Becoming Still in America: Thoreau vs. Rand

I recently encountered a sentence that struck me as perfect un-wisdom. It was perfect because, if you turned it completely inside out, it became true: it wasn’t a mixture of wrong and right, but a pure crystal of error. This made it usefully illustrative.

The sentence in question came from Ayn Rand: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life.” What statement could be more aligned with the ethos of our world, in which all that distracts and provokes the mind into new contortions is hailed as advancement? Apologies to Rand’s worshippers, but the testimony of the world’s greatest mystics indicates the precise contrary: stillness is true life, the core of silence we carry in the midst of noise. (Rand hated mysticism). The busy-ness of the world, the constant hue and cry, are peripheral matters, constantly sweeping us out to the fringes of the universe, away from the still center of our being. As Meister Eckhart put it, “We are all asleep in the outer life”—implying that we are all awake in the inner life.

In America today, the Rand perspective is dominant. Her endless rhapsody to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, is apparently America’s second favorite book, after (of course) The Bible. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have all cited Rand’s opus as though it were holy writ, awkwardly balancing themselves between chestnuts like Rand’s “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your products by tears” and Jesus Christ’s identification with the poor of the world: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Yet, in the eyes of many Americans, the chasm between these two worldviews seems strangely obscure.

Many of us assume with Rand, on little evidence beyond the worried mutterings of our digitally-stoked anxiety, that the soul is like a shark, which dies when it ceases to move. The prospect of becoming mindful or developing a contemplative life seems like a prison sentence rather than freedom. But when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond and sought out stillness, he found an infinitely more precious form of freedom, experiencing an intoxicating feeling of identity with all things and all people—which perhaps was part of the reason he supported the Underground Railroad, while Rand supported Barry Goldwater’s segregation-friendly presidential campaign in 1964.

To be clear—Rand opposed slavery, but objected to altruism, writing, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake.” This statement grants little basis for one to become an abolitionist like Thoreau, and I think it ties into the stillness question. You can’t be empathetic if you’re constantly agitating your mind and treating life as a contest—it doesn’t provide any space for empathy and humanity to emerge. Rand supported Goldwater’s lenience towards segregation, based on the individual’s presumed right to only serve clients and customers of his or her choosing—not, she claimed, racism. Given the brutal images of violence against Civil Rights marchers, which were broadcast daily on TV and which Rand certainly saw, this constitutes a radical failure of empathy and understanding. Even if Rand technically was not a racist, hers was a woeful misreading of the times, not to mention permanently discrediting! On the other hand, Thoreau’s Underground Railroad work demonstrates an exceptional soul, transcending the typically racist views of the era, and actually doing something radical to counteract those views.

In light of this, is it sane and healthy to cultivate a state of mind in which one rails against moochers and fetishizes tycoons?  Are altruism and empathy dirty words? We rightly admire people who manage to create successful and socially-conscious businesses, but part of our admiration stems from the benevolence those businesses contribute to the world. We admire talent and self-reliance, and we admire natural expressions of human goodness: the choice Rand offers in her books, between an insidious life-hating socialism and capitalism-as-religion, is so transparently bogus. At any rate, those who stare with gape-mouthed admiration at the gold-plated seatbelts on “Trump Force One” (Donald Trump’s private jet), but cannot value the altruism of MLK or St. Francis, do not provide a compelling example of human flourishing.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the American experience—what you might call the underground or esoteric side of the American character. Consider Thoreau’s description of his condition during a summer on Walden, and feel free to measure this against any supposedly eloquent passages from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:  “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”

Which perspective offers water in the desert, Rand’s or Thoreau’s?   Is America packed with too many freeloading woodland sages at present—mere “moochers” purchasing sympathy with tears—or do we have too much of the contrary perspective, the Reptilian impulse to serve only the self? To any non-muddled observer—to anyone who has found at least a sliver of stillness within—the answer should be clear.

