Req. rdg. for the depressed

Ostensibly about boats and cruising, this wonderful article by Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) offers a perhaps even fresher perspective on the most pervasive plague of modern life than when it was originally published in Esquire, May 1977.

Cruising Blues and Their Cure

by Robert Pirsig

Their case was typical. After four years of hard labor their ocean-size trimaran was launched in Minneapolis at the head of Mississippi navigation. Six and one half months later they had brought it down the river and across the gulf to Florida to finish up final details. Then at last they were off to sail the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles and South America.

Only it didn’t work out that way. Within six weeks they were through. The boat was back in Florida up for sale. Continue reading “Req. rdg. for the depressed”

Emails on purpose

Correspondence with an old friend, triggered by a post i came across on Tony Tjan’s Harvard Business blog:

Dear R–

When i read this i thought of you and me. It’s off some website for venture capitalists, of all things, but the five questions made a lot of sense to me:

These five questions, when asked in the order presented, form an effective diagnostic tool that can provide better guidance to mentees, employees, or generally anyone with whom you are playing the role of a counsellor. Additionally, they can serve as a self-diagnosis of one’s own capabilities and opportunities.

Here are the questions:

1. What is it that you really want to be and do?
2. What are you doing really well that is helping you get there?
3. What are you not doing well that is preventing you from getting there?
4. What will you do differently tomorrow to meet those challenges?
5. How can I help / where do you need the most help?

I hope this morning’s cafe is suitably stocked with beans and babes.

Dear Groggy,
Lots to think about there. Symptom: I’m avoiding thinking about [it]. Hmm, no, not entirely true. That’s what I come to the cafe for. Enlightenment.

I think things are exactly the way they should be. You and I and the world are just as they should be according to everything that’s happened up to this minute. The issue (for me) is change. How to change?

Case in point: I read the five questions first trying to figure what I want to do, be, etc. Struggling. “Gee is that what I really want? Is that going to work? A painter? Do I still, deep down, want to be a drummer in a rock band…?” I can probably do fine without being a drummer at all. But then, what to get passionate about? …

A few minutes later I reread [the questions]. This time I plugged in my life as it is. All my “problems,” difficulties, and weaknesses…. Substitute the first question with “Who is it that you really are?” Then the rest of the questions answer themselves. The first thing that came to mind after that was something that a self-help guru said. I paraphrase: It’s no more difficult to do it the right way than it is to do it the wrong way.

Okay — change the answer to the first question. My impulse, no, need, is to answer with that magical something that will be passionate and wonderful and drive me for the rest of my long and wonderful life. (Which is kind of a cop-out, when you think about it. If something drives me [then] I don’t have to drive myself.) But hey, didn’t we just [make a mutual bet] based on the premise that working hard drives your ass (once you get going), and the inspiration follows. When asked if he only wrote when in the mood or if he really had to work at it, Somerset Maugham responded that he only wrote when inspired. “Fortunately,” he added, “inspiration strikes me at exactly nine a.m. every morning.”)

So the thing is, then, to choose. Chocolate or vanilla? Vanilla or chocolate? It doesn’t really matter. Choose one and go with it. I think choosing = changing. Kinda like my grandma telling me to put a smile on my face. Some work to get it on, but once there it’s awfully hard to ignore. Passion.


Whew — holy tangled web, Batman! I can relate, though; boy, can i relate. For me it all stems from the first question, What is it that you really want to be and do? Once that’s answered, the rest of the questions are just practicalities.

But that first one’s a problematic bastard. First off, it presupposes that there is something you “really want to be and do” — a premise that would not stand up to much historical scrutiny, methinks. It’s a notion that would have arisen along with the Enlightenment and the age of the individual, and individual purpose.

Counter to that, though, is the loose, Zennish notion that we, all of us, already know what we really want to be and do, because it’s built into our bodies. It’s all those things we really get into, where time disappears for us, that we do not because we’re supposed to but for fun, for compulsion, for … just for the doing. (For me, sometimes it’s playing the frame drum; i can go for hours, just lost in it. Sometimes it’s proofreading other people’s writing, which i can get deliciously obsessive about.)

Trouble is, few of those things slot into the professional categories we automatically invoke when thinking of being and doing: We immediately lapse into “job mode,” and then are stymied. The question becomes What job would you like to do?, with the subtext “happily and every day for the rest of your life.” Then suddenly we don’t know anymore. We might be sitting in a puddle making mud pies, perfectly content. Then someone asks the question, and we think, “This is ridiculous. I can’t sit around making mud pies forever. What do i really want to be and do?” Bingo — disconnect! Welcome to the age of bone-deep anxiety and confusion.


