Merriam-Webster defines a footnote as… “a note of reference, explanation, or comment…usually placed below the text on a printed page“. A secondary definition says that a footnote is something “that is a relatively subordinate or minor part of an event, work, or fieldof interest.“
I’ve titled my inquiries and contemplations as…”Footnotes to a Life”. I found inspiration for this title in two disparate and, at least for me, inextricably linked areas of investigation. More particularly, I am citing specific comments by two completely different thinkers from the early twentieth century. Alfred North Whitehead and Kodo Sawaki.
Alfred North Whitehead was an English mathematician and philosopher who co-authored Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. While Whitehead’s name may not be overly familiar today, in 1929 Whitehead published one of the twentieth century’s most startling, sophisticated and complex works of original philosophy…Process and Reality.
In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote that…”The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Wow! What a line. For a philosopher, that was a collection of sharp words indeed.
And, it was not Whitehead’s only insightful comment in the book.
The second inspiration for using “Footnotes to a Life” comes from Japanese thinker, Kodo Sawaki.
“Homeless” Kodo Sawaki Roshi was one of Zen Buddhism’s most highly regarded teachers. Sawaki has been widely attributed with the comment that…”All of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen.”
Like Whitehead…that wasn’t Sawaki’s only profound comment.
I have no information about whether Whitehead and Sawaki were aware of each other’s work or perspectives. What strikes me is….the similarity between the two comments. It can’t be ignored.
Separated as they were by only 20-years in age, I view the two thinkers as contemporaries. Whitehead worked as a philosopher and mathematician in England and Sawaki was a Zen Buddhist priest in Japan. But they both used that metaphor of a footnote to convey something about their work.
Their comments were directed to different genres of thought. I enjoy the notion that Sawaki and Whitehead would have appreciated each other’s outlook if they had been aware of each other’s work. Indeed, based upon the modest exposure I’ve had to their respective writings, I expect they would have found agreement on several other matters as well.
The sameness of the comments is an elegant and profound underscoring of the similarities and differences between the Buddhist…and perhaps more broadly, Eastern philosophy and the European…and again, perhaps more broadly, Western philosophy. The emphasis on action and practice in the east. The emphasis on theory and words in the west.
“Footnotes” seems to be the most apt explanation of what my articles are all about. My articles are explanations and expositions; they are also subordinate parts to the subjects that they cover and to the living of a life. For all of that, I hope that they are valuable in themselves.
And there we have my inspiration for the title “Footnotes to a Life”. My inquiries and contemplations are indeed a subordinate, or minor, part of my life and interests. But they are also a reference. And a comment.
I began this inquiry as a response to a book that I found at the local public library in my community. I read the book over the course of a few days, expecting to find little other than a standard, light-reading, member of the trendy “wellness” self-help genre. My expectations were mostly fulfilled. But the book managed to extend slightly beyond those expectations, occasionally, to include some ideas that seemed to be genuinely worth exploring.
Olga Mecking published Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing in book form in 2021, though the original written material seems to be slightly older. The originating text appears to bear a 2020 copyright. This suggests, at least to me, that the book is at least partially a collection of articles that appeared previously in a different form. That’s OK by me.
The book’s title is reasonably explanatory of its contents – an exploration of “doing nothing”.
A few days after reading Mecking’s book, I learned via a search of Goodreads that no fewer than eight books dedicated to the matter of “niksen” have been published in recent years. At this time, I have no clear idea how many popular or academic articles on the topic may exist. Neither can I determine whether Mecking’s book is achieves anything more…(or less)…. than the others. For now, my exposure to niksen is limited to Mecking’s version and a very small sampling of other material.
As with my other Footnotes essays…(such as my Footnotes to Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee)… the following notes and comments are not intended to be a formal book review of Mecking’s book. There won’t be a detailed summary or regurgitation of the book. I won’t comment on the font, binding, style or other aesthetic features of the artifact. I won’t even suggest that my comments will reflect on all that the book may have to offer. Instead, I am merely taking note of certain ideas and themes as they relate to my own particular pre-occupations and interests.
On this occasion, I am curious about what it means to…do nothing.
Mecking has presented the word “niksen” as the Dutch term for a particular form of idleness. Mecking’s book and, by extension – the wider trend of niksen-oriented writing is based on a principle or argument that there are distinct kinds of idleness. And further that this particular version of doing nothing is beneficial to people. Perhaps even uniquely beneficial to people. A problem of approaching an idea like this is establishing a clear and precise description of this form of idleness and how it may be differentiated from other forms of idleness. Perhaps forms that may not be beneficial to people. In other words, what makes niksen qualitatively unique or different from: laziness, sleeping, watching TV, meditating or even in engaging in non-productive recreation?
This may seem to be a superficial and unimportant distinction on a superficial and unimportant topic. But I don’t think it is. Particularly as this distinction relates to that second component of Mecking’s argument – that “niksen” may be beneficial to those who engage in it. Niksen may well be a particular kind of idleness…but is that particular kind of idleness actually beneficial. And is it any more or less beneficial than other forms of idleness. This line of inquiry may provide valuable insights into contemporary life. Even if the insights turn out not to be staggeringly fresh, consideration of the role of rest in the maintenance of a healthy life is not unimportant.
Whether the Netherlands’ version of idle relaxation is any more or less of an art form is also a matter for consideration. But first things first.
Mecking acknowledges that she has critics who accuse her of attempting to capitalize on a trendy subject. And it may well be that that the current proliferation of niksen-themed material is all a matter of sustaining a trend out of nothing. Pun intended.
Indeed, Mecking cites several similar trends that have present similar or adjacent social phenomena: Wellness, Mindfulness, Zen, Hygge/Koselig/Gemutlichkeit, Konmari, Dostadning (Swedish Death Cleaning), Ikigai, Nunchi. These are all examples of trendy social and lifestyle practices that have been documented and promoted across various media.
But as Shakespeare’s Lear demanded,… “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” – we may need to do some further consideration to see if there is actually more to say about niksen.
The title of the book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing carries a faint echo of one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as it attempts to establish how a central daily practice or ritual, and its underlying principles, may be perceived as an “art”. I might argue that Mecking’s use of “art” and Pirsig’s definition of “art” would be rather different. I expect Mecking’s definition to hove-to contemporary usage of art as defining a primarily aesthetic and appreciative practice rather than art as Pirsig intended the term. Pirsig used art as a term for the craftsperson’s creative procedures and practices. It is valuable to explore these types of distinctions as advocating a distinction is what the book attempts to do…a distinction in forms of idleness.
On page 28, Mecking explains that “niks” is Dutch for “nothing” and that niksen is a verb form of the same word. Niksen is therefore “to do nothing”. Mecking provides explnations of how niksen may be interpreted and provides connections to other concepts. Included in Meckig’s list of related concepts and conceptualists is the english world “idle” and the British movement of “idlers”. This is aa term I’ve already used in this essay and which has particular cultural and literary roots that I enjoy. As a sidebar, a few glances at the eighteenth-century The Idler essays may convince you that Samuel Johnson and essayists throughout the ages would have been thrilled with the blogging format.
What is Niksen?
In the first chapter of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, I can’t find any place where Mecking has provided a specific and concise definition of niksen. I was only able to locate that at the end of the book where Mecking provided a slightly campy manifesto advocating niksen as a lifestyle practice. But the definition is concise and worth quoting. Here it is: “Niksen is a Dutch lifestyle philosophy that emphasizes doing nothing without a purpose. Just because.”
There are some problems here that don’t actually help Mecking’s argument that her presentation of niksen is more than a merely a capitalization on a trendy lifestyle term. Maybe that’s why the definition was held back so long in the book. But I’m going to set that judgement aside in consideration of the potential value of the niksen activity itself.
From my own day-to-day life, niksen seems to be the term which would apply to… (particularly solitary)… time spent sitting on the porch. For me, that is a time when I do not actively engage in anything either internally…. (within myself)… nor externally (outside of myself). It is like meditation, but without the struggle of attempting to avoid actively engaging in my thoughts and without attempting to direct my attention as an observer of my own resting mental activity.
Is There Ever A Time When We Do Nothing?
Mecking spends some time in capitulation to the fact that there is never a time in one’s life when NOTHING occurs. There are always physiological processes occurring. However, there are times when an individual is not engaged in doing things. To present an alternate definition of niksen that establishes the activity in context of conscious activity, I suggest that niksen is “idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness.”
Is Niksen A Genuine and Universal Feature of Human Existence?
As previously mentioned, I have a relatively limited exposure to the available popular and academic literature on niksen. I think it is a reasonable expectation, however, that everything written about niksen will focus on the connections between the word and its roots and place in Dutch society. Mecking calls niksen a…Dutch Art.
Mecking certainly spends considerable effort in praise of the Netherlands. Mecking makes the argument that Dutch people are “happy”, to some un-specified extent, because of the presence of niksen in the Dutch culture.
The 2021 iteration of the World Happiness Report places the Netherlands in fifth place – solidly amid several other Nordic countries. Mecking doesn’t provide much proof that it is the niksen at work. It could be the snow. But the positioning brings forward a related question.
To what extent is this exploration of niksen (disengaged nothingness, idle relaxation) a “first world problem”? Or more accurately, a wealthy person’s problem? That is a valuable question. The person who needs to spend a considerable portion of their day figuring out basic survival may not have quite as much time to worry about the “wellness” benefits that may accrue via distinctions between “niksen”, “farting around on the computer”, “hanging out with friends”, or any other form of idleness one may wish to consider. This is a kind of extreme luxury for exactly how one spends resources not required to meet basic needs.
But there is the old story of a wealthy, ambitious person who worked hard to earn lots of money with the dream of travelling the world and meeting the people who live there. On one trip, this ambitious person sees a bunch of simple peasants sitting on a hillside and staring off into a glorious sunset over the ocean. The wealthy, ambitious person looks at these peasants, looks around at the poor farm and takes in the fantastic view. The wealthy, ambitious person says to them, “Look at this wonderful landscape and that view! You should get busy and build a resort.” One of the peasants asks, “Why would we do that?” The wealthy, ambitious person says, “In no time, you’d have visitors from around the world. You’d make all kinds of money and stop being poor!” The peasant asks, “And then what would we do?” The wealthy, ambitious person says, “Well you could sit back and relax and watch the sunset.”
According to the book, Mecking lives in the Netherlands and has many connections to the nation but is not Dutch. The book is a useful tool to identify a few features of Dutch culture that may be of general value. As far as I can determine, Mecking believes these to be: a) Be normal (i.e. not fake, exaggerated or artificially and gregariously excitable) b) Seek contentedness rather than happines c) Be direct in social interactions d) Be critical of ideas.
