Right Concentration

“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”

–Lao Tzu

Recently, my 11 year old daughter shrieked at her phone. “Really?!” she yelled at the screen as if it had just flipped her the bird. “REALLY?! It’s been FIFTEEN MINUTES and I’ve got 56 notifications? These jerks won’t shut up and they’re not making sense!”

“These jerks” are her friends. In the vastly-increased free time of a coronavirus lockdown school day, they were trying to develop a collaborative manga. When she first floated the idea, I warned her that friends and collaboration, much like friends and money, often don’t go together. But some mistakes you’ve got to make for yourself.

The trouble (at the moment she yelled at her phone) was brainstorming. Six kids were all chiming in at speed on the same text thread about the star systems and planets their characters were from, what powers they had, and what kinds of havoc they were going wreak on Earth when they got here (by physically falling out of the Earthly manga book they appeared in).

What prompted my daughter’s outburst was that not a single one of these kids’ ideas was geared toward working with any of the other kids’ ideas. They weren’t even close. One wanted to come from a planet that has a square magenta sun and where everyone could read everyone else’s minds. One wanted to come from a planet that has a regular sun but seven huge moons, each in a separate color of the rainbow, and every day one of those moons would be blown up by The Bad Guy for no reason at all–but all the moons would put themselves back together again in a week. One kid wanted his character to be so mega-strong that if he accidentally stumbled into the wall of an Earth building he’d knock it to pieces.

These were all really interesting ideas and, realized singly, would’ve been great for their budding young artists to sort out for themselves. Instead, every one of them dumped their blizzard-weight of creative snow in my daughter’s lap and insisted, since she was the “leader” in this collaboration, that it was her job to make all these ideas work together.

She was already frustrated at her friends for blowing up her feed. She got even more frustrated when she asked me how she could make these ideas all work together and I didn’t give her an easy answer. “Well, if it’s comedy you want, there’s a lot of potential comedy even in the first moments they’re out of the book, because each of these characters is going to have a really unique response to being dumped out on Earth. The mega-strong guy is probably going to be freaked, because the buildings will all look like they’re made of dandelion fuzz.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because where he comes from all the buildings would be made of their equivalent of concrete and reinforced steel, right? Otherwise his people would be rebuilding their buildings every day. Or, on the other hand, maybe they’d give up on buildings entirely because everyone would knock them down all the time…

“And I’m sorry, but the moons-blowing-up-and-reforming idea is cool on paper, but the physics of it are kinda scary. If the moons are really far away from the planet it would be okay to blow them up, but if they’re as huge as she says they are, then just destroying one would completely screw up the magnetic field of the planet they’re orbiting. The tides would go haywire, weather would go catastrophically wrong, the animals and plants would get messed up…and if the moons look huge because they’re close to the planet, the pieces would smack into each other and rain down on the planet as bolides and kill everybody. So if she wants to go with the moon plan, she’s going to have to come up with a really cool macguffin so The Bad Guy can keep using the moons to threaten the planet but not actually harm it until he wants to…

“And the physics of a square magenta sun just don’t work. By actual physics, suns have to be spheres. They can get wobbly, yes, but they will always return to a sphere or blow up trying. Now the sun might appear square to the people on her planet. Maybe The Bad Guy is building a Dyson sphere around it and that’s why it looks like a magenta square. Maybe The Bad Guy is going to cut the planet off from the light and heat and power of its sun. Ooooh, I like that idea, and that’s a bad, bad guy. But then that character, when they get to Earth, is immediately going to freak out that our sun is too big, too round, too close, too yellow, too strong. Maybe they think it’s about to go red giant and incinerate us all…”

