Now Where Did I Put That Truth?

When we hold to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet – and violence and pain increase. (Pima Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart).

Robert Bly, the American poet, in his Little Book on the Human Shadow presents a compelling image of the impact of the opinions of others on our growth from child through adolescent, to adult. He describes the child as a globe of energy, fully him/herself, freely expressing what he/she feels and experiences. As the child grows and is exposed to commentary from parent, teacher, acquaintance, and other conventional custodians of what passes for morality and correctness (“It’s not nice to try to kill your brother”), Bly maintains that we ‘stuff’ those publically disapproved of parts of ourselves into the ‘long bag we drag behind us’ (his rather vivid description of our shadow side). By adulthood this ‘bag’ has come to contain most of what we have truly felt in our more ‘natural’ period as a child, is now largely inaccessible to us (without considerable reflection and introspection), and leaves only a ‘a thin slice of that globe’ from which to consciously operate. More concerning, that which remains has come to reflect little more than the aggregation, the collection of opinions of others as we become progressively ‘socialized’. We essentially lose track of our truth; have, in the words of a friend, ‘wandered from our path’; and perhaps worse, don’t know it. That collection of opinion has begun to feel like our own.

This has been a challenging week for my globe. Perhaps channeling my father’s private sector mentality (not to mention, his Protestant work ethic), I am instinctively triggered by ‘spin’ – whatever its source. With an election staring us in the face, it’s difficult to avoid the rhetoric (unless, of course one is attending to royal weddings or consolidations of sports’ seasons). These two polarities, private enterprise and public ‘party line’, collided early week for me in a conversation with a representative from the latter (me representing the former). Our practice had just come off a highly satisfying year reflecting what I had viewed as a ‘happy marriage’ between publically funded services in our practice and private sector supplements that had seen one of our major programs arrive at year-end within budget. I was somewhat surprised when the commentary appeared to veer away from things like being lauded for efficiency, value for dollars, volume of service provided into the muddy world of ‘liability’. What ‘truth’ is this’, I mused. But then I squinted, and saw that I was speaking to a very thin slice indeed. This was not a truth at all – but a carefully cultivated ‘opinion’ that likely flowed freely from a collective political unconscious. And I felt compassion (eventually, after I cooled off) for this little lamb that had lost her way – and in the bargain, contact with what she likely once believed.

Bly extends his treatise with thoughts on what lengths are needed for ‘socialized adults’ to go to access aspects of our essential truths. Again the poet, he notes that we often find it necessary to retain the services of ‘hired guns’ – artists, poets, authors, filmmakers – to express that for which we can no longer ourselves find the words. He laments this state of affairs; and challenges each of us to become our own ‘poet’, to reflect on the contents of ‘our bag’, and once again become conversant with our core truths, our core values – versus those we have adopted. He maintains that art, theatre, film, literature have ever been the repositories of our truths; and that there is genuine value in personally reclaiming that which we have ‘contracted out’.

Inveterate addicts of BBC entertainment we were presented a lovely little restatement of Bly’s contention (about the role of art in truth) in an early episode of Upstairs Downstairs – determined to plow through all 60+ hours of the original before getting into the ‘sequel’. Lady Bellamy is having her portrait painted and engages the artist in conversation around the likely ‘finished product’. He confesses that he doesn’t know if she will ‘like’ the result, that it will mirror her own experience of herself – it can only be an expression of how he sees her, his ‘truth’. She is at once intrigued by the possibility of multiple ‘truths’ – and anxious that she will not ‘come out’ as she expected. Her husband struggles even more with the prospects of a ‘libertarian’ being entrusted with representing something as personal as a family ‘image’, fearing that it will not conform to the narrow standards of the day and may convey something of his family other than the carefully constructed ‘spin’ associated with London society. As indeed it does, ultimately hung adjacent in a gallery to the artist’s impression of maids from this same house (in rather ‘revealing’ circumstances). The ‘truth’ of the scenario ebbs and flows, evolving through outrage, indignation, shame, political and social opportunism, tolerance – all to the end of ‘each seeing what each needs to see’, their personal and unique truths.

Back to Pima Chödrön for the moment. She makes a compelling argument that our opinions are as much expressions of our history, our ego, our thoughts. She notes that, with a mindful approach to opinion, we are able to suspend the compulsion to vet what we think we believe through all manner of filters, accept them as momentary (and evolving) postures that, in the next moment will, if allowed, morph into something else. To predicate our actions on opinion, as if they were somehow absolute truths, is folly.