Is Calvinism to Blame?
The most interesting feature of the third Chapter is Mecking’s interest to pin the responsibility for the modern pre-occupation with being busy on Calvinism.
Mecking also enumerates the emergence of something called “New Thought” in the 19th century. She suggests this new thought allowed a move away from Calvinism and that one result of this break was the development of the wellness industry. Mecking further references Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption and eventually gets around to the irony of contemporary digital technology which promises individual liberty but actually undermines it.
This is interesting as a tracing of the philosophical tensions that arise as a result of considering “doing nothing for no reason at all.”
Chapter four is largely an argument in favour of disengaging and allowing the brain to continue to work on a problem while you’re attention is disengaged. Mecking makes an argument that idle relaxation works with a person’s brain.
There is also an appeal to intuition which is a growing and somewhat troubling trend as it can lead people to the conclusion that “doing nothing” (intellectually) has a high probability of an intuitive process producing a valid and reliable (ie. correct) insight or solution. This is problematic for those who may in fact be intellectually lazy and therefore fail to ensure that their intuitive processes have reliable information in the first place. Garbage in, Garbage out. This appears to intuition also indicates nothing about alternate biological drivers (determinants) that may produce intuitive outcomes that have less relation to a given problem than some other matter that the subconscious sees value-in.
As with Shannon Lee’s book, Mecking leans on Czikmentmihalyi’s concept of flow. It is a popular concept. There isn’t that much science in Mecking’s book and mentioning flow is an easy way to connect with other trends.
Mecking acknowledges that some concepts from other cultures won’t work because the necessary support is not there for the transplant. What may work for some people in the Netherlands may not work for a different group of people in your town.
Wellness books are targeted to individual action not a broad social structure.
Mecking’s conclusion is focused on busy-ness…overall the book is an argument that busy-ness is a problem to be solved. The origin of the busy-ness problem is (at least partially) pinned on Calvinism. Mecking also suggest that ambition and flawlessness as ideals are growing in the Netherlands. Mecking argues that niksen has arisen as a tool to manage the complexity and stress of a busy life.
Mecking’s version of niksen is an appeal for periods of reduced busy-ness…more idle time that is focussed on leisure. Mecking also argues that worth/value is not connected to the number of hours that a person expends on an activity nor what is produced. Interestingly, Mecking has not recommended that stress and complexity be eliminated. Only managed.
It would have been poignant if Mecking had concluded, “If anything I’ve described here makes sense, then do nothing.” Instead, Mecking asks for people to join her social media group. Modern life has its ironies.
Niksen is a word to indicate times of a particular form of “doing nothing”. In this essay, I am motivated to take seriously an idea that at least one book’s author has advanced but also repeatedly hampered. Babies. Bathwater.
In Surfing with Sartre (2017), Aaron James suggested that individuals would be better off, and that the the world would be better off – if more people were surfers who spent large chunks of time sitting on or near the water doing nothing much. Not being productive. While there are extremely reasonable objections to James’ opinion, the underlying notion is that disengaged nothingness is a certainly a valuable feature of human existence and possibly an essential one in the twenty-first century.
For Mecking, James and others, doing nothing is a necessary human process.
And yet, there are features of human existence which conflict with disengaged nothingness. Survival. Earning a living. Social structures, institutions and circumstances with their own requirements and agendas.
Disengaged nothingness (as exemplified by niksen) is different from engaged nothingness (as exemplified by meditation). One wonders if disengaged nothingness is actually a goal of engaged nothingness.
Sitting on a shady porch on a spring or summer day. Staring into a crackling fire on a winter’s day. Lying on the beach.
Niksen is a kind of rest. It is disengagement from urgent and non-urgent demands of life and living. It is freedom-from. I suspect we all need more freedom-from.
In Zen, the goal is “just sitting”. Kodo Sawaki said “Zen is good for nothing”. So zazen is a process to achieve niksen.
If you’re interested to learn more about niksen or the sources that I used while researching this topic, you may wish to visit the sources page on www.ericadriaans.com and search for this article.
Over the course of several readings since 2014, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig has become one of my favorite books. Also the launching-point for several personally-meaningful literary and philosophical inquiries.
Given how frequently the book has been ignored, rejected or scorned by critics of various types and the significant amount of time that has passed since its publication – an admission of affection for the book could be considered a sidelining move. Does anybody take the book seriously? Certainly not in academia. I am aware of only a tiny handful of efforts to address Pirsig’s work. Most of those have addressed the philosophical nature of the book. Interestingly, academic scorn (and, by the way, scorn for academia) are central considerations of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), so maybe that’s an entirely appropriate state of affairs.
So what is ZAMM? There are plenty of resources that will provide a brief plot summary or philosophical synopsis of the book. These resources will advise that ZAMM is a semi-fictional narrative about a cross-country motorcycle vacation; that it is a critique of the human condition contemporary to the second half of the twentieth century. Some will suggest that it is a cultural exploration and a work of philosophy. Not many will suggest that it is a book of Zen nor that it is an attempt by a serious intellectual to develop an original metaphysical philosophy. Fewer still will mention that ZAMM is a critique of both Eastern and European Philosophy and Academia. Almost nobody talks about ZAMM as a critique of religion – particularly messianic religion. I haven’t seen anyone call ZAMM an epic monster story or supernatural thriller. It is rarely, if ever, declared a tightly-connected literary work.
Many readers have described their first reading of ZAMM as frustrating, challenging, annoying, offensive and boring among many other descriptions. These views are likely to increase as time passes. Others have found it uniquely compelling. Millions of copies of the book have been sold since it was first published in 1974. Brand new copies may still be purchased at most bookstores on any day you may visit. More than forty -five years later.
Despite anything nay-sayers may argue about ZAMM, it is extraordinarily subtle and integrated from cover to cover. I would argue that it is too subtle to fully catch the first time through. At least, that has been my experience. So let’s set considerations of Pirsig’s biography aside for the moment and start with what you may expect to find when you approach the book’s front cover.
The book’s full title is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Immediately, the juxtaposition of two (or, perhaps, more!?) very different and disconnected themes within the title is established. This approach carries on throughout the book. It is fundamental to the Pirsig’s philosophical and rhetorical approach. For readers who are not familiar- and comfortable-with juggling a variety of conceptual notions while following a story, this is warning that things may be more difficult than they seem.
In 1974, Zen was still a very new and mysterious topic in North America. While it may be more familiar to Western culture in this first quarter of the twenty-first century, mention Zen to most people and several key connotations and mysteries will come up in conversation. Nature and peaceful, relaxed environments, such as Zen gardens. Perhaps minimalist home design, meditation and strangely paradoxical puzzle-stories. Contemplation. Further conversation may yield the question “Is Zen a religion or a practice?” (Yes.) And the Zen enthusiast? Maybe someone wearing pyjamas or a robe sitting in meditation or telling paradox puzzle-stories with gnomish humour. Pristine, clean and sipping green tea.
And then there’s the motorcycle maintenance. Chemicals, wrenches, oil & grease, noisy machines, stinky exhaust. A motorcyclist? OK let’s re-phrase that….a “biker”? Wild. Unpredictable. Violent. The most likely interaction scenario probably involves a fear of physical or verbal assault. Unkempt and barbrian-like, a biker will probably be described as wearing some combination of denim and leather; the biker, so the stereotype will go, guzzles beer (at least).
Two completely different iconic representations.
Pirsig put two concepts together that do not feel that they go together. A contemporary pairing might be “Computer Code and Flower Arrangement” or “Theoretical physics and Cutting Stained Glass ”. Except that putting these two disparate things together is fundamental to Pirsig’s philosophy and the book’s design, To read ZAMM, you must be prepared to attempt to reconcile and synthesize concepts which you may have previously considered mutualy exclusive. The book is anti-dogmatic, in its own way. Already in the title, there is a lesson in its philosophy. The title warns that the reader should be thinking about and through a Zen-like perspective. But also about and through a modern scientific, technological perspective.
However, even in the simple matter of the book ‘s title Pirsig is not quite done. Right in the middle of the title, Pirsig used the term “art” to foreshadow investigation of concepts from European Philosophy. Particularly Plato and Aristotle. He uses the word “art” as we might currently use the word “craft” (or as Alexander Langlands would have it, “craeft”). Art in this title and book is not a throw-away word. It is a functioning and significant philosophical term. It establishes that the book will consider the matter of craftsmanship and aesthetics in a philosophical Context. Langland’s book is not the only other book to follow ZAMM in examining this topic. Zamm also came decades before And it came decades before RIchard Sennet’s The Craftsman, Matthew Crawford‘s Shop Class as Soul Craft, among many, many others.
We’re not done exploring the layers of the book’s title.
The subtitle is “An Inquiry into Values”. This subtitle’s use of the term “Inquiry” establishes ZAMM as a philosophical exploration while “values” sets the book within a particular area of philosophy dealing with ethics and aesthetics. So what is ZAMM? According to the title, it is a philosophical inquiry into values.
This is an important observation. Pirsig and the publishers did not set the book as a work narrative fiction. Nor as some kind of proto-adventure travel book.
With all of this happening on title page, the first thing one finds inside the book is an Author’s Note:
Author’s Note: What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.
As with the title page, every sentence and phrase here requires attention. I contend that this author’s note is a kind of Zen koan (those paradoxical puzzles) for the reader.
That this passage is called the “author’s note” hints at one of the challenging features of the book: identity. Over the course of ZAMM, the main character of the book is never explicitly named or referenced as “Robert Pirsig”. In most discussions of ZAMM, there is reference to “the narrator” and to “Pheadrus”. Through the course of the book, Phaedrus is revealed as younger and different version of the narrator. Generally, it is presumed that Robert Pirsig (the author) is both the narrator and Phaedrus. However, with the book’s inherent emphasis of separate identities, it cannot be assumed that the characters in the book are genuine depictions of Robert Pirsig and his friends and family.
The author’s note states that the events of the book are based on actual occurrences. So we can be reasonably confident that Robert Pirsig took a motorcycle trip with his son, Chris and a few friends. Indeed there are readily-available photographs of the trips as well as external interviews of people upon-whom characters in the book are based. Interestingly and tellingly, the term “actual occurrences” is strikingly similar to Alfred North Whitehead’s term“actual entities” from a book that is widely regarded as one of the most difficult and dense books of twentieth-centurty European philosophy, Process and Reality. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” (what resulted in at least one known philosophical offshoot called Process Theology) is deeply embedded in Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. Pirsig mentions Whitehead in ZAMM, though the reference is brief and may not at first be noted as a significant clue to Pirsig’s philosophy.
The author’s note states that the events have been altered for rhetorical purposes, but are basically true. Pirsig spends considerable time defending rhetoric in ZAMM. In reading ZAMM, it isn’t unreasonable to consider it a work of rhetorical argument. That this term is included in the author’s note is another hint of things to expect in the book.
Pirsig then ends by commenting that the book is not to be confused with an explanation of Zen or Motorcycles. Pirsig is playing a bit of a game here. ZAMM does not spend much time in explaining or analyze these things. Instead ZAMM demonstrates them in action. If meditation is Buddhism in practice, Pirsig presents motorcycling as a Zen in practice.
Pirsig positioned ZAMM such that it should not be considered as fiction nor as non-fiction. As occurs frequently in ZAMM, Pirsig demonstrates a rejectiong of dualism in preference to synthesis. He placed the book as a book of philosophy that depicts, rather than explains its philosophy.
At the beginning of this article, I argued that ZAMM is a book “of philosophy” and “of Zen”. I used that phrasing to indicate that the book is a product of these traditions. It is an outcome. It is a rhetorical depiction. It is an effect of those causes.
In many ways, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a better book than many of its critics give it credit for. If you haven’t read it – and if anything in this brief introduction tweaks your interest, maybe you should give it a try.
This essay was originally drafted as a reaction to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s 2008 book What Makes You Not a Buddhist. I did not enjoy the book the first time I read it. Probably, I wanted the book to be something other than it is. Now, a few years later, I appreciate it significantly more by taking an altered perspective. While I still don’t agree with or support what seem to be Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s motives in publishing the book nor some of his insights, the author does a reasonable job of featuring the “four seals” for a non-Buddhist to consider. There may be better and/or more authoritative books on Buddhism, but it is a place to start.
Khyentse suggests a number of ways that a person may not be a Buddhist but the main theme is that affirmation of the “four seals” is the fundamental and essential gatekeeper. “Four Seals” is another way of saying “four central doctrine” or “four dogmatic beliefs”. So what are they?
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are pain.
All things have not inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond concepts
Khyentse spends 125 pages explaining these doctrines and how they might apply to various aspects of contemporary human experience. As with my inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy, this is not a book-review and I do not intend to reproduce the book in encapsulated form. This is an inquiry into the “four seals”.
Early in the book Khyentse suggests that these doctrine should be taken in a literal way rather than a metaphorical or mystical way. If one accepts that the authoritative definition of a Buddhist is a person who believes (affirms, acknowledges, or whatever term one might prefer) these four doctrine on a literal level, then I am certainly not a Buddhist. Mind you, there’s no particular reason to expect me to be a Buddhist. I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist culture or home. I’ve had an extremely limited exposure to Buddhist practices (diverse as they certainly are). Even my literary and philosophical investigation of Buddhist-oriented literature is extremely narrow. I don’t even have an active interest to “be” any particular “ist”. But I have an active and respectful interest in Buddhist perspectives that has occupied a fractional part of my attention over several decades. Initially this interest began as a literary interested stimulated by Robert Pirsig’s books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) on the one hand and Herman Hesse’s books ( Siddharta, Magister Ludi, Der Steppenwolf) on the other. Perhaps it also comes of growing up during the 1970’s.
So the four seals.
What makes me not a Buddhist (per Khyentse) is that I can’t give all four of those doctrine a full and complete literal pass. That is to say, if we are to set metaphorical, mystical, rhetorical and other referential “truths” aside, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to affirm these doctrine. Two of the doctrine don’t provide reliable information while a third requires some grudging qualification of the terminology.
Terminoloy is a significant factor. There’s no certainty that the specific phrasing of the “seals” that Khyentse’s book presents is adequate to whatever may be intended of the concepts. Certainly, one may wonder, as with any text, whether the particular words, as rendered in one’s contemporary language contain the same meanings as in some other language and/or time. What if its just a bad translation? What if Khyentse’s definition of “emotion” or “pain” is different than mine? All philosophy must, tediously, begin with a definition of terms. However, given the assertion that the doctrine be taken literally, it must be assumed that some significant care was taken in word choice when the book was published.
Tentatively, however, moving forward with a generous (and perhaps mistaken) assumption that the language is precise, accurate, authoritative and may be taken literally, let’s have a look.
All Compounded Things Are Impermanent
This doctrine is, in my opinion, the most concrete and supportable of the four truths. The two sides of the equation that one has to deal with are “compounded things” and “impermanent”. It may be a quirk of my own that I find the most certainty in a doctrine which focuses on physics. Here we have space, matter, processes and time.
In Process and Reality, A.N. Whitehead used the term “actual entity” as a rough equivalent to “all compounded things”. Physics, specifically particle physics, shows how our reality of matter, space and process are composed of interactions and combinations of particles. This is “compounding”. Particle and interaction. Matter and process. Two particles combine or repel and there is a result. The result is a compound thing (entity). That compound thing may then further compound to result in an even more compound thing. Particle. Atom. Element. Molecule. Organism. Consciousness. Society.
Whitehead called his philosophy a “Philosophy of Organism”. This seems to be a philosophy of the doctrine that “all compounded things are impermanent” where the term “organism” may be roughly equated to “compounded things.”
The second factor in the term is more easily dealt with. Time. Duration. Buddhism, Whitehead and Physics all seem to be on the same page. Things that exist (compounded things, actual entities) are not timeless. They are not infinite. They have a quality of duration. They are “of time”. I would further suggest that time is equally “of compound things”. They are inseparable and inherent qualities of the same thing.
Score: If the “four seals” are considered each to be of equal value, I would rank my acceptance of “all compounded things are impermanent”, as so far explored, to be a full twenty-five out of twenty-five points.
All Emotions are Pain
This doctrine is, in my opinion, one that is least defensible as a literal statement. The terms “emotion” and “pain”, while occupying adjacent conceptual space to one another, do not necessarily refer to the same things.
Emotions include happiness, sadness, anger and other familiar concepts, but emotion also includes more complicated concepts such as curiosity. It seems simple to reconcile some of the more familiar emotions with pain, but there are a variety of emotional concepts which cannot readily be reduced to “pain”.
So what is “pain”. Physically pain is a kind of negatively experienced sensory input suggesting harm or potential harm to the organism within-which the pain is experienced. It is a neurological warning signal recommending aversive action. There are a variety of ways that the term “pain” is extended from this neurological-based definition to include other negative experiences. Whether it is appropriate and correct to lump all negatively-perceived experiences as pain or not may well be “to the point” of this doctrine. I tend to think this becomes an over-simplification.
For purposes of this doctrine, it also seems to be an over-simplification to suggest that all emotions are a warning of coming “pain”. It is an unreasonable extension. “Sooner or later you’ll suffer” or even the ability to extrapolate future suffering from the limited duration of pleasure is not the same thing.
It would seem to be more precise and accurate to articulate the doctrine as “all emotions eventually result in pain”, “all emotions lead to suffering” or even “ all emotional states should be perceived as a reminder of coming pain and suffering”. But that is not the doctrine, as typically rendered.
Note that I have used the term “suffering” but the doctrine does not. Pain and suffering are adjacent but separate concepts. Suffering is an emotion. To suggest that all emotions lead to the emotion of suffering is not as indefensible as all emotions are pain.
Score: “All emotions are pain” can’t earn a full twenty five points. There’s too much that requires qualification and/or re-definition of the concepts. That being said, some of these qualifications provide a valuable window to view human existence and experience. Provisional as any scoring might be, I’ll give this maxim ten out of twenty-five.
All Things Have No Inherent Existence
This doctrine seems to be a corollary of “All compounded things are impermanent”, or at least dealing with the same physics. The two factors are “things” and “inherent existence”.
This statement of reality breaks down, as many things do, at the subatomic level. There is a suggestion here of monism – that everything is really a single substance. It is this single originating substance that has been compounded in different ways to result in the appearance of diverse substances. This hinges on explaining what “things” means.
A.N. Whitehead used the term “entity” and “actual entity”. If “all things” means there is nothing that isn’t compounded, there is the problem of how to categorize the pre-compounded monist substance. If the definition of “thing” excludes this substance, then that is a convenient way to validate this doctrine. Whitehead describes a primordial entity as an allowance.
Similarly, if existence is taken to mean “truly is”, it is paradoxical, at best, to argue for a monism where something both does exist and does not exist. Buddhist philosophy isn’t uncomfortable with paradox.
Score: as with the previous maxim, a problem I have with “All things have no inherent existence” is the absolute scale of the statement. I am able to full-on accept “all compounded things are impermanent” based on the qualification that the statement covers only “compounded things“. Still, this doctrine is largely, if not wholly, a corollary of the first. Fifteen points out of twenty-five.
Nirvana is Beyond Concepts
This is also a difficult doctrine as a statement of reality. “Nirvana” is a concept. It could be argued that “nirvana is a concept of that which is beyond concepts”. Khyentse’s urging that the doctrine be taken literally runs afoul of a doctrine which refutes that it can be taken literally.
Here it is almost impossible not toreference Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Philosophicus argument that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.“
If one describes “nirvana” as a state of being, it is within conceptualization. And it also becomes fair game to examine. But all of mysticism hinges on some element being placed outside of understanding or comprehension.
Score: Buddhism, Zen and a variety of mystical fields often derive their attraction from their paradoxical-seeming principles. A suggestion that “human language is not adequate” should , in most cases, be modified to say “human language is not yet adequate”. That any given speaker or listener isn’t competent to explain at a certain point in time, does not mean there will never be competent speakers and listeners. Additionally, I don’t think this version of the doctrine is well-phrased by what may be intended by the doctrine. “Nirvana is beyond concepts” ranks lower than other versions of this doctrine that I’ve seen. If the doctrine were “Nirvana needs to be experienced, not explained”, then it would rank much more highly with me. As currently expressed, five out of twenty five.
Clearly, I am not an expert in Buddhist philosophy nor of the religions and practices that have been built upon it. I doubt that it is common practice to rank one’s relation to the doctrine as a percentage-score. But I like to quantify things, including the degree to which I am likely to integrate ideas into my thinking. That I agree with about fifty-five percent of these doctrine is interesting information.
It is also interesting to observe that if the “four seals” are taken to be the absolute foundation upon-which all the rest of reality is built, then there remains a great deal to be reconciled in the provided “literal statements”. I do not assert that these doctrine are “wrong” nor that those who may uphold them to be accurate literal statements of fact are in error. However, as statements of literal truth (fact), I find that they do not convince me beyond a generously weighted 55%. As predicted by the book title, I am not a Buddhist.
However, as cultural, metaphorical, rhetorical, mystical or referential statements, these doctrine are interesting and offer a particular kind of window to introspection – not to exclude the fact that some Buddhist practices upon which these doctrine are founded (eg. meditation) are extremely beneficial and worth exploration quite apart from the doctrine.
