Saturday, September 22, 2012

What Is Santa About?

Kim: What is Santa about? Why do we deceive kids? Is it just because we can? Are we interfering with their ability to see things as they is (as Sukuki Roshi would say as his way to remind us that there is only one thing)? What about Santa having kids sit on his lap for that photo after we tell them not to let a stranger touch you? What other deceptions do we teach kids? God, Jesus, you’ll live forever, adults are happy? What will I tell my Austin grandson when he asks? At what age can a kid understand that Santa is just a metaphor? Do they have to first be deceived into believing Santa and the elves give toys to all the kids on Earth?

In improv we learn that asking questions is not a good way to have a conversation. It puts the hot potato into the other’s lap.

So I’ll start again. I think my parents taught me that only things that you could see were real. They had no interest in deception. God, to them, was the big deception. Santa was of no interest to them. My Phili grandkids call me Grandpa NoFun. I wonder why?

Emma: Well, Grandpa NoFun, I can see your Phili grandkids’ point. I remember feeling delight when I used my burgeoning higher-level thinking skills to conclude there was no Santa Clause. My cousin and I felt very clever in realizing that his appearance at multiple shopping malls around New Zealand made his existence highly suspect. All around he was a delight—there was the delight in believing in a mystical grandfather whose sole purpose was to bring gifts to children and delight in finding out for myself that he wasn’t an actual person. I think Santa is fine when he’s about play, expectation, delight: he’s a way to make a holiday precious for children. For me, the deception comes in when there’s rigidity, when parents use Santa for their own purposes. If my parents had continued to insist there was a Santa after I’d figured out decidedly that there wasn’t, I would have experienced that as self-centered deception (because it would’ve been about them and what they needed.) If they’d used threats of Santa’s abandonment throughout the year as a means to get me to be “good,” I would've hated the man. It’s not Santa or a belief in Santa that’s terrible, it’s what we do with him, same as with most anything, really.

There are mystics who say God is the most commonly used term for “all that is.” Why is teaching children about God or Jesus a deception? Is it deceptive to teach children about the Buddha or Suzuki Roshi?

Kim: Here’s my grandson about God:

This was a year ago. Now, according to Jasper, there is no God.

Emma: Jasper is very wise. His answers to your questions are perfectly reasonable to him, and he seems deeply in touch with what he wants—he knows when he’s had enough questions and wants to go see his dad, for example. To me, this deep connection to our wisdom is god. Deciding that the god of a year ago doesn’t work for him is also wise. The trouble with God (and Santa) isn’t God (or Santa); it’s that God and Santa are us and we are Them. I think the trouble is when we think there’s something not us to know about them. It’s when we get all stiff and rigid and "idea-y" about this stuff that it causes havoc. I love Thomas Merton’s quote:

“If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are. I suppose the big problem would be that we would bow down and worship each other. . . . At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth. . . . This little point … is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.”

It amuses me that every time I look the quote up online, I find it on a site that is explaining why it’s the doctrine of the devil.

Kim: I was reading this essay on anger by the Buddhist therapist Mark Epstein. He talked about how the therapist is able to be non-judgmental because he/she resides equidistance between the id, ego and superego. Maybe that’s where God/Santa resides too. And maybe Freud was short sighted in thinking the ego mediates between the id and superego (that can only lead to a constant battle). How do we learn to stand in the center? At once, our center, too. That’s where I want to be.

I don’t know where Jasper got his thoughts about God. His parents are not believers. And I don’t know that my kids were ever fooled by the Santa story though we did have pretty cool Christmas morning events when they were young because Linda’s parents would be there. Now back to the original question, “Is there a Santa?” What has been gnawing at me is that if you convince the kid that Santa’s an earthling and then the kid discovers that the chimney is just a piece of stove pipe and not big enough for an elf, the kid rejects Santa completely. Or you tell him God loves him and then he meets up with loss and he stops believing. Next time I have kids I’m going to jump ahead and just tell them about the spirit of Santa/God . . . something that they can hold in their hand forever and “own.”

Emma: That’s a beautiful gift, Kim. Perhaps it’s all we really ever need on the spiritual path, a little God, a little Santa, a little Buddha, all of our own.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Kim: My son asked me if we were going to drive his kid to school when we come to Phili to child-sit, or would he take the bus. I told him that you shouldn’t make decisions until you have to. He said “really?” Then we started talking about choices and I said that one could be peaceful in their choices. He wrote back to me later that day, “every choice is a brutal amputation.” One thing I see with kids is that they are who you (the parent) were. We hear at the Zen center all about attachment. Seems like we attach ourselves unnecessarily to our choices, our positions (the Republican Convention is on TV now). So what was Robert Frost talking about in “Two roads diverged . . . and sorry I was that I could not travel both.” Is the voice his, or some unenlightened individual who doesn’t understand that one doesn’t have to be sorry? Or do you?

Emma: I read a great quote yesterday by John Welwood about a misunderstanding around nonattachment. He said that nonattachment should not be confused with avoidance of attachments—that avoiding attachments to people is just another form of clinging—as he says, “clinging to the denial of your human attachment needs, out of distrust that love is reliable.” I think it is so easy to fall into the trap of avoidance and denial, especially of difficult feelings. Maybe nonattachment can be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be, about peaceful choices. (If it can only be about making peaceful choices, there’s another attachment, right?)

