Wednesday, February 1, 2012

So what's wrong with criticism, anyway?

Click on image to enlarge!
I needed to go to the grocery ... to buy some chicken and soy sauce. I didn't want to buy chicken, but my wife gave me that look, so I decided to abide.

I also didn't want to spend a lot of time, so I thought I'd drive. But when I went out, and found it to be sunny and 73°, I decided to walk.

To get to the grocery, I need to cross one busy street, Lamar. There is a button to press on the light pole. I pressed it a few times, but then didn't pay attention to the light, and it took a couple of rounds before I saw the green walk now signal. The sign just lasts for a nanosecond. 

When I arrived at the grocery, I thought I'd go in the door of the food court and get some of my favorite soy-vegan gelato. Outside the door was what appeared to be a homeless man. He said "Hi Randy, haven't seen you for a long time." I smiled at him and walked on, wondering what part of me looked like his friend Randy.

There were two women at the counter when I asked for the gelato. One said to the other, "you get the gelato and I'll ring him up." 

I went to an outside table to sit and eat it. The air was breathtaking. Breathtaking, that is, until I realized it was breathtaking. Not soon after the realization, I smelled a whiff of garlic as a couple of men carried their lunches to the empty table next to me. One said to the other, "that looks healthy," as I was thinking to myself "that stinks," I thought the smell would soon go away. "I was in the vast outdoors," I thought.

Next thing I knew I got up from my table and walked to another table, away from the garlic. I enjoyed the rest of my gelato listening to the birds, and reading the weekly [Austin] Chronicle ... and not smelling the garlic salmon.

Then I went to wash the gelato off my fingers, and proceeded to get the soy sauce and chicken. The chicken, however, didn't look too good. Instead I bought a rotisseried turkey breast. Hopefully our guests tonight will like that with vegetable soup and spinach salad.

As I write this, I'm fascinated by the cycle of perception/sensation/judgment. I remembered learning about the Buddhist 5 khandas [Heaps, Aggregates] which describe the process we go through when something new comes into our space:

  • rupa   the physical form
  • vedana   initial reactions to sensory input
  • sañña   perception; identifying ability of the mind
  • sankhara   mental formations (thoughts and emotions)
  • viññana   consciousness

Consciousness is the tough one for me right now. Rather than being "with" the object, I make endless judgments: the homeless man, the not-so-good chicken, the smelly garlic, etc. I'm not just conscious of the object, I'm putting it on trial and convicting it all at one swoop.

I decided rather than to get a cart or a basket at the grocery that I would just use the bag I brought with me to carry the groceries home. Then I started fantasizing how someone was watching me from an office and was ready to arrest me if I left the store without paying. There is one counter to pay by the door for those who have only a few items. I went there, and a large nicely dressed cop was there, with an even larger gun. I looked to see if he had something in his ear that they had used to communicate with him that a possible turkey/soy sauce theft was soon to occur. His ears were clear of any electronics, so I felt safe, checked out, and started walking back home.

As I waited for the light to change, I started listening to the sound of the cars ... and how they were different from each other. I only realized a few minutes later that I had watched Margaret Dunning, age 101, talk about how different cars used to have different sounds. Wow, I thought, they still do. 

Walking home, I continued to focus on the sounds of the birds and the cars. I noticed that I couldn't simultaneous think "beautiful spring" and hear the sounds. I wanted to take my sweatshirt off, but didn't. I wonder now how hard my poor brain worked debating whether or not my sweatshirt should come off.

Earlier, I had written something to Miss S. about criticism. On the walk, I had tried to keep away from judgement and to just be thinking and feeling, rather that being conscious of my thoughts and emotions. I found it a difficult road... not to criticize, not to be conscious of being conscious. The judgment realm kept getting in the way. "I like this, I don't like this."

When I get to the judgment realm, I leave the experience realm. That's the problem.  I am blind, lost in my recent but past experience.

So when I listen to sound of traffic and start to realize that it is good or bad... at that moment I have stopped listening. 


Criticism is often hurtful... not necessarily skillful means. Not only does it deprive me of being in the company of another or even of myself, it also puts me one up on you. Better to just let the other know how I am feeling. That is communication. Or maybe (sometimes) just keeping my mouth shut is the best policy.

In Zen, there are three tests for right speech:

Is it honest?

Is it timely?

Is it helpful?

It is hard, thinking back on my criticisms, to find those that pass all three litmus tests. I think one of the reasons that the Buddha gave 20,000 different dharma talks is that he had something different to say for each unique occasion. 

One of our guests tonight had worked in a bar for many years and is extremely skillful at reducing arguments (esp. about politics or religion) to nothing. I admire her ability to do this.

PS. I told her about Romney saying today, "I’m not concerned about the very poor...." (partial sentence). She said, "ah-uh!"

2 comments:

Kate Freeman said...

I found it a difficult road... not to criticize, not to be conscious of being conscious. --- Mr. Kim

There were times in my life when I would have told people I was numb. I didn’t have an emotion. I couldn’t. I didn’t really ‘think’ about why? I wasn’t truly conscious of what had (or was happening) to me? At this point, I don’t think I would call those ‘numbed’ states ‘good’. I think it was a cooping mechanism that I needed at that time, but the shadow side of ‘numbness’ is lack of empathy.

Was it Kierkegaard or Becker or Descartes or some other guy from a philosophy book I once read who argued that the awareness that one exists is what makes one uniquely human? That you know that you are here, that you are conscious of being conscious, that we think and therefore are. . . this is how many define human nature. (I suspect that this may not be entirely true as I think a few other species or life forms also have a self awareness or consciousness.)

What end does consciously leaving that consciousness behind serve? What is the desired end result of this practice? How do you define ‘enlightenment’?

We are all going to die someday. This is an awareness that we all typically have. I do know that it is Becker (thought I suspect other have said this as well) who argues that much of our ‘beliefs’ (surely he used another word) work to deny that awareness of death. The concept of heaven is a concept of eternal life and if one behaves in certain ways, one can achieve this eternal life. The concept of enlightenment is a concept of escaping the cycle of life, DEATH, and rebirth. One can escape this cycle and overcome that life/DEATH syndrome by behaving in certain ways. But in the end we all still die.

I cannot behave as if I have fully taken in or become aware of the fact that I will die. I am living the denial myself. . . Perhaps that is a part of why I post here so that my words or ideas might live on after my death . . .

Kim Mosley said...

I don't think the "not to be conscious of being conscious" that I'm talking about is "being numb." It is more being in the flow, responding to stimuli as it occurs, living so fully that you aren't thinking about it. Being fully alive.

Descartes' "I think therefore I am" is perhaps where I don't want to go (or be?). Maybe thinking is the creator of impotence. We can't both be and think at the same time, or can we?

This is all food for much thought, unfortunately (keeps us from being?).

I think I'll try to write about DEATH later for my next post.