religion & philosophythat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Sweeping your way to truth

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My last column served up a modest proposal regarding the philosophy curriculum, suggesting that larval philosophers supplement logic with the experience of making meatloaf.

I’d like to continue in that vein with a further suggestion: That they try to arrange, from time to time, to fill in for the janitor.

I am not being frivolous.

The other day I spent a couple of hours putting our patio garden into order for the winter. This involved a lot of sweeping, an exercise that almost magically brings mind and body into coordination, the body being occupied just enough to keep you from trying to take control of the mind. This allows the mind to be itself, namely, something we ought to listen to rather than manage. What you get while you’re sweeping is a satisfying physical sense. There’s a rhythm and a tempo that you have to discover — but when you do, you find yourself just watching and listening to the content of your consciousness. That consciousness is a dimension of yourself every bit as substantial as the physical. But the two are not identical. And neither one is yourself.

What we take to be ourselves is the current alternating between the two.

Anyway, small wonder so many Zen tales relate of someone achieving satori by sweeping up or being told to sweep. For there is, as I have tried to suggest, an almost wondrous fusion of mind and body while sweeping (maybe this is where women used to derive their wisdom, back when women were wise). Discover the way to comfortably sweep, and you can keep it up forever, maybe even long enough to reach infinity.

All this comes about, strangely enough, because, when mind and body work in balance, you stop thinking about things. You are simply aware of them. The hesitant, deliberative you has disappeared.

We think that to think means to determine the course of our thought. But suppose to think means simply to pay attention to what is going on and let whatever intelligence one has process the information so provided without interference from others and, maybe most of all, ourselves. In other words, just see what’s going on.

You won’t see what is going on if you subscribe to accounts of what is going on provided by anyone else. You can learn a lot from other people, but only if what they tell you turns out to be true, and you can’t know that unless you have, all by your lonesome, developed the habit of paying attention, for no particular reason, to whatever happens to be going on around and in front of you.

The key is to bring nothing besides yourself to the encounter. Especially leave behind your ideas and theories. Ideas are wonderful, and theories can be. But trouble starts when the idea about something starts getting in the way of the thing itself.

C.S. Lewis has written something that seems oddly pertinent to this: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

This is not unlike the Zen saying to the effect that if you cup yours hands gently together, you can raise water to lips and drink, but if you clutch the water, it just spills onto the ground.

In other words, we tend, throughout life, to try too hard. We also tend to operate on the assumption that the way to solve any and all problems is to figure them out intellectually. Actually, if you stop interfering with your mind, and just take up a broom and sweep the patio, you may discover that your mind has figured it all out for you already.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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4 Responses to “Sweeping your way to truth”

  1. The old women of Russia used to sweep the street constantly; and their brooms were just bundles of sticks about three feet long. You are onto something with the importance of rhythm. It is strongly related to cyclicality, the constant in all existence. Ups and downs, oscillations. Wheels in wheels in wheels. One caveat though, I think you learn plenty from peoples’ untruths.

  2. You’re right, Ken. You can indeed learn plenty from those untruths.

  3. Frank, good post … thanks for sharing. It called to my mind the daily routine of work in monastic communities. While the regular work in fields (or whatever) would help provide for the community’s physical sustenance, I wonder if it might also – at the same time – have provided the residents and opportunity to to find another type of sustenance.

  4. As a bicyclist, I can relate to this. Sometimes you just ride and ride for miles and don’t think about it at all. You’re just in a rhythm, adapting to the conditions of the road, and you keep going.

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