None of my reluctance to fully affirm the four seals as accurate factual statements takes away from these statements as extremely helpful in an investigation of reality and existence. Quite the opposite – I recommend serious consideration of these assertions as a metaphysical starting point. Regardless of the vantage point that one may fully support, one shouldn’t see and experience reality from that single point.
Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.
Original Publish Date (V 1.0 – February 4, 2021)
External Reference and Links
Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.
On February 11, 2021, I decided to explore the practice of meditation. This is what happened and how I proceeded.
For me, 2014 was a year of significant change stimulated by what seemed to be an assaults-from-all-corners 2013. 2014 was a year that I began my response to all of those difficulties. I increased my pursuit of a number of philosophical and practical matters. In February of 2014, I decided that it would be the year I found out what it was like to ride a motorcycle – so I bought a 1980 Yamaha Maxim 550 XJ (as may be seen on the homepage of this website). In March of that year, I also picked up Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to see what it was all about. It seemed to be a suitably hoakie “bike” thing to do. I didn’t expect to discover a book that would help me down several unexpected and delightful conceptual paths – including, eventually, meditation.
While I had some very limited awareness of Zen Buddhism and meditation earlier in my earlier life, I can comfortably trace my current exploration back to reading that particular book in that particular year.
So fast-forward a few years.
Immediately prior to my first genuine attempt to meditate, I had begun a second reading of Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. My first reading of the book was in 2017, when it was first published. I appreciated Wright’s examination of meditation and the (Buddhist) philosophical principles upon-which meditation is based.
Here I will note that I do not consider myself to be Buddhist (see Footnotes to Buddhism’s Four Seals). I did not grow up in a Buddhist household or culture; I don’t participate in any Buddhist organizations; I have a relatively limited knowledge of Buddhist thought, having read only a handful of contemporary books about Buddhism. But none of that suggests to me that meditation isn’t capable of observable impacts. Indeed, Wright lists several practical reasons why meditation may be a beneficial daily practice. I recommend reading Wright’s arguments.
I had also recently read an article where the author attempted to savage both meditation as a practice and contemporary western Buddhism as a religious context. In this article, the author’s primary argument against Buddhism (broadly) and meditation particularly is anecdotal evidence that may be summed up as “all that happened for me is that I fell asleep“. This was augmented by suggesting that other anecdotal evidence amounts to a lot of over-educated Western elites who appreciate the aesthetic experience of a Buddhist lifestyle. A reduction of the argument: it’s all a bunch of pretentious twaddle with no science backing it.
If I’m honest, I found the article easily as pretentious as those it criticized. Reading a small handful of books with practical tips and a serious mind would have prevented both falling asleep and approaching meditation with expectations of major change on a few occasions. Wright’s book also provides a starting point to investigate scientifically-validated evidence that meditation does have an impact-to or alteration-of brain activity.
And a starting point to attempt meditation as a practical experiment.
Anything I experience will necessarily be anecdotal evidence. I don’t have any clear expectations. But here’s the thing. I have decided that I will place my meditation at a strategic position in my day. None of this…let’s try it at bed time stuff(meditation is not sleep preparation) nor any let’s start the day with it (it’s not gonna happen – plus I’ve already attempted to schedule Tai Chi exercises in the morning – see Tai Chi in the Morning) malarkey. No. I am scheduling the meditation exercise at the end of my formal work-day and before the evening’s chores and recreation begins.
Currently, I work in a home office and so stepping away from my desk and toward an appropriate place to meditate will be simpler than the decades of commuting that I used to endure. Then again, maybe all that driving functioned as a form of meditation.
At that time of day, I am usually still alert, though often fatigued and in need of time away from a screen.
Up-front acknowledgement: my early meditation attempts have not been “daily” but have been frequent enough to be a meaningful routine, if not quite a full-on habit.
On my first day of meditation, I approached the activity with as much pragmatism (practicality) as possible. Even though it wasn’t a regular work day for me, at approximately the same time as I would usually finish work, I prepared for the meditation. For me, this meant putting on loose-fitting track pants, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie. It’s the same stuff I wear for Tai Chi in the morning.
Next, I chose a quiet room in the house where I could sit reasonably comfortably for the session. I chose to darken the room by closing the curtains. I also chose to forgo any kind of background music or sounds. My plan is to reduce external stimulation to a minimum. I expect this to boost my ability to focus on my breathing. During this session, there was little outside or distracting sound. Essentially all I had was the periodic shuffling of the dog competing with my tinnitus.
With meditation, particularly Zen meditation, the matter of posture seems to be a big thing. As an outsider, it even seems as though it has been ritualized. I’m tempted to consider this an exaggerated issue. Per the previously cited criticism, I’m not looking to replicate an iconic pose nor reproduce an aspirational “lifestyle”. I want to see if meditation seems to have an effect on me.
I found the Zen Mountain Monasteryweb-page on the subject to be a comforting and valuable resource. Not least because practical and reasonable arguments are included for adopting one of several postures. Foremost of these is that meditation requires a person to be aware, awake and relaxed. The objective is an engaged attempt to observe one’s mind (also noted in Wright’s book). Second, by sitting with a straight back, I may be able to breathe in a different way than when sprawled, reclined or even laying down. Diaphragm expansion. These seem practical reasons.
It is difficult to tell whether Kodo Sawaki, pictured here, is in a full lotus or something else. Sawaki, a renowned figure in Japanese Zen Buddhism has been cited as saying zazen is good for nothing. That’s pretty much a Zen puzzle and seems to deal with at least one of Buddhism’s four seals. I’ve also referenced Sawaki in titling these writings as “footnotes” (see On Footnotes). He argued that all of Buddhism is a footnote to zazen (meditation).
But back to posture.
Even in my more-flexible youth, I could never comfortably sit in the full or half Lotus positions for more than a few seconds. Now, at more than fifty years of age, it isn’t going to happen. However, I can achieve something that approximates the recommended Burmese position and that seems to have worked. I manage to remain in essentially the same position for half an hour to forty-five minutes. I was relaxed and awake. Great start.
As for the duration and as already noted. First session: half an hour. I’m not sure whether thirty minutes is a recommended duration for a meditation session. Practically, however, it makes sense. It is long enough to be a meaningful period of time but not so long that it is likely to be interrupted or filled with an is-it-over-yet anxiousness.
Once in the position, There was an adjustment period to let my body relax. Shift the legs a bit. Notice my hunched, tensed shoulders. Deal with the perpetual sinus issues. Distraction by the tinnitus in both ears. Physical discomforts. I usually deal with these kinds of things reasonably well, anyway. As we get older, we settle into our discomforts.
As to thoughts. Again, I am reasonably well-aware of how thoughts and emotions come and go. Even in my teens, I was aware of the volatility of emotions and recognized a personal need to detach and self-dampen the urgency of emotions. I wasn’t surprised or irritated with myself when thoughts came. Nor was I particularly surprised by their contents. It was unbidden material, but mostly predictable stuff from my day-to-day life. But I also didn’t pursue these thoughts for long. Only once during the thirty minutes did I find that one thought had led to another and another before I was aware that it had happened.
In Robert Wright’s book, he referred to thoughts thinking themselves. It’s this observation that your brain is producing thoughts without the active direction of your pre-frontal cortex. Unbidden thoughts.
For many years, I have discarded physical objects which I believe may bring with them unbidden emotion. Relating this to unbidden thoughts, Wright refers to “affective associations”. It is the “baggage” that people will (usually derisively) talk about. I actively eliminate physical objects that may bring unwanted “affective associations”. If meditation allows one to similarly discard unbidden thoughts and emotions (and their affective associations), then that would be a valuable outcome of meditation.
I found myself exploring the different places in my body where breathing occurs. How it feels. Diaphragm. Lungs. Nose. Mouth. This was a kind of thinking as well. Having experienced pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism and a chronic cough, I’m already well-tuned to notice the various physical sensations that accompany my own breathing, Indeed, during my morning Tai Chi, I have incorporated some deep-breathing in an attempt to improve the experience. Noticing isn’t a problem.
I’m not an overly mental-image-driven person. I thoroughly enjoy art, architecture and the collective wonders of light and vision but vivid “movies” of my life or experiences don’t play for me when I close my eyes. I can, with concentration, create images but my thoughts are not driven by visual images.
I ended the session feeling positive, relaxed and aware. Thirty minutes of engaged non-stimulation. A bit refreshing.
February 2021 Meditation Two
On my second day of meditation, I was able to replicate all of the preparatory details and the duration of the meditation period. Indeed, the duration may have been slightly longer.
My second day was a regular work day for me and this may have impacted the experience. I found it more difficult to become physically settled, although the hunched shoulders were no better or worse. My cough was slightly worse, probably a factor of medication timing. Overall, more thoughts distracted me from focusing on and counting breaths. The thoughts continued slightly more frequently, though I don’t think they were any more pressing or urgent. The content of the thoughts was little different, being related to my day-to-day affairs and the relatively small number of people I have personally met and interacted with in recent years.
What was most distracting was thoughts that arose as a kind of answer to the question “what will my brain come up with as I avoid trying to think about anything”. It is a ludicrous proposition. Overall, I focused on my breath less than I did the first time. I easily had a ten-to-one ration of fuss and distraction to concentration. For a period of time I had success studying the grainy blackness that appears when I close my eyes in a darkened room. The tinnitus in my ears was less intrusive. I did not end feeling as refreshed as the previous day, but I felt slightly more relaxed and energized than spending the same number of minutes with a screen of some kind.
February 2021Meditation Three
For this meditation, I delayed the activity approximately one hour, which time was spent walking the dog plus a brief interval of screen time after the walk. I needed a bit of time to shake off the cold February air before trying to meditate.
Again, things didn’t go as well as my first day, but better than my second. I would rate my fuss and distraction (F&D) to concentration as seven to one. My range of thoughts remained dominantly within my day-to-day but I had a few more distant memories occur and a longer sequence of thoughts that seemed to take over a period of time. I had recalled a car I once owned (automotive pre-occupations are a familiar thing for me) and recalled certain features of the car. The interior, the overall exterior design, the motions of the manual transmission.. Notwithstanding the extended distraction, I would rate my focus as reasonable.
The most interesting barrier to concentration has been the dilemma of anticipating that I am about to experience some unplanned thought and wondering what it might be. This anticipation, although not directed at any particular thing, is interesting because it seems to be counter-productive yet it also seems to be part of the process.
