Saturday, September 11, 2010

The God-Shaped Hole

Arles Church Light
Arles Church Light, France, 2008

When I walked into Helsinki Zen Center's zazen introduction a little over a year ago, the instructor asked why each of us found ourselves there. "I'm healthy, I'm married to the woman I love deeply, I have a reasonably interesting job with colleagues I like to work with and that gives me enough money that I don't need to fret about it much, I live in a nice little apartment in exactly the part of town where I want to live, and dammit, I'm still dissatisfied," I answered, "and I don't think a new computer will change that."

I would no longer say that. I am no longer dissatisfied, at least not in the way I described then.

I did buy the computer, though. It is nice, even though it occasionally locks up when waking up from sleep. I do that too, sometimes.

In fact, I'm… happy. (Shh, don't jinx it.) Not ecstatically jumping-with-joy happy, mind; just feeling pretty relaxed about it all. "Hey, rain smells good, doesn't it?"

I'm also frequently amazed at the incredibly good fortune I've done nothing whatsoever to earn–being born healthy to loving parents in a stable home in a rich and stable country with plenty of good life opportunities, and so on and so forth. Not that I think of this all the time, mind; it just occasionally hits me. "Wow. I could be up to my armpits in polluted mud, fighting off a dozen infectious diseases eradicated here a couple of centuries ago."

I'm less irritable, less nervous, sleep better, digest my food better, and have managed to develop and maintain a number of beneficial habits and reduce or eliminate a number of harmful ones.

I've also made some choices with my job that have, I think, made me happier with it, and I also think it's made some of my colleagues happier with me. Specifically, I asked to be relieved of managerial responsibilities, and to focus on knowledge work—teaching, troubleshooting, designing, coding, etc.—instead. That was a lousy career move in the conventional sense, but I think it was the right thing to do, both for myself and for the company.

It's as if some ballast has shifted, my boat has righted itself, and is now sailing much more lightly, without dragging a big wake behind it.

A part of the reason is, no doubt, zazen itself. It's a very good practice, and it suits me well. However, I think that that's still a fairly small part—a year or so of staring at the wall can only do so much.

A bigger reason, I think, is just having a spiritual practice. I don't know how much difference the specifics of the practice even matter, as long as it's something you're able to pursue sincerely. My wife's Catholic practice is working for her. I couldn't adopt that, for a large number of reasons.

There is some truth to Pascal's God-shaped hole. For a long time, I though about it much as this guy, although perhaps not quite that categorically. That, too, has changed. I'm happy to have found something to fill it, without having to do violence to the rest of me.


  1. Wonderful story !
    Your honesty and rawness is so .... well, Zen-like. Smile.

    Many atheists contend they have no God. Theists debate them and say they make gods of money, reason, self and many more idolatry substitutes which leads them to be nasty people.

    But some Atheists consider themselves "enchanted" Atheists and feel no dryness in their lives. The smell of rain is wonderful to them -- they too notice it.

    I'd wager that Pascal was wrong (*smiling at my allusion). It is not a "God-shaped hole" but a "Happiness hole" -- an enchantment holeS. If your background is fed by a culture steeped in gods, when you find these holes and fill them, you may label them with god labels. I would agree that humans have inborn (functional) dualistic illusion that make this natural. But like Skepticism (an unnatural skill), I think it is possible to see behind the illusion and know the happiness without gods or god-like twists in theology which can be found in many forms of Buddhism (agreeing with you).

    But in the end, is doing it with or without cognitive god-maps important? I think not, as long as the maps aren't use to re-inforce tribalism, exclusiveness, anti-science thinking (anti-empiricism) and to re-inforce creatures who like to be dominated by their rulers.

    Cognitive maps are complex. The webs we weave can not be simplified. Your wife's Catholic world and your Zen world work for each of you -- but as you allude, your inner worlds are much larger than your theologies.
    (sorry, that was a long comment -- but I hope I interacted with you post)

  2. When I started writing this post, it was actually based on a bit of Hindu philosophy that I had misunderstood. I regretfully dropped it, when I checked up on it and realized that I had just read what I wanted into it, and what it said wasn't actually anything like what I thought it said. Stupid Hindus.

    For what it's worth, though, here's what I thought: I thought that the Hindus say that to live a good life, you need love, a function in society, and a spiritual practice. Until I got started with Zen, I was doing great with the first two, but was lacking the third. Adding that righted the boat, and made for much lighter sailing.

    (I discovered that what they actually say is that you need a function in society, wealth, and pleasure. That's not all that applicable to this story, even if it's true…)

    So I'd wager that Pascal was wrong about some people and some definitions of 'God,' but right about other people and other definitions. Perhaps some never have that hole to start with.

    Also, I think it's probably possible to turn anything into a spiritual practice, and that's probably what people like Carl Sagan did—if Cosmos or Broca's Brain aren't spiritual works, I don't know what is. I think it comes naturally to some lucky people; the rest of us have to seek.

    And yeah, one reason I find Zen so congenial is that it doesn't require me to believe a damn thing. It just requires me to sit and pay attention, and the rest is optional—even though it is very, very fascinating.

    Ray Bradbury had a short story about this. Powerhouse, I think it was called...

  3. Where did you get the idea the "Hindus say"
    (1) that to live a good life, you need love, a function in society, and a spiritual practice. [your first misread]
    (2) that you need a function in society, wealth, and pleasure.

    Like Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Shinto and more, I find lots of different kinds of Hindus. (just went to a Hindu temple today, ironically)

  4. I thought you might ask me that.

    I remembered something I'd read a long time ago about the purusharthas — dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. I incorrectly connected dharma to spiritual practice, artha to social function, and kama to love. Unfortunately, when I looked it up, it turned out not to be quite so, so I regretfully dropped it.

    I don't really know anything much about Hindu philosophy, unfortunately, and I didn't do any serious reading on it this time either, just enough to confirm that I was mistaken. Google purusharthas and check out the top five hits to retrace my steps, if you're interested.

  5. Ah, got it. But just wanted to be sure to emphasize there are many different ways people hold their thoughts who call themselves Hindus. Lots of theologies, practices and emphasis in life.

  6. Well, I know that much. I lived in Nepal for a year, and got a little taste of the diversity there, as well as getting to know some Nepalis from a variety of ethnic and social groups.

    It's hard not to generalize. I would like to assure you, though, that even if I may do so in some context, I recognize that the reality is usually more complex. Especially when it comes to people.

  7. Indeed -- I can see that diversity and complexity of understanding in your excellent writing. I was kind of just checking in. After all, we are just sort of getting to know each other.

  8. Absolutely. I think you're a clearer writer than I am, though, since I haven't had too many such concerns reading your excellent blog!