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Comparações_planetárias“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives.

Fifty years ago, the writer and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) directly linked the act of comparison with destructive emotions, particularly fear. ”Comparison breeds fear,” he remarked in a talk given in 1964. “[T]here is in our life this constant state of comparison, competition, and the everlasting struggle to be somebody . . . This, I feel, is the root of all fear, because it breeds envy, jealousy, hatred.” If such was the case in 1964, it is even more so now in the age of social media. Should we wish to compare our success, our social status, or our progress on the path of self-fulfillment, the means are readily available. Little wonder that recent studies have found a correlation between depression and the heavy use of social media.

Krishnamurti was not affiliated with any one spiritual tradition, but his view of comparison as a cause of suffering well accords with Zen teachings. “The Great Way is not difficult,” wrote Seng-ts’an (d. 606), the Third Patriarch of the Zen tradition, “for those not attached to preferences. . . . To set up what you like against what you dislike / is the disease of the mind.” Preferences arise from acts of comparison and are reinforced thereby. Having compared the flavors of white and Star Ruby grapefruits, respectively, you may decide that you prefer the latter. Such a preference is harmless enough, but should you become attached to that preference, and should you then be served white grapefruit, you may find that your enjoyment and your equanimity have been compromised accordingly. Magnify that paradigm, and expand its scope to include social, religious, political, and other established preferences, and it is easy to see how the habit of comparative thinking, in league with attachment to deep-rooted preferences, can inflict routine suffering on oneself and others.

Should we wish to live otherwise, the Japanese tea ceremony offers a useful motto: “That which is long is long; that which is short is short” (Choja wa cho, tanja wa tan). Mottoes of this kind, inscribed in calligraphy and mounted in the alcoves of tea huts, provide the wisdom of Zen teachings and the company of the ancient masters for those who have gathered to drink tea. As William Scott Wilson, an authority on Japanese tea culture, explains, this particular motto reminds those present that the “ten thousand things” are “equal in nature, and none could be exchanged for the other. . . . Each and every phenomenon is of-itself-so, and has its own virtue on the great grid of the Tao. Thus, we must get past our likes and dislikes, our opinions and prejudices, and look for the true character of things.” We must set aside, or at least hold in abeyance, our limiting comparisons and preferences.

That is a lofty and even quixotic aim. Nearly every major force in contemporary culture, whether economic, social, or political in nature, militates against it, as do our own longstanding habits of thought and feeling. It is only human nature, one might argue, to compare ourselves with others, to cherish our likes and dislikes, and to identify, proudly and inflexibly, with our prejudices and opinions.  At the same time, however, even a fleeting experience of “the mind of non-discrimination,” as it is sometimes called, in which the true character of a person, place, or thing is allowed to disclose itself, can free us from the confines of ego-centered thinking. And should we choose to cultivate that mental state, over time we may find in ourselves a growing capacity for appreciating the here and now, rather than comparing our present circumstances to another time and place or to some imagined ideal. An attitude of openness toward all of our experience, rather than a selective rejection thereof, will have become our default way of being, and our lives will be the better for it. If comparison is indeed the death of joy, the mind of non-discrimination may well be its place of birth.

___________

J. Krishnamurti, On Fear (HarperSanFrancisco 1995), 14-15.

William Scott Wilson, The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea (Shambhala 2012), 77.

Photo: Size comparison between Earth and, from top to bottom, Moon, Pluto and Charon, Sedna and Quaoar. Author:  User:WorldtravellerUser:Worldtraveller.

 

 

 

 

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Ummon Bun'en Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Ummon Bun’en
Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Among the cryptic sayings associated with the Zen tradition, none is better known than that of Ummon Bun’en (862-949), who famously declared that “every day is a good day.” Yeah, right, the weary, seasoned mind replies. Tell that to the commuter caught in gridlock or the stressed-out parent nursing a sick child. Superficially construed, Ummon’s remark sounds both naive and culpably aloof.

Yet, if examined in the light of Zen teachings, this adage is neither foolish nor untrue. The key component of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, a classic collection of Zen koans, Ummon’s pronouncement is a fiction that points to an underlying reality, a construct that discloses a deeper truth. If we wish to probe that truth, we can consult the host of commentaries Case 6 has accrued, beginning with that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), compiler of Zen koans, who called this particular koan “cold,” meaning austere and challenging to contemplate. But if we wish to explore Ummon’s saying in a warmer light, we can begin by reflecting on how we know, or think we know, the things of this world, and how we determine whether a given day is good or bad. (more…)

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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, 1988

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.

Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978.  It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. (more…)

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Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. (more…)

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Julian Bream, 1964

On this snowy winter evening I’ve been listening to Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland (1963), a twenty-minute piece for solo guitar composed for the English lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream (b. 1933). By turns dreamy and martial, restless and serene, this masterpiece of the modern guitar repertoire can be heard on Bream’s 1967 album 20th Century Guitar, one of forty CD’s in my newly-acquired Julian Bream: The Complete RCA Album Collection (2013). Released in conjunction with Bream’s eightieth birthday, this handsome boxed set is both a treasure trove of music for classical guitar and a tribute to a great musician’s lifetime achievement. And for this listener, the collection also evokes an enduring memory. (more…)

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Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. (more…)

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Laptop screenOne bright morning several weeks ago, I received a friendly e-mail message from Amazon. “Benjamin W. Howard,” it read, “Based on your recent activity, we thought you might be interested in this:” Below these words, a handsome new book was displayed: “Firewood and Ashes: New and Selected Poems, by Ben Howard.”

To be fair to Amazon, I was indeed interested in the product described, and my interest was indubitably based on my recent activity. And, all things considered, I was heartened to see Amazon actively marketing my book and targeting a plausible customer. More power to them, I might have said, and may their project flourish.

At the same time, Amazon’s little slip-up highlighted something fundamental and unnerving about life in the digital era. Like other denizens of the twenty-first century, I am aware of the ways by which mega-conglomerates monitor our purchasing histories and manipulate our predilections. Nonetheless, had the book being promoted not been my own, I might have dozily surmised that someone at Amazon was looking out for me, as old-fashioned booksellers used to do, and that the message I had just received embodied an actual human presence. (more…)

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