Dashiell Hammett and the Tao of Beams Falling

Some of you may know the name Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the hardboiled school of detective fiction.  I am sure most all of you have heard of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries.  With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.

In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft.   The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site.  If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him.  Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”  Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance.  “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”  Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.

George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition.  Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency.  When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”

Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion.  I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.

Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind.  He had a new job, new family, and name,  Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).

Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate.  But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her.  In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.

Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.”  Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen.  The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”

Life is series of happenings.  When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems.  So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.

Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential.  His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged.  He became about as successful a writer as one could be.  Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail.  He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.”  But he had survived.  He adjusted to beams falling.

By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST).  This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel.  I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.

If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.


Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

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Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith


Time Is

Yesterday, June 12th, was the one month anniversary of my transplant. My recovery is progressing well, and in fact my doctors, nurses and coordinators all tell me that my progress is nothing short of spectacular, something I am not ashamed to admit that I love to hear.

And yet, it is not quite as fast as I would like.  I wish I were back to normal already, or better than normal, as I was told would be the case. I’m tired of being tired, sick of being cold (I feel cold all the time), and everything else that has come with this recovery. Even though they say what I am experiencing is typical and to be expected . . . I’m impatient for the healing process to be over and done with.

I know it’s the wrong attitude. I should just let go and let time heal.

Recently I read where a Buddhist teacher or blogger said time does not heal. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who it was, nor did I bother to read the article and discover the context in which that statement was offered. Now, some reason it’s stuck in my mind, and taking the statement as it is, literally, I couldn’t disagree more.

It is important to pay careful attention to the timeless reality of now, but it is equally as important to understand the passage of time, the cycles of time. As always, the first and best Buddhist solution is to find the chu-do, the middle way.

To deny time or simply remain in the mindfulness of now is as bad as living in the past, or living only for the future. Time brings change, and since the Buddha taught everything is transient, we should have faith that change can be our friend, our ally, if we choose to let go and flow with it.

We should also try to understand the cycles of time and just where certain situations stand and where they intersect with other situations, forces, and qualities, in the complex pattern of life.

In my situation, allowing time to heal forces me to work on my practice of patience, which I’ve noted more than once is not my particular forte in life. Being patient with healing, being patient with my medical team, with myself . . . for me, it’s a struggle, but I am armed in this fight with confidence, for as Shantideva wrote, “Even while I remain in this world of suffering, through the practice of patience, I shall have beauty and good health and long life, and even the extensive joy of a universal king!”

Allowing time to heal our wounds is about having confidence about acceptance, something we probably don’t think about too often, so I’ll say it again . . . have confidence about, with, and in acceptance.  It is good to accept things, to trust in the virtue of letting go, being patient . . . after all, it’s really just that old wu-wei, the natural way of things . . . it’s understanding that time does heal . . . that all things change with time and acceptance is not rushing change or being unduly concerned about time . . . you see, for some people . . . for those who love . . . who really love . . . time is . . .


Mindfulness and Growing to Simplicity

We talk about “being in the moment,” the present moment. We call it “mindfulness” What exactly does that mean? Thich Nhat Hahn says,

[Mindfulness means] to be truly present in the moment. When you eat, you know that you are eating. When you walk, you know that you are walking. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness. You eat but you don’t know that you are eating, because your mind is elsewhere.”*

The real mindfulness we’re trying to realize is the mindfulness of daily life, mindfulness while engaged in daily activities. It is the product, the fruit of the mindfulness that we cultivate through meditation practice.

Mindfulness meditation is not about forgetfulness, either. Rather, it’s narrowing our awareness to our breath or some other subject of meditation for a certain period of time. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i wrote, “During meditation, beginners find that not even a single thought arising in the mind will stay for an instant.” We use the breath as a tool to stop the mind from wandering and control the discursive thoughts that prevent us from being truly present in the moment.

Awareness of our breath or being present in the breath develops a deeper, more enduring awareness that we should be able to take with us when we get up from the meditation mat.

