The Rhetoric of Urgency

Will Essays 23 Comments

Back in the days when I was a more assiduous Buddhist meditator than I am today, I frequently came across the old, and well-known, Zen saying that you should meditate as if your hair was on fire. As with many such sayings, it is not really clear where this piece of curious advice comes from (although I’d be happy if any readers of this blog, more knowledgable than I, could let me know); but at the time, the saying rather appealed to me. However, as time has gone on, I have become less sure about it.

More recently, I’ve been thinking a bit about the rhetoric of urgency that appears in Buddhism. So, for example, the traditional Buddhist retreat is often infused throughout with this burning sense of urgency. You get up at some unholy hour (three o’clock for the hard-core, six for the spiritually lax), wash (in cold water for the truly serious) and dress, then you sit for an hour or two on your meditation cushions, before you’ve even had a chance to have breakfast. And so the day continues, punctuated by talks about the preciousness of this opportunity you have been offered (“These retreat conditions are rare and hard to come across… you are most fortunate to be here… grasp this opportunity and make diligent effort… there’s a possibility that you may even die before you take your next breath, there’s no time to waste… it’s as rare as a turtle popping it’s head up through the hole in the middle of a wooden yoke floating on the surface of the ocean…” &c. &c. &c.), or else by perpetual reminders that the thread of your life is running out, so it’s never to early to start reflecting upon death, decay, and the fleetingness of things.

Now, I’ve done quite a lot of this in the past, but these days, I confess that it’s not really what I want to be doing. And this may of course be because I’ve simply become slack, a spiritual lightweight, a fair-weather meditator. But I’m not sure that this is the only reason. The thing is, I have also come to have certain doubts the rhetoric of urgency that underlies these practices. It is not, of course, that there is never any place for urgency in the world; but I do wonder whether it is wise to live one’s life under the aspect of perpetual urgency. Of course, the statistics being what they are, if anything I should be reflecting more upon urgency as time goes on; but somehow, with the incremental loss of at least some of the hair that might once have provided fuel for magnificently burning locks, I have also become rather more relaxed about things.

Why is it, then, that this kind of urgency no longer appeals to me as it once did? Is it just a fading of my former youthful zeal? In part, perhaps, it is. But I think that it is not only this. It is also a matter of how we relate to change, transformation and the passage of time. Recently, I was reading François Jullien’s book, The Silent Transformations, a slim book that is so very rich and suggestive that I cannot really do justice to it here. Jullien talks about how curiously difficult it is to think about those countless transformations of which we are a part: how melting snow becomes water, how the view of the outskirts of Paris on the train becomes the countryside, how love turns into indifference or indifference into love, how youth turns into old age, and so on. Our lives are made up of countless “silent transformations” (which, I think, is a translation of the Chinese 潛移默化 qián yí mò huà, literally “hidden movement and quiet change”), such that we never quite catch ourselves in the act of ageing or of becoming a different person from the person we once were. We notice that we have aged, that we have changed, or that this or that person that we know is different from before, but these transformations are indeed quiet and hidden.

What I love about this idea of “silent” transformation is its gentleness, its freedom from drama. It does not hysterically shriek that time is passing and that we need to do something before it is too late: instead it quietly solicits our attentiveness, asking us to look to the subtle and labile nature of the multiple changes that are already in process. Jullien spends a good deal of time talking about what he calls—against Badiou—the ‘mythology’ of the event. There is a certain strain within continental philosophy that is obsessed with the idea of the ‘event’ as a break with the existing order of things, a kind of rupture that is necessary for something new to happen: because without some kind of break in the order of things, so the story goes, there could be nothing of newness in the world. Events of this kind—events that seem to be a break with the existing order of things—could be called noisy transformations: like the events of the nightly news, they monopolise our attention, so that we don’t notice those quieter transformations that are happening all the time. And I can’t help wondering if the very drama of these noisy transformations blinds us to the fact that even these events are not really such a break in the order of things at all (hence Jullien’s ‘mythology’ of the event): instead—but only if we ignore the noisiness and the drama and look a bit more patiently and calmly—we can see, in retrospect, that the seeds of these transformations had been growing for a long time.