If we look at the life of Steve Jobs, we see how stillness can be the antidote, the necessary support system, to a life of action. (The fact that I use the most famous capitalist of our time to highlight my point should show that I’m not hostile to business and human desire—just that I think stillness can add proportion, humanity, and beauty to capitalist endeavors). Negative anecdotes about Jobs are commonplace, but there is something moving about how he turned to Zen meditation to cultivate a space in which his mind might settle. This didn’t kill his mind—wasn’t “the antithesis of life”—but refreshed him in the midst of battle, and evidently influenced the design of his most famous creations. Creativity doesn’t emerge from white-knuckled grasping, but from a state of relaxation and receptivity; as William Blake put it, “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”

Likewise, although Thoreau’s pond-side idyll seemed peculiar and worthless to his neighbors, it gave him the resources he needed to write Walden and to pursue his greater humanitarian project, working on the Underground Railroad and extending his sympathies towards the whole of life. After all, life—real life—is found not where we expected to find it, in the most ardent business maneuverings and political power games, but in the silent awareness of a soul at peace.

“The Theory of Cool”

by Sam Buntz

“Cool” is about leaving things out.  It’s about what you don’t need—and, more purely, about not even having needs in the first place.  The metaphorical kernel of the term obviously relates to temperature.  Something is literally “cool” when its particles have slowed down—when it attains a state of stillness and calm, as opposed to a state of frenetic energy.  Cool is (to use mystical Catholic terminology) an example of the via negativa or “negative way”—a method of arriving at the truth by pleasantly saying “No” to as many things as possible.  When you finally reach the Still Center, where there’s nothing left to say “No” to, you have successfully attained the Apotheosis of Cool.

In American culture, Cool is inextricably tied up with music.  The Jazz Cat and the Rock Star continually play at Cool, and try to define it within their body of work.  True—they might be addicted to heroin, addicted to groupies, addicted to any number of vices.  But they try to act as though they aren’t phased by these things—although they might be partaking in outrageous excess, they need to affect an attitude of being able to do without it.  The excess is incidental—it doesn’t stick around to poison the stillness at the core of the musician’s being.  This attitude is, of course, ultimately a total lie and a fake (the vast majority of the time)—but it’s a legitimate and necessary part of the image.  The artist needs to strike us as being “in this world, but not of it”, with a personal body temperature much lower than that of this infernal climate.  Authentic art—even if it is expressing emotions that are heated or frenzied or un-cool—often comes from a place of contemplative Cool.  A heated person can’t focus, can’t put it all together.

There are numerous false claimants to Cool.  They think Cool is a matter of style—but Cool style needs to emanate from the Coolness of the actual person.  It can’t simply be used to coat over the exterior of someone who continually projects glowering hostility (there are many examples of this in the world of celebrity).  Nonetheless, it’s useful to analyze the superficial trappings of Cool.

For instance, everyone knows that sunglasses are Cool, but people don’t usually speculate on why they strike us that way.  I believe it’s more than a mere cultural construction that doesn’t have any greater metaphorical meaning.  Shades are another way of fending off the excessive brightness and heat of the world—whilst peering through sunglasses you seem to see a world that is, in point of fact, much cooler (in the literal temperature sense).  They help create the illusion of being a toned-down person, living in a personal world that is equally toned-down.

Interestingly, people want to be around someone who possesses Cool and detachment.  Rather than being a turn-off—striking others as being passionless and something of a dry stick—Cool has the power to refresh.  To appropriate a Biblical phrase, it is like “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”  Cool isn’t like being dead or indifferent—it just isn’t capable of being upset or knocked off kilter.  It’s centered—and that’s something people, often unconsciously, desire for themselves, as well.

As for genuine icons of Cool, the Buddha is perhaps the archetypal image—even people who aren’t actually Buddhists will put his statue in their Brooklyn lofts or San Diego love-shacks just so it’ll manifest waves of placid cool.  To the contrary, if you were to put an image of, say, my namesake, the Prophet Samuel, in your apartment, it’s going to have a far different effect.  Samuel was assuredly a bad ass—but he didn’t have Cool.  He was too interested in making burnt offerings and hacking Amalekites to pieces to ever fully enter into Cool.  (As for Jesus—I think we can easily grant that Jesus possesses Cool, and the same goes for the Virgin Mary.  We don’t really know what Jesus was like when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple, but presumably he wouldn’t have seemed overly worked-up.)  But the Buddha was “an ocean of mercy without motive”—someone who demonstrated compassion, with no ulterior agenda: hence, his overwhelming Coolness.

Buddhism and Stoicism are probably the two philosophies that draw closest to the Cool (not that there aren’t equally good religions and philosophies—there are paths distinct from the Cool, such as the “Exuberant,” which I want to talk about another time).   Zen Buddhism’s whole aesthetic is related to the “less is more” aspect of the Theory of Cool—being able to say “No”.  No one realized how cool, say, a single rock could be, until some Zen practitioners managed to situate that rock in a garden comprised of other rocks.  But in order to bring out that epiphany of Cool, someone need to place the rock into such an aesthetically emptied-out landscape—when stripping things down to their basic state, a kind of luminosity emerges.