SCZCA FaceBook friend put the poster you see to the right on his timeline. It’s from the Santa Cruz Zen Center. I really like this attitude. To chase after attainments, exalted states of mind, stages of accomplishment such as arhatship, even Buddhahood, has always seemed counter-productive to me. It causes people to seize on these objectives and cling to them, when non-seizing, non-clinging is what frees our mind.

I would call the Santa Cruz Zen Center’s approach a wu-wei approach. Wu-wei, or “not-doing,” that I have written about often, is the way of letting things happen naturally. The Buddha said that when mindfulness flows like a steady stream, then mindfulness as a cause for awakening becomes aroused. It happens naturally. There’s no reason to run after it.

Of course, aiming to sit in meditation without any ideas is having a idea, a objective. It is impossible to be without ideas or aims of any kind. However, just as we can narrow our awareness to the breath, we can also narrow our objectives.

But can this approach also be an opportunity for seizing and clinging?

Chih-i also wrote, “You should know that whoever clings to the wu-wei state will never develop the awakening mind, which is free from differentiation.”

Well, whoever clings to anything, period. It’s a bitter irony that we can never be completely free from the trap of conceptual thinking, nor realize total non-attachment. And yet, that’s no reason why we can’t really be present in the moment, the only moment we have, or follow the way of wu-wei, the art of keeping it simple.

From innumerable complexities we must grow to simplicity . . .”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

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* Thich Nhat Hanh, be free where you are, Parallax Press, 2002


Chuang Tzu Goes Fishing

The election is finally over, Barack Obama is headed back to the White House, and the country is headed toward the fiscal cliff. But the good news is that the election is finally over. It’s worth repeating.

I heard something the other night I thought was amusing. Apparently, in 2008, after Barack Obama won his first bid for the presidency, The Onion, which describes itself as “America’s Finest News Source” (it’s really a news satire outfit) ran a headline that read: Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.

Rather prophetic, actually. Obama inherited the biggest mess the country had seen in decades, and the last four years have proved that being President of the United States is often a thankless job.

Which brings to mind a story about Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher.

Chuang Tzu, according to legend, was a minor official for a small town in China during the late 4th century BCE. While he had official duties to perform, like most of the celebrated sages in Chinese lore, he had a rather carefree disposition. He was a follower of the philosophy of the Tao, which teaches the principle of wu-wei, “not-doing,”

As D Howard Smith wrote in The Wisdom of the Taoists, Chuang Tzu “believed that wisdom lay in seeking for it in the inmost of one’s own mind, in a quietude beyond conceptual thought or reasoning . . . This is, perhaps, what he means by “non-activity” or “not-doing” (wu-wei), a spontaneous action without thought of result. Because virtue, happiness and the good life are not to be found by conscious striving . . .”

Because Chuang Tzu’s job entailed only a few duties, he was able to spend much of his time as he pleased. One day, he decided to take the afternoon off and go fishing in the river P’u. He was enjoying himself, minding his own business, when two messengers from the King of Ch’u found him. The messengers prostrated properly, presented Chuang Tzu with gifts, and then delivered the King’s message: “I would like you to come to Ch’u and accept the honorable position of State Administrator.”

Chuang Tzu frowned, bobbed his fishing pole, and said, “It is told that the State of Ch’u has a sacred tortoise that has been dead for over three thousand years. The king supposedly has it wrapped in silk and in a box and placed in a position of honor on his ancestral altar. Now, let me ask, if you were this tortoise, would you prefer to be dead and kept in a box, or would you rather be alive and dragging your tail in the mud?”

One of the messengers replied, “I would rather be alive dragging my tail in the mud.”

Chuang Tzu said, “So would I. Now go away and leave me alone.”

Even though the job of State Administrator was honorable and prestigious, Chuang Tzu preferred the natural life where he was free to follow his own inclinations. But not all people can be free of the world, some must assume the responsibilities of leadership. That’s why Chuang Tzu once said,

One who practices wu-wei does not actualize fame, nor does he see himself as the storehouse of all plans, nor as the owner of all wisdom. Wu-wei makes him fit for the burden of any office and the range of his action has no limit. Therefore, hold fast to all you have received, but do not think that you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all.”