The rhetoric of urgency encountered in certain Buddhist texts and contexts seems to me to be in the thrall of this noisy obsession with events, with the hope for some kind of dramatic break with what has gone before. I sit on my cushions, and I struggle to get somewhere, because I’m caught between two possible dramas: it’s either (to put it crudely) death or Awakening, whichever is sooner. In my intoxication with this whole dramatic shebang, I simply lose my attentiveness to those quiet, almost indiscernible transformations that are taking place around me and within me. This obsession with drama can also, I think, lead to a somewhat curious orientation towards life: a kind of alienated, gleam-in-the-eye zeal, underpinned by a terrible fear of disappointment—because if I don’t get there, if the hoped-for event doesn’t take place, then somehow my life has gone awry.

I still think that meditation practice is a good thing, but for me these days, meditation has very little to do with any kind of urgency. Instead, the reason I still meditate is this: because in the quieting down that happens within meditation, in the relative stillness and freedom from urgency, it becomes possible to begin to discern once again the subtlety of those silent transformations, hidden movements, and quiet changes that are taking place all the time, those things that are crowded out by the obsessive clamour of event after event, the intoxication we have with the unfolding of drama after drama. And in this way, returning again and again to meditation reminds me that, whatever apparent dramas and events may be taking place, nevertheless life is, in the end, not something to be surmounted.


Comments 23

  1. Lovely post Will, (I’m over here procrastinating).

    I wonder if the urgency and the awareness of silent transformation reflect different phases or experiences in the spiritual life (just life, really).

    I have a sense of urgency when I see others suffering and have a sense that just a slight chance in conditions or awareness and things could be different.

    On the other hand I when I am aware of silent transformations, I feel much more accepting of what is, and accepting of other people’s process being where it is.

    In some ways the second position feels like the more mature one, the more trusting of how things tend to unfold.

    As a therapist though there are times where I might try to transmit a sense of urgency to a client. This is not something that happens very often though, and is only really possible (to affect change… or something like that.) If the client is ready, and our relationship is strong…

    My experience is that the rest of the time a rhetoric of urgency scares a lot of people off.

    Right. If I can write a long comment here – I’m sure I can get on with my work…

  2. Thanks for yet another great blog post!

    I didn’t know about this notion of ‘urgency’ in Buddhism, I would have expected exactly the opposite from this philosophy, it’s very interesting.

    Funnily enough, I find the idea of ‘silent transformations’ much more dramatic than ‘events’, personally – at least much closer to a ‘raw’ vision of the human condition (I know you don’t like this expression, sorry :p). While the (albeit mythologised) ‘event’ can be incorporated within a narrative of your life, which I think brings some comfort, the ‘silent transformation’ *is* your life without a narrative.

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    Oooh, life without narrative… I like that, Clem… (there’s a great Galen Strawson paper on our obsession with narrative and how he has no notion of his life as a narrative.

    Yes, urgency is sometimes necessary, Kaspa. But I think as a general kind over overarching condition in which to live it is, well, just a little bit exhausting.

    Anyways, it being Monday and all, I should slouch off to my day job in as non-urgent a fashion as I can muster…

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  4. Badiou’s political position is well known – where do you think Jullien is on politics? Or would politics for Jullien be more “intoxication with this whole dramatic shebang”?

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      He treads an interesting line, I think. Slippery, some might say. Subtle, others might claim… There’s an interesting debate around this – see this article in the New Left Review: The difficulty of pinning him down, it could be argued, might be a way of maintaining what he could be called the “efficacy” of his thinking. Or conversely, it could just mean that he’s a scoundrel.

  5. That’s a very interesting critique, thanks for passing it on. The slipperiness of the Madhyamaka “middle path” is already familiar to me, as is the subsumption of such a philosophy by the Tibetan caste system. So much for inscrutability.

  6. I remember that frantic urgency all too well. It led to a nervous disorder our Tibetan friends called “lung.” We stuck to the rules, studied all night, meditated at unearthly hours and eschewed solids after noon. They hung around a lot, chatting, slurping butter tea and joking around at our expense. They thought we were nuts, and they were right.

  7. Hey Will,

    We used to call this kind of think “therapeutic blaspheme”. The image of a man with his turban on fire to convey a sense of urgency goes back to the Pāli Canon, e.g.

    Another way to evoke this Buddhist urgency is to deny the afterlife. The standard response is “well, if you don’t believe in rebirth, you’ll have to get enlightened in this life”. Once one adopts a religious worldview it’s hard to do what you have done and think outside it. I’m tempted to ham it up and say “I’ll settle for annihilation thanks”, but baiting religious people is kinda of cruel.