And a few final lines from the bard himself on the importance of trusting one’s core self, core feelings, resisting the urge to ‘bend or alter’ one’s ‘opinion’ as the (transient) situation seems to demand.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

(Sonnet 116, Shakespeare)

The How and Now of It All

I am a dog. No more no less.
I eat when I’m hungry. I sleep when I’m tired.
I know how to sit. I know how to wait.
When I must, I walk on a leash.
When I can, I race through the fields.
When I am hurt, I lick my wounds.
When I die, I will wander alone into the woods.
I love my people faithfully. Especially the child.
I am the child’s teacher. I teach by example.
I am a canine Zen Buddhist master.
I am absolutely me
(Dog, John Heider)

In grad school, once per semester, we clinicians-in-training were ‘compelled’ to take ancillary courses from parallel areas of psychology (always arcane, in our practical, young minds and invariably taught by the ‘rat-runners’) that would ensure that we popped out the other end well rounded practitioners. Cognitive Processes was one such course. As the title might imply, the course’s emphasis was more on how our thinking process worked; than on what we might use our wonderful brain for. Our professor, an eccentric and seasoned field researcher, had before him the formidable task of convincing this cynical and cocky group that something else in the study of human behaviour mattered besides diagnosing and treating the aberrations of our species. His opening gambit was the telling of his time spent with a remote Inuit community in his early research of linguistics and the influences that affect the development of language. He describes handing a sophisticated, but broken camera (obviously from the era of mechanical, not digital technology) to a few of the elders conveying only that it wasn’t working properly. Without benefit of having seen such a device previously or indeed even sure what its purpose might be, the men carefully proceeded to dismantle the camera and eventually identified the malfunctioning components. The story, truth or urban legend (how else was he to get and hold our attention?) has remained with me a wonderful illustration of the importance of process over purpose. In the cliché, the value of the journey over the destination.

As a gentle reminder of this long-ago learned lesson, I had lunch this week with a friend with a passion for ‘creating something unique’ and hence charged with the sole choice of ‘doing things from scratch (think Martha Stewart with an accounting degree – want eggs over easy for breakfast; buy a chicken ranch). Conversation turned to a canoe-building project, now several months in, and its most recent ‘phase’ – the seat and cross-member structure and design. Greg described in detail the sketching out of various colour combinations for the seat webbing (‘just to see what the visuals would be’); then carefully measuring (and re-measuring) the lengths to order. He recounted his attendant frustration when, the seats partly woven, he discovered ‘too much of one; not enough of the other’ – and his awareness that he’d inadvertently reversed his order and would ‘now have to live with the inverted pattern’. He detailed the steps involved in shaping the yolk so that it would conform to his own shoulders, ground and ultimately carved and sanded smooth from laminated blocks of wood. And finally, his plan to create a unique ‘pin-striping’ motif running the length of the canoe’s outer surface; and consisting of inlaid contrasting cedar and ebony woods configured as an elongated sine wave. Throughout his account, there seemed to be a subtext of what I could only interpret as sadness, despite the obvious satisfaction and enthusiasm associated with the project itself. Its source – a comment from his wife (who incidentally is awaiting the completion of a ‘from scratch’ bathroom): “Not sure why all the effort – you probably won’t even use it when it’s done; too afraid of getting a scratch on it!” And the clincher: “What do you think we could sell it for?”

Represented in the above exchange are two polarities: one invested in the process, the creation of a unique piece of art, the acts of conceiving, designing, and constructing becoming ends in themselves. The second, and sadly the dominant perspective in our culture: the product; focusing on the functional item that ‘pops out the other end’ – a vessel, useful only to the extent that it floats, is capable of carrying us from point A to point B, and, in this case, possesses ‘value’ – the intervening time and care between project’s inception and product’s emergence measured with impatience, time to be minimized and care to be cost-effective.

Insight meditation has as one of its essential parameters a repeated return to ‘the present moment’ – in essence, an engaging of process and what’s going on right now! This is not to say that goal setting, having a destination in mind, or planning one’s day are activities to be discouraged. They do, however, contain the seeds of distraction and ought not to displace our investment in the immediate, the now. Inevitably questions that are framed in terms of ‘what’ and ‘why’ tend to be associated with a product / outcome approach. What is this thing (a camera); why waste so much time building (a canoe) when Canadian Tire has a perfectly good aluminium one that will float and is cheaper and can be had today. Our dog, our Inuit elders, our canoe builder are not particularly concerned with purpose. What something is for, what it will get us, why we’re engaged in something are of secondary importance to the activity itself – even if it’s sitting around with one’s eyes closed and focusing on one’s breath. Right down to building a better tea cozy – but that’s another story.

What Good Little Boys (and Girls) Are Made Of

The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. As the shadow follows the body, As we think, so we become.(Buddha)

We had occasion to watch a newish documentary, Inside Job, within the past week. It examines (a la Michael Moore) the shifts in fiscal policy that are seen as contributing, at an immediate level, to the financial crisis which began to surface in late 2008 in the US and reverberated through most of the western world over the next few years – recovery from which continues currently. What emerged first as a failure of sub-prime mortgages (money borrowed with very little collateral, virtually no applicant approval process, and no immediate risk to the lender, should these, on balance, poor prospects for repayment, default) reverberated through several storied and previously substantial investment houses (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch among them) and triggered senate subcommittee hearings to ‘get to the bottom of it’.

