In the early stages of mentoring – during those first crucial sessions – there are a number of ideas that I introduce. One of the most difficult to comprehend is a suggestion that a person should not spend their life trying to live up to performance expectations. Most of us grow up thinking that, without goals, life would be reduced to a random meandering and the idea of progress would dissolve into meaninglessness.
If the idea behind my comment was that simple, such would certainly be a well-founded criticism. But like most concepts that arise out of Zen Theory, the closer you look the more complex and subtle the argument becomes. Perhaps a bit of poetry might help you understand what I’m getting at. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Conundrum of the Workshops, seems a good place to start. And, as with all good writing, the best place to begin is at the beginning.
When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
Here, at the very beginning, Kipling is describing a “conundrum” that all human beings face once they start thinking abstractly. If you wipe away the metaphors of Eden, the Tree and the Devil, what you are left with is a human being who is dissatisfied with the result of his effort because of some abstract and unreachable standard which Kipling calls “Art”.
This is a much more complicated idea than you might initially think. There is a difference between knowing whether or not you have done your best on the one hand and fretting over the fear that your best does not live up to some abstract standard on the other. You see, Kipling is not talking about some external “Devil” but the devil within all of us that leads us to shame and mourning.
So now, let’s take a look at verse two.
Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled to fashion his work anew —
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons — and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled “Is it Art?” in the ear of the branded Cain.
If we again shear away the metaphors and maintain the understanding that everything Kipling is talking about takes place within a single individual, a very interesting interpretation becomes possible. Having set the table in the first verse, Kipling is now focusing on the implications of an abstract standard. The key phrase in the verse is “And he left his lore to the use of his sons”. This can be interpreted as “And he abandoned his true self for a synthetic image of himself”. In other words, Kipling’s Adam abandoned his true self and sacrificed his “lore” in pursuit of the abstract standard Kipling calls “Art”.
I will leave you to read the rest of the poem. But for our purposes here, I’ll provide the final verse.
Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the Four Great Rivers flow,
And the Wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,
And if we could come when the sentry slept and softly scurry through,
By the favour of God we might know as much — as our father Adam knew!
Again, if we could shear away the mythology, we approach the insight which Kipling is offering. For what he is suggesting is that, if we could disabuse ourselves of these abstract and inhuman standards, we would return to the authenticity of who we really are.
Perhaps now you may be beginning to see the meaning of my proscription. The great trap of imagining abstract standards is that it leads to the creation of a synthetic vision of who you really are. To put it another way, in order to pursue a virtual goal you create a virtual version of yourself. This virtual version, perpetually unable to achieve the unachievable, turns back on your authentic self with a combination of pity and loathing.
There is a double tragedy in this dynamic. The first is that it is never-ending. The virtual goal cannot be achieved. The virtual self is always inadequate to the task. The authentic self is always depreciated and ignored. The second tragedy, and indeed the greater one, is that such a dynamic condemns an individual to an entire lifetime of never discovering who they are or what path they should be following. They become what TS Eliot described as the “hollow men”.
So what can you do to avoid this trap? A truly transformational journey is required. Not a journey outward towards some abstract standard butter journey inward towards self-knowledge and self-appreciation. If you don’t know who you are authentically, how can you know what to expect of yourself? If you are in contact with your authentic self, you will know what you’re capable of and what to expect of yourself. At that point, the need for abstract expectations disappears and, shortly thereafter, so does the virtual self.
© Dr Earl R Smith II