Runcible Blog

Catching the Ox

catching the ox
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

holding onto desire

I woke up this morning with the remnants of a dream left rattling in my head. By now, I've forgotten most of the plot, but I know that in the dream, there was apple juice and there was Katie. Those two things were stuck in my mind, and I awoke with a strong desire for Katie (not so much for apple juice). Even though I had no idea what to say or expect, I felt that I should contact her somehow. I had made the great mistake in believing that my thoughts were real — that the dream meant something significant. This feeling of wanting to hold onto the dream persisted briefly before I could break the grasp and label the desire.

See, the flip side of not holding onto anger and negative emotions is that it leads one not to hold onto pleasurable emotions, either. Most people would be happy to find a way to minimize anger, but if asked to let go of pleasure, they'd refuse. Who doesn't want to feel pleasure for as long as possible? In truth, we all want to hold onto our emotions (even anger) because they make us feel real, and they feed the ego. "If I'm feeling all this pain, I must exist." or "I'm so in love with Sally. I just want to remember this feeling forever!" Unfortunately, trying to solidify our fleeting thoughts never works out in the end. Something comes up to shatter our illusions of happiness, or something happens to prove that we're not so depressed or angry as we'd like to believe. Still, if given the choice, we would want to throw away the "bad" thoughts and emotions while holding tightly to the happy stuff — dreams of white picket fences and financial success, the pride of accomplishment, the memory of a wild party, or even the desire for a long-lost love. It's hard to let go of all of these thoughts when we want so desperately to believe that the thoughts matter.

So there I was, clinging to this desire for Katie while observing the desire as an illusion of the mind. As much as I wanted to hold onto the desire, just observing it made it fade away for a time. This wasn't such a debilitating or dramatic conflict in my head, though. I still had to eat lunch, after all. After a burrito in Harvard Square, I strolled by the river, where the thoughts returned, with a little less desire. "OK, it may be silly to want somebody in this way, but it would be nice to talk to her, to catch up and see that she's still alive." Of course, this fooling of myself won the battle, and I called, leaving an awkward voicemail message about the dream that I couldn't remember. "Ah, see? That was easy. Now I can just forget about it and enjoy the sunny day!" There were cormorants diving for fish in the Charles — a seemingly impressive feat. I felt a strong westward breeze, blowing against the river's current. The shrubs near the shore had been pruned almost to the ground, branches sliced cleanly across. But while I was walking and seeing all of these fascinating early-spring phenomena, every once in a while the thought would pop up: "hmm, will she call back? What would I say? Would she be glad to hear from me?" Walking, thinking, observing the thought, watching it fade. Wash, rinse, repeat.

On my way back home, Katie called. I hadn't seen her face on my phone for more than a year. We talked for a bit and caught up on some of the past year. Naturally, the experience fell far short of my wildest imagination — she wasn't rushing to come see me or even inviting me into her life. It was just a slightly uncomfortable, bittersweet but good-natured conversation. I was genuinely glad to hear her voice again.

But man, desire is a feisty one. Never underestimate the mind's ability to trick itself. This time, I could see the thought process as it was happening, and I came away unscathed while learning a bit more about this ol' ox of mine. But how many times in the past have I gotten caught up in desire? How many unwise decisions have I made as a result? More importantly, what happens the next time I dream about Katie?

doing nothing

My 26th birthday passed a couple of weeks ago, an occasion for looking backward, forward, sideways, and all that jazz. I thought about how some of my habits are not so different than they were 10 years ago. As a kid, I used to ride my bike to a particularly quiet four-way intersection and just sit there for ages, thinking. I'd just sit on the seat and maybe put my head on the handle bars. Thinking, thinking, thinking, rolling back and forth. Other times, I'd go to a busy intersection and watch the cars go by, trying to catch a glimpse of the drivers' faces. Or I'd spend an afternoon sitting on our front porch, looking outside, even when the porch was filled with junk, cramping my legs. Once, while I was watching cars, some neighborhood kids invited me to play. They'd seen me there for days and thought I could use some friends. We struck up a friendship that lasted for a while, but ultimately, we were going in different directions — who needs video games and bike tricks when there are so many things to think about at that intersection?

These days, I have many more places to go to watch cars and people, and there are tons of places to sit and think or just sit. In warmer weather, I walk up and down Mass. Ave. from MIT to Harvard. Sometimes I'll walk through Central Square maybe a dozen times. The funny thing is that I don't think anybody notices the strange guy who keeps going back and forth down the street. I can't blame them — there's a lot of weird stuff happening in Central Square, and if you paid attention to it all, you'd never get to where you're going.

