How does one honor someone? Not place them on a pedestal, nor cow-tow to an image on which we are projecting our own needs, but finding the actual individual person amidst the incidents of their lives? We honor them when we find something we want to affirm about who they are. What does this mean? What is this something over and above the events that shape our day to day lives?
Some have called it style, the way in which you approach doing whatever it is you are doing. There is a rich tradition of developing this sort of sensitivity to one’s actions. The delicacy by which a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony brings this day’s drinking into the history of all the teas ever drank from the particular tea pot being used is a good example of an attention to individual style being expressed within an inherited, traditional form. The whole reason it is considered a Zen practice is in how drinking mindfully concentrates the mind on the moment by moment unfolding. There is a type of infinite play of containers and contained; these particular people sharing this particular good tea, while the seasons are in just such a point on their circular journey, and humanity writes its history in just this exact point on its meandering way. And we pour the tea, and share it, and it is good.
What makes the moments titillate with awareness in such practices? A deep sensitivity to the interplay of personal and impersonal. And what nourishes this? Respecting the other being with which you are sharing this exquisite moment. A moment never to be repeated. Aware of their awareness, aware of their Self; that something that shines over a whole lifetime but cannot be found in any particular event within it. This Self shows most clearly in the personality or individuality of a sentient being. When we see it rightly, what we see is beauty. It is a breath of the sacred world.
Consider, among all the sentient beings, our favorite, other humans. How someone moves their body, how they hold their head and shoulders tells us of a person’s story. The sound of a person’s voice in the chest, head and in the air all carve a portrait of a being’s unique profile into the atmosphere. In the eyes of each of us their dwells the magic spark of the watcher who has watched the unfolding of this DNA package in all its continuity from infancy and childhood to this year, whatever it may be; 10, 23, 78. In fact what you are apprehending is a never-to-be-repeated in all the history of the universe uniqueness born of fate and circumstance being confronted continually by this mysterious choice maker.
In those choices a Self if expressed. It is not the work of the ego, the choice making is much more all encompassing than that. Schopenhauer’s Will is closer to what actually seems to be the case. The choices that have carved the character being expressed in each moment are a cumulative history of interaction between the needs of the container and the needs of the contained. There are scars all around, this is a world of sorrow, but there are never more scars than skin, so to speak. The gnarled oak is beautiful too, in its own way.
We want to hold the contained responsible. When violence mars our world it is right to hold those responsible responsible. Still, we recognize that the person who committed the reprehensible action is as much a product of this Will as anyone. Particularly now with our insights into neuroscience and the biology of violence it is becoming much more difficult to maintain clear cut distinctions when attempting to assign ultimate guilt. We are beginning to recognize that in addition to the free choice of the individual there are constraints and restrictions placed on the ability of a person to exercise it. People can be made to play out other people’s needs, seek other people’s goals, and eventually carry out other people’s dirty work. Then we could say the individual has been manipulated into serving the needs of the container instead of the contained. They have been enslaved by constraints placed on the expression of their individuality.
These constraints can come from external or internal sources. Externally violence coupled with emotional cruelty breaks the will, as when a prisoner breaks under the administrations of their torturer. Internally the psyche can have the same jailer injected into itself through the use of fear and terror. Psychology in its therapeutic mode tries to make sense of these internal torturers in order to help those whose lives have become dominated by them. For such individuals it is as if an archetypal numinosity holds the ego under its spell. They are enchanted and entranced by gazing at the shiny thing that has captured their allegiance.
These shiny things are fundamentalisms, often religious though not always, which exploit the vulnerability of our wounds. They can be recognized by a type of false infinity that mesmerizes the brain like Mowgli in the coils of Kaa in Kiping’s The Jungle Book. The true believer is possessed by a set of self-referential ideas that never lead beyond themselves. While the ego is captured in the spell of its righteousness, all around the person’s life events become more and more disharmonious. The result is less like breaking a person’s will than obscuring it beyond their ability to recover it. The freedom of the choice maker has been swallowed up by the needs of the holy book and the holy institution it speaks for. Such people robotically carry out the needs of their institutions even when they trespass on the dignity of others and deny them any respect. “I was just following orders.” Religious, political, and economic fundamentalisms all work the same way.
It is our inability to even begin to question if an alternative to consumerism can be seriously considered, when ecologists tell us it is imperative for our survival, that strongly suggests our society is in the grip of a fundamentalism. The giantism of Homo Colossus is our shiny thing. We are worshiping an idol, to use the old fashion way of saying things, and in doing so have lost the liberty of our spirits. Under the harsh administrations of the idol god – over work, constant fear – it is hard for the individual to be heard or seen. It is hard for the individual to be heard or seen by others or by themselves. It is hard to express our style if we do not know who we are. The mass market floods the individual mind with the mass mind, sweeping up all in its path. My dance needs to imitate whatever is hottest this year, my hairdo, my car, my my my…
We have lost the knack of seeing the beauty of the individual. No, you say? Look at all the movie stars and music stars, never have we celebrated the individual more! But these are all actors. Though the magic of their individuality is there, it is the role they play we encounter when we encounter those that are, as we say, bigger than life. In their archetypal roles they too become shiny things. The knack of seeing the beauty of the individual we are losing as a culture is the one that recognizes it in the real flesh and blood individuals we encounter along our way everyday. We no longer expect to be fascinated by these everyday encounters. We reserve our perceptions of beauty for the fake personas designed for our screens and headphones who have taken residence in our pornified or Disneyfied imaginations. The real people around us suffer from our lack of kindness and attention as we respond to them as if they too were just playing roles or acting as stage props. We do this so easily with people these days, with all sentient beings really. Each and every one are carving their beautiful story into the interdependent moment. What will it take for us to once again have eyes that respect what they see when they see another’s eyes?
Living beings are not simple creatures.