Have you ever done – or heard of – a zen tangle? It’s a drawing exercise where you take a pen and mark a few points on a little piece of paper and then you take a pencil and you draw webs of patterns and designs and you can’t and don’t erase. When you make a ‘mistake,’ you draw through it and around it. The lines always meet at the pen points. The pen is irreversible but pre-determined. The pencil is irreversible but in your control.
There is no right or wrong. Only wide or narrow, open or closed, intricate or simple, big or small, full or sparse.
While I was in college, I took a Peace & Conflict Studies course that, despite being far off the beaten trail of academia, really plunged into screwy ways of thinking that we didn’t realize we both had and thought were okay. The point being that universal change starts with the individual.
Our final assignment was to create something that meant something to us in light of what we had learned. A music major composed a six-part song, a biology major presented on nature vs. nurture in the animal vs. human psyche, I wrote an essay that was eventually published here.
One day, while we were on the topic of nonviolent/mitigative solutions, I asked my professor a pretty crass question, something to the extent of: “You know where I stand in terms of being pacifistic… keeping that in mind, if a gunman broke into your house and it were between letting him kill your children or you killing him, what would you choose? Where would the hypothetical fit into a practical context there?”
He said: “The problem is not what I would choose, the problem is that there is a third option there, and you didn’t think of it before you asked me that question. The problem isn’t what I would or wouldn’t do in a hypothetical, it’s that our mindset naturally falls into extremes. Black or white, this or that, one or the other. That’s not the way of peace. That’s not the way of compromise. That’s not the reality you claim to want.”
At the time, I have to admit, I thought his response was a cop out. (It seemed obvious to me that a parent would kill for their child. Ask anybody who has a child.)
But my assumption was a symptom of the issue he was talking about. Either he gave the answer I deemed correct or he wasn’t really answering at all.
I used to believe that ‘bad’ things happen for the purpose of growth and so we could better experience the ‘good’ things. I then realized, by virtue of logic, how could they really be ‘bad’ when they were serving their ultimate purpose? Even though the most crucial and profound and changing experiences aren’t immediately comfortable, how could you, in light of their necessity and profundity and catalytic-ness, call them ‘bad?’
I can see how attaching myself to only wanting to do things that were ‘right’ and ‘meant to be’ did nothing but hold me back and trip me up. There was no way to know, I was seeking answers that didn’t exist. I was looking to take an idea of a single moment and make it my life. It inevitably teetered out of the context I held it in, I assumed things were wrong and bad and horrible and evil and tortured. The technical term for this is extrapolation.
I often daydream of different segments of my life and I’m not nostalgic for what happened, but taken and inspired by what could be happening if I were the person I am now, being where I was. I sullied and quieted my life because I was trying to pick apart right or wrong, when those two things were highly if not entirely subjective and changing.
Figuring out right and wrong wasn’t deciding between who I’d kill or not. Getting trapped in a dual mentality is often small and undetected. It’s do I want to stay in a relationship? How do I know whether I love someone or not? Which piece of evidence could show me that? Which gut instinct do I listen to? Do I want to continue to pursue things that aren’t aligned with an idea of who I should be? Do I want to try? Can I call myself moral if I’d theoretically kill for a child? Does that change the person I think I am? Am I who I think I am? Will I ever be?
Getting caught in the definitives – right or wrong, fated or not, good or bad – does one thing and one thing only: it makes your mind structured to categorize and summarize stories that aren’t even written yet. You end up making the plot what makes sense to what the story was when you started, as opposed to whatever grand majestic possibility is right in front of you.
What if the story doesn’t have to make sense to us? What if we just have to follow the good feelings, and learn from the bad, and disregard either as more important than the other? What if duality is nature but we have to transcend it?
What if you are meant to be with someone and you aren’t? For a while, not forever, maybe eventually, not for now. What if you’re supposed to do one job but the idea that one role could define your entire life isn’t only illogical, but it also is the equivalent of you just drawing a straight line between your pen dots on your zen tangle and calling it a masterpiece? What if the ‘bad things’ are just illusions that we call into our existence because they give us the very experience we need to heal something or change something or open us to something, whether we’re conscious of it or not? What if there is no answer, what if there doesn’t need to be? What if the point is not to arrive at a conclusion, but just to consider the thought?