Even if Steve Jobs didn’t act all that Cool in his day-to-day life, he famously managed to incorporate Cool into Apple’s product design: leaving out a simple “on-off” switch on the iPod.  It was a pure way of saying “No” to something that everyone had said “Yes” to for years and years.  And the hip spare-ness—the ultra-Cool emptiness—evident in the design of Apple’s other products is pretty evident as well.  You see this in any number of Taoist and Zen-influenced paintings: the empty spaces are as important as the drawn-on spaces.

The Cool is a big part of art and music, but it’s also central to American mythology. We routinely see the myth of the cowboy or gangster or renegade cop who is able to do what needs to be done, even if its morally dubious, and still somehow retain his integrity, thanks to his detachment and his acquaintance with Cool.  Elmore Leonard frequently wrote this kind of character—and he (or she) exists in Tarantino films and many more places besides.  This takes us back to the Bhagavad Gita, where the warrior Arjuna is forced to participate in something that would normally be wrong—a war against his own family members—with the promise from Krishna (an incarnation of God) that if he can make war while retaining inner detachment, he won’t recur any negative karmas, being freed from any possibly bad consequences of his actions.

The best example of Cool I might be able to think of comes from a story about the Zen Master Hakuin.  Hakuin was a monk, known around town for his purity and virtue—but, one day, a young woman in the town got pregnant.  Her parents pressured her to tell them who the father was, and, eventually, she claimed that it was Hakuin.  So, once the baby was born, the parents brought it to Hakuin and forced him to raise the child.  After they finished accusing him of seducing their daughter, all he would say in response was “Is that so?”  Thus, Hakuin treated the baby as his own—providing the kid with food, diapers, and all the rest.  Yet, some months later, the baby’s mother broke down and admitted that the father was actually a young man who worked in the local fish-market.  The parents went to Hakuin apologizing profusely as they explained the situation, before taking back the baby. Throughout this whole concluding discussion, the only comment Hakuin offered was, “Is that so?”

And that, dear reader, is Primordial Cool.

(Note: to read more stories like the one about Hakuin, check out Zen Flesh, Zen Bones edited by Paul Reps–which is where I got the tale from, in the first place.)

“Aldous Huxley and the Limits of Happiness”

by Sam Buntz

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a book that has had an unusually prolonged shelf life.  There is something uncanny about the book—no one would’ve expected that a satire on contemporary political, social, and technological trends from the ’20s and ’30s would somehow seem to continue to predict the future lying ahead of us, well into the 21st Century— but that still seems to be the book’s effect.  Its satire has proven to be continually relevant in ways that Huxley probably didn’t fully anticipate (though he anticipated plenty).  Some readers—not the brightest bulbs in the bunch—have argued that Brave New World really isn’t that bad, and that it would be, more or less, something like the ideal state.  But this isn’t a very subversive statement to make, and satirizing the sort of people who would make it was really a central part of Huxley’s purpose in writing the book in the first place.  His dystopia is the straight-up utopia of enlightened techno-fascists like H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, seen from a different angle, as the Canadian critic Northrop Frye pointed out.  That certain people should find the lineaments of a utopia in BNW is therefore unsurprising.

What’s primarily valuable about the book isn’t so much the specifics of its predictive power—although those are impressive, particularly with regard to virtual reality (the “feelies”), the widespread prescription of anti-depressive and anti-anxiety meds (“soma”), sexual liberation, and the evolution of mass entertainment (there are roughly two copies of Shakespeare left in the world)—but rather its satire on the pursuit of happiness, which encompasses and guides Huxley’s most accurate predictions.  The way we approach happiness is still the same, and the methods we’ve devised to attain it, through various scientific and social innovations, are skewered by Huxley, in order to expose the desperation of the pleasure-seeking impulse underlying those innovations.   BNW takes the search for worldly happiness to its logical conclusion, as Dostoevsky attempted to do in “The Grand Inquisitor.”  Dostoevsky knew that if temporal happiness really was the primary goal of humankind we might as well surrender ourselves to a more benign version of Kim Jong Il, since our insistence on imaginative freedom and independence would never allow us to be fully satisfied.  Thus, imagination and freedom are the first two things that need to go for the Brave New World-ers and for scientists like B.F. Skinner, who believed that, in order to attain “happiness,” we needed to go “beyond freedom and dignity.”  Brave New World has utterly transcended both, and to say that it “might not be so bad” is just to say that you believe temporal happiness is all we can hope to achieve.