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      Ah, thanks for the Pāli reference, Jayarava. Good to have that. I did have vague memories of something in the Pāli texts, but I was searching for burning locks, not burning turbans (or fedoras, or fezzes or anything else)

      I’m always happy to ham it up a little…

  8. Part of meditation is finding a balance between effort and letting go. Effort is necessary because our habitual patterns are so strong. Letting go is necessary because our ego is invested each time we have a goal — and the point of Buddhist practice is to develop wisdom necessary to understand that ego doesn’t need to be defeated — it simply needs to be unplugged.

    Exhortations to practice are aimed at our habitual patterns — our desire to nest or create a comfortable, unchallenging, pleasurable situation that is non-threatening to our sense of self — our inclination to stay alseep. Ultimately, we need to be our own judge as to when effort or letting go is necessary. But it is easy to fall into self-deception (and usually the deception falls on the side of convincing ourselves that effort is not necessary). As a rule of thumb, in meditation practice an experienced practioner will have very strict external discipline and internally a carefree, couldn’t care less attitude. Off the cushion, the effort is to fully engage in what presents itself — and never to withdraw into oneself. Very challenging! But also very healthy and joyous — once you develop a taste for it!

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      Hi, Alyosha, Yes, balanced effort and all that: that’s pretty much understood. But I’m really not at all sure that effort is the same as urgency. There are many scenarios in which I might make a considerable effort, but without this sense of urgency. I’m not opposed to effort at all. However, I do have problems with seeing the overall context of one’s existence as being defined by a driving sense of urgency, and am increasingly suspicious of this rhetoric about the passage of time.

      1. The only time I actually saw a guy with his hair on fire was years ago in college. I had a couple of roommates and a guy down the hall had a three foot tall plexiglass bong with a double carburator. We were all sitting around a coffee table, pretty stoned. One of my roommates was a premed student, very driven and with a hyper, nervous personality. He was sitting across from me trying to light the bong with a butane lighter. The lighter wasn’t sparking up and he held the lighter to his ear to listen whether the gas was flowing. He must have set off a spark because, the next thing we knew, as if in slow motion, a wave of blue and yellow flame started rolling up from his ear across the top of his head and an instant later there was the smell of burning hair. We all sat up with a shocked look on our faces and then my roommate — reacting more to our shock than any pain or distress on his part –started banging his head with his hands and jumped up and started running around until someone someone grabbed the bong and dumped the bong water on his head.

        Thinking about that, I wonder whether the phrase “practice like your hair is on fire” has less to due with urgency in the sense of a moral imperative and more to do with a contrast between the state of mind that is stoned and oblivious to life and the state of mind that is suddenly awake and in the moment.

        By the way, thanks for a fun blog.

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          That sounds nasty! I think you are right perhaps about what is crucial here is a kind of awake-ness or aliveness, rather than urgency. Of course, as your story demonstrates, you can be both stoned and urgent…

  9. Will, I’m intrigued by why you once found this hair on fire urgency appealing.

    When I first got sucked into the Buddhist enlightenment machine this manic sense of urgency nearly sent me down a perilous slide to the rubber room and the lithium drip, but perhaps that was only because I was already bonkers. Looking back I think I must have been mad to have got involved in the whole crazy project. How can anyone find peace by carrying on like their hair is on fire?

    I vividly recall my first visit to a Zen centre, where everyone seemed to be suffering from the later and most severe stages of this incendiary hair affliction. It was like something out of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ but without any of the humour. Everything was conducted at breakneck speed, including eating. Meditation was endured in a stone barn where January gales blew straight off the moors and up between old floorboards, freeze-drying the genitals. When my girlfriend announced she was developing a migraine she was escorted outside, given a sledge hammer and told to demolish a shed. Once, when I’d finished an allotted task five minutes before the start of the next meditation session, I thought I’d get away with a short breather, but I was sorely mistaken. I was rushed to the toilets and made to wipe down the urinals without gloves while a monk stood over me to check I wasn’t slacking. When the gong sounded he melted away, leaving me to scrub my hands, but the couple of minutes it took me to do this made me late for meditation and I had to endure long, hard stares for my laxness.