Lately, I've been following blind people. It still amazes me how blind people are able to survive in the city without getting run over by a car, walking into a construction site, or becoming hopelessly lost. So, I follow them around in an effort to see how it's possible. Also, I have this idea that if they need help crossing the street or finding their way, I should be near by because, hey, I'm not doing anything more important. But those blind folks really don't need my help. It's amazing. One day, I'm going to try walking around blindfolded with a walking stick, just to see how far I can get. That might be the last thing I do.

Anyway, the point is that over time, I've come to grips with this idea of "doing nothing." There was also a period in my life when I thought that I needed to be doing something lest I become bored. Being bored was the worst thing in the world, and I'd become cranky and restless when I was bored. Being bored is no problem — boredom is life. Also, people who say they're bored often really mean they're lonely or sad, or they simply don't want to face their own thoughts. But if you're at peace with yourself and not afraid of any thoughts that might arise, boredom is no big deal; it doesn't even exist.

To me, doing nothing doesn't mean tuning out or taking a vacation from life. If I'm sitting around idly browsing the web (as I did for part of the day today) or watching T.V., that's not a great way of doing nothing. That's atrophy. Napping? Action movies? Atrophy. Doing nothing means not needing to perform some activity. Maybe you're just looking at birds, sitting on a chair, or walking around. There's no goal, but you're fully engaged in no-goal. In those times of wandering, you can gain all sorts of insights, maybe have a eureka moment or two. People who always wear headphones or whip out a book on the subway are kind of shutting out the world; they can't seem to sit still without needing to plug in or consume content. Reading Harry Potter on the T won't help you understand who the hell you are; to do that, shut the book, look out the window at the wall of the tunnel, notice the people around you, and feel the tracks beneath your feet.

This story wouldn't relate to the theme if not for the ox rearing his head. The ox that dances while I "do nothing" is the day-dreaming ox or the judging ox. When I'm walking through Cambridge, it can be hard just to walk without following trains of thought — "Oh, a book store / I should buy a book / what about that story in the Times about local book stores? / old books smell like dust / dust makes me sneeze." Or even worse, if I'm busy mentally undressing every beautiful woman who passes me, well, I'm not exactly living in the moment. The imagination is a powerful thing, requiring lots of taming before it stops interfering with a perfectly good walk to nowhere. And so I have to catch myself and watch out for these unhelpful thoughts. "No, that guy is not necessarily a douche-bag; he's just a guy who happens to have a popped collar. Keep walking!"

This effort is a great challenge, especially in the city, where the senses can become overloaded. It's a challenge I'm definitely struggling with, but it's necessary to tame the ox before riding him home and forgetting all about him.

taming the ox
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.


just ate 1 pound of pasta:

  • 8 servings
  • 1600 Calories
  • 336g of carbs (112% daily value)
  • 56g protein
  • absurd amounts of thiamin and folate!

ugh.  I feel bloated and sluggish.  My face is warm, and my belly is about to burst.

Now go, my digestive tract minions, and convert this mass into wonderful things!


forgot to be angry

I woke up early this morning to the sound of my neighbor's blaring alarm. From what I can tell, he has an iPhone connected to speakers, and he's a heavy sleeper. The alarm went on for at least 5 minutes before he hit snooze. By that time, I was already wide awake and becoming angry at my inconsiderate neighbor. I thought about writing him a note and taping it to his door: "EITHER TURN DOWN THE ALARM OR WAKE UP WHEN IT SOUNDS." First, I'd have to find paper and a marker. I don't have a lot of blank paper in my apartment, and I wouldn't want to use a scrap from a piece of mail that would have my name on it, and besides, he might be distracted by whatever was on the paper and miss my important message on the other side.

Anyway, I decided to look for the paper and write the message after I got ready for work. I showered, dressed, gathered my things for the day, made sure my door was locked, and walked out to my car. As I got to my car, I remembered that I was supposed to write that irate note!

Oh well. I guess being upset about an early wake-up just wasn't worth the energy after all.

zen in martial arts

I recently judged a book by its cover and bought Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams, thinking it might contain some insight into a particular way of thinking about fighting, and I thought it might be able to put words to the kinds of feelings I've been having in my own practice. Wrong! The book, written in 1979, oozes with a kind of superficial understanding of zen common in America at that time. The instructors quoted in the book all sound like David Carradine from Kung Fu or some caricature of a zen master. The author, a student of Bruce Lee, holds his martial arts masters in high esteem, sometimes to the point of worship. He writes about his experiences struggling to learn techniques and overcome his fear or anger, and invariably, an all-knowing master takes him aside to philosophize and show him the way to the truth. It's amazing that there are so many detailed quotes from these conversations with the masters, but I suppose they're not too hard to remember when they're mostly clichés.

