Sunday, February 7, 2010

Zen and Alberto Moravia’s Ashtray

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” says the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–“ says Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” says the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Some of us do not seem to reach anywhere in our lives because we do not walk long enough in any direction. Many of us end up being not far from where we started and some indeed even further behind, as though we have been walking backwards.


Alberto Moravia has for long been one of my favourite authors. When I read recently his story The Ashtray, in the short story collection Paradise, I remembered the conversation of Alice and the Cheshire Cat and of the way many of us live our lives.

The Ashtray tells the story of a woman of indeterminate age, but who, it appears, is not young any more. The story in the first person narrative begins with the woman standing in front of the mirror, her hand poised in the air, a wad of cotton-wool smeared with cleansing cream between two fingers. She has cleaned one half of her face, the left side, but is not able to make up her mind about cleaning the other half. Her brain tells her she should, but her instincts are not to finish the cleaning. She stands there looking at herself, irresolute and motionless, and through her mind pass thoughts about what she had done through the day that is about to end.

She has done a great number of things, she recalls, but brought none of them to a conclusion. She realizes her day has been like an ashtray which a neurotic smoker has filled, during many hours, with a quantity of cigarette-ends, some of them long, some of them short, some of them barely scorched. Her day has been filled with acts that she had left half, or only a quarter accomplished; and like the cigarette-ends, these acts, now that she comes to think of them, seems to her to be dead, cold, evil-smelling.

“I began the morning when the maid deposited my breakfast tray on my bed. I had intended: 1] to arrange the menu for the two meals of the day; 2] to read the newspaper; 3] to drink a cup of tea; 4] to eat a slice of bread with butter and honey; 5] to telephone to Clarice, a friend of mine, and ask her for a certain address. Instead of which, after starting a discussion about the first dish for lunch, I dismissed the cook impatiently and told her she must think about it herself. Then I poured out the tea and buttered the bread, but I drank only a sip of the first and ate only a morsel of the second because, in the meantime, I had opened the paper and had dipped – nay, had positively become immersed – in the account of a particularly strange crime.”

“Finally I also abandoned the newspaper halfway through because the telephone call came to mind. But, as I was dialling Clarice’s number, my eye fell on the alarm clock on the bedside table, and I saw it was late and that, as usual, I hadn’t time. Leaving the tea, the bread, the butter, the honey, the paper and the telephone on the bed, I rushed into the bathroom. But alas, the bathwater was now cold, it was positively icy. So I went under the shower. Suddenly the telephone rang; wet and half covered with soap I ran to it; too late, the telephone had stopped ringing. I dried myself as best as I could, made up my face and hurriedly dressed. Once I was in the taxi, however, I discovered that I had forgotten to put on any lipstick.”

Well, the story does not end here, but for the time being we shall take leave of this woman who is really not a stranger to most of us. She is not a stranger to most of us because this is how many of us live our lives too. Rather than focusing on a few things and finishing doing them, we tend to jump from one thing to another, and then to yet another and so on, leaving them all unfinished. We never seem to be able to focus on one thing at a time. The moment we begin doing something, something else appears to require our attention more urgently, and then we move on to that, and then from that to yet another thing, and so on.

When we do this, we are behaving like the man who digs a well five or ten feet deep and then before reaching water, abandons it and then moves on to a new place to dig another well – in the end the whole ground is full of wells, and none of them has any water. Or like a man who walks for a few minutes in one direction and then, changing his direction, walks in a different direction, only to abandon that too and to move on in yet another direction.

Speaking of the minds of such people, Krishna says in the Gita: “Many-branched and endless are the minds of the irresolute. But the minds of the resolute ones are single-pointed.”

vyavasaayaatmikaa buddhir ekeha kurunandana |
bahu-śaakhaa hyanantaaś ca buddhayo'vyavasaayinaam ||BhG_2.41||

It is only those with single-pointed minds that are able to achieve great things in life. It is only those with such single-pointed minds that become long distance runners in life.

There is no harm in having many goals in life. But one should learn to focus on one of those goals at a time. If we are able to do that, we end up growing stronger by the day, even the unseen powers of the world appearing to contribute to our strength, like streams joining a river headed resolutely for the sea, making the river stronger as it moves on. And when we are not focused on a single goal at a time, we end up being like a river that tries to flow in numerous directions all at once and in the process gets lost in the desert.


