all is not one


The systematic study of most any spiritual path (in my case, Zen) leads you, if you're lucky, to confront the incarnate meaning of the clichés thrown around by people who have at best read a few books about it. "All is one" is a perfect example of such a thing, not only because it's such a generic spiritual bromide but because it's so easy to get wrong, or turn into total twaddle. 

Here's a f'rinstance. At some point I mean to sit down with both the book and movie of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, one of the more recent bits of semi-popular culture that makes this conceit central to its execution. What worries me is whether or not the book/movie (one, the other, or both) will simply invoke the idea without actually being about it. It's the difference between Traffic¹ and Crash. The former was unsparing in its understanding how everything is connected, because that connectivity is not always a benevolent thing. The latter was shameless piffle, which pulled so many strings I wanted to start pulling them back. (Don Cheadle was good in both of them, though — but let's face it, a film of him counting cracks in a wall would be good.)

The way I see it, you can't make "the interconnectedness of all things" into a theme by just showing a bunch of stuff from 35,000 feet up, drawing lines between them, and saying "See? They're connected!"

For one, doing that makes the work no longer about the things in question, but about the arbitrary connections between them. The problem is that the creator doesn't see those connections as arbitrary, because she made those connections, and she'll always convince himself there's a good reason for why Tab A belongs in Slot B. What's harder to do, by orders of magnitude, is to convince the audience that such connections and no other are the spokes that belong in that particular wheel.

The other problem is that the connectedness of things is not always a feel-good experience.

Strike that: the full-blown version of such an experience has to be something that rattles the teeth and squashes the eyeballs. The default, fall-back feeling for most people is to believe they're a unique and special snowflake, and therefore can feel all the more separate from the rest of the universe. They take from it as they need, and receive from it as they choose.

Generally, a conceit like that is something best seen as one of many possible insights into a work, not something that you can impose from top down as part of its design without making it seem contrived. Connectedness is something best left to be recognized between and amongst ourselves. 

Brad Warner had some fun picking apart just how humbling, shilling for humiliating, it was to confront this stuff in his own life. When you finally get this sort of thing, really get it, it becomes impossible to blame anything or anyone else for the stuff that happens in your life — because it's all you, right? And if it's all you, you can't pick and choose.

The common-sense, everyday-wisdom version of this understanding is: Own what happens to you. Be a mensch, not a schlub. But many people will hunt like crazy for a reason not to be a mensch because they think it'll somehow be easier if they duck out on their responsibilities. No, I don't get it either — well, actually, I do get it. I just know all too well how badly it tends to work out.

But again, at the core of every one of these pieces of spiritual pap is something tough enough to break one's teeth on if bitten into. Everyone wants to be happy and serene and loved, but most of us will destroy all of that on a moment's notice if we think it means it'll give us two seconds' advantage over someone else. We take this stuff only as seriously as we have to, because we're used to the model of spiritual development where someone smacks us back into line if we step out of it — and only then if someone bothers to watch. And one of the most common ways we can do this is by assuming the spiritualism will do the work for us — that just having the belief system and knowing the right shibboleths will be enough.

What struck me most about Zen, and something I confirmed in time on my own, was how all manner of owning up for yourself is entirely on your own shoulders. This isn't to say other other belief systems / practice paths don't have something like this, but it was through Zen that it became clearest to me, and how in Zen's case it was always about coming right back to the world in front of you, not trying to swap it for something else.

I remember a Spider Robinson story that started with a sign on the wall of a rec center for teens: IF THERE'S A BEEF, IT'S YOUR FAULT. Or if you want to take an approach I imagine Brad Warner will appreciate, consider the Sex Pistols: "The problem is you." Not in the sense that you should flagellate yourself about it, but in that you should never see yourself as separate from whatever "problem" you think there is. It isn't some rhubarb taking place over there on the other side of the bar, where you're lucky enough not to be sitting. You're not up above it; you're down in it.¹

I think Martin Gardner once cited a couplet that summed up nicely why all-is-one can be so tough to work with, because of how other people can get it so wrong:

If all is one,
Who will win?

 ¹ h/t: Trent Reznor


Tags: Brad Warner




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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Uncategorized / General, published on January 19, 2014 2:25 PM.

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