Who are we?
Who do we think we are?
A self image is, in short, the internal picture we have of ourselves. We all develop a self image. As we grow and travel through life, this self image grows in complexity and strength. Or that’s my experience. This self image becomes the picture we draw of ourselves, the way we see ourselves. Ultimately, our self images governs not only our beliefs but our actions. We become what we believe ourselves to be.
One’s self-image, we are told, is influenced by both events (life experiences) and personal interactions (relationships). Our interactions with family members, peers, and friends can significantly affect the way you view yourself- how we navigate our way through our lives. This creation becomes an internal narrative that can and often does color our life. It controls our thoughts our actions, our decisions.
Some where along the line, I developed the idea, the self image that I was a fighter. The details of how I got there are not relevant, but this image became my reality. Internally and externally, I was a fighter.
Growing up I fought all the time. On the playground and in the streets. In my youth, I spent time with friends playing gladiators as well as a half dozen contact sports.
I lost teeth, I gave concussions, I broke bones. None of this violence was intentional, such injuries were simply the consequences of our gleeful participation.
As with the contact sports which filled our daily lives, winning and losing were not paramount. I cannot recall, today, the scores from more than a handful of games or matches I played over thirty years. What did matter was living with reckless abandon, being fully present in the scrap.
Later in life, I incorporated my anger into professional pursuits.
Once, while working as a bar-back at a huge college disco, in the days of disco, I happened to be walking near the dance floor when a fight broke out. Unbidden, I jump into the fray and ragdolled one of the participants. This earned me admiration and attaboys from the professional bouncers and a promotion to part time bouncer.
One night I found myself, while working as a bar tender, during heavy metal night ( during which the bar was brilliant enough to offer $1.00 shots of Jack Daniels) when a waiter, with a panicked look on his face, suddenly appeared at the front of the bar.
“You guys,” he said addressing himself to me and the bartender working next to me, “had better get to the backroom now.”
We ran back to the backroom, where the pool tables were located. We found a fight in progress, specifically, a half dozen intoxicated and beefy guys who were going at it enthusiastically with pool cues. We dove into the fray. There were fists thrown, faces bloodied, people rendered unconscious. There was an impressive amount of blood everywhere with eventually those half dozen people being hauled off to jail, once the cops belatedly arrived.
I look back on that night with approximately the same fondness that I recall my past participation in rugby matches. I remember neither battles in the bar room or the pitch as traumatic events, but rather, memorable contests; and dare I say, enjoyable events at that.
My self image in growing up- it will not surprise you, was that of a fighter. I have the broken crooked teeth to testify to this fact, hockey teeth.
Please believe me when I say that these memories are now distant and I take no satisfaction in recalling them, at least, not much.
I am not a simple or shallow man bragging, for the truth is that I really can’t take credit for the events evolving from my self image any more than I can take credit for the rising sun. That I should have grown up a fighter was inevitable as it was simply the culmination of my life events and the result of my interaction with the diverse people who were in my life as I grew.
In not all ways, but in many ways, self image and our actions arising from our life’s events are inexorable, inevitable.
Thus, my story is not a tragedy, but simply is a tale with ups and down, like all other tales.
For instance, here is an upside to my story.
In time I found a way to channel that self image, my violent tendencies, into more honorable, if not always honorable, practices.
For I was not only born with the capacity to fight in the street and the back rooms of bars, but I was also fortunate enough to have born with sufficient intellect that I was an impressive mental pugilist as well.
In time, and through good fortune, I was able to marry my impressive capacity for savagery with a quality education.
Yet, karma always wins out in the end. You don’t spend a lifetime brawling without suffering consequences,
Somewhere along the line, for instance, long ago, I lost track of the fact that life was not an endless argument, a constant battle, to be fought and won. This happened long ago; and quite frankly, once I forgot this fact, it was a long time before I recalled this reality.
I went through life, not with a chip on my shoulder, but pulling, everywhere I went, the ball and chain of anger, of aggression.
I went to prep school, against my will, where I learned subjects well beyond my capacity. I was educated beyond my means. Prep school led to college and an English Literature degree, which gave way to a free law school education- which I accepted because I wasn’t doing anything better when it was offered.
In time I ended up with my own firm representing the down trodden against the corrupt state machinery and powerful, soulless, morally deficient corporations.
