
And as with the pace of our daily activities, so with the volume of our daily consumption. On many late-model cars, we can now monitor the correspondence between our car’s speed and our consumption of energy. As the one goes up, so does the other. But there is no such gauge to monitor our personal consumption, and if you have ever practiced “mindful eating,” as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to do, you may have noticed how great the volume of food on a supersized plate can come to seem, once you have begun to eat slowly, silently, and with full attention. And the same might be said of the volume of acquisitions in our closets, storerooms, and basements, once we stop to examine it.
In this time of austerity, Americans been consuming less and saving more. We have become more mindful of our economy’s fragility and our own economic limitations. But even as we’ve scaled down our consumption of material goods, many of us have ramped up our consumption of information. In his book The Information Diet (O’Reilly Media, 2011), Clay Johnson notes the consequences of trying to bend that particular elbow outward: cognitive problems, lost time, lower productivity, forgetfulness, and the consumption of false information. As a counter-measure, he advocates an “information diet,” in which we keep track of the amount and kinds of information we are ingesting. “A healthy information diet,” he suggests, “means measuring your intake in hours, and placing some limits for yourself, and making the most out of your information-consuming time.” For himself he prescribes a “cap of six hours a day of total, proactive information consumption.”*
Insofar as Clay Johnson is advocating mindfulness of conditions and limitations, his attitude parallels that of Zen practice, which also endeavors to reconnect us with our actual lives. And nowhere is that aim more evident than in the line of inquiry that Zen calls the Great Matter of life and death, where opportunities for self-deception abound. All of us know we will die, but few of us can bear to face that fact. Sarah Creed, a hospice nurse, reports that ninety-nine per cent of hospice patients understand that they’re dying, but “one hundred per cent hope they’re not.”** Yet even here, as in our everyday activities and our habits of consumption, realism is possible, and the image of the unbending elbow, taken as an object of contemplation, can be a valuable emblem. In his eulogy for the poet and Zen priest Zenshin Philip Whalen (1923 -2002), the Reverend Myo Lahey reported that Whalen, who joked that he had “flunked hospice twice,” coped with his condition by noting, “hour after hour, that the elbow does not bend outward.”*** By so doing, he embraced the reality of his waning life.
That may sound like a bleak vocation, but for those who can manage it, the practice of honestly facing limitations can bring relief, energy, insight, and even joy. Such was the case for the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, who experienced a profound realization when suddenly the meaning of “the elbow does not bend outward” became clear to him. Formerly he had thought the phrase expressed “a kind of necessity,” but of a sudden he saw that “this restriction was really freedom,” the “true freedom” of aligning oneself with natural limitations. By respecting such restrictions we can learn to live, as Philip Whalen did, with dignity and freedom in a world where things are as they are, and elbows do not bend outward.
* Clay Johnson, “Does Going On an Information Diet Improve One’s Productivity?” http://www.quora.com/Does-going-on-an-information-diet-improve-ones-productivity/answer/Clay-Johnson.
** Atul Gawande, “Letting Go,” The New Yorker, July 26, 2010.
*** Rev. Myo Lahey, Ash Interment Ceremony, June 26, 2004, http://www.archive.org/details/HSZC2004-06-26_Rev.Myo_Lahey_DharmaTalk.
Photo of Zenshin Philip Whalen by Jennifer Birkett