I didn’t even get to my thoughts about the mind-reader (“they’re going to freak because they’re used to a world full of mind-readers and suddenly, everything’s silent. It would be like suddenly going deaf. Can they even talk? Do they have vocal chords? Because if everyone’s a mind-reader, no one has had to speak in millennia, which means they’d steadily lose their ability to speak. She might think everybody has somehow found a way to ghost her…”). The more I spooled out real-character explanations for how these people would think and act, and the real-physics consequences of these wild planet-and-sun combinations, the more my daughter realized that she hadn’t dived headfirst into a fun collaborative project with friends. She’d been given the crap job of being referee to six players who couldn’t even agree on which game they were playing, let alone who was on which teams. Because as she weighed my suggestions and brought up the ones she liked with her friends, they immediately argued back that she couldn’t change their “visions.” She wasn’t even allowed to have their characters get together on Earth. All six of them were going to do whatever the heck they wanted. It was just her job to “make it work.”

That was the point at which my daughter burst into tears, realizing that her friends were somehow expecting her to make their ideas work together without forcing them to work together.

Matthew Inman has part of the answer for what’s going on here. In his amazing (and amazingly funny, and kinda NSFW) series, Eight Things I’ve Learned About Creativity, he says this: “There are only bad ideas in brainstorming… Brainstorming is a great way of raising questions and a terrible way of finding answers. It’s a place where you have really exciting conversations about frosting, but never actually bake a cake. Brainstorming is not a place for multiple voices to solve a single problem. It’s where multiple voices are used to bend each other’s perspectives to new, unseen angles. Because listening to others is a lot like reading books: if you do it enough, you’ll never run out of things to think about… I love the feeling of being in a room with a group of caffeinated peers, drunk on the notion that we’re all hurtling toward a creative breakthrough together… But I also know that most of the time, nothing is going to be solved in the room. It’s going to be cracked later on by some talented soul sitting alone in their own headspace.”

And he wrote that about grown-ups actively trying to brainstorm together to solve a problem for work. He wasn’t envisioning six eleven-year-olds thinking that they might be able to spit out ideas all day without putting in the hard work of actually making something creative happen on paper. Every one of these kids is smart. They’re all artists or writers of some stripe. They know how hard the work is when they’re by themselves. That’s why they were entranced with the idea of a collaboration: they’d utterly misunderstood the idea of what a collaboration is. They thought that collaboration just meant that someone else would do the hard work for them.

Unfortunately, many people never let go of that idea. At cocktail parties, when people find out I’m a writer, they often say these two things: First, “Oh, writing is such an easy job. You just sit and type what’s in your head all day.” And then, “You should write my story.” At least my daughter’s friends know how hard it is to write. They didn’t insult my daughter by telling her it was easy. They just insulted her by insisting she do it for them without helping her by actually collaborating. But as an adult, I’ve seen far worse behavior than theirs. I’ve been pigeonholed by some jackass with his life’s story at Every. Single. Cocktail. Party. And not only does that jackass insist that I should do his work for him, I should do it without pay, too. “Oh, with my story, you’d make millions.” Huh. Really. I’ve taken to answering, “Well, then, you should write it yourself.” When the jackass immediately looks panicked and says, “Oh, I can’t, it’s too hard,” he generally realizes he’s screwed himself with his own words and avoids me for the rest of the party. That suits me just fine.

In short, it’s very hard work to sit down and get still long enough to let the mud settle and let the usable, solid, genuinely good ideas come to the surface. And very, very few people are willing to do that work ever, let alone every day.

In Buddhism, the idea of focusing not just in any old way or on any old thing but on the right thing, with the right kind of intensity, in a way that allows you to neither burn out in frustration nor lose focus in the multitude of conflicting thoughts, is called “right concentration.” It’s fiendishly difficult to achieve with regularity, as any creative can tell you. The best most of us achieve is something akin to Stephen King’s “working man” muse. He doesn’t wait for his muse. He just gets behind his typewriter and starts working. He’s got a standing appointment every day in which he expects himself to show up mentally and physically for his work; if the muse shows up with him that day, fine and dandy. But regardless of whether the muse shows up, King will still put in the two thousand words. That’s his contribution to the collaboration, and in return, his muse usually shows up just fine. King knows the value and the requisite nature of the hard work: he has to sit in the chair and get still long enough to let the mud settle.