‘Scientism’ infects Darwinian debates

There’s a good piece from the level-headed columnist Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun this weekend. Subtitled “An unflinching belief that science can explain everything about evolution becomes its own ideology“, it makes for a good read on the newest brand of fundamentalism pitting itself against all those “traditional” fundamentalisms. The first few paragraphs:

There are two major obstacles to a rich public discussion on Charles Darwin s theory of evolution and what it means to all of us.

The most obvious obstacle is religious literalism which leads to Creationism. It s the belief the Bible or other ancient sacred texts offer the first and last word on how humans came into existence.

The second major barrier to a rewarding public conversation about the impact of evolution on the way we understand the world is not named nearly as much.

It is “scientism.”

Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will in the end be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can like religious literalism become its own ideology.

Does this sound like an argument you’ve had? Does this sound like six people you know?

Full story on-line here. It also appears on Todd’s blog, The Search, which is well worth a bookmark.

Sat Chit Ananda

Well. The more i mess about in this new-age consciousness business, the more i think that everybody is saying exactly the same things. It can’t be described directly, of course — that’s the catch-22 of the whole game — so it must be illustrated obliquely, through yogic posture or Buddhist ritual or, most often, linguistic metaphor.

I’m convinced that two-thirds of the struggle (once one gets to the point of beginning to struggle, which is a whole epic in itself) is simply to find the metaphors that resonate most strongly with you. Some people — “seekers” — go through their whole lives from guru to guru, method to method. A lot of this is egoic procrastination — the threatened self not truly wanting to find the simple secret that will mean its dissolution — but much of it, i’m convinced, is metaphor search. 

For me, the rational, scientific argument works best. For me, yoga is just good exercise; meditation is simply ritual; far-flung foreign monasteries are but theme travel. Yet give me a good, hard-nosed, evidence-based logical argument for the empty mind and the universal self and i’ll eat it up every time. 

That’s how 1950s-60s British-American scholar and “religious entertainer” (his description) Alan Watts first kick-started me down this path, lo, those three (four? six?) long years ago. I listened, i was entertained, there were no cross-cultural references that i didn’t get … it just straight-up made sense. Eckhart Tolle was another one, speaking and writing from right here in B.C. I didn’t get through The Power of Now, but his follow-up world-wide hit A New Earth just laid it all out like … well, for me, the meta-metaphor is mathematics: a chain of small logical (or at least sensible) steps that leads like a path of stepping-stones to a conclusion that feels right on every level.

Did i say “laid it all out”? I overstated. I’ve always had questions, gaps, holes and unbridgeable interregnums in my understanding of even the relatively simple logical argument. Besides, all these myriad approaches, every one of them, is just a recipe; none of them is a cake. No matter how good, how thorough, how compelling the recipes are, until you’ve made cake, you don’t get cake. So no, it hasn’t yet been all laid out, not for me. But it feels like i’m getting there.

In pursuit of which i’ve been browsing about like mad on this marvellous Internet, here in Victoria with lots of free time, and yesterday i happily stumbled on what might be the clearest, most concise wrap-up of the whole plate o’ spaghetti that i’ve yet run across (for me, as always). It was this The Evolution of Consciousness page, and in the space of maybe 3000 words it runs neatly down a long, long evolutionary timeline. The headings: 

  • Are All Creatures Conscious?
  • Consciousness and Biological Evolution
  • Language and Consciousness
  • Self-Consciousness
  • Transcending Language
  • Sat Chit Ananda
  • Our Evolutionary Imperative

The page is on Peter Russell’s website. I don’t know anything about the guy, but i plan to look into his sizeable site over the coming days.


Stumbled across in At the End of the World (Economy), What Will I Need?, by Linda Solomon in The Vancouver Observer:

Shenpa, Chodron says on her audio book Getting Unstuck, is the “hooked quality,” the “attachment that is a fundamental part of the human condition.” She says that in order to transcend staying hooked to habits that have long ceased to serve us, one must first must recognize “the habitual thing” or “the scratching thing” that can also be understood as the low hum of uneasiness most of us live with throughout or lives. Use these techniques to unhook, she says:

  • Recognizing
  • Refraining
  • Relaxing into the underlying feeling
  • Resolve
  • Lighten up, be gentle, but continue. Meditate. Meditate so that you have the tools to face the present, to be where you really are, to stop avoiding, to navigate the mess in front of you well.

It isn’t the thoughts that are the problem; what we need to address is “the sticky quality” that unhinges us. We need to interrupt the momentum of shenpa, the habituation, the strong momentum to make that shenpa stronger. It doesn’t mean our thoughts are bad and we shouldn’t have them.

You listening, H—?