Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Layer 23 Zen and the Art of Everything

The thing I’m most preoccupied with is explaining Zen to myself - with making it clear and intelligible - and being able to pass on that understanding to others. I want my own children to understand it, and therefore I’d like everyone to benefit from that understanding. I think I’ve had some intuitive awareness of Zen for some time, and have benefitted from that awareness, but I want to be able to describe it within a clear and logical framework of understanding.

I believe that Zen is the ultimate expression of enlightenment, and that enlightenment is desirable and necessary for everyone individually and for all of us collectively.

Zen is being able to live life spontaneously and creatively and passionately, with freedom from doubt, and freedom from anxiety about the future. This can happen when we are on track towards greater awareness and greater enlightenment. We put ourselves on that track when we are habitually using and developing all of our intelligences and living fully in three dimensions.

We live in three dimensions when we’re not flattened or constrained by life and living on a single plane of existence. When only two out of the three intelligences (IQ, EQ, SQ) are properly developed and functioning then we will have access to only one of the three Planes of Being, as I’m proposing we call them - the Plane of Knowing, the Plane of Feeling, and the Plane of Imagination.

Mathematically this is interesting - when one axis is missing then only one plane of functioning is accessible. But when there are three axes then this immediately opens up the accessibility of two more planes. In other words, there are dire consequences in not offering our children the possibility of growth in three dimensions.

Zen is a daily diet of something for the head, something for the heart, and something for the hands, for the entire body. Intellect, emotions and spirit. Zen is about balance. Zen is making time in every day - for thinking, for meditating, for reading and studying, for communicating, for laughing, for loving, for sleeping and dreaming, for imagining, for being creative, for socialising, for using our bodies and being active, for using our senses, for experiencing joie de vivre - sheer joy in living.

Zen is about seeing this life as being a cup or a glass that is at least half full, and not focusing on the half empty and giving it too much attention. If we have all of the above elements, or even some of them, in our daily lives, then we must surely have the feeling of life as being at least half full. And we should be giving thanks for that. Zen is about joyful living, and not taking life for granted.

Joie de vivre is about enthusiasm and passion for living, and it’s also about being still and experiencing satori, which is a state of deep relaxation, joyfulness, contentment and bliss. Life is always perfect in the sense that when all of our basic needs have been met then we approach the state of self-actualisation, and we accept that life’s challenges are to be welcomed. They are merely challenges and not threats. So why worry?

Of course we must deal with things that actually threaten us, but if we have a high degree of security and comfort then other sorts of challenge are opportunities to develop our IQ, EQ and SQ, and must be seen as positives rather than negatives. We don’t grow intellectually, emotionally, inter-personally, intra-personally, spiritually, physically, creatively and psychologically unless we engage with challenges, and also challenge ourselves. So why complain about life being full of challenges? Do we not welcome growth?


I’ve been re-reading some of Zohar & Marshall’s book “Spiritual Intelligence - The Ultimate Intelligence” with a bit of a critical eye. It now seems to me that they don’t have what I feel inclined to call a Zen sensibility, and have more of a mystical and perhaps a Hindu type of perspective. Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. Zen grew out of Buddhism.

I see Zen as being logical and clearly explicable in terms of how our minds, bodies and spirits demonstrably operate, and not at all mystical, and nothing to do with gods or a God, though life may ultimately be a mystery.

Danah Zohar & Ian Marshall, whom I admire enormously for their work on spiritual intelligence, seem to see spiritual intelligence as some sort of deep inner heart of a flower which you find when all of its sepals and petals have been peeled away. Whereas I see it as one of three equally important intelligences that are essential to proper human functioning, and not at the top of a hierarchy or at the centre or the very heart of something. To me, IQ, EQ and SQ are simply three axes, all interlocking and all at right-angles, as it were, to one another.

I see Zen, not spiritual intelligence, as a word and a concept that’s capable of being described as the ultimate intelligence, in that I see it as a circle, or a halo, or a sphere of energy surrounding the sphere of the other 3 intelligences. The degree of Zen we possess and the size of its circle or halo, or whatever, depends on the length and strength of our three axes of intelligence - the extent to which we have developed them, engaged with them and habitually used them as we live and learn. Zen is only a perfect circle or sphere if we possess, develop, enlarge and use all of our intelligences, all three axes.

Zen is above all about just Being. Not being anything special, or different, or wonderful. Just being all that we potentially can be and ought to be. Just being what nature intended, and living life in harmony with our own natures and nature all around us. Surely just Being is a big enough challenge? To be enlightened is to become our true natural selves. And that’s not easy.


