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Saturday, March 14, 2015
Personal Reflections ... Practical Advice ... Zen ...

At the zendo that I regularly sit at (despite my being something of an internal outcast there), they recently held a “practice circle” discussion regarding a chapter from Suzuki Roshi’s book “Not Always So”. The chapter is entitled “Enjoy Your Life where the good Roshi uses the then upcoming (1969) first manned lunar space mission as a point of departure by which to make his point. He says that “to arrive on the moon may be a great historical event, but if we don’t change our understanding of life, it won’t have much meaning or make much sense”. The Rosh concludes that by practicing zazen (meditation), “you can enjoy your life, perhaps even more than taking a trip to the moon”. At the start of his lecture, Suzuki opines that “Instead of seeking a success in the objective world, we [need] to experience the everyday moments in our lives more deeply”. And yet, he also admits that “I want to speak about the moon trip, but I have not had any time to study it”.

Here’s my question: did the Apollo 11 flight and its follow-up moon-landing missions represent a delusion, a sort of false success within the objective world, one that impairs our ability to know more deeply the value of the everyday moments of our life? In 1969, Roshi Suzuki admitted that he didn’t know too much about the moon-bound straw men that he was setting up. But it’s 46 years later, plenty of time to have studied what happened with the Apollo astronauts and the other people and things that made this endeavor possible. Despite the wise Roshi’s diminution of the Apollo program and its achievements, perhaps it is still possible to see that the astronauts of the Space Race days really did have a lesson for us on how to deeply experience and enjoy our lives.

I offered some comments during the zendo discussion about how the Apollo mission might in fact relate to an appreciation of everyday life. I’m not an expert on it, but as a life-long space enthusiast, I watched a lot of documentaries and read some books and went thru a lot of articles on the United States’ efforts to get to the moon in the 1960s (before the decade was out, as per the mandate from President Kennedy). So I think I can offer a bit more on just what those spaceflights actually entailed.

Basically, they were military exercises. The US manned space program was treated largely as an adjunct of the military, despite being managed by a civilian agency (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA). Most of the astronauts were military officers themselves (but yes, the first man on the moon was not; Neil Armstrong was a civilian test pilot, although he had previously been an officer in the Navy). The procedures used for selection and training were largely military in nature. The equipment was provided by military equipment vendors (such as Boeing, Rockwell, McDonell Douglas, etc.). And as such, the preparation and the trip was anything but a pleasure cruise.

Once an astronaut got into space (and survived the dangerous launch phase, when he could be blown and fried to bits in just a second), the first thing many of them did was to throw up. The space capsules were crowded and not built for comfort. Heat and air conditioning was not always very good, especially on the Mercury and Gemini test flights that led up to the Apollo moon program. The space suits could be very uncomfortable after being worn for over a few hours. And it wasn’t like everyone always got along like one big family. There were rivalries and contentions, and sometimes astronauts in the sky had disagreements with ground control in Houston about how things should be done. At least one crew was blackballed and kept from going back up due to “non-cooperative attitudes”. There was always an odd smell from all the electrical equipment, and servo-mechanism noises and alarms or buzzers were always going off. It wasn’t easy to sleep. There were times of mental overload and times of boredom. To be honest, riding an early space mission could be pretty darn miserable. So why did so many people fight so hard to get into the program and then work so hard and put up with so much to take such a dangerous and uncomfortable ride?

Yes, one answer is that you were in the national spotlight, you became famous. This was certainly true, although only the most significant astronauts were really remembered more than a few years . . . Alan Shepard for being the first guy to ride a rocket into space, John Glenn for being the first to orbit the earth, and Neil Armstrong for being the first on the moon. And yes, you were important, you got a lot of attention for being at the center of a big program with a lot of people involved. But still, I myself think that the most important thing, the thing that made it all so “huge”, was the sense of mission and purpose behind it all. This was really important, no doubt. If you had to put your life on the line, if you had to go through a lot of unpleasant stuff, then so what? The cause was all-consuming. Other people were depending on you. It was fate, it was how things were supposed to be.

Yes, purpose and mission is a really important thing. Unfortunately, it is hard to find in most people’s lives. If and when you do find it, it can do amazing things for you. You can put up with pains and disappointments and insults and all sorts of other unpleasantness so long as you know that it is all for the mission. The problem for most of us is, just what mission? Hardly any of us are going to make history like the early astronauts, and get all that attention. And yet, are any of us not important? Isn’t there anyone else who legitimately depends on you for something (just as you depend on others for various things)?

