How to be Idle, by Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson’s book How to Be Idle catches my attention because it reminds me of the fourteenth-century Japanese essayist Kenko’s Essays in Idleness (which Hodgkinson unfortunately does not mention among his roster of idle “idols”). Hodgkinson has that wry British sense of humor that leaves you wondering how serious he is about anything or is he just pulling your leg. His tone, witticisms and broad-minded reading is infectious, just right for perusing in — what else — idle moods and moments.

The book’s chapters are divided into the hours of the day, starting with “8 a.m.: Waking Up is Hard to Do.” Favorites are “5 p.m: The Ramble,” “Midnight: The Moon and the Stars,” and “4 a.m.: Meditation.”

I leave out the drinking and smoking and sex chapters. The whole mood is admittedly a bit too decadent, intentionally so. And the author is too slothful to fully press the logic behind his aversions to modern productivity, labor, technology, busyness, and the automotons that captains of authority want to make of us all.

The section on tea sums things nicely for me:

Coffee is for winners, go-getters, tea-ignorers, lunch-cancellers, early risers, guilt-ridden strivers, money obsessives, and status-driven spiritually empty lunatics. It is an enervative force. We should resist and embrace tea, the ancient drink of poets, philosophers and meditators.

Living “there”

Whether in childhood or later, many may wonder what their lives would be like under different accidents or circumstances. As a child traveling past houses and shops and neighborhoods, I wondered what it would be like to live there, or there, or over there. Would that as adults we could reflect, when looking at the whole world: “How must it be to live there, or there, or over there, under such conditions?”

To become a successful hermit, paradoxically, we must broaden our empathy and our compassion for the plight of others. By equalizing the humanity of others different from ourselves, we can begin to rid ourselves of those cultural and social characteristics that we inherit without questioning and which later lock us tightly in the embrace of the group, the collectivity. Perhaps the Pharisee’s boast: “Thank you, Lord, for making me what I am … ” should warn us, should prompt our humility, and prepare us for a more compassionate view of the plight of others, if only because it will allow us to make less of ourselves.

The trajectory of life is not predictable. Is the life into which we have invested so much time and energy, now so familiar and comfortable — does it seem inevitable, even sacrosanct? Necessity seems the product of karma or predestination, not something over which we have any ultimate control. We inherit genes and personality and parents and environment, and wonder what degree of change is possible. But the continuity of self makes speculation a dangerous game. Responsibilities and moral parameters have grown with us like extensions of our psyche, but so too have biases and fears and egotistical feelings. We are responsible for what we have become, if not responsible for what we could have or didn’t become. That is the urgency that confronts us, especially we who want the peace and simplicity of the hermit.

For the hermit or solitary, it is not the fine-tuning of the self so much as the disengagement from the world that is the only possible way of refining and changinng for the better. Our encounters with the world are colored by our personality and our predisposed conclusions about people. True enough, as it is true for anybody, solitary or not. But we need not only to disengage from the world but to disengage from our very interactions with the world. The paradox is not to ignore or scoff at the world but to see it for what it is, the vanity, the struggle for power, the hypocrisy. So I mean “world” in the sense of red dust, as defilement, as society and culture. We cannot claim to be solitaries disengaged from daily life in the world but imbibing its culture and products in what we see, hear, read, think, or consume.

The world as nature, as benignity, as simplicity, as identity with the universe, as love — this world is ourselves turned inside out, the universe turned outside inward. Speculate about what it would be like to live here, or there, or over there? We must get to the realization that we already do live “there” and “there” and even over “there.”

Getting in, getting out

A big green fly is buzzing angrily at the window screen. Perhaps he wants to get into the house. I go to another room and there he is again, buzzing angrily. If he were to come inside, I am sure that he would be buzzing angrily at the window screen from within, this time demanding to get out.

The green fly reminds me of ourselves. How often do we stand like a waif in our youth (more embarassingly so in later age) looking through the window inside where people chat and laugh, music drifts in the background, glasses tinkle. We want to get in, to be part of this company, to “make it” with these people who are so important, persuasive, ideal. Maybe some of us make it inside, and are lost thereafter in the many cavernous rooms of the mansion. Or some soon want to get out and can’t, not having the will or the method or the luck. We buzz or whimper to get in, and then do the same — if we get that far — to get out.

