Climb a Mountain to Reach Yourself

Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of
Zen and Christianity
Ellen Birx

Often, as I made my way through this brief, gentle volume, I thought of how I’d begin the post I would come to write about it. And while I may work in some of the ideas and anecdotes that surfaced during my interlude with Ms. Birx, I actually need to begin by conceding defeat. I simply may not be a candidate for embraces or enlightenment.

As a matter of course I do not easily admit to being bettered. When I picked this book up I did so with an open mind. After all, I reasoned, this is right up my alley. A parochial school kid of the Vatican II era, I like to think I’m a typical mess. Often doubting but never not believing. Seeing what is common between the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. Absorbing good ideas even if they contradict older, deeply-held beliefs.

There are, to be sure, plenty of opportunities to indulge in such things while reading this book. For example, Ms. Birx points out that the exhortation in the Lord’s Prayer to allow “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not terribly different from Eastern traditions of accepting the universe as it is. Shame on me for not seeing that before. I always welcome such a shake-up, especially when the result is no longer being able to not see the connection any longer.

That hardly sounds like defeat, does it? And yet…

D.T. Suzuki
1870-1966
Teacher

Maybe it’s the challenge suggested in the book’s title. Years ago, in a former life, I found myself observing Yom Kippur. Annually, I’d steal into one of New Yorks wealthier Jewish congregations for the Yizkor service, The rabbi, an Englishman with a baritone that rose and fell like the sea on a warm summer’s day, had a canned sermon for that part of what is, admittedly, a very long day of services.

The theme he worked was incommensurability and when I say worked, I mean worked. He got a good 45 minutes out of the word in all its guises: adverb, noun, both adjectival forms. I listened, actively listened, to the same spiel for a half dozen years or more and I still have no idea what he was talking about. I feel the same way about the inconceivable after spending the past while with this book.

Lest you think I’m making this harder on myself than I have to, I invite you to ponder this statement awhile, as I have: “In discovering the inconceivable, you discover that you also are inconceivable.  It’s not simply that you are inconceivable, but that what you are capable of is also inconceivable.” (p. 28) That’s clear as day, right?

Maybe I’m being too obtuse. After all, Zen, as a tradition, is famous for its riddles.  Perhaps it isn’t meant to be clear. Until it is. Or perhaps one has to commit to becoming an adept to understand, let alone achieve, conceiving the inconceivable. I think Ellen Birx worries about fear of such commitment stopping people from starting. And I think she has found the practice of Zen so rewarding that she hopes to inspire others to share her journey.

Alan Watts
1915-1973
Hipster and guru

What she isn’t is blind to how our hyper-commercial society manages to turn everything into a profit-seeking enterprise. “Advertisements for Zen spas, Zen restaurants and Zen decor attempt to convey the message that you will experience a calm, relaxed state of mind if you use these products.” (p. 3) Elsewhere, she speaks of mindfulness becoming a “…way to reduce stress and thereby improve physical and mental health.” (p. 148)  Clearly, she understands she’s up against instant gratification and self-improvement.  How can experiencing non-duality possibly compare with that?

I’ll rein myself in before I give my ‘paradox of Lululemon‘ speech. It’s clear, though, that a true encounter with something deeply spiritual is a different animal than a mere purchase.

This ought to be fertile ground for me because it isn’t exactly terra nova. I was a good student of mid-century American whims. I read D.T. Suzuki and smiled at the cameo he makes in Salinger.  I hung out with The Dharma Bums. I listened regularly, if not quite religiously, to the Alan Watts radio hour when it was on WFMU.  I read Herrigel because archery held more appeal than motorcycle maintenance. I unthinkingly catch falling knives (a practice I don’t recommend) and regularly perplex people by uttering statements like, “To have ego, have no ego.”

My defeat comes from accepting that all of the above is mere dilettantism. And maybe that’s a first step.

First published in 1948 and still in print.

What it isn’t is a program or road map and if that’s what you seek this book isn’t really a step-by-step guide. In a lot of ways its an invitation to find a roshi,  one who, like our author, has received the dharma transmission, who can act as a guide. You could probably do worse than checking out the Zen community she practices in.

Humbled by this book as I am, I also learned something that cleared up a point that’s been nagging at me for almost two years. In 2018 I attended a lecture by Daniel Goleman, the EQ guru. His subject was meditation, an area in which he conducted one of the earliest medical studies. In fact, one of the exercises he conducted that night appears in this book.

In any case, during the Q&A someone asked about meditating while exercising. While granting that it was an interesting question, Goleman noted that he knows of no studies in the area and opined that exercise and meditation seemed to exist at cross-purposes.

That struck me as odd. I swim for fitness, regularly spending 45 minutes, an hour or more immersed. I’ve spoken with other such swimmers and we agree that one enters a trance-like state, our senses essentially blanketed and made uniform to the point where sensation is a tertiary condition. Outdoors, on an early summer morn, you can feel the movement of the sun and breeze as you make your way back and forth, and enter a state of communion with the universe.

So I was elated to learn there is such a thing as walking mediation.

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