What Works

by rthieme on February 6, 1999

zen-monk1 I was reminded this week of the time a Zen monk greeted an audience with a bow. After we returned his bow, he asked, “Do you know why we bow here at the monastery?”

All sorts of answers came back at him, most true enough, but none of them on the mark. Some thought we bowed to acknowledge divinity in one another, some thought we bowed to indicate mutual respect. The monk did not refute any of the answers, but turned them aside as an aikido master turns aside an attacker. When no more answers were forthcoming, the monk said, “We bow because things seem to work better when we bow.”

Our postures, in other words, express a deeper truth than we can tell, even when we connect those postures to explanations that purport to make sense of them. Good tools work regardless of why we say they work. Technical tools and spiritual tools alike.

Two very different meetings this week brought that monk to mind.

The first was a conference sponsored by the American Bible Society and the University of Chicago Divinity School on the future of scriptures and religion in the next century. The sixteen-member panel included public figures like Bill Moyers and noted academics like Gregor Goethals, Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of the Rhode Island School of Design. I went along for the ride as an explorer of techno/spirituality, the struggle to articulate names for emerging spirits in the digital world.

One dilemma against which we kept bumping our heads was, how do we reconcile a multiplicity of voices in a pluralistic world with any attempt to define “truth” by doctrine or creed? How can we be true to the depths of our experience yet not fuse that experience with stories that make sense of them in such a way that we become incapable of listening to someone else’s story … which also makes sense?

The process of telling our stories and listening to one another’s points toward the emergence of a larger story that includes and transcends them all, a story that is still being written and does not yet have a name. The next level of the fractal spiral of our story-telling life.

Panel members represented a diversity of points of view, but we shared at least one presupposition in common. We all believed that truth is discovered in dialogue. That’s why we were there, having that conversation. People who know they know the truth, once and for all, would never be on that panel. Why would they bother?

We did not reach a conclusion, because we do not have the vocabulary yet to describe the emergent realities blossoming in our digital gardens. But we can see dimly the images and hear faintly the music that is weaving beings of spiritual depth and power in the loom of those sacred groves.


The second event was a meeting of our Wisconsin Year 2000 Group, a monthly gathering of IT leaders focussed on Y2K solutions for businesses and government agencies. Representatives of large corporations discussed their contingency and disaster recovery plans, and as they moved from node to node, they repeated the mantra, “Of course, we don’t expect this to happen and hope it won’t, but in case it does, this is what we plan to do.”

By the time they had traversed every ‘if this-then that’ branch of possibility, they had fleshed out quite a scenario. I was reminded of a high ranking military officer describing plans for world wide martial law if “social unrest” became pervasive. The shadow of breakdown like the total eclipse of society moved around the globe from the first Australian city to tick millennial midnight. If all those readiness plans become real, our downtown will consist of large office buildings secured by small armies of private police. Illegal diesel generators will fill the parking lots and sidewalks, maintaining buildings at forty degrees so the buildings will function in the Midwest winter. Shivering inside, hundreds of emergency workers will try to restore order. Their families, of course, will have to be cared for so needed workers won’t stay home to protect them . That means day care, food, water, and medical staff on site, all guarded by well-armed mercenaries.

“Of course,” they kept saying, “we don’t expect this to happen and hope it won’t, but in case it does …”


Both explorations – the future of religion in the next century (as organizational structures and the internal structures we use to frame our subjective experience are transformed in the digital world) and planning for the worst-case scenarios at the turn of the century – remind us that major transitions are always loaded with unknowns, and the ways we frame reality, identity, and self are all up for grabs.

Each of those meetings was a snapshot of the insides of our heads as we try to reconcile opposites and impossibles in a single narrative skein. The panel consisted of people struggling to hold in tension systems of belief that are mutually exclusive. The IT people are planning for contingencies that force us to think the unthinkable, that a Soviet Union that imploded into more than a dozen countries may be a better template for the next century than a prosperous Island America. Both meetings invite the same question: during times of transition (and all times are times of transition), what works?

Zen Buddhists sometimes respond to questions that invite a logical answer by saying, “not this, not that,” pointing toward a supra-rational response that issues from a deeper place than logical thinking. What works? is that kind of question.

Do we think that being right is what really works? Fill-in-the-blank answers blur in the sustained downpour of complex realities, messing up our certainty. What works is to remember that we are bound to one another by a common struggle and a common destiny, and so long as we are, things do work better when we remember to bow.

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