February 2021 Meditation Four
This experience seemed to be slightly more aligned with my first meditation than the intervening two. I was able to remain detached from thinking for longer periods. Within the forty minute period, there was one fifteen minute period when my persistent throat irritation as well as my tinnitus went essentially out of my attention. I began by attempting to observe different part of my body and noticed I was able to isolate and observe various parts of my my body. First the tension around my eyes. Now the position and feel of my shoulders and arms. Then the posture of my abdomen, And so on. This directly led to physical irritations receding in my awareness. Strangely, I had one incredible urge to make a distorted face.There didn’t seem to be a preceding reason or thought to this urge.
Thoughts persisted to arrive with one extended period which challenged me to consider the difference between a dream and a pursues thought. Generally satisfying,
February 2021:Meditations Five To Ten
These sessions have been either a waste of time or have shown no real reason to offer further comment. On one session, I wasn’t ready-to-go and so it was a half-an-hour in a dark room. Another session I completed a 20-minute Tai Chi practice immediately prior to the meditation. I found the time to be more restful on that occasion.
I even tried a routine of lifting weights for twenty-time minutes, practicing Tai Chi for twenty minutes and finishing with a thirty-minute meditation session. This routine seems as though it ought to yield a maximum effect of meditation as the exercise should provide both a clearing of physical tensions as well as a period to let stray mental activity have their play. This is a routine I will attempt to maintain as all three activities: weight-lifting, Tai Chi and meditation are things which I carve time out of my day to execute. This is an important note as I perceive these things as things that are external to my day rather than natural and resident features of my day such as getting dressed or drinking a cup of coffee. None of them are habits.
Periods of Not Meditating
Following an initial enthusiastic plunge into meditation, I encountered a bit of a lull in my daily commitment. This is to be expected as any new routine can take a while to establish itself. In my case, the habit was broken-off as a result of far-more established life patterns asserting dominance over my time.
During this first period of not meditating, did I notice any difference in my thinking, feelings or general sense of health? Not that I could attribute specifically to not meditating. There was some disappointment in myself for letting the practice slide. An ambition not properly pursued. Certainly also that time went to other things, some of which may have been a bigger waste of time and energy. So which is the real affect…the absence of one practice (meditation) or the presence of the substitute (other stuff). That’s a bit of a problem that is difficult to solve when the study population is one.
Well I had a bit of a break. Time to re-assume the position!
Onwards Meditations 11- ?
I do not have a prescribed end-date for this experiment. I’ll let it go as long as it is interesting. This essay will be updated from time to time as I have more (or different) things to say.
Version Note: Any and all inquiries on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.
Original Publish Date v1.0 – February 18, 2021; v1.1 March 26, 2021
Who hasn’t heard or seen Tai Chi described as meditative movement? It’s an extremely appealing description. As a beginner, I can’t claim to have attained a meditative state. After six or eight months of not-quite-daily practice, the flailing of my limbs is starting to require less conscious effort and feels less awkward. When I think of the movements and even while performing the movements, I am struck by the metaphorical nature of Tai Chi.
To help explain what I mean by the metaphorical nature of Tai Chi, I’m going to posit a definition of Tai Chi. At the most practical and fundamental level, Tai Chi is a formal collection of 108 human movements. This practical definition is a denotative type of definition. It describes only the thing in itself. Just the movements of Tai Chi without anything else. The most basic fact of Tai Chi. All of the elements of meaning contained in my suggested definition refer only to the physical practice of Tai Chi.
Any definition that would move beyond this basic, practical definition would have to include elements of meaning outside of the physical practice. Any extended definition would be more connotative in content and would communicate information about the broader world.
For example, if I modified my definition to say Tai Chi is a formal collection of 108 specific human martial arts movements, the definition becomes dependent upon what “martial arts” may mean. To say “martial arts movements” connotes (infers, imbues) additional meaning that has nothing to do with the movements themselves.
Such added connotative elements of meaning would be relational or metaphorical in nature. Tai Chi is replete with these connotative and metaphorical meanings.
The Movements Themselves
108 movements is a lot of movements and I will not attempt to evaluate them all in this article. But I do think it is worth exploring the metaphor of one or two of the movements.
One of the most iconic of Tai Chi’s movements is “Single Whip”. Even if a person doesn’t know the name and hasn’t practiced the motion, it is instantly recognizable as Tai Chi. Of itself, the motion is just a motion. The arms and legs moved in a particular set of patterns. But observing it immediately conveys “Tai Chi” and/or “martial arts” to whoever the witness may be. It probably also suggests a number of other things, based on that witness’s experience. But at the barest minimum, it says “Tai Chi”. This one motion is a symbol of Tai Chi and a symbol, if not quite a metaphor, for martial arts. By suggesting “Tai Chi” or “martial arts”, the single whip movement communicates information not only about itself, but about the broader cultural world.
Consider also “Calming Waters” or “Calming the Waters”. This simple movement is one of my favorites exactly because of the metaphorical value that the movement communicates. In this movement, the Tai Chi practitioner stands in a ready position – legs slightly apart, feet pointed straight ahead and apart. The feet may be only slightly apart or perhaps up to 12-18 inches apart. The arms are in a resting position. Then one raises their hands up to shoulder height, palms out and slowly lowers them to a horizontal position with the arms not extended. There is no pressure or tension through the arms. As one of the feet steps forward and about 35 to 45 degrees to one side, the arms extend. At the apex of the step, the arms are at their maximum extension within the movement without having stretched or locked the arms. There’s no tension in the movement. At the apex, the arms begin to withdraw from the extension with a slight outward circular motion, remaining in the horizontal, where each hand traces a half circle and returns to nearly meet at the body. During this motion, the Tai Chi practitioner shifts their weight from the ball of their foot to the heal and the toes are raised from the floor. The motion of extending arms is repeated and weight is shifted back to the ball of the foot. The movement’s entire cycle is repeated as long as seems needed and then the Tai Chi practitioner returns their arms and legs to their ready position. The same motion for the other side may be attempted or some other motion in the Tai Chi practitioner’s routine may follow-up.
This is “calming the waters”. The motion is a metaphor of calming or smoothing out a horizontal surface. Observing the motion, it is an elegantly simple routine. Performing the motion is wonderfully easy and relaxing. It also conveys the idea of smoothing out a surface. Of itself, “calming the waters” is a sequence of movements. When observed or performed, it suggests other matters. Perhaps it calls to mind walking in a shallow pool. Perhaps it suggests smoothing out the difficulties and hassles of daily life.
Naming of the Movements
108 is a lot of different movements to remember, so they aren’t denoted by numbers. Instead, each of the movements has been given an evocative name such as “single whip”, “brush knee” or “calming the waters”. It is much easier to remember the movement referred to as “brush knee” than if it had been called “Movement 23”. “Brush knee” is a connotative name that conveys an idea of what the movement might be. “Movement 23” would be a denotative name that could be found in a nicely-ordered manual, but the name itself wouldn’t tell you anything about the movement.
The names of the movements, as a function of their mnemonic value, have a metaphorical value. The names are memorable because they are metaphorical – they refer to something else. They connote meaning. When I perform the movement called “calming the waters”, I am not literally (denotatively) calming any water. The movement is not even a pantomime of calming water The movement refers to the action only as a mnemonic device and as a metaphorical ideal.
Tai Chi as Poetry of Movement
Each movement within the 108 movement set known as Tai Chi is both itself, the denoted movement and the metaphorical name that has been applied to it. This is the beginning of the poetry within Tai Chi.
In an art where each movement has imbued metaphorical values, the complicated dance that emerges from combinations of these movements approaches a poetry. Instead of aural rhymes and rhythms, there are rhymes and rhythms of movement. During my practice, I include frequent returns to “calming waters” as that seems to be what my Tai Chi is currently about.
Tai Chi as Metaphor for Physical Combat and Living
As a martial art, Tai Chi is a symbolic representation of physical combat. It is not physical combat. Indeed, there are martial arts critics who are enthusiastic to indicate that Tai Chi is not an effective physical combat methodology. To whatever extent this is correct, I am not terribly concerned about whether Tai Chi makes for good combat. What cannot be denied is that Tai Chi is a movement metaphor for physical combat. It is an idealized form of what combat may be. By extension, Tai Chi is also a metaphor for living and engaging with the challenges and problems of life. Not everyone actively views life as a set of conflicts and problems to be engaged, but Tai Chi provides a set of physical movements to express whatever may be their perspective and experience.
As a symbolic or metaphorical representation of engaging with life, Tai Chi is a wonderfully expressive art form.
Tai Chi as Meditation in Movement
I’ve already admitted that a meditative state while practicing Tai Chi is currently outside my ability. I simply haven’t put the hours in for the movements to be comfortable, natural and effortless. For those who do attain a meditative state during their practice, I expect that the metaphorical qualities of the movements must either entirely subside or entirely transcend during the practice.
Old engine 5700 sits solid and quiet
As winter snow drifts and glides down. Ceaselessly down.
This town is more than two hundred years old
But nobody seems to notice the history standing silent in the air.
5700’s massive boiler sits hollowed, humbled; empty in the empty yard
Black and green. Militarily austere. Her working days long dead.
And the town hustles along, quietly losing its history.
Maybe we’re all too busy, too tired or too hungry to care.
5700. Exposed. Frozen. Standing with a gaudy tour car bundled in a tarp;
Green. Cold. Tiny hints of summertime thrills peek out
From the gawker-car’s shawl. Remembering disposable income spent on…
...What? Maybe history. Receding from memory in a seasonal burial.
5700 hunches under the pristine white power of a cellular tower
Beaming communications around the globe – through space and time.
5700 glares down the tracks past the BX tower from whose windows
You can’t see the future, only a bloody century’s war memorial
And a vacant lot, still haunted by memories of the Sutherland Press
Whence issued biscuits, chocolates, tobacco boxes and paper products;
Now just another main-street vacancy, idled for an indefinite future
Whether an hour, a year or a decade. The mean times' homilies.
Further on, the Old St. Thomas Church sits emptied but of trees and graves
The voices of the annual carol perhaps still resonating a quiet tradition
Though the caroling is done, the cider done, the tarts and cookies gone
I seem to hear the old bell's toll, toll, tolling of years and families.
And I’m staring out this window as winter comes floating down
A vibrant colouring of history lays at my feet
This yard once radiated the smoke and power of young industries
Radiates now through twists of optic fibres carrying my voice
I want to clamber over that blue fence there blocking access to 5700
Keep off. The tangible past is off limits. But,
I want to embrace two hundred years of history churning forward still
I want to chuff chuff chuff down the tracks to live and rejoice
Instead, my voice smokes down the fibre optics
To New York. Vancouver. New Orleans. Chicago. Wherever.
Plastic and glass. Digital memories of 5700 and parallel rails
This place, this work and its ghosts sitting at town's heart after 200 years
The spirit of the community boils along, though 5700 sits frozen
And the wind that blasts down the long avenue
No longer carries shrieking steam-whistles nor billowing coal smoke
The past long-yielded to the demands of new electronic frontiers.