The lesson for solitaries has always been there but been hard to justify or rationalize to ourselves, let alone to others. No wonder that most solitaries, while made early in life, don’t realize or accept the nature of things until rather late in life. The break from culture and society need not be radical, but if getting out has repercussions of money, status, respectability, then it will be harder to get out than to have gotten in. Sort of like hell. And probably nobody else cares about our predicament, as the little childhood rhyme goes — and we can apply it to our big green fly: “Buzz! Buzz! Buzz! I wonder what he does.”

Bassui and the Way

Fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui relates the story of a certain patriarch who took one meal a day, never lay down, spent the day in worshipful practice, and lived a life free of impurity or desire. His disciples considered him to surely have attained the Way. But an older patriarch told the disciples of this man something that startled them. On the contrary, he said, the teacher’s practice is merely “the foundations of delusion.” The disciples challenged the old man. “What deeds allow you to slander our teacher?” they demanded to know. The old patriarch replied thusly:

I neither follow the Way nor depart from it. I neither worship the Buddha nor have contempt for him. I neither sit long hours in meditation nor sit idle. I neither eat just one meal a day nor am I greedy for more. I desire nothing, and that is what I call the Way.

When the younger patriarch learned of this reply, he rejoiced, was grateful, and considered this statement his enlightenment. So concludes Bassui.

When our path is not a means but an end, the necessity of defining our object no longer has any urgency. Such an object would have been separate from one’s life, remote, like a far-off object of worship or any object engendering desire. Desire is desire for something that one does not have and considers separate from oneself. To desire is to create a dichotomy between oneself and everything else. This is what is today called spiritual materialism because it parallels so closely that vain desire to possess and enjoy material objects. When we neither desire ends nor cultivate means that are but rote practices, then our daily life is both sufficient and meaningful enough that we have no need to separate what we do from what we ought to do.

Library as universe

Umberto Eco points out that there are two model libraries. The first is found in the sixteenth-century classic novel Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, wherein the ideal library contains all the books necessary for understanding the universe. In contrast, Jorge Luis Borges — in his short story “Library of Babel” — presents us with an “infinite” library of unfathomable size, its content impossible to read and comprehend because it is alway growing and incomplete. The latter is a nightmare, a labrynith of countless rooms and corridors, while Don Quixote’s library is doubtless small and cozy, its contents easy to find and peruse.

Of course, the library is a metaphor for the universe and for our comprehension — or apprehension — of reality. Is not our world and the explosion of information and the complexity of scenarios for life and suffering and death not unlike Borges’ library? But is not our deepest wish and desire to reside in that eremetic hut of Quixote’s library? Is the universe numbing, baffling, fearful, and do we go about contriving a universe that suits our temperament? Or is the universe comprehensible and single-pointed, understandable or at least appreciable with a calm mind and quiet reflection? Or is it, well, a little more complex than either scenario? For the true solitary, these are the pressing questions.

The universe accomodates but does not consume. It scintillates but does not glare. It undulates but does not inundate. If the books in this library are many and infinite, they are so many cells or atoms or patterns of energy, ultimately responding to a grand field that relates all content together. The mind of God cannot be reduced to a cell (the biological variety), nor be circumscribed to fit our logic. That is only because our logic is so puny.

We cherish a small, clean room — “cell” to use the pun — bright but not glaringly so, comfortable but provocative of reflection. We cherish it not because we would renounce all knowledge or reduce it to one book (like the caliph of legend). We are spectators of diversity and appreciate the animation of beings and the interconnectedness of all things. We know the universe not directly but, as Thomas Aquinas might have put it, through its effects. It is as if we read the books in Quixote’s library or even a few in Borges’ but never know who the author is, nor do we think that we must read more than whatever resonates with our soul. Nor does it matter how much or how little we read because we are all of us the author, and all of us the reader. We echo the hermit’s sentiment: “My hut a universe!”