Mirror of Zen Blog

Without Contraries is No Progression

Steve Jobs — he of the steely self-confidence and even flaming arrogance — sent this email to himself in 2010:

Over the years, friends and students sometimes made joking references between Steve Jobs and things they noticed in my character. (It became sort of a running joke among several monk-brothers.) Maybe it was Steve Jobs’ long affiliation with Zen practice that made this resemblance seem more possible, in peoples’ eyes, than perhaps it deserves to be.

But this email touched something that is very important in my own life experience: the constant feeling of gratitude. This is something I experience constantly, all the time, seemingly nonstop. And this experience of gratitude is a reliably humiliating experience! (“Humiliating” in the sense of ”making humble”.) I am constantly aware of being the beneficiary of such great opportunity and so many excellent gifts and associations with so many truly wonderful, beautiful people in this life. I feel gripped with gratitude, you could say. Some friends chide me for saying “thank you“ too much, or for over-tipping taxi drivers who I recognize are making some great effort, or who I feel are at some great disadvantage.

Commentators and business school professors often speculate about the nature of what Steve Jobs’s associates called his “reality-distortion field”. (This was his ability seemingly to bend reality to his vision, whether it was by pushing materials and substances to another level of performance, or by being able to get his teams to imagine and engineer interfaces which were far beyond the capacity of people to imagine, much less create, at the time.) People speak about this “reality distortion field” as if it is some myth or mystery, maybe just an urban legend or hagiography of the man.

I have zero doubts about this ability (or gift, or skill, or curse -– whichever you like). It is real, it is a mega power, and it also comes with grave, considerable risks. It is equally capable of hurting, even destroying, as it is eminently and magically useful for creating and healing.

Discovering this morning this intensely private note from Steve Jobs to himself, and seeing expressed in it the gratitude and humility of this legendarily confident, arrogant, even rageful and aggressive visionary — and admiring always his devotion to the spirit of Zen’s super-clear seeing — I recognize intuitively a deeper aspect to his “reality-distortion field“. I had long known, like most other people, about Steve Jobs‘s uber-competitiveness, his driving intensity, his extremely demanding character, his cutting wit and withering rages. But this extremely private note – – what could only have functioned as a self-reminder to himself — completes, for me, a better and more nuanced understanding of his spirit’s alchemical cycle.

Emperor Marcus Arelious is known to us mainly due to his timeless collection of stoic reflections, “The Meditations“. This book was not something that he wrote for publication, or even as a book. What we have are the philosopher-emperor’s reminders to himself, intimate notes to his soul for staying the course of the enlightened life. By day, he oversaw bloody conquest and enslavement of whole peoples, especially while directly leading the Roman campaign against the Germanic hordes; yet, by night, he was reminding himself of the need for compassion, wisdom, and an unfettered soul which does not bring more suffering to itself and others. Marcus’s email to himself — written in Classical Greek through the same arm which, at other points in his workday, had dictated the enslavement or murder of many thousands, or hundreds of thousands — that email to himself is justly regarded as one of the classics of wisdom literature, whose truths equal anything in the Bible and its most prominent scriptural cousins. In fact, there is a softness and a tenderness in his reflections, and he often talks about how best to help other people in various situations. Now that’s definitely some kind of alchemy that he would need to synthesize such extremes. Well, he ”meditated” — dedication to daily quiet self-reflection was his compass and his path. In this way, the “reality-distortion field” almost becomes automatic.

Does this sound exotic or mysterious to you, or something far away, manifesting only in this experience of historical greats or in the lives of Himalayan yogi-adepts or Zen monks? The “reality-distortion field “is much, much, much nearer than you think: Last week, at the group “circle talk” concluding our four-day intensive silent retreat, one of our medium-term Zen students, a Palestinian-German medical doctor and mother of two, expressed profound appreciation for the effect of meditation practice on her life and experience of the world. She described natural arising of joy and gratitude which she feels since beginning intensive meditation practice. She talked about feeling her appreciation for people and situations, even difficult ones.

But then she closed her comments with the observation that, among many wonderful changes wrought in her life through the work of meditation, one of the most interesting things is her radically changed relationship to decionmaking. Before she started meditation, a few years ago, she needed to put enormous mental energy into making difficult decisions, gathering evidence and arguments and things, I guess. ”But over the last year,” she said, ”I noticed that I do not really need to think about decisions anymore. The decision happens almost by itself — the matter is resolved for my understanding without needing to think about it, actually, like I did before. Things just seem to take care of themselves, I don’t know how else to describe it. I only need to just get out of the way. It is a great feeling, and I save so much energy.”

“Reality-distortion field”? A highly unfelicitous term, coined by someone who had not yet experienced the benefits of meditation, as Steve (and Marcus, and our MD student) had experienced. Rather than that term — intrinsically negative — I would propose ”reality-affirming field.”

As William Blake wrote, in ”The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”,

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.

The “reality-affirming field” is the result of contradictions serving and informing each other. And the laboratory for that singular, the most pro-creative space of that manifestation, is the field and activity of silent meditation, of a mind harmonized and made receptive by consistent work in meditation. People often say that I seem to be full of contradictions. Like it is a problem or something. ”Fuck yeah!” is the only thing I can respond. “You really don’t know what you are fucking missing!” flashes on in my head.

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