Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dinnertime Dualism: You & Me & the Tree Makes Three

"Imagine yourself hanging by your teeth from a tree over a cliff. Your hands can grab no branch, your feet can touch no limb. A man from below you asks a question your life depends on answering. You cannot remain silent, yet if you open your mouth, you fall to your death. What do you do?"

- Philip Toshio Sudo, zen guitar

courtesy of flikr user looseendsThe kids had been shouting "I fink, derefore I am.... I fink." Over and over all through dinner, a joke they didn't understand from a satirical children's book, Where's My Cow?. "What do you think that means?" I asked them. When they said they didn't know, I told them, "Guess. What might a person mean if they said they exist, because they think. Just take a guess..."

"That you know you're you because you're doing the thinking?" one of them hazarded.

"And do you think that thinking is the only way you know you exist?"

"No, you know because you can feel yourself."

"That's right — but there was a man, named Descartes, who decided he was going to question everything he absolutely could, to see what was real. So he might look at that tree outside and say, 'I think there's a tree outside because I can see it and hear the leaves rustling — but maybe my senses are wrong.' Haven't you ever seen or heard something in a dream that wasn't real? What if he was just dreaming the tree?"

"That tree?" the littlest one asked, pointing. "But there is a tree, I can see it!"

"That's right — so Descartes thought, 'Well, even if my senses are wrong, other people see the tree, too. But what if I'm also imagining the people?' You've had dreams with people in them who aren't real people, right? 'In fact,' he thought, 'what if I don't even have a body at all and I'm dreaming this whole thing, the world, my body, other people, the tree? How do I know anything at all actually exists?!' And on and on he went, questioning everything — until he got to the very end and he said, just like you did, 'Well, one thing I'm sure of: I know I exist, at least, because I'm thinking. If there's thinking going on, somebody must be doing it, and that's me!'" The kids sat and seemed to consider this, slurping their tomato soup. "Do you think he's right?"

"No," said one, "because... because I can feel I'm real, and I can go up and feel the tree."

"Do you think he's right?" Jeff asked me, one eyebrow raised.

"No," I said, turning my attention from the kids for a moment, "Because Descartes adopted a policy of radical doubt — doubting everything, even those things which he had no reason to doubt — and such absolute, unconditional doubt in everything is a form of insanity. It led him to a fundamentally dualistic view of the world, in which the mind is trapped inside itself and the world, if it exists at all, is stuck outside it with no way in."

"But the Buddhists would say differently. They'd say there is no self, only the thought," Jeff said.

"Well, yes. It's the phenomenologist's view that the senses can be trusted, that the phenomenal, perceptual world of 'intentions' and experiences is the place from which we must start, because trying to start anywhere else misses the point. The phenomenologist says Descartes went too far. The Buddhist view is that he didn't go far enough. The Buddhist would say, why stop at the self? Question the self, too, try to find the self that's doing the thinking." The kids were growing restless again, the littlest twisting in her chair to make faces at the other two. "And when you look for the self doing the thinking, you're like a dog chasing its own tail — right, guys? Going round and round and round, chasing after nothing at all..."

The kids laughed. "Until you give up! That's what most dogs do."

"Now we're talking about animals, and not about people" the littlest one piped up, "that's what I like."

Later, clearing the dishes from the table while the kids went up to brush their teeth and change into pajamas, I talked to Jeff about the differences between the Western approach to mysticism and the Eastern approach.

"Well, now," said Jeff, "I'm not a Zen Buddhist, and this is why.... 'The mouse has cut the wire. Goodbye!'"

I laughed in surprise, catching the bizarre reference to another children's book, this one by Dr. Seuss, about two people in the same room talking on the phone about how they cannot hear each other.

"I'm kidding. But that's very Zen, by accident, isn't it? They're always saying things like that..."

"It reminds me of something I just read in that book, zen guitar," and I told him the story about hanging off a cliff by the skin of your teeth, when someone asks you a life-or-death question you absolutely must answer, so that either way, you die. "I don't remember what point Sudo was trying to make — mostly because I didn't get the story, I didn't know the answer. But I know what I'd do if I was hanging desperately off a cliff and some jackass asked me a question..."

I mimed dangling by my teeth, glaring irately down at the imaginary questioner then slowly, emphatically, lifting my middle finger.

"I've been thinking.." Jeff said as he came in from reading the kids their nightly bedtime story. I continued to practice my guitar, and he closed the bedroom door quietly behind him. "Your response to the Zen riddle about hanging off the cliff — that's exactly right."

"How so?" I asked, fumbling on the strings, taking a breath and starting again.

"Well, it's creating an alternative. Your answer rejects the very assumption that there are only two options. You make your own."

"Yeah... though I was really just being snarky. But I see what you mean. And that's what Druidry teaches, too. That when faced with dualism — whether the mind-body duality of Descartes, or the phenomenologist-Buddhist duality of trusting the senses versus questioning the self — that the Druid way is to find the third, to complete the triad that pushes us to the next level where opposites are not only compromised, they're reconciled."

"And," Jeff said, "If there seems to be no third, then you create one. Just as the poet creates new meanings through metaphor and juxtaposition, by throwing together and connecting things that don't seem to be connected."

We both sat for a moment, musing, and smiling.

Setting my guitar aside for the night, I looked up at him. "Jeff... I really like being a Druid."


  1. You like being a Druid, therefore you are? ;-)

    Thank you for sharing this, partly a sweet family story and partly important philosophical point. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. LOL! That was my response to the initial question as well. Something nonverbal. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing. =)

  3. I like this, and I especially enjoy how the post itself ends up being the "throwing together and connecting things that don't seem to be connected" and makes those connections seem natural and easy.

    I've seen efforts to make 'surprising' connections that are deliberately jagged, meant to jar, and it's a pleasure to see the connections made more 'organically.'

    I also like that it feels like there is a lot to say in response to this, to the discussion that animates it. It's like a veranda, open to the wind and sun while providing a sense of closure, being 'about' Druidry without being 'just about' Druidry (if that makes any sense).

  4. Lyon and oldmansutton, Thanks! Very glad you enjoyed it. :) Not exactly my usual excruciatingly-contemplative post, but it's fun to mix things up a bit sometimes. ;)

  5. Lanternlight, Your comment is especially appreciated. :) The whole notion of being "about Druidry" without being "just about" it articulates very well what I was going for. I sometimes feel that our spiritual and philosophical ponderings can lose their grounding in ordinary life, and I wanted to relate an experience of "Pagan parenting" that was just mundane dinner conversation and not specifically unique to Paganism (such as seasonal holidays or life-initiation rites). I'm pleased that you found so much of value in it. I only hope the kids got something from it, too!

  6. I wonder ... what "thrd thing" would reconcile atheism and theism?

  7. I meant "third thing" (of course) ...