Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

High tolerance for ambiguity

My wife commented the other day, "Gee, I read your blog [about not knowing the purpose of my life] . . . it must be depressing to spend so much time in spiritual work and still not have an answer."

Actually . . . not really.

The goal of spiritual life is to see things as they really are . . . and sometimes the truth is, "I don't know." Zen teacher Albert Low, in his book The Butterfly's Dream, went so far as to say that the essential truth of the human condition is "I don't know," and that awakening to that "I don't know" was the door to a perfect unconditioned state beyond all form. Augie Turak's teacher Richard Rose once said, "Your task is to remain undefined, except to define yourself as the person seeking definition." In the sense of "The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao," if I knew for certain the full purpose of my life, I would almost certainly be wrong.

It takes some very alive and subtle thinking to be able to tolerate ambiguity. When I was a scientist, I once worked for a professor who was always in a hurry to get the meaning of things. Every time I showed her the results of an experiment, she would say, "So what does it mean?" And she literally would not walk away from the conversation without declaring what the results meant. And, as a result, everyone in the lab learned an important lesson: hide your results from the boss, at least until you had enough data to form a conclusion you could live with. Otherwise, there was a high likelihood of getting sidetracked by a premature (and incorrect) conclusion.

When I was in a math class at the NC School of Science and Mathematics, one of the students, obviously frustrated, threw down her pencil on her desk and slumped in her chair. "What's the matter, Lake George?" asked Dr. Davis. (He had nicknames for everyone, and he called Laurie "Lake George" because she often wore a gray sweatshirt with "Lake George" embroidered on the front.) "I just don't get it. I'm just confused," she said. "So?" he answered. "Stay in the confusion. Don't stop working just because you don't know what's going on. All new understanding emerges from confusion. You've got to learn how to operate while confused, to work when you don't know."

Augie's role as a spiritual teacher is exactly like that. Many times you're just slumped in the chair, and he's saying, "Stay with the confusion. Keep going, keep working, keep looking. The Answer is there, but you have to stay with it."


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