“What IS the problem?”

The title comes from a comment made to a recent post.

The “answer” seemed too glib, unfair actually, to throw the question back by responding that the problem is our habit of looking at everything as if it were a problem needing to be solved.

But this is true. It could be useful to say “This is the problem.”

But then, it can’t just be left at that.

There has been a bit of a dry-spell here in the last few weeks. Old habits had me posting a few times a week. I benefited from a cycle of regular internal dialogue coupled with simple superficial habits like being accustomed to sit at this keyboard at a certain hour and to jump off the edge that is writing.

These habits provided me with the capacity to create. They assured a certain output and helped focus me and therefore had some affect on the quality of that output.

But life cannot remain in any one routine. As much as I hate to have mine broken, I have come to realize that without such breaks habit tends to take over and there is a growing possibility that output becomes just that, the object that falls off the end of a conveyor.

Our culture values this! How else can we be supplied with reliable commodities?

My track record has always shown that I am unreliable in this way, and for good or ill, this has suited me to other pursuits.

One of the ways a creeping commodification betrays its presence is in a mounting sense of futility. I have long found that as output narrows into predictability a sense of futility rises within and it becomes harder and harder to continue.

Another way to look at it is to acknowledge that cycles process. They do not return to the same place and neatly start over. They develop a wobble and they “fall off the rails.”

Thank God!

This connects with the cycle of life Alan Watts referred to, the one with the “Man in a Boat.” In fact, what makes our own time so perilous is our resistance on so many levels to the necessity for decay and death. In our rush to avoid this cleansing aspect we up the stakes and insure that the eventual collapse will be greater and more profound than it might have to be otherwise.

This connects with the question at hand. “What IS the problem?”

We could say our inability to accept a cycle that processes – and this is different from one that progresses! Procession is a wobble, a change that mutates and evolves, and in this way takes us from this place to another. It does not guarantee or in any way expect that the other place will be superior, or that things get necessarily better, or worse, for that matter. But they do change. We could say our inability to accept this in our default mode of acting is itself what creates problems. Very simply, by looking for something we are more likely to find it, or at least to imagine that our projection of this image onto what we perceive will create the illusion that this is what we have found. We hit what we aim for.

But this is only one aspect of our predicament. It happens to be the one that drives us to ignore our predicament and focus on a series of problems for which we then strive after solutions. This puts us, enforces our position within cycles of conflict. If there was no one, no force, opposing us we would have to invent one…. There are signs of this everywhere from the private to the public spheres.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of our predicament is that it derives from a fundamental incoherence we apply to everything because we misinterpret the role of thought. This delusion-creating dynamic is based on a compelling illusion itself, that because we think, there must be a thinker.

The reasons this question is so difficult to keep in mind are wrapped up in the difficulties we have in grasping our predicament at all. A compelling illusion freights us with difficulty because it is compelling. When faced with partial evidence that it throws us off track we rush to correct it. We do this by inventing problems, compelling problems, that defy solution and maintain us frustrated and off-balance, but they are “successful” because they do not shake our faith in our underlying misunderstanding.

There is Schadenfreude in watching others caught in a maze they don’t perceive as a maze. It exercises our sense of superiority, “Poor buggers!” We say, watching the ants suffer….

There is a hint here at the price we pay for holding onto our delusions. The same pitilessness we show those we can see squirming in there traps extends to our selves. The worst result of remaining within our delusions is in the way they close us off from the paths of compassion.

Our misunderstanding is not an intellectual one. It is not a question of becoming smarter, more clever, although recognizing the capacity we all have to share in intelligence is a helpful step along the way. Compassion and the access it gives us to engaging with and living within what-is, is a state of being that requires the adjustment of habits and a different attitude. This cannot occur without some form of ongoing practice.

Now, not just to be difficult…. No practice will take us there. That is, we are either deluded or not. When we are not, it is not the result of striving. It is not a cumulative process of becoming. We cannot be and be in the process of becoming. They are mutually exclusive states!

