Sunday Gathering Readings and Message
From Part 1. Ch.1 of On The Road, by Jack Kerouac
"They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!""
Message by Qaisar Siddiqui
I remember during some of the earlier months of my first year at the University of York, my morning routine almost never changed. I would be roused by either daylight or a relentlessly snoozed alarm, struggle into a dressing gown, and leave my dormitory room to use the showers. As I’d walk down the silent hallway, I’d look to my left, through surprisingly large windows onto the huge tracts of grass that surrounded campus, and hoped for the best. Sometimes it would take a few more seconds than I’d like to admit, but my feet wouldn't shift until I’d seen that all important sign - a gardener. Or a lecturer. Or a fellow student doing the walk of shame. I’d exhale, and continue to the shower, satisfied that society hadn’t crumbled, and the zombie apocalypse was at least another day away.
Millennials may face an uncertain future in the pursuit of the usual signifiers of middle class life, but on the upside, thanks to Max Brook’s Survival Guides, and the seminal AMC series The Walking Dead - and of course thousands of hours worth of headshot experience on Resident Evil - our generation remains by far the best prepared against the inevitable zombie apocalypse. Stepping into any building, be it a new student flat, or a college campus, or this very building, we always ask; Just how zombie proof is this building? Were the denizens of the surrounding urban area suddenly reduced to a shifting, shambling, rotting mass hell bent on chowing down on our admittedly delicious brains, what fortifications could be immediately erected, what to hand could be fashioned into a weapon, and whom in our ragtag bunch would be fit to lead, are questions every twenty-something - myself included - has answered a hundred times over.
The question we don’t get to ask as often is, why? Why are we so afraid? Why have zombies become so pervasive in the Western popular imagination so as to make a failsafe zombie apocalypse plan a more pressing millennial concern than, say, sorting out next week’s paperwork, or finishing up that message I'm supposed to give at New Unity tomorrow? It seems obvious perhaps, that we don't want to die. Yet we don't invent such elaborate contingency plans for the more likely scenarios of a gamma ray burst, or a sudden invasion of now-apparently-feathered velociraptors. But the true fear that zombies arouse within us is not that they pose a threat to our lives - although they do - but to our ultimate sense of agency and personhood. Since we were introduced to the living dead in George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, we have feared being absorbed and assimilated into the zombie horde, losing all sense of control, and mindlessly pursuing our primal urges as society crumbles around us.
So of course, I would continue to wake up everyday, walk past the windows overlooking the grassy campus grounds, and into the shower. Uncomplicated meals and sometimes even lectures would ensue. And then a return to bad TV and sleep as the day closed. Save for some interesting punctuations over the course of those early months, this remained a solid routine. The irony was completely lost on me.
The Australian philosopher David Chalmers coined the idea of the “philosophical zombie” - a hypothetical being often utilised in philosophy of mind thought experiments, that is ultimately indistinguishable from a regular human, other than that it lacks any kind of sentience. To be a zombie then, is not to eat the flesh of others nor to lose control of our higher faculties. To be a zombie is to live life, without being awake. It is to go through the motions, without realising what those motions are.
That a fair amount of my first year at university resembled the opening scenes of Shaun of the Dead - where fully conscious humans shuffle about mindlessly - brings to mind whether there is even any point to us preparing for the zombie apocalypse, given the distinct possibility that it may already be here. Sure, we may not have had to deal with the more visceral aspects of an undead invasion, but then, how many of us have our daily routines pre-programmed in our heads, ceding control to subconscious forces as we shower, drive, work, or even when talking to our peers with predisposed pleasantries and small chat? Romero’s second zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, took the allegory even further, with zombie hordes instinctively gravitating towards shopping malls in scenes that bore not a little resemblance to those crowds outside of supermarkets on Black Friday 2014. In a hyper capitalist society such as our own, our lives and our choices can seem increasingly outside of our own control, predetermined with milestones of mortgage and marriage, and with little regard as to whether we stride proudly or sleepwalk down such paths.
It’s no surprise that such a state of mind - whether in reference to a person or a society - seems to punctuate particular eras in history. Post-Vedic India saw unquestioned deference to Brahmanist interpretations of Hindu scriptures, while Jerusalem’s Second Temple culture was defined by ritualistic animal sacrifice and financial services on holy property. Yet one also must remember that it is out of these respective cultural matrices were there born two figures who preached the virtues of mindfulness, dissent, and compassion. The very fact that our culture may be saturated in sedate conformity does not have to stop us from waking up.
So what does it mean to wake up? How can we be less like zombies and more like humans?
The readings I have selected may seem odd given the nature of the today’s sermon. The first reading was from the opening chapter of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, where the young protagonist eschews a middle class lifestyle to effectively vagabond his way across the US, and at first, it can sound almost preposterous in its countercultural fetishism. What does it mean to be “mad”, or to “burn”? In order to not be zombies, should we give up our day jobs, abandon our spouses, and stop paying our taxes? If only. While at first it seems like Kerouac is calling us to passionately indulge in life’s narcotic and carnal pleasures, he, like the Buddha, is in fact calling us to something else entirely. His infatuation with Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx stems from their overriding awareness of the moment they live in. What they burn with is what Kerouac later refers to as simply, “It.”
Without delving further into the pursuits of 1950s Beat writers, it is this radical attentiveness to life that determines whether we shuffle mindlessly along the path, or walk tall and proudly along it, ready to turn in another direction if and when we please. In our second reading, Rumi describes the optimism he has for the human condition, exalting our potential for freedom and compassion. Like Kerouac, his words tentatively grasp at those highest ideals, undoubtedly pleasing to the many artists and mystics who have sanctified his poetry in the following centuries. Yet what about those of us who don't wish to engage in youthful rebellion or monastic traditions? Are we destined to be zombies?
I’m sure that many an exhausted spouse will love to hear this, but, surprisingly, all that is required for us to not be zombies is to get down to some chores. The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh outlines the idea brilliantly, opining that while it may seem absurd to “wash the dishes to wash the dishes” - “The fact that I'm standing there and washing the bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly.” Ironically, in supposedly menial tasks, from vacuum cleaning to furniture polishing and grounds-keeping, we can access that overriding sense of awareness and self, and stave off the zombie apocalypse for another day. So that’s the rest of my Sunday sorted.
Because you shouldn't die before you die.
A poem by Rumi
“You were born with potential.
You were born with goodness and trust.
You were born with ideals and dreams.
You were born with greatness.
You were born with wings.
You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.
You have wings,
Learn to use them, and fly.
What in your life is calling you,
When all the noise is silenced,
The meetings adjourned…
The lists laid aside,
And the Wild Iris blooms
By itself in the dark forest…
What still pulls on your soul?”