What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.

from Touch Me, by Stanley Kunitz

Snowflakes in a Raging Fire

Hear me read this post.

It behooves us in this world of Desire — for accomplishment and self-realization, for possessions and love — to know which parts of ourselves are driven by self, and which are expressed from Self. We are so good at fooling ourselves in this hall of mirrors, failing to notice the self-interests in our altruism, the ommissions to our truths, the embarrassing contradictions in our values and inconsistencies of our actions. The point is that we are driven too often and by too much, driven by inner needs that are actually still stronger than we would like to believe — and this, of course, is what makes the hall of mirrors so powerful. We can’t really tell the differences between self and Self, particularly on some of the most important things.

An example. I once was asked to make a speech for a couple of hundred top managers at a big tobacco company. The conference opened with the president making an impassioned speech about how the industry had been maligned and how the people in the room were not just good managers, they were great ones, some of them the best in the world. He denounced the media for suggesting the company advertised smoking to children. He denounced recent lawsuits and bitterly complained about how unfairly he and others had been treated, and then he also crowed about how generous and forgiving he and the company had been. The managers were moved and applauded long and loud when the speech was done.

Of course, I thought, this is all “fear in the workplace” stuff. After all, they have to applaud. But I was wrong abut that, at least in part. I couldn’t help but notice how during the break after the speech the managers were talking to one another and supporting one another. One woman was indignant that people in her church had recently become outspoken about smoking and were critical of her employment. She called them “righteous” and “unchristian.” Others commiserated with her. And while they talked, the room became bluer and bluer with smoke. A long time ago I used to smoke, but it was really beginning to get to me.

After the break, the next speaker got up, a senior marketing executive who summarized recent sales figures from around the world, including penetration of the “YAS” market, particularly in Japan and other Eastern countries. I didn’t know what YAS smokers were so I had to ask the manager next to me. He whispered back: “young adult smokers.” I felt like I was suddenly thrown into a new dimension where it was entirely possible to think in contradictions. It’s the other people who are righteous. We don’t sell to children, we sell to YAS’s. We are the ones who have been treated badly and have had to rise above it all. A part of me was saying, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Another part just twisted in my gut — or was that just the smoke?

Lest you and I find ourselves getting too righteous about all this, what it clearly demonstrated to me was exactly how the hall of mirrors works, personally and within groups.

How can this happen except that our Desire is so strong, whether that Desire is to believe in our own rightness, to fulfill a certain image, to have stature or influence, to have our ways of thinking, feeling, and believing confirmed. If we tell ourselves enough times that we are absolutely right and we’re the ones that have been wounded, we give over our energy and power to what has no business at all being empowered. Form a community around this mantra and dark energy is multiplied countless times.


How to begin stopping this? I’m not sure, but there were clues, one of which had to do with having some one-on-one conversations, quietly. When I asked a couple of questions about the contradictions, one very senior manager acknowledged his pain by pulling out his wallet and showing me a picture of his backyard. I saw a beautifully landscaped garden and lawn with a white Greek column prominently positioned at the center. It was an image of his own dignity, he suggested, and he reflected that this was where he kept it: in the “backyard” that was his sanctuary from the company and his job. And the woman who had complained about people in her church also acknowledged to me privately that although she smoked at work, which was close to an expectation, she wouldn’t smoke at home in front of her children. In such a deep forest of contradictions, people often find ways to preserve some part of an essential Self.

We all get tripped up. It’s all too easy to think we are better than the people who work for tobacco companies, especially the relatively wealthy managers who could certainly find work someplace else if they wanted to. But we all have self. We all have our reasons for our behavior. We all have Desire that causes striving and pride and yet more striving. Maybe because we don’t all work for such firms it is actually easier to deceive ourselves. The contradictions aren’t so easy to catch. We don’t have anything as graphic as that Greek column to remind us of the dignity that’s been lost.

I happened to be reading again the commentaries on the ten oxherding pictures from a Zen master, Kaku-an, in the 12th century. One of the pictures is just a circle with white space within, repesenting “both bull and self transcended.” Some say the bull represents life-energy, our passions; some say the bull is our untamed mind. You’ll see this panel if you access the link and scroll down. The poetry beneath the drawing reminded me how all our desires, our passions, cause us to lose ourselves, live in contradiction, and also that these desires of self really are no more than snowflakes in a raging fire. I believe very deeply that once this is not just understood intellectually but really lived, transformation of self and society is possible. But first you have to stand in that fire and acknowledge your purpose which is to burn, evaporate, notice how self is exactly that snowflake, how fragile, how temporal it is against bigger, more sacred energies, energies perhaps that are what this universe is all about.

Maybe it is just a private conversation with ourselves that begins this understanding. Perhaps it is taking a look at a picture we have been carrying a long time, one that we cherish, a little torn at the edges but one dear to us, one that touches us and reminds us who we are.

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One Comment

  • [I had to repost this entry, as a result of adapting to WordPress. It is from Joe McCarthy at Gumption]

    I like the distinction between self and Self, and the notion of the hall of mirrors (or, borrowing from Don Miguel Ruiz, the mitote). The notion of “echo chambers” also came to mind, where people in business, politics and other avocations can so easily tune out or dismiss the naysayers, rabble rousers and unbelievers who just don’t understand.

    Perhaps most poignantly, Mark Twain’s observation “It is very difficult to get people to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it” comes into sharp focus for me in reading your post.

    I wonder what life would be like if everyone only worked on projects that made the world a better place, and/or for firms whose mission they believed in. I think it’s rather revealing that the mission statement of Altria, formerly known as Philip Morris, focuses on “performance” and “excel[ling] in all that we do” … imagine if those standards of excellent performance were channeled in ways that truly promote the health of its customers.

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