If you can convince yourself that you have a purpose in life, I think that you can realize what Roshi Suzuki wants from you . . . i.e. to enjoy life. Life is full of pain and sorrow and challenges and frustrations and disappointments. How can you enjoy it when there are so few “sugar and butter moments”, experiences that clearly do cause pleasure. To really enjoy life, you need to go way beyond the handful of “happy times” . . . because their aren’t really all that many of them. The one thing that gets you beyond this with a level of enjoyment is to be on a mission, to have a sense of purpose in who you are and what you do.

And once again, for most of us in our daily lives, convincing ourselves that we do have a legitimate and compelling purpose isn’t easy. For parents, maybe it’s a little easier; kids are a natural mission. Maybe that’s why so many people put so much effort and make so many sacrifices to be parents. Not everyone does it well, but relative to general levels of human competence, parenting has a pretty high rate of follow-through. Hats off to you parents. But even for those of us like myself who aren’t parents, we still have a lot of connections to society. Each little connection is a mission, a chance to do something necessary and right. We often just don’t see it, and thus feel depressed and devoid of meaning.

So yes, purpose and mission in life really are something to think about; they can do you a lot of good, if you can convince yourself that you have such things. There are plenty of websites about this. Do a quick Google on “mission in life” and you will see a lot of thoughts about this. There are often numbers involved . . . 15 questions to discovering your purpose, 7 strange questions, 3 unexpected ways, 5 big ideas. Well, obviously I’m not the first person to realize that people do want purpose and meaning in their lives. Roshi Suzuki may be right in implying that we shouldn’t need to have a really big and apparent mission like being a pioneering astronaut to have a meaningful life. Few of us will ever find ourselves at a “crossroad of history”. But still, pioneers like the early astronauts do show us how much we are capable of if and when we do believe in what we are doing.

So, find that mission (probably many missions, we all have lots of things that are part of our lives) and blast off! And yes, enjoy the ride, bumpy and uncomfortable as it no doubt is going to be.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:20 pm      

  1. Jim, I find myself wondering about your initial question of whether or not the moon-landing missions represented a “false success within the objective world, one that impairs our ability to know more deeply the value of everyday moments in our life”? Your question is a good one; it makes me think of the astronauts themselves.

    The “thing” I’ve paid attention to about the astronauts who went on space missions (here I’m going to include *all* the missions, moon or those into space where we now have a kind of “small adjunct world” to earth) is that most of them, so it seems to me, came back with a sense of wonder about all the unknown, intangible things that are “out there”. Several of the astronauts came back at least with a sense of wonder that seemed to change their lives in some way. Of particular note is Edgar Mitchell who came back with such a sense of wonder that he questioned the cover-ups of UFOs and even established the Institute of Noetic Sciences; he said he “had an experience for which nothing in his life had prepared him”. Pretty strong words, I’d say and hardly a “delusion” or a “false success”. The ride into space seems to be life changing for most (if not all) astronauts.

    It seems to me that space may be telling us that there is much more to reality than the “objective”; when astronauts (who are so imbued with the sciences and all that needs to be known to travel into space) come back speaking in “subjective” terms, maybe it’s time humans start giving more attention, consideration, and value to the subjective. Instead of trying to reduce every experience to the objective how about an appreciation and value of the subjective and a study of the subjective, much like Edgar Mitchell has undertaken.

    As to purpose in life: I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that a life purpose is essential to individuals. I remember exactly when I found a purpose in my life; I was about fifteen and felt that I wanted to, almost *had* to do something “useful” with my life. I’ve followed through on that purpose throughout my life. I’m sure many people would say I’ve failed miserably in it; but I’ve done my best, tho; so I’m satisfied. I’ve found that although life has presented to me plenty of pain and sorrow and difficulty, somehow or other all that has always come to some fruitful end. Then too, I’ve never been seriously unhappy. (And by “seriously” I mean such that I’d describe my life as having no meaning and not worth living.)

    As to the various 15 this’s and 7 that’s, etc., to find one’s purpose in life, those things seem somehow childish and silly. One’s purpose in life, as far as I’m concerned, has to come from within.

    Which brings me to the initial tho’t I had when you mentioned meditation: If nothing else, meditation brings one to a quietness where one might find that internal purpose in life for the reason that it quiets one’s outward life and allows one to become aware of what’s going on “inside” one. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 15, 2015 @ 10:38 am

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