I shouldn't trash the book so much. It's obvious that the author was serious and respectful of all sorts of martial arts and was a curious and dedicated student for many years. But I take issue with the sentiment that puts zen and martial arts up on an exotic pedestal, as if these concepts were precious jewels that only intense masters can ever understand. There are descriptions of almost super-human abilities — a Karate master's miraculous capacity to heal his broken hand by visualizing little construction workers fixing him, a Karate match where the master defeated a burly man only by looking at him intensely and screaming, a Tae Kwon Do man's ability to pummel a metal surface until his hand turned to pulp, Bruce Lee's magical one inch punch. The power of visualization may work wonders for some people, and imagining being somewhere else to distract the mind from pain might just do the trick, but it's not zen. Zen is about being present in this moment, not about fooling the mind or believing that one can fly if only he thinks hard enough.

Those who glorify the exotic aspects of zen and martial arts do a disservice to both because they elevate the ideas far from reality and make them seem unobtainable by us normal American slobs. But it just ain't so! There are tons of books that bolster this misconception, turning zen into an object to purchase and show off. It's all around us: buy the yoga mat and yoga pants to do yoga; buy the zazen pillow to do zazen; buy the karate uniform to do karate. And each time, put on your yoga face to do yoga, your zen face to do zen, and your karate face to do karate. When you get home, put on your T.V. face for the rest of the day. Throw them all out!

Much of the book deals with karate and kung fu, which I mostly have experience with as a viewer of "Karate Kid" and other great classics. But I wonder if the fact that there's such a focus on mastering forms and the seemingly mystical philosophy of "qi" makes it easy for people to become caught up in this delusion where they might start to believe that invisible lightning bolts can shoot out of the eyes or cause an opponent's head to explode just by focusing on it. While reading the book, I was especially skeptical because of the stuff that I've been learning recently about jiu-jitsu, particularly Gracie jiu-jitsu. The Gracie family showed up and demolished seasoned martial artists because their jiu-jitsu is so much more of a science than a ceremony. They started off in bare-knuckle fights in Rio, fighting for their lives, not for points. I think those life and death situations point closer to the truth of zen than a board breaking demonstration does.

So, what is zen in the martial arts? Well, no thanks to this damn book, I still have to figure that out. What I can say so far is that zen is a perfectly-executed roundhouse kick, following through the target and pivoting the standing leg to at least 270º. Zen is also the moment when you completely miss the target, swing around, and fall flat on your face. Zen is about getting thrown to the ground by a 14 year old, and it's about choking a girl, despite her gender, because she will definitely choke you if given the chance. Zen is being mounted by someone twice your size — nowhere and no strength to escape. Zen is breathing. Zen is letting the other guy get tired. Zen is the effortless technique that comes after countless repetitions. But zen is also the lack of progress despite effort, the natural plateau in experience. Zen is a pulled muscle. Zen is the congratulatory smile on your face after your opponent has clobbered you with a flawless arm bar.

Most of all, zen isn't special. But it's the most important thing because it's happening right now. It is this moment. And although the truth may not make for a best selling book, zen in the martial arts is the same as zen in knitting or zen in taking a dump. Be present in the moment, and incinerate yourself in the activity. If you're taking a dump, then just take a dump. If you're escaping from someone's guard, then just escape. If you're punching straight, cross, hook, then just punch straight, cross, and hook. There's no violence or anger in this action because it is only action. Dogen compared compassion to a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night. Zen in the martial arts means employing that same kind of automatic compassion whether you're punching someone in the face or being choked to submission.


That's all I've got so far.


My eyes almost rolled out of my head while watching W. last night. Oliver Stone never fails to deliver the kind of dialog that bludgeons the viewer with his point. In this case, the point is that George Bush is a well-meaning buffoon deluded by a need for fatherly validation and misguided by the idealogues surrounding him. There you go; save yourself the 2 hours.

The script includes a lot of real quotes from the characters (many cut and pasted from here, no doubt), but they're used out of the original context and jammed together in a way that makes me feel that the screenwriter was working off a checklist of items to add an air of "authenticity." Nullifying any sense of reality, however, is the way that plot elements come together so tidily. For instance, I'm not so sure that the decision to invade Iraq happened during one meeting in a dark room, with the key players sitting around a table looking at a big screen displaying a map of the middle east showing American flags surrounding Iraq and Iran. Ah, and who can forget Dick Cheney's monologue about how we'll never leave Iraq because it contains 25% of the world's oil?

One can forgive a certain amount of embellishment and corner-cutting in biopics, but Oliver Stone manages to highlight all of the cringe-worthy elements of the script while stuffing subtlety in the closet for the duration of the film. I should know better than to expect much from his films. There's a saying in Texas: "Fool me once, shame on you... If you fool me, I won't get fooled again!"