Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tribes, Part 3

At the end of last year, I wrote two posts on our deep human tendency towards tribal identification. As is my habit, I've procrastinated several months on completing that series, until now.

I started thinking about this a couple of years ago, when I went back East for Passover. Customarily, Jews gather on that holiday for a ceremonial meal ("seder"), making it a traditional time to spend with family. I hadn't done so consistently since I left home at 18, but I was there this time for the sake of seeing my mother, and numerous old, home-town friends from my youth.

As I chatted with a few of these friends, I searched for topics of conversation that I'd find interesting to connect with them about, since our lives had led us to such different experiences and situations and ideas over the decades. I recalled that one of them had practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) back in the 70s, so I asked, and we talked about that for a few minutes.

That led to her asking me about my history with meditation, since everyone knew about my years with a guru, in an Indian ashram, and practicing at a Zen center. They listened with apparent interest and some questions. Then, one of them asked, "Can you do these things and maintain your Jewish identity?"

The question confused and annoyed me. What's with this "identity" crap? I'd been inquiring into this "self" my whole life, and the one honest and satisfying answer that's appeared is "Don't Know." All ideas about "identity" seem to arise from ignoring the clear and direct experience of not knowing, replacing it with some idea of "self" we're told of by our tribal peers and authorities.

I've always wanted to avoid following the crowd, or believing what authorities tell me. Maybe my particular karma just makes my mind more suitable for doubting than for believing. I never like to follow the beliefs of the group. Even at a rock concert, when the star tries to get everyone to cheer or applaud together, my mind mutters, "I'll not be manipulated!" At sporting events, when everyone is rooting for one team, I root for the other. Hell, when I visited Gettysburg as a kid, I'd secretly root for the South.

It's possible that all of this is an unconscious way to balance a tendency to be a blind follower, if I don't make an effort to avoid it. I say this not just because of the time I spent with an guru. It also comes from watching my mind in group situations. I note, for example, that when I meditate or chant or do some practice in a group situation, it's practically automatic for me to follow along with what everyone else is doing. It's much much easier than following a discipline alone.

I don't have the slightest interest in maintaining a Jewish identity (or Buddhist identity, or any other sort). In fact, I make positive efforts to avoid holding ideas of who I am. Maybe that's why I got so annoyed by the question at the seder. It was like someone talking about beer when I'm in AA.

I've got to remind myself that even if it's my karma to practice "What am I? Don't Know," most people seem to more naturally adopt a tribal identity. And I can understand how nature in it's wisdom makes most people like that; the species not only needs followers (in order to survive), but may well need more of them than envelope-pushers.

I guess the way forward is to continue mixing with all sorts of people, and I'll naturally encounter countless ones who annoy me by advocating a tribal identity. And I'll try to pay attention to how my mind moves when confronted by the issue.

4 comments:

Steven Sashen said...

Of course, some would point out that the entire way of thinking you demonstrate in this post shows you would have made you a great Talmudic scholar.

;-)

Stuart said...

Steven Sashen said...
you would have made you a great Talmudic scholar

Oy, I've lost count of how many times I've been told, "If you want to be spiritual, you should have become a rabbi!"

I guess the beard doesn't help.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your blog and read some of your old stuff discussing Zen. I don't know if this will be helpful or not or whether you even need this anymore but this story just screamed for attention so here goes:

This entry: http://stuart-randomthoughts.blogspot.com/2007/10/different-styles-of-practice-part-6.html

These words: "What is True Self?" ZMSS repeated. Then, slowly and deliberately, he answered, "I... DON'T... KNOW!"

This is in your face stuff. No riddle, no hidden meaning. He is giving it to you, exactly what you wrote you wanted, - maybe screaming it at you from the way it's written - but it seems you were looking for something or trying to read something into it.

I gather these words made an impression on you. There's a reason. Think on them. It's right there.

All my best.

Stuart said...

Anony wrote:
These words: "What is True Self?" ZMSS repeated. Then, slowly and deliberately, he answered, "I... DON'T... KNOW!"

Hi, anony, thanks for writing. I'm glad that the memories I posted about Zen Master Seung Sahn were of some interest.

This is in your face stuff. No riddle, no hidden meaning.

Since there's no hidden meaning, there's no need for you to add anything to it.

it seems you were looking for something or trying to read something into it.

Where did you get that idea? It's enough of a job to look into one's own mind. Speculating about someone else's mind is a stretch.

I gather these words made an impression on you. There's a reason. Think on them.

There's no need to think on them. The words did make an impression, but not because of the words themselves. "Don't know" is just a name. The name points to our just-now situation. What am I? Don't know. That's all.