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Consider the lilies of the field

--or how to play a good game of cards
by Barry Stevens

transcribed with permission from the author

The title of this story, if it is that, could just as well be The Way of Zen, but it isn't necessary to go around by the east to get to the west. In any case, it is more immediately about Mrs. Chumley--who came back to the nineteen-seventies to visit her granddaughter Anne. Some of Anne's friends asked Mrs. Chumley how she had learned what she knew about living. This had so many answers that Mrs. Chumley had to feel her way into which one might be most acceptable to her present questioners. That didn't mean that it was untrue, but that it was very true. If you think that there is only one road to Rome, you don't know Rome very well.

With these friends of Anne's, Mrs. Chumley chose to use a game of cards to explain. You can get the same information about how to live from playing any game, she told them, but I shall use solitaire so that you can try it for yourselves without having to hunt up someone else. After all, you have to live life alone. It is only then that you really come together with someone else. Another advantage of solitaire is that you can't blame someone else for how things did or didn't come out, or give them the credit for it, either. It's altogether between you and the cards.

She shuffled the deck, first in the way that is known as "scientific" and then again the amateur's way. This seemed to her the best way to mix them up completely, although sometimes she wondered whether this might not put them back where they had been. However, it never seemed to come out that way so she didn't wonder about it very much--just enough to know that she wasn't excluding anything.

Then she began laying the cards on the table, beginning with a row of eight cards, face up. She placed another row partly over but not concealing the cards in the first row, and continued this pattern until all 52 cards were showing their faces--the tops of them anyway--on the table. There were only four cards in the last row, of course.

That's one of the rules, Mrs. Chumley said--the way that you lay down the cards. If you don't follow it, you're not playing this game but something else. There aren't many rules for any game. In this one, aces--when you can get at them--are played at the top of the board the way they are in most games of solitaire, and you build up on them by suit and sequence in the usual way. At the bottom, you imagine four parking places for cards. You can move any exposed card into one of them temporarily to I get it out of the way until you can put it somewhere else.

Mrs. Chumley's nose began to get moist as it did sometimes when she and the old-model germs of the twentieth century got together. Her handkerchief whisked out of her open purse that was on the other side of the room, and into her hand. She sent it back Quickly, saying to her granddaughter, "Anne, would you bring me my handkerchief? I forgot when I am."

The deck as it is laid out, she continued, is chaos. Your job is to make order out of it by getting the cards into the four piles at the top. Only one card may be moved at a time unless it is in a sequence: then, you have to move the whole sequence or none at all--unless you want to put the cards in the parking places for awhile, which has to be done one by one.

You see, there really aren't many rules, and these are necessary because without any rules there's no way out of chaos. Without any rules--which are only limitations--you wouldn't even recognize chaos. If you don't have them, you have to invent them. They don't restrict you--they make it possible to play.

Conventions are another matter. People who hope to find The Way set up conventions to make it possible to play without thinking, by using still another set of rules. That makes it work instead of play. This is the wrong kind of no-thinking, and I'll get to the right kind later. Conventions are probabilities, and when you limit yourself to them you miss the possibilities. This is monotonous Besides, in a game with more than one player, conventions work only if everyone abides by them. When even two people with different conventions come together it can literally be murder, although as a rule the dying is slow. That doesn't really make it any better.

When one side goes by conventions and the other doesn't, the conventional side loses. A six-year-old beat me at chess once because he knew the rules of the game but not the conventions. He tossed in his queen as though she were a pawn, which caught me off guard because I had been playing with conventional people. I lost. I couldn't get mad at him, although for a moment I did, because at that time I was playing with the knights and would chuck in everything else to save them. My partners were furious when they lost, because conventions had become rules to them and they got in a bind when I broke what seemed to be a rule and yet they couldn't accuse me of it because it wasn't. You know--like a cop who can't put you in jail for what he thought he could, because you haven't broken a law the way he thought you did. You've only broken a convention. Of course if you "think" like the cops (you could hear Mrs. Chumley put the word in quotes) you meekly go to jail and serve your sentence for something you never did, to expiate a guilt that is just fantasy.

After I had played with the knights until I got bored because there wasn't much else to learn about them, I went on to the bishops, then the rooks, and so on. I got to the point where I could really do a razzle--dazzle with the pawns. When I'd been through all of them, whichever piece was appropriate got used in its own best possible way. That's why I don't play chess much any more. My partners desert me because they get mad, which is silly. You see, they go on trying to beat me in what they think of as their way, which is everybody's way, instead of responding to my way in their way--which makes chess very interesting and exciting when people do it. It's the same with bridge or tennis.

