Do Not Watch Them Make Sausage

A distant friend, Tara—formerly a Californian but now a Coloradan—unknowingly introduced me to Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi by quoting him in the header of her now-dormant blog. The header included these words: You are Perfect as you are and you could use a little help. Those words, in that particular configuration, appealed to me from the moment I read them. Until quite recently, though, I knew very little about the man who first uttered the phrase. I learned that the practice of Zen in the West was profoundly influenced by Suzuki-Roshi during his twelve-years in the United States. He arrived in the U.S. in 1959 and died here in 1971. His book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sparked a conversation about the Soto tradition of Zen, a discussion that, I understand, continues today. I have yet to read the book but my growing interest in Zen Buddhism probably requires that I undertake that endeavor in the near future. My interest in Suzuki-Roshi and in Zen Buddhism is based both on simple curiosity and a real desire to adopt personal practices that have the potential of changing me for the better. That may be the wrong way to put it; rather than “changing me,” I should probably say “enabling me to change myself.” Even “enabling” may be the wrong word; perhaps it should be “persuading.” I know I have the capacity. I just need the discipline. No, I have the discipline—I simply need to exercise it. Perhaps, for me, the practices of Zen Buddhism are nothing more than straightforward paths to destinations I have long wanted to reach.  But, for many reasons, I have meandered back and forth along switchbacks on the wrong mountains, looking for the peak in a distant mountain range. Maybe I actually will stay on the formal path, wandering off of it only briefly from time to time as I live my normal and chaotic life. Time will tell.

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My fingers look like little sausages, swollen almost to the point that the skin will split from the internal pressure. I suppose it’s the weather; somehow, transforming my body into a sponge for atmospheric moisture. I long for the desert and its ability to extract molecules of water from pieces of petrified conifers. I want that arid place to draw out of me the store of water—and fat—that keeps me too large and growing. I blame my lungs and my knees for my lack of exercise. They are just convenient scapegoats for my slothfulness.  And I blame easy access for my tendency to eat much more than I need to survive. I have promised myself that, once I complete the move and am settled, I will change my lifestyle. Eat properly and get adequate exercise. If I cannot keep my promises to myself, can I be considered trustworthy in any circumstances? Am I reliable in any way? Time will tell about that, too. Will I keep my promise to myself? Or will I slides into a state from which I am unrecoverable? A corpulent slug, unable to bend and flex my muscles because they are surrounded by immovable fat. Ach! The very idea makes me ill.

I know. I should not wait. NOW is the mantra I should follow. But I have good, valid, private reasons for waiting until the right time. They are good and valid to me, anyway. And, because for the moment I am compos mentis, I shall make my own choices and execute my own decisions.

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

~ Carl Sandburg ~

There is a danger, of course, in waiting. A truck could fall from the sky, crushing me beneath its masses of steel, plastic, and glass…my body could launch an assault that is impossible to repel…a thousand other circumstances could intervene. But it is a risk I am reluctantly willing to take. For my own, private, personal reasons. And it’s not entirely sloth and unmitigated laziness that’s to blame for the deferral.

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Gratitude and guilt can go hand in hand. I look around at how extraordinarily privileged I am and feel enormous gratitude for that privilege. I have a nice home, plenty to eat, considerable personal latitude to do what I wish, and substantial freedom from fear that I will be attacked either by wild creatures or by greedy or power-hungry humans. I have much, much more than I need. That is where the guilt comes in. At what point should I stop accepting excess largesse, in recognition that my covetous nature is out of control (as it is for almost everyone in first-world civil society today)? I have too much. What I need is simply enough. But how do I define “enough?” And does “enough” mean any luxuries are too much?

It is the same with every aspect of one’s life. We should be satisfied with one fried but we want more. We should be satisfied with one house but we want a winter house and a summer house. We should be  satisfied with a full pantry, allowing us to prepare an elaborate dinner, but we want to be served even more elaborate meals at expensive restaurants. We should be satisfied with one romantic relationship but we reach out for more, attempting either to validate our desirability or to satisfy our lust. We should be satisfied when we earn our first million dollars, but we continue to crave money, seeking to reach the next, billion dollar, peak. We should be satisfied with access to public transportation but we want our own personal vehicles, giving us near-absolute control over when and where we go.

We’re grateful for the overabundance of “gifts,” but we sometimes feel guilty (as well we should) for having many of them. Guilt and greed go hand in hand, too. When we have more than we need, we may feel guilty, but we continue our acquisition of “things” or power, thanks to our insatiable greed. And our ability to blind ourselves to the dissonance between our good fortune and the egregiously bad fortunes of most of the world’s population.

It’s all a tangled mess. Our lives are like a ball of snakes, writhing into ever-more complex, convoluted, labyrinthine experiences. But that’s what we’re good at. Living in never-ending complexity. Adjusting ourselves to fix circumstances. Molding our bodies and our minds to adapt to whatever life delivers to us; or delivers us to… “Molding our bodies and our minds…”  “But do not watch them make sausages,” I say. My sausage-like fingers got that way by indulgences heaped upon indulgences heaped upon indulgences. I intend to mold my body and mind so I do not have to continue watching them make sausages.

Zen practices may help. Time will tell.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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