The locomotive idles in the quietly piling winter snow
And the past has never been closer at hand.
In another few hours I’ll crunch crunch crunch along the cold streets
To home, warm with family and filled with the promise of a New Year.
As a happy coincidence to my decision to practice of Tai Chi, I stumbled-upon Shannon Lee’s Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee at my local public library. The book clearly acts as much as a bridge to Shannon Lee’s podcast as it does the Lee family’s legacy and philosophy. Naturally, all of these things are interconnected. This broader connectedness led me to title this essay as An inquiry into the Lee Family Philosophy (LFP).
It is the rare person that does not have at least a passing awareness of Bruce Lee, the martial artist and cultural icon. Notwithstanding a general awareness of Bruce Lee and his family, I have completed no other study of Bruce Lee or his ideas as they may have been originally documented or expressed. Shannon Lee’s book serves, therefore, as the initial and primary conduit to whatever I may learn of (or through) Bruce Lee and the LFP.
This outlook is not intended as neither a slight to Bruce Lee nor a particular compliment to Shannon Lee. Clearly the book identifies Bruce Lee as the primary source and inspiration of its themes and ideas. Equally clearly, Shannon Lee is the book’s author and the current curator of the ideas it contains. It is an acknowledgement of their several roles and contributions to suggest that the book is a king of collaboration between these two Lee family members. Collaborated may seem an odd term to use given that Shannon Lee did not have the opportunity to discuss these ideas with a father who died in 1973. It is however, the best term to convey a unique intimacy of ideas as they have eddied through a family over the course of multiple generations.I feel justified in this approach given that Shannon Lee wrote in the introduction of the book, “It might surprise you that I am not that precious about the material. I’m not a Bruce Lee purest about anything other than his energy. I do not practice an academic exactitude with his words. Where I have found it useful to illustrate what I want to say, I have combined quotes and edited quotes to make them more digestible.” (pg. 7) More on this a bit later, but I am pleased to follow a similarly non-academic position.
As mentioned, I decided to read Be Water, My Friend as an extension of a personal objective to learn and practice Tai Chi. Bruce Lee is famous for having practiced and trained in Kung Fug as well as for developing his own martial arts system, Jeet Kune Do (JKD). Be Water, My Friend, is not a book which explicitly promotes JKD, nor is it a deeply detailed book about the martial arts. For me this is fortunate, as I am almost wholly devoid of interest in physical combat. Excepting where LFP utilizes physical combat as an operative metaphor, there seems to be little reason to spend much effort to maintain JKD as an irreplaceable element of LFP. The book does argue that there is Importance in having a physical manifestation of one’s philosophy. For Bruce Lee, that was JKD. For others , something else may be more appropriate.
The book would comfortably be considered a “self-help” genre book. It is about a particular perspective of life and living. Shannon Lee seems to have ambitions that Be Water, My Friend be considered a book of philosophy. Such an ambition may or may not be a reasonable desire, depending upon what a person considers “philosophy”. That is a genuine consideration. There are professional philosophers who reject popular and non-academic approaches. However, if one considers the attributed writing of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius (the Stoics) to be books of philosophy, then there’s good reason to label Shannon Lee’s book the same way.
LFP concepts, ideas and expressions are frequently similar to ideas I have encountered or investigated elsewhere, even if not (yet) documented on this website. What Shannon Lee has done in Be Water, My Friend is to collect and re-present her family’s interpretation of these ideas that anyone may find with a certain degree of investigation. It is a curated and customized collection of wisdom.
I do not intend to try to reproduce every salient point of Shannon Lee’s book nor will I pretend to present all that there may be within the Lee Family Philosophy. This isn’t a recitation of someone else’s ideas nor is this a book review. This essay is an interpretation of what one person has found in the LFP and how it connects with related notions and inquiries. These are footnotes.
The LFP Foundational Maxim
Following the handful of nearly-blank title pages that sits at the beginning of most books, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee begins with an exhortation, presumably written by (but not expressly attributed to) Bruce Lee. The exhortation functions as a foundational maxim of the Lee Family Philosophy:
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. Now water can flow, or it can crash! Be water, my friend.”
As printed in the book, the above exhortation appears as lines of a poem might. In this essay, I have reformatted the exhortation as a paragraph because it seems to suit the exhortation better than the format I found in the boo
Does the form of this small passage matter? It does and it doesn’t.
It may be reasonable for the passage to be considered a poem given that it uses imagery-laden language and metaphor to convey a particular message or meaning. The words also seem to have been chosen with some care to be evocative and memorable. There is a rhythm. However the reach me like a prose paragraph. As a poem, I would not be satisfied.
The passage feels like a technical instruction. There is a linearity to the communication that is not as playful and exploratory as a poem ought to be. I appreciate the explanation that water may take on the shapes of the containers it is poured into. I consider the ways that this applies to my practice of Tai Chi or my way of experiencing and living.
However, it does not matter how the words are conveyed on paper. The words are only a stand-in for a view of reality that is being described. The poetry or prose doesn’t matter…it’s an understanding of the need for fluidity that is important. As will be explored later, the words are just a finger pointing to the moon. To get caught up in the gesture of the hand misses the point.
This difference of possible presentations – poetry versus prose helps to feature a difference between Tai Chi and other martial arts. I would say that Tai Chi is a poetry of martial arts where Jeet Kune Do, karate and many others are the practical prose of martial arts.
Tai Chi is a formal system and collection of movements that serve as a metaphor of combat; many other martial arts are combat.
Clearly, the central Lee metaphor is to “be water”. The introductory exhortation is a call to the audience to personify the flexibility of water as it responds to its environment. The depictions of water within various vessels is to suggest that people should adapt to the circumstances within which they may find themselves. It is an exhortation against inflexibility and rigidity.
In Philosophy for Polar Explorers, Erling Kagge re-tells what he calls a “Classic Zen Buddhist pilgrim’s tale” about a wrestler named O-Nami. You may currently find a version of the story on“The Liar” blog. The tale describes a wrestler who visits a Zen teacher where he learns to meditate and overcome personal obstacles. O-nami, which means “Great Waves” was given a similar message to “be waves”. The similarity of LFP’s “Be Water” and O-Nami’s “be waves” is to establish that each is a particular version of a metaphor within a larger archetype.
Empty Your Mind
The entreaty to ”empty your mind”, is a familiar refrain from Buddhism, meditation and other methods or philosophies. It is a requirement to adopt an attitude of openness, or a beginner’s mind. The concept that “emptying” of one’s mind of pre-conceived notions, judgments and expectations is requisite to progress is not unique to LFP. Nor exclusive to Asian philosophies. Certainly Rene Descartes required this at the beginning of Meditations on First Philosophy.
“Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed—just once in my life—to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.“
There is a similar requirement for receptivity, though expressed in very different terms, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria:
“it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith“
Daoism, Zen, Buddhism
LFP is clearly linked to Daoist Philosophy through Bruce Lee’s teacher, Yip Man. This connection is clearly demonstrated in the exhortation to “be whole”. This is a reference to ideas of the completeness of yin and yang.
The second chapter of Be Water, My friend is largely devoted to the requirement to empty one’s mind. There seems also to be a strong connection to Zen concepts. Shannon Lee also states that her father followed (Jiddu?) Krishnamurti.
On page 43, Lee writes “There is only ever the right here and the right now.” As a stand-alone statement, I orient this as LFP but heavily drawn from Daoism and Buddhism.
LFP as a Process Philosophy
According to Bruce Lee, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” (pg. 8). This position recalls various perspectives of reality and even tends to suggest the notion of being as “becoming”. In this, I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’sProcess and Reality. A thorough review of that book is currently beyond the scope of these brief notes. For now, I will merely observe that “life is a process” is not inconsistent with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
In Be Water, My Friend, LFP asserts that a physical practice, or implementation, is essential to any philosophy of living. As a martial artist, Bruce Lee’s physical implementation was Jeet Kune Do; for Robert Pirsig, the practice of riding a motorcycle was the manifestation; for another person, it may be painting, sitting in Zazen, practicing Tai Chi or some other process. The reality is the physical practice, the process.
In the book and on the podcast, Shannon Lee spends considerable time on “flow”. In my investigations of this concept, I found psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’sFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which he seems to have been promoting in an academic environment since the 1970s. Certainly contemporary to Bruce Lee’s practical approach to the same subject matter. With the rather rigorous investigations of flow as part of physical, and by this I may actually emphasize athletic, experience, it is no surprise that the concept is found in LFP, which emphasizes a need for a physical enactment of the philosophy.
LFP as Metaphorical Expression of Life
The configuration of the LFP within a set of metaphors is not novel nor are its individual precepts entirely unique. That really isn’t the point. The LFP is a particular tributary of larger bodies of thought.
A personal philosophy (and one may almost interchangeably use the term “personal mythology“) functions, for the individual adherent, as a lake fed by the tributaries of concurrent and previous iterations of the philosophy. In turn, the personal philosophy may function as an estuary to a larger sea of cultural mythologies and ultimately the global oceans of universal human mythologies. This reminds me of an essay by Umberto Eco titled The Liquid Society. Eco had drawn the term, Liquid Society, from Zygmont Bauman as a depiction of contemporary society. The essay is work reading.
Shannon Lee argues that “martial arts is a perfect metaphor for life. There are few disciplines where the stakes are so personal and so high as in a fight…..the threat of physical harm.” (pg. 11). While I do not fully agree with this position, it is a compelling argument. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig uses motorcycling as a metaphor for living – emphasizing motorcycling’s inherent dangers as the symbols of life as inherently dangerous. Similarly, Jules Evans published Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations in 2012. There is something odd about this trend to view life and living as inherently dangerous, or in the case of LFP as inherently a situation of competition and conflict.
When Shannon Lee suggests that martial arts is a perfect metaphor for life, or when Robert Pirsig does the same with the motorcycle as a metaphor of the person, they are offering a lens through which they believe insights may be gained.
Lee’s depiction of the martial artist as an ”artist of movement, expressing yourself powerfully in the immediate, unfolding present with absolute freedom and certainty” is romantic and, perhaps exciting but nothing about this passage suggests that competition and conflict is necessary. It could as readily refer to a figure skater or a Tai Chi practitioner.
Translating philosophy from ideas to action.Avatars not metaphors.
There is, however, a parallel communication, and that is the LFP as avatar of Bruce and Shannon Lee and “the metaphysics of quality” as avatar of Robert Pirsig. These philosophies “are” Bruce Lee and Robert Pirsig. When Shannon Lee states that she is a purist of her father’s energy, she is talking about the avatar of Bruce Lee. The philosophies are informational artifacts of the person. They remain in the place of the people after they are gone. In a note that Pirsig wrote about his books Lila and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he described a “pattern” of people after they had died – in his case, he was describing his reactions to his son’s death. The pattern he described is that avatar that I describe and the “energy” that Shannon Lee is a purist of.