I came to love this work because it was the closest thing in life I could find to legal brawling. True, I could have become a boxer or a hockey goon, sadly, however I did not possess those skills. I could not skate, I could not throw a proper jab.
I did, however, possess the ability to bitch slap the state on a daily basis and to pummel corporate America’s silk suited monkeys. I became impassioned. If I believed in a fight, I would spend years working for free on that case, agreeing to accept a fee only when I had won.
I tried cases to the bench, to the jury, to appellate courts and to the state Supreme Court.
I believed with ever increasing fervency, that life was in fact an ongoing contest, an endless argument to be won, and this belief came to color my mind, not only on a daily basis, but from moment to moment and in all minutes of my life. I fought with those many who hated me and the few who did not.
Life in its entirety became an argument.
I elevated my self image as a fighter to a religion, an art form. I worked tirelessly to prove that my my beliefs and perceptions were not only correct but superior to those around me.
This belief came to color every aspect of my life including art. Art, and the creation and presentation of art, became part of the battle.
In growing up, I did not have the self image of an artist. Being an artist never occurred to me- it simply was not a part of the sterile empty exurban environment in which I was raised.
In time I met artists. In time I learned I was artist and I began to create.
The problem was that as artist I saw the world through a warrior’s eyes. Having been largely self taught as an artist, I simply assumed that art was another tool by which to wage war against the inequities of the word. Which it can be. Countless artists throughout time, in all genres, have, thankfully, used their talents for change, for social justice.
Were it not for artists, our world may have ceased to exist long ago.
Art, however, as vehicle for social justice is not, however, the only way. The earliest known forms of art, such as the cave drawings of southern France are proof that art is simply an inherent part of who we collectively are.
Art can be a force for change- a choice of weapon to adopt Gordon’s Park’s term- against the empty blind bastards who seek to own this world for their own greedy means.
The problem is that fighting as a way of life is tough physically mentally and spiritually. No matter what form of fighting one adopts, in any arena, the consequences of one’s pugilistic tendencies accumulate quickly.
One’s body degrades, one’s soul withers, one’s mind growly abnormally slow.
And people grow weary of you. For no matter how honorable your intent, no matter how true your aim, people grow weary of hearing of causes, no matter how righteous. In similar fashion, they grow weary of those who bring those fights. You grow weary of fighting, of yourself, and so you must change or die on every level.
If you are fortunate you come to realize this fact.
If you are lucky, you meet kind intelligent people who model a better way of life.
If you are both intelligent and lucky, and still posses a modicum of gray matter, you adopt those better ways of life and ape them crudely until you’re capable of developing your own, new, better way of life.
Which can happen because while our self image, and karma, does tend toward the inexorable, your fate, if you are willing to fight hard enough, can change.
If you are willing to open your eyes, the truth of the life you want, you need, will appear.
Genjo-koan is the first chapter of the 75-volume version of Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo. Dogen was a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen. He lived in the thirteenth century and entered a monastery at a very young age subsequent to the death of both his parents.
The Shobogenzo is one of Dogen’s most popular written works. At one point, in the Shobogenzo, Dogen writes:
Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot turn back into firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and it has its own before and after….Life is a position at one time; death is also a position at one time… this is like winter and spring. We don’t think that winter becomes spring, and we don’t say that spring becomes summer.
What does this mean?
No one can know for certain. Dogen was a brilliant man with a unusual way with words. There are people who have given years to comprehend his unique vision of the world. One such person who has worked to bridge the gap between Dogen’s world and brilliance is the Rev. Shohaku Okumura, Director, Soto Zen Education Center in Bloomington Indiana.
In part, Okumura writes that:
The present moment is the only reality, the past is already gone and the future has not yet come. Still there is nothing that can be grasped as the present moment. The present moment does not exist. So, time does not really exist. Still, at the present moment which is zero and does not exist, the entire past and the entire future are reflected. And this present moment (zero) is the only real reality. And at each moment, everything continuously arises and perishes. Each moment everything is new and fresh.
What does this mean? I take it to mean that a tired punch drunk fighter may, at any new and fresh moment, lay down his gloves and adopt a new, a better a less violent and more peaceful way.
He may become artist who does not seek to move others using the tools of the ring or the courtroom, but can instead choose, to move the world simply through whatever beauty exists within his words and images.
No winner, no loser, no bloodshed, no broken bones. Only beauty. Just this, as countless Zen masters are want to say.
And how to we make this journey? Check back here shortly and we’ll discuss that.