Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Some Pesky Paradoxes

I have been tormented of late by a quote from the Prajnaparamita Sutra: "Live with skillful nonchalance and ceaseless concern." I can do the second part just fine, since ceaseless concern is pretty much my constant state, especially since November, 2016. But skillful nonchalance AND ceaseless concern at the same time? It sounds like the spiritual version of trying to pat my head while rubbing my stomach.

The "chalance" part of nonchalance is related to the French chaleur, which means "heat." So a nonchalant person is a cool person. Is it possible to be simultaneously cool and concerned? When I try to think about this, I feel like I'm teetering on a tightrope strung between two mountains. To my right yawn the depths of nonchalance; to my left, the abyss of ceaseless concern. One twitch and I plummet.

Here is another paradox that my overly Western brain struggles to embrace: Wu Wei, the action of non-action, or the art of effortless striving. In my twenty years of schooling in three different countries, no nun, priest, or lay person ever mentioned the wisdom of "effortless effort." From violin to trigonometry, all my teachers believed that, if some effort was good, more effort was always better. Where work was concerned, the law of diminishing returns didn't apply.

When I began to study the violin, my father told me, hoping to inspire me, that the great Catalan cellist Pau Casals used to spend six hours working on a single trill. Now I have to wonder, was Casals striving effortlessly towards the perfect trill? Was he nonchalant as well as concerned?

WuWei. Skillful nonchalance. These seeming oxymorons remind me of my mother's well-meaning advice to the angst-ridden adolescent me: "Don't think so much. Be spontaneous. Just be yourself!" Whereupon I would rack my brains trying to figure out who Myself was, so I could go to work being it.

Now here I am, well into my eighth decade, striving to unlearn everything that I was taught, everything that seemed to make so much sense and guarantee results. I'm trying hard to unclench my jaw and loosen my grip, to accept things that sound insane, to combine constant concern and skillful nonchalance.

Clearly, I have a long way to go. Didn't I just write "trying hard "?

"I have known many Zen Masters, all of them cats," Eckhart Tolle
(Telemann at 8 weeks, already master of Wu Wei)





6 comments :

  1. Balance is tough. Today I forced my brain to work for a couple of hours - to create a floor plan for the final move. I felt as if I was Sisyphus!

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  2. I love love love this post! I'm wondering if the ceaseless concern is more about care, whilst keeping calm and unflustered? I don't know. I do find it interesting that in many languages we use the words for heat and cold to describe emotions. Just yesterday I said to someone, "jai yen yen" which in Thai literally means "cool heart" and they nodded and said, "Chill!"

    I certainly like the idea of effortlessly striving. Maybe it just means enjoying the striving, the practice, the learning?

    And then I wonder - perhaps this is all just telling us to breathe, breathe deeply, and relax?

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    1. So glad I know someone who can say "chill!" in Thai.
      I agree that if we all learned how to breathe properly everything else would be easier.

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  3. "skillful nonchalance" itself is a paradox.

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