The film paints a conspiratorial picture commencing in early 1980’s with the progressive removal of regulations governing many aspects at many levels of lending, investing, insuring – essentially, as it turns out, turning the keys to the hen house over to Br’re Fox for safekeeping. What had been, since the Great Depression, a tightly regulated structure, with built-in accountability and checks, became, in a most literal sense a ‘money for nuthin’ and yer chicks for free’ system. Government ‘consultants’ turned out to be, in many cases, individuals who would themselves profit from deregulation, recommending changes in policy, with the assurances of academics (traditionally the independent voices who were ‘above crass realities’—but not this time!) that would see the house of cards rise ever higher – until the John and Mary Joneses, who had bought that $500,000 house on an income that would support 1/5th of that grandeur, became unable to meet their monthly obligations; and stopped paying. And what had seemed like a ‘get rich quick’ sure thing, became anything but. Definitely the former (the get rich part); definitely not the latter.

Charles Ferguson, the film’s director, makes a compelling case for a Watergate-style review and exercise in accountability that would see many of the perpetrators charged and hopefully jailed. His post-film interview underscores that a ‘fix’ would require the principals from Alan Greenspan on down, many whose consultancy roles has spanned a number of political administrations and in some cases were ongoing, be replaced; and secondly, that regulatory bodies be reinstituted – in essence asking for keys back from the furtive Mr. Fox. Laudable – but perhaps missing a deeper truth: the next guy in line, whether politically, financially, or academically borne, is every bit as likely to lack the personal integrity that, once the lid is off, will see him/her just as poorly equipped to resist dipping into the cookie jar as his/her predecessor. Rather the equivalent of thinking that an election will bring with it an ethically renewed representative to replace the outgoing shyster.

So, if pulling out that ‘new broom’ and giving things a good sweep isn’t likely to fix things , then where to look? I think, in part, we might benefit from revisiting our little toxic trio of last week – attachment (greed), aversion (avoidance of, in this case, truth) and this week’s candidate: ignorance of the truth. This ‘poison’ goes beyond simply ‘not knowing what’s right’. This is, in the Buddhist tradition, an actual inability to ‘see clearly’, sort of the equivalent of moral cataracts, if you will; and, as a result, tending to see things as we would like them to be, believing our own BS (without putting too fine a point on it).

Always having a bit (in some folks’ view, a very small bit) of the Pollyanna in me, I believe that very few of us are essentially ‘bad people’. Most of us don’t get up in the morning with the conscious intent of doing ill. That being said, I ran out of fingers and toes on which to count this past week attempting to tally the number of encounters wherein I sensed a distinct lack of authenticity in this particular dealing or that. A constituency office more bent on handing out lectures, rationalizations, and defensiveness than cultivating that all-important vote. An instance of litigation wherein the ‘big picture’ got clouded by ill-preparedness and cronyism. A service club more attuned to defending warring egos than on acknowledging a ‘good idea’. The experience even invaded our world of DVD viewing – if you haven’t seen Made in Dagenham, a lovely little film documenting the early days of pay equity in the UK, and all the supposed reasons for scuttling it, it’s worth a watch as 187 committed women turn Ford and Harold Wilson’s labour government on their heads thanks to ‘clear-eyed’ courage.

Back to the Buddha’s opening comments – and, with all due respect, inserting a couple of additional links to his ‘chain’. Kicking those few, truly evil individuals out of line, it may be safe to assume that most, perhaps all of the ‘players’ in any of the above scenarios, acted with some measure of ‘innocence’, likely believing to some extent that their actions would do no harm; they were merely ‘acting expeditiously’, taking advantage of available ‘opportunities’, doing their job – with all the required indignation, back-peddling, rationalizing, and avoidance (hmm, there it is again) to CYA (in polite terms, to minimize ‘exposure’), when that became necessary. But equally failing to inform their initial thoughts (before they became words, deeds, habits . . . and character) with a truth, an authenticity – a clear examination of their position predicated on individual integrity.

A closing thought. I heard Hassan Ghedi Santur, a Canadian novelist interviewed on Tapestry a few weeks ago (see link below). He was pondering the question of what it means to be ‘good’; whether it’s an innate quality, part of our temperament; or, something that can be ‘grown’, cultivated. He told the story of the man, confronted on his visit to the ocean, with thousands of beached starfish and, in the midst of trying to toss them all back to safety in the water, was challenged about the futility of his efforts by a passerby – he couldn’t possibly save them all. Santur relates the story to our definition of ‘being good’ – that perhaps “it’s just an irritating little voice that asks ‘are you doing good’ and speaks to us from that part of ourselves unsullied by cynicism and apathy; a voice that tells us to pick up at least one star fish and throw it back into the ocean and that act will make a difference – to that one starfish.” Perhaps that’s how we get in touch with the truth that should inform our thoughts and . . . ultimately our character – not just putting all the bad guys in jail.