13 January 2011

Shoes & Non-Action

I am fond of teaching stories from various traditions. I was reminded today of an Islamic story, Sufi I think, in which there is a debate taking place outside of a Mosque. One member of the community has gone into pray laying down his shoes outside. Another has removed his shoes and taken them with him. The debate is about which of these behaviors is correct. The man leaving his shoes contends that it would be an act of violence to assume that someone would steal his shoes. The one taking his shoes with him contends that it would be an act of violence to leave his shoes as a temptation for others. This debate goes on for some time involving various others who have presumably enacted one or the other of the models. After this has been taking place for some time an old man points out that while the debate has been taking place that another, older man, who in fact has no shoes at all has gone to pray and left without any remark or notice.

The first part of the story is self evident to me and a dilemma, upon the horns of which much socio-political philosophy and practice seem to be hung. It is a fundamental difference in the metaphor of the two men. The third point is a bit mysterious and interesting, to me. Perhaps you have your own interpretation? I myself most like an interpretation in which the old man is pointing out that the social debate is about shoe leavers and takers and not about god. It is a moral debate within the context of a social morality. The shoe takers and leavers could be praying, for instance, rather than drawing attention to themselves and their claim about the righteousness of their own behavior. One could also interpret it as a teaching on being possessed by one's possessions, itself a fascinating phenomena to observe.

The social undertaking involves the artifices of duality. I wish to be seen. Perhaps, I wish to be unseen, because it has some other value to me. Maybe I like to be seen in my complaint about being unseen, for instance.

Today I was having a conversation with a friend about the teaching story regarding 'turning the other cheek.'
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
—Matthew 5:38-42

There seem to me many problematic aspects of the translation. The word translated as 'evil' and therefore making the attribution of 'an evil person' comes from the word for 'intense desire' or 'pain', which in turn is from the sense of 'one who is struggling for daily subsistence'. This alone changes the meaning of the story. Of course there is an entire teaching about attachment and 'shoes'.

What I was interested in was the act of 'turning the other cheek', since it is such a culturally grounded metaphor... so my interpretations and thoughts are almost certain to be offensive, in and of themselves.

So, 'turn the other cheek'? What does this mean? At first glance it means to offer the other cheek in a moment of offense. How does that happen though? Where is my attention in that moment?

What if the turning of my cheek is a by-product of something else? It is 'non-action'. Perhaps something else is occurring, which when viewed from the context of offense occurs as turning the other cheek, but the fundamental turning is of a different sort all together. Perhaps it is not a turning at all. In the moment of some offense, assumed or otherwise, where is my attention? Where am I 'turned' altogether? The turning of my cheek in itself is superficially a functional activity, based on the assumption of the offense. Such a turning is like a response to the reality of the offense, as such. Is it possible for my attention to be turned and given so thoroughly that the context for my action is no longer anything to do with the presumed offense? More radically, could my 'attention' already be given so thoroughly that the 'action' becomes a 'non-action?' "I" am not 'turning' my attention. Nor is it turned by some force experienced as other. The turning process is actually a process of release, dissolution and renunciation. It is revelatory.

Consider the derivation of the word for this 'evil' one who is offending me in some way. Is it too much to understand that simply as suffering? 'Do not resist the actions of the one suffering?' Do not resist what occurs in the struggle for daily subsistence? Where instead of this resistance might our attention be given, such that it may occur, phenomenologically, as 'turning the other cheek?' This would then be 'turning the other cheek' through non-action. An action takes place, but not as a functional means for addressing some presumed offense.

It is hard to understand 'non-action' because we tend to think about this from within the context of action. Action becomes our paradigm. We actively delete the structures from which action arises and is understood. Consider this in terms of learning loops. There is an order of learning where the action is directly correlated to the perceived event or outcome. There is an order of learning in which the meaning and motives might be considered. There is an order of learning where the structures and context for such meaning and interaction arising are transparently seen or considered. Perhaps there is an order of learning in which we contemplate ground of being. Action may then become 'participation' in what is. Non-action may then have to do with distinguishing between such structural participation and momentary intervention; making conscious choices about that. The necessity and urge to act, as correlated with the apparent events, becomes a moment of inquiry into those structures. Action still occurs. This is not the duality of negation. I am not in this moment negating or even resisting action. I do not 'resist the struggle of daily subsistence'. Sometimes this is referred to as action without acting, or effortless action and other apparently non-sensical statements.

How to make sense of this? How to shift from the apparently abstract to a realized practice? This is no more conceptual and abstract than the falling rain, but it seems so from within our context of practicality, necessity and causality. Perhaps we could inquire into that context from any moment of the urge to act?

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