The person who taught me this game of solitaire taught me some conventions as though they were rules. The person who taught him the rules had taught him those conventions at the same time, and neither one of them had made any distinction between the two "Lay the cards down in eight rows" and "Never fill all four parking places at once" were taught at the same time and placed in the same category. But while the first is a certainty, the latter is only a probability. Sometimes probabilities just won't get you out of the fix you're in, and then you have to look for the possibilities--which of course you can't do if you think they are impossible. So you stay stuck. Then you think that the world is against you, which in a way is true, but it is only the fictitious world of conventions that i8 against you. When you try to get out of it, people yell, "You can't do that!" and they're so certain that you can't that you're likely to become afraid. So then you stay in it. And this proves to everybody that there is no way out, because nobody has tried to get out.

When someone breaks a convention and gets away with it, people say that he was lucky. But he was being accurate--acting in accord with the reality of the time. To act on the basis of anything else is illusion. How can I play this game on the basis of the way the cards were in time past or might be in the future? Past and future have no real existence because the only time that you can act is now. You can think about the past or think about the future, but that isn't living because you're only thinking about them--you can't do anything in either of them.

Mrs. Chumley suddenly realized her present whereabouts and added, Unless you're there--but then of course you're here, the space equivalent of time now.

And here, she said, looking at the cards on the table, is this game. It's the only one we can play at this time. Unlike most card games, you can see where each card is. This is more like life. You always have all the relevant information to act here-now. It's when we become mixed up with the future and the past and other places that we don't know what to do. But we don't need to worry about all the other times and places. And anyway, the past is over, and the future grows out of the present, so if we make the right move now, the future comes out all right too.

Mrs. Chumley looked at the cards again and explained, If there are any exposed aces, you play them up on top, and then any exposed cards that will play on the aces, and so on. This isn't a requirements to do this immediately, but it's sort of like doing the aces: no possible harm in it. It gets a certain number of cards out of the way, which leaves things clear for something else.

After that, if you see some card that can be moved onto another card, delay it. You haven't yet taken in the whole field. That's trying to solve a problem without including all the relevant information that is available. You get in a mess.

"How does this particular game look to you, by the way?" she asked the half dozen people around her.

"Hopeless," said one.

"Impossible," said another.

Another said, more cautiously, "It doesn't look to me very possible."

It looks the same way to me, said Mrs. Chumley. It isn't one of the deals that looks easy--not that all those that look easy, are. But if I thought about it, I'd certainly chuck in this game and start over. So, I stop thinking.

One of the young men moved away from the table with a snort. So did an older man, although without a snort because he liked Mrs Chumley. A younger girl also moved away, with a snort, because she liked the young man.

When I stop thinking, Mrs. Chumley went on, I don't have any opinion. That makes a lot of things possible. When I have no opinion, I don't feel the need to do anything--either throw out the game or tussle with it. I'm just interested in looking it over--you know, like a small child who has never seen you before. He examines you, before deciding what he'll do about you. Another word for it is scanning.

I begin at random, noting a card, say this seven of spades. It has to go on an eight of spades or have a six of spades go on it. So I look over the board and spot the eight and the six. Spot it--that's all. Don't try to hang onto it because you'll be doing the same with all the other cards, and the part of your mind that you do this with can't remember them all. So I just spot them, and it gets registered somewhere in the back of my head. When they're all there, it tells me what to do.

"Hey!" said the young man who had wandered away, coming back to the table, "She's programming herself!" The young girl came back to the table and stood beside him. He thought how wonderful she was, always moving in concert with him. The older man stayed where he was, with his back to the others, but he was listening.

Mrs. Chumley went on spotting the cards until she had covered almost every card in the deck, and a few that hadn't been spotted directly had come in indirectly. Now, she said, the whole board is in my head even though I don't know where it is, and then I know what to do although I don't know anything about it. It doesn't always make sense to me as I move the cards. Sometimes I feel like a fool, and sometimes I feel very rash and heading for disaster. But the impulse comes so surely from the inner computer that I have to do it. Without the discipline first, though, the impulse comes from another place. Then everything may feel altogether wonderful, but it winds up in a mess.

The cards moved in her hands so rapidly that no one could keep track of all the moves, but none of the people present, who were watching closely, could catch her in an error, either. And suddenly the whole board was obviously clear and ready to run up into the four piles at the top.

"Even if she cheated, she couldn't do it!" said the young man who was interested in programming. "Would you do that again?"

Mrs. Chumley shuffled the cards and laid them out again. It's this part at the beginning that is tiresome, she said when the cards were all in place on the table. I mean, it is until you get used to it and can do it instantly. You want to do something. You're so used to doing something that you feel guilty when you aren't doing anything. Something's wrong. You feel that you should start yourself up. But if you are really in touch with yourself, you know that it isn't true, and that what you're really afraid of is that if you don't start yourself up, someone else will. Most of us fear that man left unprodded will do nothing. It may come from the mechanistic explanations in science--a machine is not self-regulating and self-perpetuating: it has to be stimulated by external forces, or otherwise it will run down. And when living creatures are conceived in the mechanistic framework then we feel obliged to keep them running and bring pressure to bear to see that they keep running, or restart them if they seem to have stopped.