Certainly other kinds of avatars can and do exist. Some people leave a great many avatars, others none or almost none. Any artifact may be an avatar. In the case of Bruce Lee, his films are an avatar. How he moved and acted on the screen, embodying his martial arts is translation of his ideas into action. Robert Pirsig’s Honda CB77 Superhawk is an avatar. It’s functioning as a machine is a translation of his ideas into action. Any crafted thing, and here I include written documents and poetry (especially poetry), is a translation of ideas into action.
The LFP contains several deeply-embedded cultural sources, but attempts to set itself apart. Shannon Lee shares a story of Bruce Lee’s early attempts to share and teach a modified version of Wing Chun Kung Fu. He wanted to shake off what he called a “Classical Mess” to include his own innovations. In this sense, Bruce Lee was a modernist.
Bruce Lee brought Asian martial arts to North America but also sought to innovate within those traditions. Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington to help him to “infuse the spirit of philosophy into martial arts.” Lee had a drive to connect the physical practice of his life. The process of his life with a coherent philosophy. Shannon Lee helps to communicate that drive (albeit, using terminology from Czikmentmihalyi) when she wrote “This state of constant independent inquiry that leads to new discoveries will be the means by which we uncover our potential and thus find our flow”
For LFP, the literal translation of Kung Fu as a skill achieved through hard work and discipline connects to another exhortation to “be yourself”. The specific metaphor….motorycles, JKD, Tai Chi, or whatever it may be is not the essential thing. “Man the living creature , the creating individual, is always more important than the established style or system.”
Version Note: Any and all essays or articles on http://www.ericadriaans.com are provisional and subject to alteration based upon editorial needs, new information, further consideration or altered perspectives as they may arise.
In 2016, I published a small collection of poems which I titled Leviathan: The Biographia Isocratica of Adrian Kun. The title poem, my “Leviathan”, continues to be one of my personal favourites. I wrote the first draft of that poem about twenty years earlier. “Leviathan”, the word and image that I used as the poem’s title is a metaphor and archetype drawn from a vast source of cultural reference. This essay is my renewed exploration of the mythologies of great sea monsters, under whatever name they may be found. To me, they are all “Leviathan”.
My poem is a convenient and personal point of departure to explore how and why humanity relates to the world through the metaphor of the great sea beasts, real and imagined. I expect the essay to grow over time as I am able to devote time to this particular inquiry. Whatever you may find here today could be altered tomorrow.
What is Leviathan?
Leviathan is, potentially, any great sea monster or beast. Leviathan may be a sea dragon, the great white shark, Moby Dick, the kraken, megalodon, the kun form of the kun-peng.
The leviathan is one of the primal human archetypal concepts with origins in pre-historic societies. Quite possibly the archetype is hundreds of thousands of years older than the civilizations of humanity. I am convince that it is an archetype rooted in our evolutionary ancestors’ understanding of their natural world. My expectation is that a conscious and intelligent awareness of vast and powerful sea creatures pre-dates the Homo sapiens species. I doubt there has been a version of humanity that has not been aware of, and wary of, the creatures of the deep.
Self-absorbed as humanity tends to be, it may be valuable to recall to our own attention that there had been creatures of the deep long before there was a Homo sapiens. Sharks appear in the fossil record before trees. 450 million years. Primates diverged from other mammals about 85 million years ago. Homo sapiens, what we might call “contemporary humans” have existed for about 300,000 years. Leviathan are the creatures that came before us.
These vast and preceding entities which humanity has so rarely understood….these archetypes of primordiality….necessarily became a fundamental metaphor of human experience which was exploited by a wide variety of individuals and cultures. Leviathan is a primary-order symbol that acts as a foundation for other symbols and metaphors.
Despite the deep-roots of the leviathan metaphor that I was exploiting, the poem was not originally written with any intent to explore natural history. Instead the poem was an attempt to invert and re-position notions of the individual within a social and political structure as presented in Thomas Hobbes’ work of political philosphy.
My poem ends with a claim that “I am massive, I am Leviathan.” This declaration is a staked claim to the common and universal potentials of humanity; it is also an acknowledgement of the unseen components of my self that I sense swirling beneath the surface of my immediate awareness.
When I was a young student of literature, I focused my attention on Canadian and British literature and was not aware of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself when I wrote my Leviathan poem. Today, it would be a foolish endeavour (beyond humbling) to compare Whitman’s tremendous poem to my brief scribble. However, I see that I was expressing similar notions to Whitman when I read his extraordinarily similar line, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
As “Leviathan”, individuals have the potential to be more, and different than what may be seen. The metaphor draws on an inversion of a concept employed by Thomas Hobbes in his political philosophy book, also titled Leviathan.
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published a massive work of political theory through which he re-purposed the Leviathan metaphor. Hobbes’s use of the metaphor was to describe a national collective as the “Leviathan”. When all of the people are combined and united, they are a monstrously-powerful force, symbolically headed by a monarch. Hobbes’ Leviathan is an argument for monarchy but it is also an argument for a social contract that recognizes all people within a society.
Why did Hobbes use a monster to represent the human collective rather than some other metaphor? And why a sea monster rather than a land monster, such as Behemoth – another awe-inspiring Biblical creature that would have been familiar to his contemporary readers?
The choice of Leviathan seems, in part, to be based on the etymology (linguistic background) of the word itself which may be broken into root words of “lavah” (to connect or join” and “thannin” (a serpent or dragon”. The first root word establishes interconnectedness of the people. This was an important feature of Hobbes’s philosophy. The second root word has deeper cultural roots.
Clearly, basing the metaphor on a biblical source was familiar to his audience. For a Christian nation, as England certainly was at the time, the Biblical Leviathan was a familiar concept. Serpents and dragons are ancient concepts in England’s mythology such as St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf and other ancient tales. Symbolically, Hobbes extends the English (British) identity beyond merely slaying the dragon, to embodying and superseding the dragon. Hobbes is saying, when we unite, we are the monster others may fear….or as in the Biblical quote “no greater power”.
The use of sea monster also established a connection to the sea as a place of power for Britain.
Underpinning all of these associations is a awareness and sense of awe for the mysterious, immense and powerful creatures of the ocean.
Leviathan of Job 41:1
Given Hobbes’ use of the word “Leviathan” and the massive influence of the Bible on global culture and literature, it would be beyond reason to omit the depiction of Leviathan in Job 41:1. Despite this being a biblical passage, we will set aside any theological analysis and focus on the awe-invoking depiction of amonster of the deeps:
“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Who then is able to stand against me?Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me. I will not fail to speak of Leviathan’s limbs, its strength and its graceful form. Who can strip off its outer coat? Who can penetrate its double coat of armor? Who dares open the doors of its mouth, ringed about with fearsome teeth? Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. Its snorting throws out flashes of light; its eyes are like the rays of dawn. Flames stream from its mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from its nostrils as from a boiling pot over burning reeds. Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth. Strength resides in its neck; dismay goes before it. The folds of its flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. Its chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood. Arrows do not make it flee; slingstones are like chaff to it. A club seems to it but a piece of straw; it laughs at the rattling of the lance. Its undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge. It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. It leaves a glistening wake behind it; one would think the deep had white hair. Nothing on earth is its equal- a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.“
In Job 41:1, Leviathan is specifically named. There are a variety of other biblical references which seem to equate Leviathan to dragons and sea monsters.
It is clear that the creature being invoked was expected to be familiar to its contemporary readers as something as far beyond human conquest. This was power and strength incarnate. Unbeatable.
It is easy to see how and why Hobbes’ might want to invoke this image as something the British people might aspire-to. In a time when Hobbes described the average human existence as nasty, brutish and short, a political treatise offering to make the British people a nation of kings over all that are proud would have been appealing.
Considered to have been originally composed in the eighth century, Beowulf is a gate-keeper to English literature. Not long ago, most students of the literature of the English language were expected to study the poem. While that kind of literary attention may or may not still be a feature of contemporary literary studies, this epic poem absolutely contains a valuable usage of the Leviathan archetype. And I’m not talking about the dragon that Beowulf fights at the end – though, there is a fundamental link between “leviathan” and “dragons”.
Beowulf, the character, is a prototypical warrior-king. Over the course of the epic poem, Beowulf’s heroic deeds are recounted. A lengthy depiction of derring-do. Beowulf is a “hero” in the sense of that the character is presented as a kind of ideal. A person of action, intelligence, courage, strength, humour and loyalty. Within the context of the eighth-century (if not entirely in the twenty-first), Beowulf is the person who would and should be a king.
Early in the story, Beowulf recounts a youthful swimming dare between he and a rival named Breca. The two young warriors challenged each-other to swim in the cold Atlantic. For Beowulf, the dare resulted in a deadly fight with sea-monsters.
I possess about a dozen different versions of Beowulf from various author/translators, including two copies of Howell D Chickering, Jr.’s excellent dual-language edition of the poem (Anchor Books). The following passage is taken from the Chickering version of Beowulf, though without the line formatting:
“But to tell the true story, I had more sea-strength, power in swimming, and also more hardship, than any other man. To each other we said, as boys will boast – we were both still young – that we two alone would swim out to sea, to the open ocean, dare risk out lives, and we did as we said. We held taken swords hard in our hands as we sawm on the sea; thought to protect us from whales’ tusks. He could not glide, swim farther from me, away on the surge, the heaving waves, no swifter in water, nor would I leave him. Five nights we swam, together on the ocean, till it drove us apart in its churning, sliding; that coldest weather turned against us, dark night and water, the north wind war-sharp. Rougher were the waves and angry sea-beasts had been stirred-up. Then my body-armor, hard-linked, hand-joined, did me some service, against their attack; my chain-metal war-shirt, worked with gold, covered my chest. A fierce sea-monster dragged me down deep, held me on the bottom in his cruel grip. However it was granted that my point reached him; I stabbed as I could with my sharp sword, with battle-thrust kille dth huge sea-beast by my own hand. Again and again the angry monsters made fierce attacks. I served them well with my noble blade, as was only fitting. Small pleasure they had in such a sword-feast, dark things in the sea that meant to eat me, sit round their banquet on the deep sea-floor. Instead, in the morning, they lay on the beach, asleep from my sword, the tide-marks bloodied from their deep gashes, and never again did they trouble the passage of seafaring men across the ocean. Light came from the east, God’s bright beacon, and the seas calmed, till I saw at last the sea-cliffs, headlands, the windy shore. So fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage holds. However it was, I had chanced to kill some nine sea-beasts. I never have heard of a harder night-fight under heaven’s vault, of a man more oppressed on the ocean streams. Yet I survived those clutches and lived, weary in my venture…“
Within the structure of the poem, this brief anecdote helps to establish Beowulf’s character as a fearless warrior and athlete but it also helps to convey and reinforce an established cultural connection between water and dreadfulness. The youthful sea-fight is a foreshadowing of the dive that Beowulf must undertake to combat Grendel’s mother as well as a foreshadowing of the land-based dragon that Beowulf must face at the end of his life. As with the biblical leviathan references, it is often difficult to separate ocean-dwelling leviathan from dragon myths of sea, land and air.
