January 21, 2007

Tea, Zen and snow

Ok, I'm a (somewhat) happy camper this evening. Drove up to Baltimore today to finally check out a tea shop that I found through, of all places, MySpace: Teavolve. Coffee shops are cool spots but, as a non-coffee drinker, I find the alternative offerings sometimes a bit lacking. So, now I have a great tea spot for my wanderings to the west (Sharazade's in Shep'town) and a great tea spot for my wanderings to the east (Teavolve in B'more). That makes me happy.

I'm close to the end of Zen...Motor Maint. Anyone watching my facial expressions as I was reading in the tea shop this afternoon probably thought I was nuts but, man, this book just keeps astonishing me. Near the end of his quest to explain Quality, Phaedrus (Yeah, it's a weird name. Want an explanation? You have to read the book.) goes back to pre-Aristotelian/Platonic/Socratic Greek philosophy for a study of the Cosmologists and Sophists. I recall passing references to all of the above in Intro to Philosophy, but then I got hooked on the Stoics (who bear more than a passing resemblance to Buddhists) and never explored any of the others. I think it's time, especially in the case of the Sophists. Phaedrus' revelation was my own this afternoon, on discovering the concept of arete:

Phaedrus is fascinated too by the description of the motive of "duty towards self" which is an almost exact translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes described as the "one" of the Hindus. Can the dharma of the Hindus and the "virtue" of the Greeks be identical?
That which we translate 'virtue' but is in Greek 'excellence.'"
Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That
is what the Sophists were teaching. Not ethical relativism. Not pristine "virtue". But arete. Excellence. Dharma!...

implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency ---or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself."

Now, I consider myself something of an efficiency expert. I'm organized, detail-oriented and, usually, very focused. It's what makes me good at my job. In many ways, my job is great. It's very well suited to my natural aptitudes, and I've been allowed a lot of flexibility in tailoring it to be that way. For the most part, the people I work with are thoughtful and intelligent. And the pay don't suck. But as I've learned more about myself in recent years, I've realized that this job is diametrically opposed to many of the principles I've formed. I'm the inventory manager for a high-end jewelry store. Everything I do in my position is for the encourgagement of conspicuous consumption. The cost (not the retail price, the cost) of a single diamond could buy at least one new car, or feed half the homeless people in the city for who knows how long. And then there are the issues with child labor in Indian diamond cutting facilities, and "blood" diamonds in Sierra Leone (Supposedly all of the stones we sell have been certified conflict-free according to the Kimberly Process. I guess I believe that.). Normally, I try to squelch these thoughts and focus on what I do in a more abstract sense, looking at the inventory as a big puzzle to be solved rather than a bunch of over-priced baubles no one needs. I realize what a freaking hypocrite this makes me, but the damned job pays for me to have a nice home and indulge in things like books, vacations, a bicycle and a kayak. And, as I said, the work environment is great, and the company donates a fair amount of money and merchandise to charitable organizations (with an advertising tag, though. Of course.).

Plus, the fact that I have a purely retail background and only a handful of college-level classes on my resume would make it damned hard to find anything else to do that wouldn't require starting from scratch with at least a 50% reduction in pay. What would you do? Seriously. If anyone reading this would give up a comfortable lifestyle working in the only industry they know purely for the sake of principle, then I'll nominate you for Buddhahood. (And please don't message me that you would. I've been making myself depressed enough over this lately.)

So, how to deal with it? How to incorporate the career path I've been walking with the new dharma path I'm attempting to walk? Is striving for arete enough? If I can acheive that higher idea of efficiency, that excellence, in some departments of life, is that enough? Or am I just fooling myself?

The other thing I wondered about this afternoon is the amount of time I've been spending in tea and coffee shops lately, instead of outdoors. My "thing" is spending my days off outside, hiking, pedaling, paddling, exploring... It's not like this winter's been a rough one, what with the bizarrely warm temperatures the east coast had up until this week. I was heavily into cycling until the first or second weekend in December, at which time I thought I'd head back into the woods for hiking. But I haven't felt compelled to. Part of the past few weeks has been dedicated to retail/family/general holiday stuff, but there've been days in between when all I've wanted to get out of the house for was a good meal and a good book. Plus, there's been this MySpace thing and my new obsession with communicating with strangers. As with so many other things, I realize it's not going to be this intense an obsession for too long, so I'm calling this my "intellectual, analytical phase" and letting it go at that. The woods will still be there when I come out of it (if the damned developers haven't paid the governor of Maryland to let them pave over every tree in the state by then).

It began to snow lightly while I was in B'more. As I headed out of town, there was probably, maybe, a quarter of an inch of snow on the roads. It took twice as long to drive home than usual because of four (4) serious accidents I passed on the way. Give me a dry road and I'll put my lead foot on the gas and fly. But I learned at a young age that when the road's wet, snowy, or icy, you slow the hell down to a reasonable speed. People who can't learn that make me want to get a bazooka. And the Buddha's probably now rolling in whatever entity he currently resides in (Get it? He can't roll in his grave because his spirit would have moved on to a new incarnation... Yeah, well, I've never claimed to be a comedian.).


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