"Computer Blues"; a shorter version of this essay appears in the May 2011 issue of Shambhala Sun
Once at Tassajara Suzuki Roshi said, “Life is basically impossible.” Then he got up and left the zendo. The next day a student raised his hand and asked, “Suzuki Roshi, yesterday you said that life is basically impossible. What are we going to do?”
“You do it…everyday.”
Forty years later I still find this teaching reassuring. Yep, I say, that’s the universe that I live in. Faced with my own incompetence and the critical judgment of others when assessing my performance, I take refuge in understanding there are limits to the power of meditation to fix all of life’s ills. Okay, fine, perhaps meditation solves all of your problems, dissolves all of your challenges—everything is easy and effortless—but I’m not there yet. And what a relief it is to recognize the basic impossibility, and stop being so hard on myself.
In January 2008 my IBM Think-Pad® computer was beginning to be unreliable: it wouldn’t always come on when I turned it on. Calvin, my computer guru—religion still has a place in modern life (God isn’t dead, he’s a computer wizard)—suggested that I might want to get a Mac, “Edward, you seem like you might be a Mac kind of person.”
“Oh, really? And what kind of person is that? The kind who doesn’t like computers and all the problems they have doing what one expects them to do?”
“No, Edward, you’re intuitive and creative. Why don’t you stop by the Mac store in Corte Madera and see what you think.”
“Right, Calvin, and when was the last time I was at the mall? It’s been years.”
“Okay, but if have a chance, check it out.” (Calvin said a blessing—and my old Think-Pad® started working again.)
Not really making plans to stop by the mall, lo and behold, a few days later I was driving north on the freeway coming back from San Francisco, and decided I had time to make this excursion, took the right hand exit for Corte Madera, the right hand turn for the frontage road, the left turn for the mall. Parking near Macy’s with its large lettered sign across its front, letting me know which store it was, I walked across the asphalt towards the shops having no idea where the Mac store was or what other stores were in the mall.
To the right of Macy’s was a large kiosk with a map of the mall, and an arrow that proclaimed: “You are Here.” As a zen student I thought I already knew this: “Wherever you go, there you are.” “Yep, of course I’m here, where else would I be?” Then I started thinking about the Tibetan master Urgyen Tulku, who said that this is the secret pointing-out key teaching, “You are you. You are Here.” Paraphrasing his words, he said, “You Americans like getting somewhere, you want to improve, and you want to have something to show for your efforts, but you don’t know where you are. ‘You are here.’ This is key. When you know where you are, then you will know where to go from there.” I studied the map: straight ahead, turn right, and first store on the right…okay.
The side of Macy’s was boarded up for improvements, and I followed this grey plywood eminence on my left to the inner passageway. No one stopped me to ask if I thought that I belonged there: did I have enough money to spend? Was I a good American shopper, doing my part to keep the economy going? Did my clothes give me away? “Excuse me, Mr. Brown, but you say you get your clothes from Ross Dress for Less? And you want to visit our mall? We’re not really sure you belong here. Do watch your step, Mr. Brown.”
The inner passageway has trees, flowers, and how nice, here’s a bench, outside the Mac store, where I pause for a bit, confused about what I am doing here. The shoppers are dressed casual smart, they know who they are—shoppers—and what they are doing here—shopping. They walk with an easy confidant grace, knowing they can make lofty assessments about what to buy—the world is theirs for the shopping. Across from me the Mac store beckons with a window display full of pink fluff that reminds me of cotton candy: “Nano-I-pods now come in hot pink! (at a ridiculously low price)! Get yours today!” When I approach the window, I can spot the credit-card sized items amidst the fluff: emerald green, metallic-sky blue, candy-apple pink-purple. “What ever for?” I ask myself, and head through the door into the store.
Immediately on the left are computers positioned on a counter—stand here and try them! I go right ahead. The computers are in white plastic, I-Macs, I guess. What should I be trying to do? I’m not going to be able to get my e-mail. See how the keys feel? They click a bit. I start to notice there’s a lot of energy in the store. On the wall behind me is a giant flat screen TV with a lot of fire balls accompanied by explosive noises. Signs to let you know that you can now download your movies through your Apple computer. That’s nice, I muse, for people who watch movies. Personally, I like my own.
