Archive for October, 2012

The Wisdom Of Storms

Posted in Agathos, Uncategorized with tags , on October 29, 2012 by Joe Callahan

There is a storm passing through the eastern seaboard and my corner of Massachusetts.  The worst is on the coast but there are some significant gusts of wind and rain passing through here.  Despite the danger of tree branches falling on my head I just couldn’t spend the whole day and night in the apartment.  I decided to venture down to the watering hole in the town center.  The magic of Facebook informed me that the Black Horse was going to stay open in defiance of Poseidon’s wrath.  As a lifelong devotee of Odysseus I could hardly refuse the challenge to make so a puny voyage for a glass of Oban.  I’d be ashamed to do otherwise.

When I eventually drained the dram and left to head home the wind and rain were still blowing strongly through the town common.  It’s a funny thing about storms. They wake you up.  Maybe it’s the wind or the rain in your face but a good storm makes you look around with mild surprise and say “Oh look.  I’m HERE!”

This time, as I looked around, I was struck by one of those sharp pieces of memory that assert themselves with all the force of immediate reality.

I spent the bulk of 1984 as a student abroad in Ireland and lived just south of Dublin in Blackrock.  This was in the days before the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom turned that neck of the woods into a much more developed urban sprawl.  While out on an ongoing series of expeditions to pubs and historic sites and pubs and villages and pubs and spots of natural beauty and pubs and then some pubs I somehow found myself alone at night (probably Dun Laoghaire) and with no prayer of a bus back northward along the coast to Blackrock and eventually City Centre.  This sort of thing happened with a regularity that would alarm anyone who wasn’t Irish, buzzed and twenty-one years of age.  As it happened, I applied my universal solution to everything in those days and just started walking.  All roads led someplace good or interesting.  It was an easy belief to maintain then.

It was raining which, in Ireland, comes as a surprise only to the naïve and the insane.  At that time I wore Irish wool sweaters and one of those old army M65 field jackets with the strangely thin inadequate hood.  I had lots of hair then so between the hood and my Ian Anderson hairstyle I felt pretty comfortable.

At some point I found myself at an intersection where some houses and a little local general store came together.  I couldn’t tell you to save my life where this was and I doubt that today it looks at all the same.  It’s lost in time for me but I can see it with absolute clarity.  It was night, the rain came down and a breeze was blowing strongly and there was not a soul to be seen.  Respectable people must have been asleep as I never did see a single light in a window.  I have a photograph memory of a white stucco wall and a dark window and a dim street light in a drizzling rain.  I remember that window as some symbolic gateway into any number of futures.  As I walked I was aware of being completely alone.  But along with the wind and the feel of the rain was an absolute awareness of not being alone.  No, it was not the presence of deity.   I was simply awake.  I had that mild sense of surprise as I looked around and felt the clarity of the thought “Oh my, look, I am HERE”.  I was awake in nature and at one of those luminous crossroads of possibility.  I was keenly aware that I could walk in any direction and towards any fate and it would all be GOOD.  No, not good in a moralistic sense but still it would be good in the sense that it would work.   I would be just fine.

I was aware of that tonight.  It is a belief that’s less easy to hold on to over time even if it remains equally true.  As I watched the branches blowing around and felt the wind in my face I was simply HERE.  It was important and good to be awake.  It can be shockingly hard to maintain.  Twenty-eight years ago I knew that all directions would be fine.   The wind and rain tonight reminded me that the same is true.   My choices are less now about a wide open future and more about the options that remain.  No matter, the night and the storms are teachers to whom we cannot lie.  Even if there are only moments or decades the choice remains the same.  What will I do while I am HERE?

Cryptic Samurai Advice On Time Well Spent

Posted in Philosophy with tags , on October 12, 2012 by Joe Callahan

Miyamoto Musashi. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In college I first picked up a translation of Musashi’s “Go Rin No Sho” or Book of Five Rings.  Briefly, Musashi was one of the great, if not the greatest, swordsmen of his day and is still revered as an icon of Bushido and the Samurai life.  This is all the more interesting since he didn’t always follow the social conventions of the Samurai class.  He composed this work near the end of his life when he retired to contemplate and write in a cave.  His precepts for living according to the martial way were not for the faint of heart.  There was a bit of the mad genius in Musashi.

Like many who have turned to this book over the centuries I was hoping it would offer some roadmap to becoming a great strategist or a great swordsman or both.  Generations of martial artists, soldiers, businessmen and politicians have contemplated Musashi’s words.  There may well be a map in there but it doesn’t offer a quick, clear route and parts of the map just say “here there be monsters”.  It wasn’t until many years later that I had a few “ahhh  I see” moments when rereading the book.

One very brief line struck me early on and I’ve come back to it again and again.  In the work’s  first part called The Earth Scroll (Cleary Translation) there is a short list of “rules” if one wishes to seriously study his way.  The last of these says simply:

Do not do anything useless.

I’ve seen this line translated as “Do nothing that is without use” and “Do nothing that is without purpose”.    Allowing for variations on the theme, the line seems to be telling us don’t screw around.  Get serious.  Focus.  That line could be read through a dour even Puritanical lens (idle hands do the devil’s work, etc.).  In a society where people feel pressured to give more and more to jobs, answering work emails until the wee hours I’m not sure a dictum to only do what is productive and useful is really what we need to hear.

But I don’t think that’s all he was saying.  What constitutes “useful”?  Musashi was a man who contemplated nature.  In addition to being a swordsman he was also an accomplished artist.  While he committed an astonishing amount of energy to his work as a professional martial artist he didn’t suggest that all life must be labor.  He did seem to be saying that all activities, even the pleasurable ones, should contribute to our well-being and development as humans on our path in life.

I’ve thought about this in terms of leisure.  Is leisure “useless”?  No, we all need rest and social time and things we do for the sake of enjoyment.  But Musashi’s rule might be worth considering if the choice of leisure activities is watch television reruns with a six pack at your side versus playing a game of chess or going for a hike with a friend.  Which is truly restful, sitting in quiet meditation contemplating art or nature or staring off into space and scrolling through I Am Bored?  While leisure is necessary and not useless the leisure we choose will speak volumes.  What we’re talking about is intentionality.

Intentionality tells us that our thoughts and actions are about something.  If I say “I am eating potato chips while lying on a couch” that makes a statement with regard to myself and is about my condition.  When we engage in any action whether it is for work or leisure, self-improvement or pleasure, the action will be about something.  The action will reflect on the state of our being independently of our thoughts on the matter.  In one of those odd philosophical twists of terminology this isn’t the same thing as an intention (I intend to start weightlifting tomorrow).  Intentionality is a revealed meaning or purpose of a thought or action.

I think what Musashi was suggesting was not just that we should keep busy and avoid frivolity (though being something of an ascetic he probably would say that too).  I think the point of the line “do nothing that is useless” is to live in such a way that our actions automatically contribute to continued refinement of ourselves.  If you are working then work meaningfully and well.  If you are resting then rest meaningfully and well.  Aristotle told us we are what we repeatedly do.  I think in his own gruffer way Musashi was saying something similar.