This is the second of two posts based on papers I turned in for a class on Eastern Philosophy I took in 1997. This is the second paper, the final exam. For the first paper see here [confusion.cc], for the whole story see here [confusion.cc].
Somewhere between eating honey with Pooh and walking the narrow road with Basho I learned something more than eastern philosophy over the last semester. I learned how to live some of the ideals of the traditions we studied. Words spoken by the Dalai Lama now make sense beyond the words themselves. The moon is the moon and the finger the finger. So my final exam is not a retelling of the books we read in the course of the semester but a the answer to a simple question: what did I learn in Philosophy 260?
“If it is fixable, then there is no need to worry. If not, there is no benefit to worrying.” These are the words of the Dalai Lama, but the sentiment is familiar to everyone: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, “Don’t worry, be happy” and a million other turns of phrase. Though I have heard them before I have never really listened to them, until I myself said them.
…About halfway through the semester a friend of mine was in the process of getting a loan for a new car. She was hysterical about everything. Every little detail she worried over, completely stressing her out. She worried so much she was making herself sick. All I could say to her was don’t worry, if you are going to get the loan there is no need to worry, if not then worrying will only make you sick, not help you get the car. Stop. Hold the press! I sounded like some dime store version of the Dalai Lama. But, the more I thought about it the more it finally made since, in a way I can’t explain, and over the next few weeks I repeated if to myself when I worried. I works. It released me from the prison of my worry and calmed me down. The worry didn’t always go away completely but the words became a sort of mantra. My own litany against worry, like the Litany Against Fear which Paul Atreides used in Dune:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
A practical example of how I applied my litany against worry is the written exam for this class. Given that the written exam forms 25% of our grade I worried about it long before the semester drew to a close. Normally I would have tied myself into mental knots worrying about my grade, zapping my concentration and rendering studying a vicious cycle. Applying the Dalai Lama’s words I strove to quit worrying about the grade, I reread the materials and reviewed our class discussions. I spent some time away from studying, spending the last hours before the test discussing other things over coffee with friends, just relaxing. When all was said and done, I got a better grade on the written exam than on the paper I spent so much time on worrying about late into the night.
The Bisy Backson
What is a Bisy Backson? In The Tao of Pooh a Backson is described as a person who goes through life always searching but never finding happiness. The Backson is so obsessed with saving time that they have none to spend and in the end has wasted all their time. This sounds familiar.
I go to school to learn so I can get a good job and make money. Why? So I can buy things to save me time so I can enjoy life. But in the meantime I waste the here and now. Trying to get ahead I take too many classes and work as many hours as I can in between. A quad-shot latte to start the morning is a necessity and it’s never shared over conversation and camaraderie. Drink it on the way to class. Finish the next assignment while eating lunch. More lectures and a six-hour shift. Sleep and repeat. Not allowing any time for myself, for life.
On the other hand I see people I go to school with who are wasting their money, or their parents money. They seem to be here to party. Their textbooks always fetch the highest trade-in at the end of the semester, mint condition, never used. Halfway through the this semester I sought middle ground. I missed, too far to the fun side and I know it. Last year I burnt out because I never did anything but work and study.
Somewhere between the Backson and the Hedonist is a better path that I will aim for. Hopefully I can find this path between the two extremes and walk it to success and happiness.
The Finger and the Moon
One koan from or studies of Zen this semester took on greater importance to me, the koan of the finger and the moon:
All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.
At first I dismissed this as just another formulation of the familiar “missing the forest for the moon”, and a silly one at that, how could anyone mistake a finger for the moon it points too? But that’s not quite it. Slowly over this semester I have come to understand the koan through my experience with our mid-term paper. I mistook the grade for the assignment.
Instead of trying to learn something I focused on writing a paper that would get me a good grade. I tried to impress my teacher instead of writing a paper. In doing so I fixed my gaze upon the grade and by fixating on it I lost sight of the assignment. It was only after being called out on this by two of my classmates outside of class that I was able to see the mistake I had made. Only now, too late, have I understood that the finger is a necessary tool but that it is the moon itself that is the point. Now I am applying this lesson and a paper on what I learned rather than just writing an “A” paper.
The Big Lesson…
The biggest lesson I have learned in class this semester was not something I got from a book or a poem or a play or a movie. The biggest lesson I learned came from myself. When I registered for this class I anticipated an easy ride. Because I had already taken Religions of the World and Eastern Religions I assumed I would sit back, read a few books, write a few papers and collect an easy A.
My problem was I started the semester with no intention of putting into class anything like the amount of effort that is necessary to learn. At the start of the semester it was clearly stated that we could “only take away from this class what we put into this class”. Other teachers have said it before but I always did well even when my effort was less than what it could have been. In fact I was “awarded” the “Einstein Award, for the student who knows the most an applies themselves the least” in tenth grade biology. That year our grades were 25 percent homework and 75 percent tests. I got at 76, because I got some extra credit on the tests. I never even took my book home, never looked at the homework. I thought that class was easy, too easy. so I just cruised along. Despite knowing how the grades were calculated I somehow assumed I would be ok. It caught up with me that year but I never really learned the lesson. In high school the grades really didn’t matter, now in college this attitude had it caught up with me again this semester. I put minimal effort in and will get a minimal grade out and, for me at least, the GPA here counts for much more than it did in high school.
This is a lesson more valuable to my life than any lesson I have learned in any other class. It is a lesson more valuable than any skill or facts I could learn. More than knowledge it is wisdom. Wisdom I will remember for the rest of my life: don’t ever do anything half-assed, do it right or don’t do it at all. As Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
In closing this examination, of myself for this class, I can say that Study of Eastern Thinking has been one of the most informative experiences in my life. One that I hope will be a transformative experience in my life. I have learned simple lessons; about worrying, about losing sight of what matters. Lessons that I hope I can apply to all aspects of my life now and in the future.
As with the essence of Zen, what I have learned I cannot express properly in words in a way that will make someone understand. It can be summed up in a words or a phrase, but slogans don’t make understanding. It is a feeling, and feelings must be felt personally to be understood. I am satisfied that I have, only now in the end, accomplished the true objectives of this class, from it to it and everything in between.