Commusings: The Purpose of No-Purpose with Jeff KrasnoJun 03, 2022
Dear Commune Community,
The stereotype of the overbearing, meddling mother-in-law translates across cultures and millennia – but it doesn’t apply to my relationship with Schuyler’s mother.
As you will read in today’s essay, Ann and I enjoy a lively repartee. We regularly engage in bouts of verbal fencing – but, fortunately, we both subscribe to the no-sword school. The “purpose” is never to win. The “purpose” is the engagement.
• • •
The Purpose of No-Purpose
My mother-in-law, Ann, is a wonderful old hippie. Not the urban, green juicy type. No, Ann grew up with ranch grit – and, at almost eighty, always has dirt under her fingernails much to my daughters’ chagrin.
She is simultaneously my most diehard supporter and harshest critic. Like clockwork, she responds dependably to my weekly Sunday missive with equal parts adulation and “constructive” detraction.
It’s now to the point where I have developed a form of Stockholm syndrome. I actually look forward to receiving her criticism — which is always tantalizingly withheld until the last paragraph of her emails. Sadistically, I often scan ahead when I receive her replies to get to the disparaging barbs as quickly as possible.
Last week, I wrote a column for this newsletter titled Sonder in which I explore relativity theory set against the context of my own mortality. In this essay, I briefly describe the nature of water. I wrote:
“Snow glistens atop the imposing mountain feeding a most vivacious river feeding the ocean, low and vast, feeding the clouds that now envelope me, feeding the snow that sparkles atop the mountain. I marvel at the water and the purposelessness of its course.”
The newsletter generally deploys around 6am. By 9am, I had received Ann’s critique:
hope you get this Jeff: very enjoyable. glad to get the definition of “sonder,” what a concept.
… love the Alan Watts quote: “fleas upon fleas upon fleas.” … really like the airplane details and the truth of everybody having their “respective view of things.” C. S. Lewis has some good things to say about this.
… i’m thinking that nostalgia might well be a wabi-sabi thing: a delightful sadness at the impermanence of things. there is something pleasurable about nostalgia along with the pain.
….one GIANT caveat: water has purpose, but you, Jeff narrator guy, didn’t see it.
Of course, the last sentence took center stage and provided a massive belly-laugh. It’s as if she said, “I like you (narrator guy?) but you still need to prove that you’re worthy of my daughter’s betrothal!”
I am glad you enjoyed my piece.
Indeed, water has a certain utility – for cellular function, for removing waste in the body, for maintaining temperature and lubricating joints. And I acknowledge that you, as a farmer, must profoundly cherish water – particularly during this era of drought – as, without this molecule, there would be no photosynthesis and, by extension, no harvest.
But water’s “course” has no purpose insofar that is not concerned with “getting anywhere.” It simply flows from mountain to river to ocean to cloud to mountain. It innately moves into any open space. It never resists and will take on any shape. It’s always in process — unattached to product. This is why, in their most epiphanous moments, the transcendent dancers and musicians “flow like water,” because there is no purpose to their art … there is only the “now.”
If you are really keen to dissect the nature of water bio-chemically, then, in doing so, you realize that there is actually no “it” to it. The hydrogen atom is highly reactive, its solitary electron always popping off and forming new molecular trysts. And then it’s an ion. And, nanoseconds later, it’s not. We “see” water’s form. But, in reality, it’s simply a system of energy that is constantly in flux and in relationship with its environment, just like you and me.
There is a Chinese word – “li” – that literally means “the markings in jade,” but could also be applied to the striations in muscle, the grain in wood, the swirl in marble and the flow of water. The spontaneous emergence of these patterns occurs naturally and without purpose. These phenomena can be characterized by ziran – things that happen “of themselves and on their own” – the natural state of the constantly unfolding universe and of all things.
This state of ziran or mu shin (no mind) is the purpose of Zen. This, of course, is a koan in and of itself. The purpose of the Zen master is to have no purpose — to be so skillful that he intuitively navigates the river’s flow without thought. He never confuses the map with the territory.
Such fun. Can’t wait to see you this summer.
Jeff (narrator guy)
I shot off the response with a degree of self-righteousness. “That rejoinder will occupy her for some time,” I thought smugly to myself.
Before I could even take a sip (of water), a reply from Ann spontaneously appeared in my inbox. I clicked it open. Replete with her inimitable use of ellipsis, it read:
“good … but what is the sound of one water molecule evaporating?”
Ack! Out-zen’d again by the old hippie.
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