Beowulf’s final battle of the epic poem, Beowulf describes his dress in similar manner to his dress when facing the sea-beasts at the beginning of of the story: “I would not carry sword or weapons against the serpent if I knew how else to grapple proudly, wrestle the monster, as I did with Grendel; but here I expect the heat of war-flames, his poisonous breath, and so I am dressed in shield and armour…” and establishes, with Beowulf’s death an expected close when combatting Leviathan. One cannot expect to survive such an ordeal more than once.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1797/98. As with Beowulf, it is a major feature of English literature and contains key themes: sea-monsters/creatures and an exploration of man’s relationship to the power of nature (and the supernatural). It is one of my favorite poems and stylistic elements of Rime of the Ancient Mariner are included in my Leviathan.
Coleridge’s poem was written to be included as a part of a co-authored collection of poems with William Wordsworth – the Lyrical Ballads. The story of the collection of the poems is, perhaps, equally or more engaging than many of the poems themselves. In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote:
The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life…In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least Romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. … With this view I wrote the ‘Ancient Mariner’
As an aside, I titled my first collection of poems “Leviathan: The Biographia Isocratica” as a somewhat ironic imitation of Coleridge’s literary biography. In their experiment in producing Lyrical Ballada, Coleridge and Wordsworth played-out within a volume of poetry a social battle that continues to wage under various names. Coleridge explains the battle, and his side in it, in many sections of Biographia Literaria. The argument may most succinctly be described as humanism versus supernaturalism
Wordsworth wrote that,
“The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon; thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated. Yet the Poem contains many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is every where true to nature, a great number of the stanzas present beautiful images, and are expressed with unusual felicity of language; and the versification, though the metre is itself unfit for long poems, is harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that metre, and every variety of which it is capable. It therefore appeared to me that these several merits (the first of which, namely that of the passion, is of the highest kind) gave to the Poem a value which is not often possessed by better Poems.“
But Rime of the Ancient Mariner continues to be appreciated by many people today. Like Leviathan, it continues to swim within the culture. Coleridge’s poem helped to renew the literary theme of the struggle between humanity and fearsome oceanic powers for other works of literature such as: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Ernest Hemingway’s The old Man and the Sea (1951) and others.
Section Coming Soon
The Old Man and the Sea
Section Coming Soon
The Peter Benchley novel, Jaws was published in 1974. The movie followed in ’75. There may not be a more relevant and important iteration of leviathan in the twentieth-century film – nor in the modern conception of what leviathan means. Jaws established sharks in general, and the great white in particular as the sea beast that humans most dread. In 1978, the film Orca (based on Arthur Herzog‘s 1977 book) attempted to include the killer whale as an alternate leviathan representation. But Orca was derivative and didn’t capture public imagination as the sharks of Jaws had.
An important feature of the shark in Jaws is the enormous size of the fish. It is huge. One of the most dramatic and unforgettable moments in the film is when Roy Scheider’s character (Martin Brody) catches a first-glimpse of the shark and says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The Jaws film also clearly demonstrates that leviathan is a creature against which heroes may measure their deeds and mettle. Just as Beowulf recounted his swimming competition and struggles in Hrothgar’s court, Robert Shaw (as Quint) and Richard Dreyfuss (as Matt Hooper) compare scars and stories of their encounters with the dangerous creatures of the sea while drinking in the boat’s galley.
The scene in reminiscent, also of the opening of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when the narrator and his audience gather to share stories. Monsters and the void of the sea are deeply and permanently linked.
Quint’s lines call to Mind Friedrich Nietzche’s famous passage, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
These are notions and insights of the leviathan mythology. The relationship between humanity and the monsters that it chooses to fight.
My leviathan poem and this essay is a small contribution to the vast and wonderful human heritage which contemplates the vast and powerful . Humanity’s relationship to the monsters of the deep is one of the primal orientations that occupies our species. Leviathan is the vast and unseen predator that can crush us, as individuals or as a collective. Our awe, dread, fear, respect, admiration totemic aspiration or whatever other affect we may put upon Leviathan are a fundamental motivating force in our lives.
We are leviathan.
Do you know of a ”Leviathan” poem or reference that should be included here? Let me know using the contact page.
Around 1971 or 1972, Townes Van Zandt wrote and recorded a hauntingly beautiful song called “Highway Kind”. Several terrific versions by different artists are out there ready to be enjoyed. The song first came to my attention via Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House. Lovett’s version is still my favorite, but other versions also have their appeal. This version featuring Twin Shadow (Live on KEXP), posted in 2014, deserves far more than the few thousand views than it has received so far.
The opening lines of “Highway Kind” never seem to fail to establish an ambiance suitable to quiet, introspective deep dives.
“My days, they are the highway kind. They only come to leave; the leaving I don’t mind, it’s the coming that I crave. Pour the sun upon the ground, stand to throw a shadow; watch it grow into a night and fill the spinnin’ sky. Time among the pine trees, it felt like breath of air. Usually I just walk these streets and tell myself to care. Sometimes I believe me and sometimes I don’t hear. Sometimes the shape I’m in won’t let me go.”
Bask in the desolating warmth of these lovely lyrics as I may, this is a kind of poetry that I’m unlikely to ever conceive. Not least because these are sentiments and feelings that I rarely experience. I do not now and never have craved mornings. More often, I will doggedly cling to the last wonderful sensations of a dark and quiet night. What is among my cravings, however, is to establish new connections within and understandings of life and myself. That craving makes this song an easy and valuable meditative partner for morning Tai Chi routines.
When I realized that my do-it-when-I-remember-to Tai Chi schedule did not qualify as a commitment, I started to consider what I could and should do about it. I decided that I needed to set a regular schedule for the activity that I could stick to. I also wanted a routine that could maximize any benefit I might derive from the practice. In my case, I settled-on the worst part of my day. Mornings. It makes a kind of sense…if this is my worst time of day, maybe including Tai Chi could be an improvement. Maybe I could capture some of that pour the sun upon the ground enthusiasm.
My usual morning, and still my first inclination, is a groggy, grudging, reluctant affair. I’m rarely able to consider food. On most occasions, a hot shower and a hot beverage are the two minimum requirements to get me going. Upon occasion one or the other of these two things may be skipped. Never both. This tendency of mine is a very old (and possibly quite incorrect) predilection – to focus on getting things done rather than on finding ways to make the present richer and more enjoyable.
Waking has always been a trial. Particularly now that I’ve solidly entered, if not absolutely passed, mid-life, waking and rising in the morning, I seem to viscerally experience the fact that my lungs and circulatory system are not strong, healthy systems. I seem to feel a still-thickening sludge pooling in my chest and limbs like the dirty black oil of an engine that’s 100,000 kilometers overdue for service. Despite my perception that I’m not terribly overweight and am decently active, this kind of feeling has grown, sometimes to awful proportions, in recent years.
One morning, I recalled the bouts of pneumonia that I’d experienced over the years. Wave after wave of liquid infection that left me wheezing and panting for weeks and months afterward. I also recalled the embolism that drizzled into my lungs and choked-off my youthful feelings of vitality. That morning, I decided that I’d rather get up and do some Tai Chi than let that feeling continue to grow.
Rather than hunkering miserably on a chair while the morning beverage came together, I acted. I ran through the Tai Chi moves I had been learning. Calming the Water. Over the drum. Brush Knee. Single whip. Several others. In fact, I was surprised by how many came to mind. I won’t claim that they felt natural and smooth. But they were there for me. I simply stood in the kitchen and ran through what I could.
I also decided it would be an interesting opportunity to bring some deep breathing into my day. Since I spend most of my day (metaphorically) tethered to the tools of my professional day, I don’t get much cardiovascular exercise. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic environment, I work at home and don’t benefit from the meager bit of walking that used to be my commute.
By combining the Tai Chi movements with the deepest breathing I can muster in the morning, I’m expecting to derive some benefit. It’s not going to replace a good 40-minute bike ride or any of the other genuine cardio activities you care to mention, but it must be better than what I had previously been doing: nothing. So now most mornings, I get about twenty minutes of movement and deep breathing.
In the morning, I find it easier to synchronize deep full breaths with the Tai Chi moves. This is partly because I’m focused on wanting those deep breaths. I am better-able to allow my breathing to guide the movement. I pay less attention to the movement to focus on the breathing. As a result the movement seems to flow easier.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig makes use of mornings several times, emphasizing it as one of his narrator’s favorite times to ride a motorcycle. Many others within motorcycle culture and literature have expressed similar sentiments about riding in the morning. In one scene, when the narrator arises after a bad dream and riding is not yet an option, he decides to warm himself up with a walk down the logging road that he and his son had camped on the night before,
“But pines and sunlight are stronger than any dreams and the wondering goes away. Good old reality…..To warm myself I speed up to a jog and move up the road briskly. Good, good, good, good, good. The word keeps time with the jogging. Some birds fly up from the shadowy hill into the sunlight and I watch them until they’re out of sight. Good, good, good, good, good. Crunchy gravel on the road. Good, good. Bright yellow sand in the sun. Good, good, good.“
The scene recalls elements of Van Zandt’s lyrics. I even have a notion that I could look forward to mornings when I will be able to see and feel the sun filtering through the branches of the forty-foot fir tree that dominates our backyard and then also through the south-facing windows that are only a step or two from my morning Tai Chi station.
Within the first weeks of my experiment with morning Tai Chi, I find that moving slowly, an important part of Tai Chi, is easier in the morning. I’m certain that this is partly a result of the focus on breathing; I also suspect that the pace of the day…the build up of the day’s demands, frustrations, excitements and all of the rest of it have not yet usurped authority over my pace. I’m not reacting to anything yet.
My most significant observation is that my deep breaths are not nearly as deep as they should be. I feel how shallowly and light my regular breathing is. I cough a lot and take it as a sign that I’m working a system that needs to be worked. But also in the first weeks, I feel that improvements are occurring. Perhaps each breath should be accompanied by the mantra: Good, good, good, good, good.