You needn't be at all afraid to stop. Your heart keeps beating and your lungs keep breathing. Still, when you do what you think of as stopping, it's so different from what you have been doing that it feels wrong--like the little girl who had been crippled for so long that when the doctor straightened her out she complained to him,"You made me crooked!"

Of course there's a wrong do-nothing same as there's a wrong think-nothing. That's what makes things so confusing. You can make yourself do nothing by putting pressure on yourself, and that's wrong. In the right way, you remove yourself from all pressures, including from yourself. It feels rather like backing up, but it's only slowing down. If you walk slowly on a street while other people rush past you, it feels as though you're walking backward--if you've been accustomed to rushing, yourself.

While still talking, Mrs. Chumley had begun to put a finger on this card and that, indicating that she was spotting them with her eyes. Then she began to move the cards, sometimes in ways that 4 made sense to those watching, and other times not. Then the cards were all in order, either in the four piles at the top on the aces or in columns on the board all cleared and ready to move to the top.

"Does it never fail?" asked a woman who hadn't said anything before.

Yes, it does, admitted Mrs. Chumley who had no difficulty admitting anything. Then I'm never sure whether the game was impossible or whether I slipped--or whether I slipped so as to lose a few games because I was tired of winning.

"Tired of winning!" said the shadow of a voice.

The easiest way to win is not to care, said Mrs. Chumley. Each of you must have noticed this in your own experience at some time or other. You don't care, so you say what you think, and things work out the way that you thought they wouldn't if you said what you thought. When you say what you think when you do care, this may be good, or at least better than not saying it, but it doesn't come out the same way, or it takes longer to arrive at the same place. It's the same with doing.

There's beginner's luck, too. When you know that you don't know anything, don't have any reputation to sustain, aren't trying to impress anybody, not even yourself--you just take a crack at it and zing! You've got it. Only then you try to repeat it, and trying doesn't make things happen from the same place. The first time, you didn't have any picture in your mind of what would happen. You just acted all together and it happened and surprised you. The second time, you try to produce what happened the first time by trying to make your body act in the same way. All of this takes place in a part of your head that isn't very good at it. If you work hard enough, you may be successful, but you wear yourself out, too, because you're using one part of you to force another part of you, instead of letting the whole thing happen through all of you.

When you do something through simple attraction, it isn't really trying. All of you moves together according to the design of yourself. You're not interfering with yourself. When you try, you figure things out in your head, or you "pull yourself together" to do it. When you succeed in this way, you succeed in spite of, not because of, and wear yourself out in the process. It's like running a machine without oil. You get stiff and creaky.

I think it has something to do with our two nervous systems, she said. She couldn't say that she knew, because then she would have to explain what she knew, and the words and concepts that could be used to explain it properly were still in the future, here. So she had to speak about it crudely, without precision.

Our two nervous systems are really one system, she said, because they work together. Trying to separate them is like the pound of flesh and Christian or any other blood. One of them beats our heart and breathes our lungs whether we want it to or not. It acts by itself, like the internal computer. Fritz uses "computer" for the plotter or planner mind which I can easily become aware of if I'm not; the one called "thinking," the I-computer, the one that I can use. That's the other one, the one that acts or overacts pretty much in accordance with our intentions. Some people use it for random painting or random cake-baking. They don't see the absurdity of being intentionally "spontaneous." Absurdity? It's impossible. So is "I'm being spontaneous."

When it overacts it interferes with the other one, instead of the two of them functioning properly together in the way that they know how to do and I don't. When I "take myself out of it" or "have no desires" I don't do that entirely. I'm still interested. But not over-interested. And all of me functions in the way that I was built to do. Then, one system keeps me in touch with time and the conscious and the other with the timeless and unconscious and I'm right where I belong--everywhere at once. Harmony and accuracy together. Making distinctions between business and the arts is silly, she said. It all depends on how it's done.

And then she sighed, which she didn't do very often, but these two young people standing beside her thought that they knew what love is and they were drowning in it, the world forgotten and all that.

"LISTEN!" she said, so abruptly that she startled everyone except Anne, who understood. Each one but Anne searched the sounds that he heard for something that he should be listening to or for, and missed the symphony of sound, of birdcalls, motors, breathing, rustling, scratching, murmuring, with an occasional honk or clank--and missed too the silence that lay behind it. But the silence of Mrs. Chumley and Anne continued, first surrounding the others, then pervading them until they became the silence itself, while continuing to be themselves. They were and knew themselves to be simultaneously the whirling atoms with vast space between, and the persons who could be touched and felt and bumped into. And then, the symphony was heard. There was love in the room, love without boundaries or dimensions or limitations, each person unexpectedly and beautifully himself.

The young man's eyes were a bit damp as he said to the girl, "I thought I knew...."

And she answered, "I know.... I thought that I did, too."

The older man said softly, "And one clock stopped.... and knew the meaning of time."

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