Deeply feeling my sadness around not being able to take both roads, or regret about the road I did choose (Frost’s speaker says he’ll be telling “with a sigh”), is not necessarily an indication of my being attached to choices in an unhealthy way. I think it’s actually just an acknowledgement of what is. Here’s a possibility: I must make a choice, fear and confusion arise, I make the choice, perhaps there’s regret, sadness arises when I consider what might have been, and then I move on. I can imagine a scenario where that could happen and the nonattachment would be about not being attached to any part of the process, not getting stuck anywhere along the way. My feelings are my feelings; if I have a hard time making a choice, that’s what’s real for me. It doesn’t make me unenlightened. It makes me human.

That said, I don’t think every choice has to be a brutal amputation. Cheri Huber talks about how our ego/self-hate creates an alternate reality in which we’re living out our other choices for the primary purpose of torturing ourselves in this reality. I can resonate with that—“if only . . . ” can be such a painful thought if I believe that what is happening right now is fundamentally wrong and could be different. Accepting that what is happening right now is happening and cannot be any other way (how could it?) feels important. We can never know how life will unfold; having to make choices just gives us an opportunity to remember that.

Kim: This is especially meaningful because I grew figs in St. Louis. They were from a fig plant brought from Italy at the turn of the last century (mafia family). My barber gave them to me. Most years we hardly get any figs. It wouldn’t be a long enough growing season. This is really too about my next post . . . about choosing life or not.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Emma: Oh, Sylvia, great voice of the wounded! Yes, this makes me think of how necessary it is to take the time to mourn the figs at our feet . . . to take the time to notice them, say goodbye, and move on. I think that’s how we stop ourselves from becoming bitter. It is self-brutality to pretend they’re not there or to stare at them ceaselessly. Both denial and regret produce frozenness, immobility. How much easier it would be to make choices if we knew clearly that the fig tree that is our lives does not dry up because we haven’t been able to make up our minds. Choices will keep appearing, over and over again. Life never gives up on us. We can give up on it, in moments of true despair and illness, as Sylvia did. What a place of utter darkness she must have been in, to believe that suicide was her only choice.

Kim: Is suicide the only real choice that we make? Not just suicide of our body, but suicide of our feelings. Somewhere I remember Camus writing that you can’t live until you make that decision not to take your own life. We are thrust into the world without our choice. We push the boulder up the hill to watch it fall every evening. How many choose—really choose—to live? What would that mean for me?
“For his whole career Camus wrestled to come up with a reason not to commit suicide. He then penned a seminal article, The Myth of Sisyphus, outlining the futility of life concluding that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Self murder was his only way out of the Sisyphean task of life. If a man realizes his life is pointless, he can either keep rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to roll it again tomorrow, or he could kill himself and end the misery. This was the existentialist’s great controlling guideline. If a restaurant only has Coke or Sprite, you can choose either drink, or you could kill yourself. You have at least that control. Ironically, Camus died young in a car accident before he could decide to kill himself.”
Emma: We have to make that choice over and over again, to choose to keep living even when it feels as though this thing will be the one that we won’t be able to take. Taking suicide off the table changes things—it leaves no exit (to use the language of the existentialists). Then we must face what is in front of us or perhaps continue choosing and and letting go of other kinds of death—obliteration through alcohol or drugs or disconnection through television or other people’s drama. I guess there are a lot of ways to “die,” or take our exit out of the present moment, and as many opportunities as we have breaths to return to now.

Kim: Last night I went to a yoga class where the students are very lax about where they put their mats. They don’t seem to anticipate that more people will come in. In fact, they arrange their mats just to drive me up the wall. I’m usually the first one there, and I want to control where the mats go. But no, I choose to keep my mouth shut and fry inside. Then the teacher comes in. I think, “at last, we’ll get a semblance of order in this room.” But no, he’s oblivious to the chaos in the room and attends promptly to the chaos in our minds.

Here we have a succession of choices. The students choose where to put their mats down. Then me with the OCD-like desire for everyone to choose to love order. And then the teacher who doesn’t walk on the floor, but chooses to floats into the room, unmoved by the chaos. Each of us chooses where and who we are.

What did I learn tonight? It is ok where things are.

It better be. They are!

Perhaps “death” is wanting things to be different than how they are. Death is thinking that everything is done in the world as a punishment to ourselves.

I was relieved to learn that the Buddha did not believe that every good and bad thing that happened was the result of someone’s good and bad karma. Things happen. People place their mats on the floor where they belong. Right? Wrong? That’s my problem, not theirs.

Emma: Yes! Things happen. Of course. It feels like just more attachment to say there’s always a reason for everything. We want to believe we’re all-powerful because we think it’s less scary. But how painful it is! If we’re all-powerful, if everything that happens is a result of our karma, then we’re responsible for everything, and every choice really is life or death.

I like to think I’m free to make good choices and terrible choices and see it all as learning.