Zen is a Japanese philosophy that speaks of simplicity. One of the many things we learn from Zen that could be applied to our daily life and work is this principle of simplicity. Which at a very practical level means to declutter our life.

One of the lessons we can learn from Zen is to cultivate deep commitment to just a few things in life. When we do this, we will find that our entire life falls into place. What is irrelevant drops off and life assumes the quality of a beautiful poem, rather than the mess it is now.

Also, Zen teaches us, instead of constantly running from one thing to another, instead of being constantly busy, occasionally do nothing. Just “be” and do nothing. In fact, one of the most important forms of Zen meditation is called shikantaza and shikantaza means just sitting, doing nothing.

This simple sitting, doing nothing, can transform your life in ways that are difficult to imagine until you do that. It can make your life richer beyond your expectations. It can bring an elemental quality to your life – an elemental quality that only simplicity can give it. The elemental quality and simplicity of a Zen garden. And what makes Zen gardens more beautiful than the most elaborately planned, complex gardens is this elemental quality.

Once in a while just do nothing.

Those few minutes of doing nothing are like the moments when the windows of your house are open and sunlight pours in through them. When we are constantly running from one thing to another, our windows are closed and sunlight, however glorious it is out there, is shut out from our house and our life.

We all need to get in touch with ourselves once in a while and this just sitting allows us to do that. We, sort of, grow roots into our being when we do that.

A beautiful story I have heard speaks of a distinguished explorer who was exploring the upper Amazon along with some of the primitive local people. Once, he says, he attempted a forced march through the jungle. The party made extraordinary speed for the first two days, but on the third morning, when it was time to start, he found all the natives sitting on their haunches, looking very solemn and making no preparation to leave. “They are waiting,” the chief explained to him. “They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with their bodies.”

What a beautiful thing to say!

Our souls need time to catch up with us. And space. Lots and lots of empty space in our mind. It is only then that our souls can be with us.

Having empty spaces in our life is like having empty spaces in a room. The less the room is cluttered, the better it is as a space to live in.

But today we have forgotten to leave empty spaces within us. Our minds are crowded. Cluttered with a thousand things. We are exactly like the woman in Moravia’s story. All of us. Particularly some of us who occupy positions of responsibility. And we make a mess of our lives and the lives of those around us.

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, goes the old saying. Maybe true, may not be true. But a crowded mind is definitely the devil’s workshop. When the mind is crowded, our hearts cannot breathe. And our souls suffocate.

Here is what an author says about creating empty spaces in your days: “Spending a few minutes doing nothing, sitting still, embracing the silence helps prevent you from falling apart. It gives you a chance to regain your perspective and to access a quiet part of your brain where your wisdom and common sense exist. When you sit still and do nothing, it allows your mind the opportunity to sort things out and settle down. It turns what usually looks like chaos into a more manageable moment and provides your mind with a chance to rest and regroup. Ideas and solutions will pop into your head that would never have done so in a frenetic state of mind. When you’re finished doing nothing or sitting still, it will often seem like life is coming at you a little slower, which makes everything seem a whole lot easier and less stressful.”


Since we began by talking about completing things, let’s go back to Moravia’s woman and see what she had done with the rest of her day. Remember she had gotten into a taxi in a hurry because she was late and in the taxi realized she had forgotten to put on any lipstick. Well, she goes to a bookstore and comes out irritated, without choosing what she wants to buy, then goes to a boutique and comes out from there too irritated without making a purchase because the salesmen in both places are too solicitous of her. She then goes to a bar and after ordering a drink, suddenly rushes out of the place without drinking it and without paying for it, because she sees a young man she would love to be with passing by outside in the street. She misses him, of course. She later has appointments with two lovers, two “incomplete” affairs again, and then she comes back home. That’s where she was standing unable to gather the will required to remove makeup from the other half of her face too as the story began.

When she goes to bed, her makeup is still there on the right side of her face. Her husband to whom she tries to warm up in bed, kissing his hand passionately, points this out to her.


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