But, being partakes of an attitude towards life as a series of embedded processing cycles. No state of disillusionment maintains itself indefinitely. At least from within the portion of the cycles I’ve been aware of from within the types and levels of conditioning that are customary today I have recognized that without some series of practices that help hone in us an ability to perceive compassion from within the anesthetized, traumatized states we find ourselves in I would have no idea how to find my way.

One guess, or clue embedded in this realization, might be that within such an attitude is implicit a letting-go of an insistence on certainty. Welcoming paradox, not only as a wry punctuation for moments of reflection, but as the “bedrock” of existence, might be a way to resist the habits and conditioning that maintain us blindly striving unaware that our persistent frustration and sense of futility are warnings that there can be no solution along that path.

It can seem glib and perverse, to throw back at someone sincerely looking for solutions that their attitude holds them in an incoherent state chasing after problems that leave them frustrated at their insolubility; but such is the difficulty in this quest.

This has long been a motif in Buddhist practice. There are complete literatures devoted to chronicling the ways Zen Masters have frustrated seekers with their tricky, seemingly cruel responses. We can intellectually see the need for it without understanding that it does always bite and that the frustration piqued in these exercises might lead to a breakthrough, but that no level of preparation or worthiness will assure it.

There is a gulf between coherence and our present incoherence. There is a gulf between those who might have left this divide behind and the rest of us. There is a gulf I have experienced between when coherence shines out with a fleeting clarity before the fog rolls back in. I don’t pretend to have answers, nor do I look for answers, on a good day. All I can do is look at what comes to mind and put it down so that it is visible.

From here, this does not appear to be a problem. From there it is still hard not to expect that there be a problem and therefore a solution.

I recognize the incoherence in this. I recognize that stating questions as though our incoherence were a problem, and therefore solvable, is mired in conditioning. I recognize that none of what I’ve found or observed or glimpsed will solve our misunderstanding.

All I do see is that our misunderstanding is pervasive and persistent. That there is joy and access to compassion when this misunderstanding lifts. That exercising practices that involve experiencing coherence in some manner appear helpful, while falling into futility and further willful striving has never been anything but destructive.

The intent behind this post has not been to provide an answer. It has been to provide company. To persist, at least for these moments of writing and reading, within a possibility of dialogue. And through this to ask for, and provide, a gesture of community.

In face of predicaments I don’t see how we can offer, or ask for, anything more, or different, or better.

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12 thoughts on ““What IS the problem?”

      • A joke? It must be on me. When you promise a response to the past post, and you completely duck the issue? Argh.

        More tomorrow.

      • All right. Sorry for taking so long. Here is where my feeling of being betrayed by our noble blogger enters:

        Tony, you told me long ago that division is the root of the problem (my words, interpreting my memory of the conversation). So I wrote it down somewhere, and have been looking for clarification over time. What am I missing? It does not make sense, but I wait.

        So the last post came, and it said: “Divisions, our habits, based on our misunderstanding of thought, are healed by compassion.”

        It tells me that division must be healed, therefore division is a problem. So I wrote of the examples where division is fertile and beneficial, far from a problem. Hoping for some clarification of when division is a problem.

        Instead, the putative response tells me that my thinking in terms of problems is a problem. I feel cheated out of the real discussion I was hoping for. I don’t see division per se as a problem. I don’t see conflict per se as a problem. And I don’t see thinking in terms of problems as something I should shun. I do it every day, and that is what a life of necessary trial and error is based on.

        So. Perhaps I completely misunderstood. I am simply showing what my experience has been here in these two last posts. And how is division a wound (?) that must be healed?

      • Division is healed when we stop seeing it as a problem. When we stop looking for stopping places. Division is. Distinctions make perception possible. Life becomes a problem when we insist that there be answers.

        In our most recent conversation we talked about the responsibility not just of aggrandizers and extroverts who jump into leadership roles, but of the people who insist that others provide answers and meet their desire for someone to save them. There are no leaders without followers. There are none of the excesses of leadership without the desires of followers to be lead.