This sort of utopianism may be understandable—more comprehensible than the mindset that would create the world of 1984—but for those who really believe in it (and they’re out there) a technocracy that has gone utterly beyond any notion of human liberty or dignity, needs to be the end of the road, rationally.  The controllers (like the archons of Gnostic myth) who govern Brave New World know that most people can’t or won’t grow up—that is, they won’t use their freedom effectively or rationally.  There is no need for 95% of the population to read great books or study philosophy or lead an “examined life”, because it won’t make a damn bit of difference.  And there is a sad edge of accuracy to all this: it is disconcertingly hard to argue with the suggestion that the great mass of human beings require only a hand that can feed them—and feed them in a slightly more than merely nutritional sense—with maximum care and efficiency.   People worship that hand like God, as evidenced by the popularity of certain institutions, from the all-encompassing Medieval Church to the Apple Corporation, and of certain personalities, like Steve Jobs.  That is exactly what Brave New World provides—a God who offers you tangible benefits, who dispenses earthly bread like heavenly bread.  In fact, the role played by Henry Ford in Brave New World would, more sensibly, be filled by Steve Jobs today, since he was a perfect personification of the hand that feeds, that dispenses the nutritive substance of earthly life in its electronic form.  If Huxley had written his book today, he would doubtless envision us chopping crosses into “i”-shapes instead of into Ts—which would be a bit less elegantly simple, but still manageable.

Though it doesn’t seem that “narco-hypnosis” has yet been used by the government—which has not, presumably, raised up collectivized nurseries of drugged and hypnotized infants, in a more than metaphorical sense—to further any agenda of enforcing temporal happiness from the top down, and so Huxley’s predictions, taken literally, aren’t totally accurate, we can draw limitless analogies with advertising and consumerism.  But this is what informs everyone’s analysis of Brave New World, so I see no reason to dwell on it.  What’s most crucial, for our purposes, is to understand that which is repressed in order to pursue this agenda of perfect temporal happiness, since this is the same in our society as it is in the fictive dystopia, though differing by degree.  What’s repressed is really the whole battery of literature, imagination, religion, spirituality, art, and the feelings associated with them.  Since these things entail a quest for imaginative freedom, and spur dissatisfaction with the happiness provided by everyday existence, they lead to unhappiness, to the frustration and despair common to artists everywhere and to some novice saints.  Ultimately, religion and art—for I take the two to be part of the same creative human phenomenon—always aim for more than temporal happiness and for more than dissatisfaction in the wake of the departure of said happiness, though they probably involve the latter, inevitably, at some point.  They aim for bliss or joy—a state notably different from that of mere happiness.  This is the distinction between the feelings experienced while zoning out on your iPod for a few hours and those experienced when being reunited with your beloved family members after twenty years alone on a desert island.  Advocating a Brave New World-style idea of happiness—which millions of people do, unwittingly—is to fail to grasp this distinction.

For John, “The Savage,” in Brave New World, it is reading and re-reading one of the few remaining copies of Shakespeare’s plays that kindles his sense of imaginative possibilities beyond the temporal and the given.  The power of the literary imagination intimates a religious understanding of reality in him, as well, hinting at Huxley’s future development into an adherent of Hindu Vedanta.  Huxley later said that, rather than concluding the book as he once did, with its rather nasty ending, he would’ve attempted to depict the Savage finally pursuing the goal of ultimate union with God, Brahman, the Tao—“The Ground of All Being,” described in his book The Perennial Philosophy.  Yet it is interesting that Shakespeare is the figure whose writings would spur this quest, initially.  It suggests that imagination, applied as thoroughly as it can be, leads one onward, ceaselessly, to a spiritual understanding of reality.  The limitless creative power of Shakespeare provides a figure for the Infinite.  But it is the failure of the imagination both at the social and the individual level and the perversion of the energies that would have driven it on to such a spiritual goal, which form the real theme of Brave New World.  It is a problem that we will, no doubt, wrestle with—resolving it in scattered personal instances—well into the 21st Century and beyond.