My daughter’s friends were letting nothing settle…not even my daughter. After a long period of frantic texting, she asked me in tears what she should do. Her friends were now actively fighting about each others’ backstories and no one was listening to her. I shrugged and said, “Drop out. Don’t tell them you’re dropping out. Just go silent. If they’re serious about this collaboration, and they really want to make it work, they’ll notice you’re gone and ask you what they should do. And if they ask, be honest. Tell them they’re making your job difficult. Tell them they need to work together on their ideas, especially if they want you to put those ideas together into a single story that works. But if they don’t notice you’re gone, that means they only ever wanted to spit out ideas and not actually put in the work to make them happen. In which case, the project will disappear, just like every other daydream. And no one will miss it. Not even them. Certainly you’ll be a lot happier with their drama off your plate.”

And she did. And they didn’t. And she was.


Now the gnarly bit. If you don’t want to read about the United States’ response to COVID-19, stop right here.


Coronavirus is requiring us as a country to Sit. The Fuck. Down. And get still enough to let the right answer present itself.

And many of us aren’t.

If that first two trillion dollar payout had been given not to corporations but to the American people, we could’ve sat down just fine. Two trillion dollars divided by roughly 325 million people would’ve meant six thousand bucks for every man, woman, and child in America. Think about that. How many people could’ve, after an initial flurry of buying that emptied every shelf in America, sat completely tight for three straight weeks…on six thousand bucks? I don’t know about you, but I could make my family’s budget just fine on six grand…and that’s just the payout from one of us. The other two checks could’ve made us a very nice nest egg.

If the powers-that-be want to commit to the wave of COVID washing over us as the “right action,” they need to commit to the “right speech” about it, too. It wouldn’t just be “some” people affected by that action…it would be all of us. The healthcare system would break completely, and many more of us than 3-4% of the COVID-19 patients would die, because no one will get the treatment they need. The death toll wouldn’t be 3-4% of the COVID-19 patients. It would be 3-4% of the total population.

No one on the federal level has sat down, gotten quiet, and let the mud of conflicting ideas settle. And it shows. There’s no unified response, no unified speech, no united front. There’s only the continued, muddy mess of initial impressions, confused ideas, and competing agendas.

It’s killing people.

The only good thing about COVID-19 (or any bardo) is the quiet introspection it causes. This is our unique, once-a-century chance to see all the faults of our system and make plans for how to fix them.

Instead, we are stuck in the brainstorming phase, a billion ideas flying out there all at once, very few of them good, all of them lost in the thrashing.

Unlike my daughter’s friends, the state governments were begging the federal government to work together with them, to lead them to a unified solution.

The POTUS deliberately abandoned them.

Trump’s response has fractured the country almost as effectively as the Civil War did. States are bonding together despite him. Unlike my daughter’s friends, the states want to work together. But without a leader, they don’t know how to do so beyond their regional boundaries.

Remember that quote from Matthew Inman up there, about how “listening to others is a lot like reading books: if you do it enough, you’ll never run out of things to think about”? That is generally a good thing…until you’re in a pandemic. So now there are a million competing ideas, many of them fraudulent, competing for our very limited mental and emotional bandwidth. No one knows what to think because we have a POTUS and his cronies deliberately muddying the waters, adding verbal weight to falsehoods so routinely that the truth is getting drowned.

Unlike my daughter’s friends, who gladly argued each other into letting the whole idea of a collaborative manga drop, the United States (and the world) don’t have the luxury of just letting this one drop. There is too much at stake, too much work to be done, too many people to lose.

We have to stop. We have to get quiet. And we have to stay quiet until the truth can rise, and this mess can reach a natural end.

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