        Disappointment lodges in us when we insist that our expectations have weight, that our righteousness is unique and compelling. Then, others disappoint and give reason for our anger and for our violence.

        Don’t be disappointed here. There are no answers here. No one here is trying to lead.

        Throwing these expectations into a conversation ensures that there will not be a dialogue, nothing but more negotiation over power with varying and competing strategies for “victory.”

      • Very strange. Since I never did regard division as a problem, and wondered why you did, we’ve come full circle in some crazy game I don’t understand.

      • We have run into the limits of this form. There is no game here.

        A dialogue needs to take place “live.” There’s no way around it.

        Let’s talk…

        Tony

  1. Tony,

    I think we are talking about circular thinking. I have been occasionally blind to the obvious. Times when I am reluctant to let go of a “wrong” preconception. Sometimes an idea is just not well initiated and things don’t go as planned. I find myself slapped in the face trying to make something work when the foundation idea was critically flawed. Being somewhat stubborn, I will continue to put energy into something that can’t work. When that happens, I eventually surrender, back off. and re-asses my preliminary objective. Often as not, I have a minor epiphany and start again.

    Kind of reminds me of an old story…

    A gentleman farmer friend of mine had a big fenced pasture that wasn’t being used. There was ample grass, so he decided to go to the auction to buy a steer to fatten on the free grass.

    He brings home the steer, puts out water and goes home for supper, happy with his fine idea, and proud that his grass was going to give his family all that inexpensive meat.

    The next morning he goes to see his steer , and he is not in the pasture. The gate in knocked down and the steer is in his wife’s garden. He spends half a day getting the recalcitrant steer back in the pasture , and the rest of the day fixing the old wooden gate. Tired, he goes back home for a late supper and an angry wife.

    Next day, he again goes out and finds the steer out again. The old wooden gate is smashed to smithereens and the steer is in his neighbor’s garden. He soothes his neighbor’s anger, spends another half day getting the steer back in the pasture, goes to town and buys a good steel gate , and works until dark hanging the heavy steel gate onto the old wooden post. He goes home to a cold supper and a colder wife.

    The next morning he is greeted outside with the steer in the front lawn with the heavy steel gate hanging over it’s shoulders like a cape. the gatepost all askew where the gate should have been.

    Dejected, he called an experienced farming friend to help him solve the problem of the renegade steer. His friend nodded understandably, and fully grasped the problem the gentleman was facing.

    The next day the experienced farmer came back and shot the steer, and the two men went on to prepare a wonderful bar-b-Que.

    John

  2. Hm, is that story a variation of Gordions knot? A rather callous one at that: I know a steer likes company, and it is a pity he could not find other company than murderers. Such is the way of the world.

    On another tangent: Jung talks about the withdrawal of projections as one of the (hard) tasks facing those who seek true individuation. Projection is absolutely essentiel: it is the first step in reaching outside, recognising something as not me. And some can live a life without taking the next step: seeing that the projection is me, and that other is really another, something to be examined, with as much clarity as one can muster. And taking steps on this road, one learns to appreciate this word: re-collection. Walking through one’s memories and collecting the information not visible in the first (or second, etc.)round – because of being clouded by projection. I am constantly catching myself, quick to project, slow to withdraw projection. It would be vital to become really fluent in this. Just to see, one needs projection. How to suspend it so that it will not stick (the flying shit…) but does it’s job of making something visible? So that I can do the work of discernment, the archeology of perception: this pebble is me, this pebble is the other…

    Jung talks about how trogdolytes have not disappeared, they still walk among us. One of my persistent assumptions is, that if it walks like a human and quacks like a human, it must be human (and being human for me means, for example, being capable of independent thinking). And I constantly err. And accuse the poor creatures for not conforming to my standards. Normal projection – wasting my and their time. Ducking the work, me, not wanting to do that eternal work of sorting the pebbles: this is me this is the other. That work those fairytale princesses have to do to survive the evil witch -sort out the seeds, peas, clean out the stables, all the dreary work. But the princesses often get magical help. So far, I haven’t found any. Chose the wrong godmother, I guess…

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