A black and white photo of a man and woman sitting on stone steps in the sunshine


The earlier version of this essay was more of a manifesto. I came to doubt that this was the right way to approach it. I tried writing another essay, “Buddha’s Ladder,” but set it aside as derivative of Stephen Batchelor’s Alone with Others. He addresses what I’ve called the quantum nature of human life. As individuals who are also social creatures, saddled with biology and traditions, we live with some basic human dilemmas. They can make us feel like the glass into which our life flows is too small to contain it. It’s not so much that the glass is half empty or half full, but that we see our potentiality flowing past us. A “hungry ghost,” is what the Buddhists call us in this state.

This essay, if I can really call it that, sets down my observations about three overlapping relationships—marriage, family, and friendship. I’ve noted that new traditions for each would serve us better by being closer to the reality of human existence. My sense of these new traditions is tentative. Each of us already contributes to their evolution by grappling with life’s conundrums. The acceptance of another that each of these relationships entails begins with our acceptance of ourselves. For purposes of living in the world, we shape our behavior to fit in, but as we get older, we realize that life’s river is as Heraclitus described it. This essay is about living with the implications of that.


On Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and their circle see Richard Shone’s Bloomsbury Portraits (Phaidon, 1996) and Angelica (Bell) Garnett’s Deceived with Kindness (Pimlico, 1995). On La Rochefoucauld, see his Maxims, translated by Leonard Tancock (Penguin, 1984). Nine years ago, I read and reread Stephen Batchelor’s Alone with Others (Grove Press, 1983), a book about being and having. A.H. Almaas’s The Point of Existence (Shambala, 2000) looks at narcissism. Both shed light on issues like possessiveness. On Horst Rittel, see Jean-Pierre Protzen and David J. Harris’s The Universe of Design (Routledge, 2010). Robert Grudin’s Time and the Art of Living (Ticknor & Fields, 1982) is the best book I know of about time as a fundamental dimension of human life. George Gurdjieff was a mystic and probable Sufi, active in the first half of the 20th century. His Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson is hard going, but I like his notion of voluntary suffering. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s relevant books are Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan (Random House, 2008 and 2010). Two books on Eihei Dogen have influenced this essay. Kosho Uchiyama’s Refining Your Life (Weatherhill, 1983) is on Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook. He notes Dogen’s assertion that, done correctly, being the cook for a monastery is a shortcut to enlightenment. Steve Jobs would probably have agreed. Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen on meditation and thinking (State University of New York Press, 2007) presents Dogen as a philosopher of radical nonduality. The interview with Frederick Seidel is in issue 190 of the Paris Review, fall 2009. My quotes from the I Ching, from memory, are from the Cary Baynes translation of the Richard Wilhelm translation (Princeton, 1972). Everyone knows about the river of Heraclitus, but the source is fragment 41 of Fragments, translated by Brooks Haxton (Penguin, 2001). Accounts provided by my sister, Alice Parman, of the wartime correspondence of my grandfather, Joseph Jamieson Shoemaker, and her travels with him in France in 1963, were one reason I began this essay in 2001. The illustrations are from the web. Their use is noncommercial.

John Parman is a writer and editor, based in Berkeley, California.

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