I head toward the back of the store.
It’s crowded with people, largely under thirty, and the
energy is buzzing. At
the far back I can see the Apple “Genius Bar” which I’ve heard about
from my young friend Eli who works as an Apple Genius in the
A woman with a name badge approaches me. Casually dressed with an easy reassuring smile, she asks if she can help me. “I don’t know,” I confess, “I’ve gotten overwhelmed with all the energy in the store, and I’m feeling small and scared.”
Cheerfully she inquires, “Have you tried meditation?”
I may be overwhelmed, but I’m not about to admit that I’ve been meditating for nearly forty-five years, apparently to no avail–or this just wouldn’t be happening to me! Clearly I’m a failure at meditation, because by now, by golly, I ought to be Master of the Universe! And if not the whole wide Universe, at least master of my own objectionable feelings—Edward, are you still getting overwhelmed? You might want to admit what a failure you are and try harder in the future. Meditate more, and life will not be so impossible.
“A little,” I confess, “how about you?”
With a rush of confidence she says, “Yes, I’ve been meditating for almost three years.”
“Really? And how do you like it?”
“Oh, I just love it. It’s made all the difference, and I have such a wonderful teacher.”
“Really? A meditation teacher here in Marin County??”
After hearing about her wonderful teacher and swallowing her encouragement to do more meditation, I excuse myself: “Thank you for telling me about your meditation practice. I think I need to go home and think more carefully about what I want.” (Maybe she thought that I was talking about what I really wanted in my life—perhaps more meditation? I was talking about calling in reinforcements.)
Calvin laughed when I told him about my Apple Experience. “Ed, you’re a meditation teacher, not a techie. Let me help you get what you need.” “Thank you, Calvin.”
Shortly after this, the efficacy of Calvin’s blessing on my Think-Pad® expired, and I really did need to get a new computer, so Calvin arranged to meet me outside the Mac store. “Now Ed, before we go into the store, let’s sit down here on the bench and think carefully about what you want, so we can focus on that, and get in and get out.” Okay.
Beautiful women are strolling by, so while we were talking, my eyes wandered from time to time, following the attractively dressed bodies: tight jeans, low-slung belts, firmly-shaped rear-ends, flash-of-color scarves: wow. Then I started reflecting that the women are not themselves beautiful—they just walk around looking beautiful: “You do like my look, don’t you? It’s a good one, isn’t it?” Beyond their look, I wonder who’s there? Not much in the way of clues. And they don’t need to say it: “It’s not for you, old man. The hook is there for someone successful with money, who wants to spend it on me.” Oh. Of course. Excuse me for looking at what I can’t afford. And what I couldn’t have even if I could afford it: what’s inside the look. Can’t buy me love, indeed. The more I buy into the image, the less I have of the intimacy. Life is basically impossible. You do it everyday.
Calvin’s getting our list together: computer, modem for your Inverness-dial-up, do you want a service policy? Probably not? How about an I-pod—you could use it in your car, and I’ll help you get it set-up. “Sure,” I say, “as long as I’m getting an Apple computer, I’ll get an I-pod. I want one in that hot purple-pink.” Calm as can be, somewhat deadpan, Calvin says, “Wow, Ed, you’re really getting into this shopping stuff, aren’t you?”
I'm tempted to tell Calvin that my meditation must be going better, but I shrug, feeling confident with him by my side as we head into the store.
The truth is you're already a cook.
Nobody teaches you anything,
but you can be touched, you can be awakened.
Put down the book and start asking,
"What have we here?"
Though recipes abound, for soups and salads,
breads and entrées, for getting enlightened
and perfecting the moment, still
the unique flavor of Reality
appears in each breath, each bite,
each step, unbounded and undirected.
Each thing just as it is,
What do you make of it?
Edward Espe Brown