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Sameness and Difference

I want to talk about sameness and difference. Sometimes in Zen, we speak of oneness and differentiation. I want to try to bring those abstractions down to our everyday psychological reality.

Let's start with what we mean when we talk about oneness.

There's a crazy person in our neighborhood who goes up and down the street at all hours shouting, God, God, God! at the top of his lungs. One word over and over again God, God... He's got everything reduced to one word. Maybe he's had some kind of mystical experience or vision in which everything is God and all he wants to do is tell everybody about it. Maybe he can't do anything but tell everybody about it, like an Old Testament prophet. But by and large, people don't treat him as a prophet, they treat him like a human car alarm that can't be turned off. So there's this side of oneness which means just presenting this one fact, this one experience, and there's no room for anything else. What are you going to do with that, what use is that? We may have certain kinds of big experiences we'll say, Oh! I'm the world and the world is just one thing. But we need to look at the way sameness or oneness is going engage others or else we're going to just end up shouting, God, God, God! up and down the street all day.

The Soto style is to unite with the whole universe one object at a time. That each thing that you do is IT. Washing one fork, one spoon, one plate. If you're cleaning something up, if you're bowing, if you're sitting, there's only that. Your whole world is that one action. It's a kind of oneness that means just do one thing wholeheartedly and there's nothing else in the whole world. Just sit. Or: Do one after another. And what's good about that kind of practice is also how we notice what we're willing or not willing to give that kind of attention or devotion to. Because ordinarily, we unconsciously divide up the world into things that are worthwhile paying attention to and things that aren't. We may be very meticulous about cleaning up our apartment but walk down the street and see litter all around us, but not do anything about picking that up. Or in our house there may be things we're very fussy about and things we just don't pay any attention to. So one version or our practice about sameness is to look at what we value and what we don't value. Sameness means everything is on one plane, everything is of equal value. That's very, very hard to actually practice, to treat everything as of equal value, not elevating one or another as worth paying attention to, worth taking care of. And then try extending that to people. Which are the ones we think are worth our attention? Which are the ones we think are worth taking care of? Often we have a small circle that we extend a certain degree of attention or care to and then it gets diluted the further and further we go out.

One of the ways we engage people, analogous to way we engage ritual objects in a Soto temple, is through empathy. Empathy means fully entering into the subjective experience of another person. Just totally letting yourself be in their world. And while you're doing that, that world is all there is. You see everything through their eyes. You let yourself enter into their reality rather than having a separate reality of your own that's bumping into theirs. And once again we practice looking at what kinds of experiences, what kind of worlds are we willing to enter into and where do we draw the line. There's a nice quote from Goethe that says, I've never heard of a crime I couldn't imagine myself committing. That was Goethe expressing his sense of his common humanity with everybody. Empathy is based on the fundamental belief, or the trust, that understanding is possible. That when you enter into another person's worldview what you're going to find in there is going to be basically recognizable and intelligible - that everyone has a shared form of life that includes things like love and attachment and loss and pain and hunger and dying. It's this common, shared form of life that makes it possible to enter into another person's worldview and have it make sense.

Wittgenstein said, If a lion could talk, we couldn't understand him. The idea there was that we don't share a form of life with a lion. So that whatever a lion experiences, his universe is so basically different from us that we couldn't understand what it's talking about. Vicky Hearne, who was a philosopher and an animal trainer, thought that was one of the stupidest things she ever heard. She spent her whole life attending to the inner world of animals and thought it was perfectly possible to understand them. But Wittgenstein was trying to make a point about how we can ever understand each other and basically it comes down to the fact that there is no such thing as private experience. The reason we can understand each other is that everything about who we are, and what's going on inside of us, is something that we've taken in from the outside, from others, from our shared existence. Our inner world is made up of the things we've brought in from the outer world. For Wittgenstein this happens primarily through language. By language, he meant a whole system of interaction. It's not how we go about sending reports from our private inner world out into the outer world where you then take the message into your inner world and try to decipher it. Instead it's about how we exist together in this big soup of life and language and there is no boundary between inside and outside. That's what makes empathy possible, that we're all living in the midst of the same life. But at an emotional level we always bump up against personal barriers of empathy. What we recoil from, what we want to say, that's not me, I could never do that. We all do that at some point.

Joko's style of practice was always to pay attention to that boundary of resistance, the place where you are inclined to say, That's not me, I'm not like that! You mark that line with anxiety or anger or self-righteousness. And you say, I'm a different kind of person than that. Goethe's line is we're all exactly that kind of person. What kind of empathy and courage does it take to allow yourself to be everything? That's the real psychological problem of oneness, it mean letting everything in, letting yourself be everybody. It means not dividing the world into good guys and bad guys and us and them. It's like the old Pogo cartoon We've met the enemy and he is us. You have to be willing to identify with everything, even the things that we want to keep at arms length.

Now the other side of the coin is difference. We chant Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all. And you've heard me say many times one of the ways that we save all beings is to recognize that all beings, just as they are, are enlightened, perfect, not needing any saving. And one of the ways that plays out in the realm of difference, is that we genuinely allow people to be utterly different from us. We're willing to engage them as other and particularly willing to engage them as separate centers of agency and subjectivity in a way that their life is not about us. It's remarkable the extent to which we will engage everybody in terms of the extent to which are they meeting or not meeting my needs or my expectations. Is this person a good friend, a good teacher, a good listener, a good lover? Endless ways in which who the person is is entirely evaluated all the time on a spectrum where we grade them on how well they're doing the job of meeting our needs. And it's as if they have no existence or rationale for existence except to be something for us. It's very hard to encounter other people and give them the freedom to have an existence that is not about what they're doing to or for me. And it's just as hard not to write them off that way. The world is divided into the people who are doing things well or badly for me and the people who are irrelevant. 99.9% of humanity just isn't on the map because I don't have anything to do with them and they don't have anything to do with me. If it's not about me they doesn't count.

One of the more subtle ways other people can be about me is when I understand them. This is a tougher one to deal with because not only do we rate people according to how they are meeting our needs but how we assign them particular roles in our big meta-narrative of life. And even if we're not personally related to them we categorize them or give them a stereotype or a role where we immediately know they're one of those. You know, They're Republican. End of story, right. How many versions of that do you know, that as soon as you get people in to one or another narrative pigeon-hole, it's the end of the story. You don't have to know anything else about them. You've understood them so well that they're obliterated. That kind of understanding negates the other person's real subjective existence and genuine otherness. There's a quality of otherness or differentiation that we only appreciate when we don't understand them, when we acknowledge that they are too complex to sum up. Some times we can allow that, very rarely I think, in personal relationships: when we really feel that the other person has so many quirks and depths and qualities and talents that we'll never get to the bottom of them. They've had had all these life experiences and I can see them in analysis 5 times a week, or be married to them for 20 years and I'll never get to the end of who they are. Very rarely are we able to treat people as that different, that new without sort of quickly saying, Oh, I know her; I know all about her. We understand them so well and so quickly that there's nothing new to learn. In that way we obliterate difference, we obliterate otherness. So there's a big resistance that we have to watch out for on this side too. The resistance to letting ourselves be impacted by the difference of other people without immediately sweeping them up into an agenda, into a story, who they are to me, who they are in my narrative world.

So sameness and difference each offer their own challenge: the challenge of letting ourself be the same as everyone else; the challenge of allowing everyone else to be different from us.

We have to learn to put those two sides together and see that what we have in common is that we're all different