An interesting and perplexing aspect of their work in “Spiritual Intelligence” is Zohar & Marshall’s highlighting of the importance of the imagination, and then failing to really follow through on why and how it’s important. I really wanted to hear something about the practicalities of developing and using imagination to enable us to function better, both individually and collectively.

For instance, they say, on page 154, “In modern psychological terms we might best associate the centre of the self with the source of human imagination, with that deep place within the self from which we dream, or conceive the impossible or the not-yet-existent. In Zen Buddhism the centre is deeper still, a place beyond all imagining . . .

“The centre is a source within ourselves that is replete and inexhaustible and is itself the heart of some wider, perhaps sacred or divine reality. It is at once that which nourishes us and that through which we nourish our own creativity.”

To me, the centre of the self is simply the place where IQ, EQ and SQ intersect at right angles. All three intelligences are potentially engaged in any act of creativity. I don’t see this as being deep or mystical. It’s just logical and sensible, if you accept that there indeed are these three linked and intersecting continuums of intelligence, that is.

Creativity normally requires thought, intuition, passion, instinct, the use of the senses, and empathy. It also derives from Knowing, Feeling and Imagination.

The Plane of Imagination, as I see it, is very distinct from the Planes of Knowing and Feeling, which are to do with WHAT IS, rather than WHAT MIGHT BE. Imagination primarily concerns a combination of our intuition, our senses, our passion, and our empathy with others, and with our surroundings.

Zohar & Marshall quote from John Guarre’s Six Degrees of Separation:

“One of the great tragedies of our time is the death of the imagination. Because what else is paralysis?
I believe that the imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world. [It] . . . is what is most uniquely us.
To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination [is] God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable. [It] teaches us our limits and how to grow beyond our limits . . . the imagination is the place we are all trying to get to . . .”

Now to me this is pretty much gobbledegook. I can see that paralysis might be the product of a failure to look beyond what already exists and see what might be in the future. It’s pretty hopeless feeling and knowing that there’s a lot wrong with oneself and with the world if you can’t even begin to imagine something better. Even when people explain it to you.

But imagination is not so much a place we’re trying to reach as an aspect of our intelligences that needs to be strong and active alongside our ability to know and our ability to feel. It’s also a vital component of creativity.

Zohar & Marshall go on to conclude, “Our deepest salvation may lie in serving our own deep imagination”.

But what does this mean? Yes - imagination is an absolutely key aspect of human development and human intelligence. But the word ‘salvation’ is in itself highly problematic as far as I’m concerned, and is the product of the type of religious sensibility that lives in fear of hellfire and damnation, or fear of condemnation to the wheel or cycle of whatever.

Why not just say, as a humanist would - not working from a deficit model - that imagination (alongside of, and working with, knowing and feeling) is one of the three keys to self-actualisation, to becoming the very best we can become?

As an educationalist first and foremost I would then have to say, what the hell are we doing in our schools when we pay little or no attention to nurturing and developing children’s imagination, when we fill up all available time with Facts and with Knowing, and when we do everything that’s guaranteed to strangle, stifle and suppress Imagination?


  1. As a teacher and a Buddhist, I'm extraordinarily pleased to hear others seriously pondering how these two can intersect and how the wisdom and science of dharma can inform our educational philosophy.

    I couldn't agree more heartily with your assessment that the "3 Qs" (IQ, EQ, SQ) are not equally represented in schools.

    Although I practice Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism rather than Zen, it was quite easy for me to substitute parallel concepts I'm familiar with to the way you used "Zen," such as "Mahamudra" or "Dzogchen." Although I'm sure we could split philosophical hairs on distinctions, I think we'd do ourselves more justice by just acknowledging we are in the same space!

    You seem to be suggesting a certain equality between the 3 Qs, and take issue with Zohar and Marshall's posture that SQ is the "ultimate" Q. You make a valid argument and I know your Zen instincts push you to clean up any mystical fluff, but I'm afraid I lean more toward Zohar/Marshall's argument that there is a subtle hierarchy. But not a linear sort of hierarchy--more like a set of Russian dolls where each Q contains and includes the previous.

    But this is certainly an issue I'll continue to think through, and I thank you for thoughtful and stimulating post.

  2. Many thanks for your comment. I tend to believe that in some sense it is our 'ultimate' goal to develop one's spiritual intelligence to the point where one sees glimpses of enlightenment. Nevertheless, I think it's difficult to argue that spiritual intelligence is more important than our other intelligences - our instincts, our intellect, our social skills, our senses - when those other intelligences are so basic and so essential to keeping us alive and enabling us to live successfully in the world and in society.


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