I just spent way too much time on retreat mulling over Shinzen Young's Three Jobs, Appreciate, Transcend and Improve. Every great thinker has weighed in on the issue of what is the one essential task of a human life. Kurt Vonnegut generously quipped, "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." (Appreciate?) For Epicurus it was sensuality (Appreciate), for Rinzai, enlightenment (Transcend), and for Marx and the like, Improvement of material conditions. I could easily generate many examples for each category. Kierkegaard looks at each style of life in turn, finally rejecting the aesthetic (A) and the ethical (I) in favor of the religious (T). Shinzen flies in the face of a couple thousand years of tradition by casually admitting not one but three essential jobs.
To Every Thing, There Is A Season
Many philosophers have settled on an answer that is both singular and static. There is one thing to do, at all times. This is not, however, the way life usually works. It's helpful to look for an answer that is plural and dynamic, dynamic meaning that it interacts with other facts of life and changes through time. Life Stages models do this well, the best example being the classical Hindu model: Youth is devoted to pleasure (A); maturity to wealth, power, family, and responsibility (A and I); and old age to spiritual practice. (T)
So we want to Appreciate, Transcend, and Improve. I don't know if it's a contemporary American thing or more widespread, but the instinctual response these days is, "We must balance them. If we can balance the three, we will be happy." There are two problems with this though. The first is what I'm calling the Myth of Static Balance. Google "Zen" and you will find a hundred photos demonstrating the myth of static balance--perfectly smooth river rocks stacked just so, forming a beautiful, elegant tower. And we want our lives to be like this, all our ducks in a row. Problem is, our lives are not rocks, and only dead ducks stay put. Movement and change are a part of life, and as long as we are alive we will never experience that kind of balance.
As far as balance goes, we need a more dynamic image. Picture a surfer, alive and moving in harmony with forces infinitely greater than herself. In other words, verb that noun: It's not balance we need, but balancing. We need to keep balancing.
Please, not this.
Unfortunately even this tweak to our notion of equilibrium does not answer the question of how to live a life of Appreciate-Transcend-Improve. The second problem is that a balanced ATI Profile will never break through to Transcendence.
It's a matter of concentration or focus of force. You can't use steam or liquid water to puncture a balloon, but freeze it into a needle-pointed (single-pointed, ekagatta) icicle, and you are in business. Just so, a flat profile won't do it; you need to spike the T to break through. That means a period of min-maxing. A period of min-maxing, that's a crucial point. A period of time, not a lifetime of min-maxing.
Your Crackerjack prize!
I've been plotting the three dimensions on a three-point scale, being cautious not to let precision outstrip accuracy. Off the top of my head I get numbers like these: Rinzai (131), Theravadan Monastery (133), conventional life in consumer capitalism (101, considering the difference between frantic consumption and appreciation), academic religious studies (300), psychotherapy (203).
Warning: May contain graphic sexual imagery
What's the Use?
ATI Profiles are a big picture, zoom-out tool that make it possible to talk about something slippery and to make very generalized comparisons. It's questionable as to whether something as seemingly obvious as ATI Profiles will be of any help in the future, but they have already helped produce four insights, the latter three of which are closely related.
1. That a party may avow one profile and practice another. Certain spiritual communities I know adopt the prestige-language of Transcend but actually practice community-oriented self-help. This points to a serious problem with Transcend language, namely that it is sexy: A teacher who can speak Transcend will go far.
2. That profiles differ amongst different roles and stages within a given system. For example, a master's profile is dramatically different from a student's. We can't talk about a "Zen ATI Profile" without taking into account these differences (not to mention the dramatic differences between Soto and Rinzai approaches).
3. That different stages in life and learning call for different profiles. Specifically, that it's good to work on A and I before T, and even better to work on them after. A caveat is that you don't want A and I to be neglected for so long that your mental health, social skills emotional intelligence and so on actually diminish. It's okay to set these concerns aside for a few years, but it's not okay to damage yourself.
4.Temporary min-maxing (producing a spike in one area) is necessary to produce enlightenment, at least if you want it in less than thirty years. Any real practice monastery will have a spiked profile. In most monasteries you'll also find a periodic spike within the spike. Sesshins or meditation retreats really really really set aside Appreciation and Improvement in order to focus wholeheartedly on Transcendence. Why? Because it works, of course! It ain't pleasant, but it works.
"The Glory of God is man [and woman] fully alive." - St. Irenaeus
What's the point of Transcendence again?
I could give all kinds of overly clever answers, but in this context it's simply that having completed the stages of the T task, a human being is free to Appreciate and Improve fully, making a vibrant 303. The Zen arts--perfection in painting, poetry, archery, tea ceremony and so on--represent such a flourishing in the Appreciate realm. When applied to Improvement, it can look like the selfless, literally divinely inspired activism of figures like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. It's astonishing to consider that we all have this potential within us. All we have to do is liberate the pent up life force that is currently getting leeched in enormous quantities by the background processes of creating and defending an indefensible, imaginary, separate self. Are you up for it?
On the horizon...
"Kicking Ladders and Cutting Ropes: When Not To Listen To Your Teacher"