The birth of responsibility, Part I
23 February 2007 1 Comment
Alan Watts isn’t the most conventional of Zen teachers, but I was listening to a podcast of a talk earlier, ‘Not what should be, but what is’. I can see why there are misgivings about him; he has an irreverent, cavalier style and none of the studied seriousness of many Zen teachers. And yet it is its very irreverence — that we cannot try to get rid of the ego, that in itself is ego-making; that we cannot eradicate desire because that is merely feeding the desire to eradicate desire; and so on — that makes it memorable. I’ve transcribed part of the talk here because it put into perspective for me some events in the past few days.
…we live in an eternal now. You’ve got all the time in the world because you got all the time there is, which is now. And you are this universe. And you feel, when ideas don’t define the universe, that other people’s doings are your doings and that makes it very difficult to blame other people. …
You are this universe and you are creating it at every moment because, you see, it starts now. It didn’t begin in the past, there was no past. See, if the universe began in the past when that happened it was now; see, well it’s still now, and the universe is still beginning now and it’s trailing off like the wake of a ship from now and as that wake of the ship fades out so does the past. You could look back there to explain things but the explanation disappears. You never find it there. Things are not explained by the past, they’re explained by what happens now that creates the past. And it begins here.
That’s the birth of responsibility. (my emphasis)
I’ve spent all of today engaged in self-created crises. I wouldn’t say they are imaginary, but their effects on me were what created the perceived severity of the event. The first was to do with my relations with my colleague with whom I share an office. The second was to do with my ever-present thesis. I may only have time to recount one incident here and continue the next tomorrow.
My colleague and I basically share a shoebox. Its length can barely cope with two standard desks and its width certainly cannot cope with the desk being placed perpendicular to the room. This was an office that was advertised as ‘state-of-the-art’ when it was being built. No matter. Like too many rats in a small cage, too much proximity can encourage aggression.
‘Sharing’, it seems to me, describes on the one hand a fact – there are two people using one office, so they are sharing; but the word also describes a way of behaving — and this requires mutual consent. While we don’t hate each other, we certainly didn’t choose to be in the same space. When we do turn up on the same day, we barely speak, not out of hostility, just out of lack of mutuality, each stuck in his own universe independent of the other. When that independence is threatened, it shakes us out of the stupor, and we try even harder to close ourselves in.
My colleague doesn’t come in often, so when he does, he is often a frenzy of activity. I, on the other hand, go in regularly, which means I have come to see the space as ‘mine’. When we are there together, which is infrequent enough for it to be significant, he carries on as if I were not there — rustling, busying, consulting with a steady stream of students who have to nudge past my chair to get to his part of the room. I, on the other hand, find my equanimity shaken, because I go in to think and write.
But if I am honest, part of my annoyance is due to the fact that I feel he is not acknowledging my presence — that’s my ego talking, my narrative-making, ‘if he were considerate, he would tell me he has to see X number of students for X number of hours and give me the option of making alternative arrangements’. I am doubly annoyed when he is not there and the phone rings for him, which is infrequent, but enough for me to think ‘I’m not paid to be his receptionist’. So instead of simply saying, neutrally, ‘So and so is not in the office’, I say ‘You shouldn’t call here, so and so is never in the office.’ That sets the caller off, and he gets stroppy with me, and I get more annoyed that I am continually expected to play ‘receptionist’. Finally, my annoyance grows to a head and I send my colleague an email (the coward’s way out) asking him if he could possibly not give out the office number. He says he hadn’t, and by the way, were there any messages? And I say, look, the signature in your email clearly has the office number on it! Oh, he says, I’ll delete it now.
This exchange takes place when I am at home, and he is there in the office today. At the end of the day I get an email saying, please don’t use illegal software in the office. Our internet point had been blocked by the university servers. It seems illegal music downloads were detected. I’d done no such thing (I’m not that stupid – oops, more ego), but resented that he would assume I did. He was annoyed he had wasted the one day he had come in to do his busywork. And I realised later this goes back to a lack of mutuality again. We never talk, so there is never any obligation to treat the other person like a person, only a nuisance to be borne.
If I am the universe and the universe is me, then the other person is me. And in a literal sense, he is; subject to the same small office, the same nonconsensual sharing of space, the same disruption of rhythm. I can’t blame him for being who he is in the same circumstances I find myself being who I am.
So, it begins here. I have to re-define my relationship to the space and thus the relationship with others using that space. The way to cope with a small office is not to wish for a bigger one; it is to take responsibility for making the space too small in the first place.