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Life in the Zen Lane
Looking back on what might have been … or not.
By Warren Olu Karib


the age of 56, give or take five or 10 years for the sake of broader inclusion, one begins to ponder life’s various and sundry what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. The notion that the outcome might have been different can be profoundly disturbing or blissfully contemplative; it can stir a flood of images that drown the soul in a sea of despair, or wash warmly over the epidermis as soothingly as a peppermint-scented bath.

   What if I had stayed in California instead of matriculating at Penn?
   What if I had pursued a career in law instead of traipsing across Africa keeping a journal?
   Unanswered questions, hypothetical scenarios.
   I am always dumbfounded to hear scientists speak of the Big Bang as a singular event; could it be that there really are multiple worlds out there, coming and going, re-creating? I recently jotted down an incredible number, 10 to the 22nd power, on a matchbook cover. The accumulation of zeros blew me away. Astronomers and cosmologists speculate that it represents the number of stars in the universe. One newly discovered stellar cluster, they claim, stretches across 600 million light years of space (!) and contains more than one hundred billion stars. Located 6.5 billion light years from Earth, it is an entity beyond comparison to any previously found. Yet there are undoubtedly other cosmic curiosities farther out in the unseen realm, revolving and orbiting in some cyclical fashion or other in accordance with the basic principles of physics, as we currently perceive them.
   And this much is certain: those stars and galactic clusters, as stupendous as they are, do not control their own fate. At bottom they are mere cosmological constructs, each dependent on the Tao. In the zen sense, this dependence applies to the universe as a whole, and to any part of it—including mankind.
   Yeah right. The great evolving universe.
   So tell me, do you regret anything about your life, the decisions you’ve made?
Twelve years ago, my kid brother Lionel, still shackled by a rivalry promoted by my mother, startled me with this question. It came during one of those obligatory family holiday gatherings—of the dreaded, conflicted sort, destined from the start to turn rancorous. (The problem with such affairs, I’ve determined over the years, is that familial relationships often remain mired in the past; your worst childhood excesses determine your perceived adult character, and sooner or later someone at the dinner table is going to bring you down for it. Among intimate kin there seems to be a reluctance to lovingly accommodate growth and change, even while sharing Thanksgiving turkey.)
   My brother’s question about regrets was his way of taunting me for remaining a bachelor, for not having settled into a stable career and a home and family of my own. Somehow my university degrees and a decade traveling and working in Africa held no merit.
   “No, I don’t regret anything about my decisions,” I answered smugly. “I would tell you why, but I don’t think you’d understand.”
   Now it was his turn to give a blank stare, and to take affront. But it was true; I had no regrets, insofar as I could accurately perceive the inner workings of my psyche. Does the planet Jupiter, a spider, or a molecule of water have regrets? No entity, really, is in control of its destiny.
   But whereas I believe in the Tao, and have perceived myself as questing toward Nirvana for over a decade, my brother and our six siblings abide within a materialistic domain rampant with superficial values and precepts. I could not expect him, or them, to shrug off their conventional views and see things through my lens. They subscribe to the notion that life’s outcomes originate inside one’s own head, and that ultimately all decisions or gambits can be quantified into two categories: those that stir a sense of personal pride, or those that arouse regret.
   In zen, on the other hand, the entire purpose and meaning of life is merely to exist in the flow of the proverbial river of destiny, with its unending twists and turns. In the now, as they say in zen, we watch our lives unfold.
   One day in 1956 Lionel introduced me to a bespectacled classmate, Stanley Crouch, a thin, nerdy little asthmatic who inhaled medicinal cigarettes at George Washington Carver Junior High School in Los Angeles. Crouch has since metamorphosed into a national persona who has written for the Village Voice, had a short-lived recurrent role on 60 Minutes, and was featured as an aficionado of note in Ken Burns’s recent PBS series, Jazz—exactly the sort of illustrious career I might have lived, in a parallel universe. There, but for a bend in the river, go I.
   Brother Crouch may or may not approve, 45 years after the fact, of my dropping his name here in an essay about fate, choices, and one Penn graduate’s Holy Grail. But that is the way of zen; things flow unpredictably.
   Names such as his, and Penn alumni and law school classmates Gil Casellas and Anita DeFrantz, EEOC commissioner in the Clinton administration and member of the IOC, respectively, remind me of another dinner table confrontation:
   Why ain’t you rich?
   Prefaced by If you’re so smart, the question was obviously intended to wound. I looked over at my inquisitor, my younger sister Janice. I could only smile incredulously at her and shake my head. In a moment of zen calm I offered her the example of a wealthy criminal and an indigent genius, and suggested that not all successes are measured in dollars.
   Of course I’d rather be rich, I confided to myself. But I am like the star Sirius, a cricket, or the lottery winner who buys a new car and gets broadsided and killed: what we all have in common is our subservience to a larger existential circumstance, the outcome of which is never ours to determine.
   Proponents of free will are no doubt repulsed by this assertion. But isn’t it odd—that an elephant, an atom of helium, a blade of grass, the mighty star clusters and the oceans of the Earth, are all dependent on nature, whereas humans are supposedly free to craft their own destinies? Isn’t it evident that all things, in the larger picture, come and go at the behest of external forces, aka the Tao?
   “There is little left,” says bestselling author Frans B.M. de Waal (Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist),in the position that we humans fall outside of nature, and that … [it is our] culture that sets us apart.” According to de Waal, the notion that human intelligence and free will are motivationally different from animal instinct is outdated; there is in fact no duality at all.
   But do not despair. Although my premise is that human beings and spiders and bees exist precisely in the same natural, deterministic mode, one can nevertheless marvel at the intricacies of the web and the beehive, the succulent taste of honey, and the grandeur of the Taj Mahal. For in zen, the creative aspect of the Tao is the salient feature of all existence. But we do not harness it—it harnesses us.
   I was in a zone … It just came over me … I just felt a compulsion … The story just sort of wrote itself …
   I began this article feeling an obligation and burden to infuse my words with a poignant universality. I end it with a personal reference to Mr. Trejo, the junior-high school journalism teacher who appointed me editor of the school newspaper. I had never considered myself any kind of writer (I even tried to check out of the class), yet there I was at Mr. Trejo’s behest, pen in hand. He did the same for young Stanley Crouch a couple of semesters later; we were like little acorns that find themselves serendipitously embedded in moist, fertile soil. But in zen our individual fates were no different in kind from the predicament of a wildebeest calf suddenly surrounded by a pack of hyenas: every creature, entity, or event in the universe flows along on in its own fashion toward the Great Unfolding, riding the zen stream gloriously out to sea.

Warren Olu Karib L’77 is a freelance writer/photographer “with three zen-based novels in various stages of completion” and “somewhat of a fitness fanatic.” He lives in Inglewood, California.

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