Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pundit Zen

Today's David Brooks column in the New York Times is purportedly a review and commentary on Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers. I haven't read it yet (the book that is, I did read the column), but I have read several excerpts from Outliers that have run in The New Yorker, so I have some idea what they're talking about. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Outliers is basically about what causes some people to be successful at certain things, from athletics to the arts to business, while others never succeed. His premise isn't so much that some people are just born talented, or are better educated or otherwise empowered, but were just lucky enough to have been at the right place at the right time and clever enough and persistent enough to have capitalized on that good fortune.

But what struck me about Brooks' column, though, wasn't so much what he had to say about the book (he liked it and intends to hand it out for free in Times Square, or so he says). What I appreciated was that by emphasizing the "persistence" part of the equation, Brooks wound up writing one of the best endorsements of the power of zazen that I've seen from an (I assume) non-practioner.

"Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention," he writes. "We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains."

In zazen, that is exactly what we are doing - rewiring our brains. The conscious, associative mind rebels against sitting there doing, well, nothing, but we train ourselves to put our concentration where we want it, when we want it, for as long as we want it, instead of being lead around willy-nilly by our monkey mind, as we usually are. This quite literally changes the synapses in the brain and eventually allows us to bring that concentration and attentiveness to other aspects of our life.

"Control of attention is the ultimate individual power," Brooks asserts. "People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses."

I've written here several times about how we are prisoners not so much of our stimuli (sensations) but of our perceptions of that stimuli. Still, Brooks has it close enough.

"It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done." Perseverance is continuing to do zazen, to solve an unsolvable koan - these are hallmarks of Zen. Logic tells us that sitting looking at a wall can't possibly be the same thing as enlightenment, and yet we persevere, not stupidly, not blindly, but with great faith in the effects that we can plainly see that it has had on our lives. A koan, by definition, can't be solved by logic ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?") and every attempt to provide the teacher with an answer is seemingly met by rejection ("Mu!"), and yet we persevere.

Brooks correctly notes that control of attention "leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew."

We had two first-timers at last night's Zen service. They were frustrated - and a little intrigued - when I wouldn't acknowledge that the "purpose" of zazen was to be happier, or to be calmer, or more relaxed, or to live a more joyful, fulfilling life. Those are side-benefits, I explained, of giving up the idea of having a "purpose" to your practice. But we must be careful, I explained, that we're not giving up the concept of "purpose" with some other purpose in mind. That might have lost them, but I hope that they read Brooks column today - he said beautifully what I couldn't - and that they come back next week.

No comments: