Friday, October 5, 2018

The Hot Iron Ball of Shame: A Koan for Our Times

Does anybody remember Zen koans? Those spiritual riddles unanswerable by the rational mind that push the meditator into a different realm of answering with the whole of their being. And then getting “passed” or “failed” (and mostly “failed”) by the Zen master. “What is the sound of one-hand clapping?” is one of the most famous, though today’s Body Music Musicians could answer that literally.

The one that struck my attention goes something like this:

“You swallow a hot iron ball, but you can neither swallow it nor spit it out. What do you do?”

What used to feel like an artificial metaphysical conundrum now feels like the koan of modern day America for anyone who still has a true north on the moral compass, a genuine thinking brain and an actual beating feeling heart. What is going on in Washington and the daily lowering of the bar until the old outrage becomes the new norm—and then sinks down deeper into the swamp of shame— is every day more difficult to bear. If you care one fig for social justice, human rights and healthy living, there’s no way to swallow it and accept it without compromising everything you spent your life fighting for. But if you spit it out, turn off the news, plug your ears and concentrate wholly on mastering your yoga poses, you end up letting the beast maraud unchecked through the land. Meanwhile, that hot iron ball is burning your throat and the pain is real and tangible.

Now that’s a real life koan. There is no one-size-fits-all answer and there’s no answer that lasts more than a moment or a day or so before the next news report heats the ball to burning. But that’s what we have to work with and it takes every ounce of our attention and intention and asks us draw from secret reserves of strength and courage that we might not have ever known we had. And let’s face it: it may feel new for people used to things working within a moderate range of common sense and civil decency, but it’s the same koan Native Americans and African enslaved-people and independent-minded-women have to face forever in this country. These are some of the folks we can turn to in searching for clues as to how to answer the unanswerable.

So while driving about thinking about this, I was listening to Mississippi Fred MacDowell singing “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning” and that seemed like a good start. Without attention to keeping your lamp lit, you get pulled down into the darkness and that does exactly no one any good. He goes on to sing “Children, don’t you worry” and that made me feel a bit hopeful, that worry we do and worry we should, but not too much, because we’ve been through this before, feeling that if this happened, we didn’t know how we’d get through. And then we do. He might have been singing, “Children, don’t get weary” and that is also good advice, because all of this is exhausting—emotionally, spiritually and consequently, physically as the toxins enter our bloodstream and nervous system.

And then “this old world is almost done.” Yeah!! That’s something I need to hear. I want so fervently to believe that this is the last gasp of the good-ole-boys club, the death rattle in the throats of the Trumps/ McConnells/ Bill O-Reilly’s/ Kavanaughs, who are doing their usual gloating that they think they won, but also sensing that their kind is doomed. That old world is almost done. Especially if all our outrage gets focused like a hot white light on the Midterm Elections. Keep that ball in your throat, feel the pain and use it to get out the vote.

That’s my best answer at the moment. And yours?

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