    Needless to say I didn’t go back but this experience threw me into the hands of Tibetan Buddhists who appeared to offer a gentler, less neurotic ride. Unfortunately, this turned out to be very far from the truth. Endless meditation on imminent death, the inevitability (in my case, at least) of hell and the lost hope of salvation through the impossible rigours of highest yoga tantra turned me into a nervous wreck. I can’t now fathom why I didn’t just get out sooner but when I did eventually break from the asylum (more than ten years later) it was with a crippling sense of personal failure and the promise of Vajra hell ringing in my ears. So much for human kindness. I was an apostate, a breaker of vows, and beyond the pale.

    Thirty years down the line I wonder why we (well, some of us) put ourselves through such things. Why didn’t I just learn to relax? Isn’t life hard enough already without flogging ourselves with impossible goals and ideals. Why do we need to live up to some fantasy of perfection? Why did it take me so long to learn this? Was this, perhaps, the hidden meaning of the path – to bundle up all ones longings into one crazy, grandiose hero-quest which would eventually implode with the realisation of the absurdity of it all?

    I look back now on those Buddhist experiences with horror. It was truly a nightmare. And much of that had to do with this furious urgency, this appalling need to be someone else – because I was simply unacceptable as I was, a ticking bomb whose destination was the fires of some unimaginably ghastly hell realm. But, of course, you don’t need to wait for hell if your hair is on fire. You’re already there.

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      I really like that final insight, David; although thankfully my own experience (like Sam’s as well) has been considerably gentler than this. I never had much time for notions of hell, but I think that my meditation wasn’t helped by the twitchiness about getting somewhere which is only another manifestation of that hindrance of restlessness-anxiety.

  10. I sat my first Zen Sesshin last year and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The Zazen and Kinhin were demanding and often painful but the regimen, the focus and intensity did melt away a lot of self-preoccupation allowing moments of wonderful presence and clarity, shared with others at the temple. I felt very alive and at times, blissfully happy and peaceful. I am certain that these states arose as a result of a stringent, ‘urgent’ practice, with others.

    I’m sorry to hear that you had such an awful time of it, David. The Sesshin I participated in allowed plenty of downtime, tea, coffee, chocolate and even alcohol in the evenings and though the practice was austere, there was fun and plenty of laughter, too. I see Buddhism less as something to do with “impossible goals and ideals” but more as a gentle investigation of our life and our experience coupled with wisdom from masters of the past.

  11. And I thought buddhism was all about doing nothing!! I remember being on that retreat with you Will, years ago now, in Scotland, and hearing someone express concern about how long it might take to get the point of attaining enlightenment. My immediate thought was, well, in an instant of course, you either have it or you don’t. It ain’t something you can go look for, all the trying in the world isn’t going to get you anywhere different to just being in the moment, and that is enlightenment, it seems to me!!

    And yes, as I get older, alongside my usual panic and anxiety about achieving goals, ambitions (or not!!), is a periodic awareness of all the quietly great and good stuff that has happened/that I have achieved, without particularly trying, and without noticing. As my first girlfriend once very wisely commented, you get where you are going in spite of yourself. One should trust that, rather than failing to achieve goals/ambitions that you tell yourself you want, you are all the time making astute decisions that direct you towards what you are naturally good at and enjoy. Its easy to feel dissatisfied with one’s lot; its really important to value all that you are and have achieved as an individual, and the profound positive influence we have in others’ lives just by being alive, and in their lives, in a quiet, unassuming amd undramatic way!

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      Ah, that retreat… Now that was years ago! Some kinds of future-orientation are good, I think: but it makes sense, given the way that the world has of laying waste to our best-laid plans, and given how rubbish I am at prognostication, to make this orientation provisional. Incidentally, yu’re not turning into a Daoist are you, by any chance?

  12. Wonderful blog. So pleasantly surprising to see Badiou and Buddhism in the same post. I’m fascinated by both (though have read but little at least of the former). It’s a great insight how we can get sucked into an overarching sense of urgency. For some though, the problem is the opposite. Either (i) entrancement in technology and our everyday existence, or (ii) a belief in re-birth and life stretching beyond into eternity, so never any hurry (and this is probably the Indian context in which the idea of urgency arose as important). So I guess the idea of urgency should really be replaced by one of presence? You’re right. Urgency has a quality of fear to it, a fear of time. As opposed to fearless wakefulness… Thanks again, and really enjoy your blog.

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      Yes, I too prefer presence to urgency, I think. I’m only getting my head around Badiou rather late in the day. I probably read his ‘event’ in a fashion that is (overly?) influenced by years of reading Levinas. Glad you are enjoying the rather sporadic blog!

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