Winding Your Clock Without Setting It

Here is a story about my first Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, as recounted by one of his early students: “As I was telling Suzuki Roshi what a disaster my life had become, he began to chuckle. I asked him what I should do.  ‘Sit meditation,’ he replied, ‘Life without meditation is like winding your clock without setting it.  It runs perfectly well, but it doesn’t tell time.’ “

This story is from Zen Is Right Herea collection of Suzuki Roshi stories by my good friend and dharma brother David Chadwick.  This story took place perhaps fifty years ago, in the early years of Suzuki’s teaching career in America.  Suzuki’s first book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindis still one of the best-selling Buddhist books of all time, but the stories in David’s book capture the informal, spontaneous quality of Suzuki’s conversations with us students that are harder to glean from Suzuki’s formal lectures.

Winding your clock without setting it: the image is quite clear, but the meaning less so.  Remember, Suzuki was responding to the student’s description of his life as a “disaster.”  Presumably, “winding your clock without setting it” was Suzuki’s way of characterizing that kind of life—a life without grounding, clear direction and focus.  I think of Henry Thoreau’s famous dictum, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Suzuki acknowledges the way that people do get through life, willy-nilly, by saying “[Your clock] runs perfectly well.” Actually, not so perfectly. Life happens, but it can happen badly. The clock goes the way life goes, but without a foundation it doesn’t perform the most important function of a clock, which is to tell time. So it doesn’t really run perfectly well, it just ticks—perhaps the way a ticking time bomb ticks, waiting for the next disaster to go off.

The implication of Suzuki’s metaphor is that a conscious, spiritually aware life needs a focus, a foundation. Meditation, Suzuki seems to be saying, is a way to ground your life in something real and reliable—like a clock that tells the right time. Suzuki doesn’t say so directly, but I would guess that this “real and reliable” foundation is to be kind, to be a person of good character, and to help others whenever possible.  This “life purpose” is summarized by the Buddhist term “bodhisattva.”  Literally this term means “being of awakening”; in practice it means someone who devotes their life to the service and welfare of others.

 Fifty years ago meditation was something exotic and not well known.  Today everyone knows about meditation; you can read everywhere how to do it in innumerable books and magazine articles, and there are even smartphone apps to guide you through it.  The meditation Suzuki was talking about—although outwardly perhaps similar to what you can read about in a magazine–is somewhat different than that, in the sense that its purpose was not just to be less anxious or distracted, but to establish a fundamental spiritual basis for all of our activity.  The regular practice of meditation may not protect you from having a life that is a “disaster,” as Suzuki’s inquiring student’s was, but, even in the midst of that disaster, it can provide a beacon to steer toward, like a distant light in a stormy sea.

What really distinguishes the kind of meditation that can “set your clock” is motivation.  One of the first teachings of the Buddha was “right motivation.”  Right motivation means dedicating your life activity not just to self-serving or ambitious ends, but to the welfare of everyone.  It’s been a common refrain among commentators of contemporary society to say that as a society we have become narcissistic—self-aggrandizing and self-serving, expressed in the saying “do whatever makes you feel good.”  A life based on narcissistic goals may seem like just the ticket for getting what you want and seizing all of life’s most desirable prizes.  But it isn’t.  Sooner or later that kind of life self-sabotages and collapses; it becomes just another “disaster.”  What’s worse,  narcissists themselves don’t necessarily see it as a disaster; for them everything is fine.  It is everyone else around them, those who must work with them or who love them, who see it all too clearly, and feel helpless to intervene.

I don’t know where Suzuki came up with his metaphor of the clock.  I was around him a lot in the early days, and he would just come up with them easily and naturally.  It was part of his great talent as a spiritual teacher.  He didn’t use fancy words, or pontificate, or tell you what to do.  “Winding your clock without setting it”—simple, memorable, and on the money.  It’s been fifty years since Suzuki died, and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss him.  When you are young, as I was in those days, you don’t know or recognize the treasure you hold in your hand.  Only with the hindsight of years and decades do you realize how rare it was, and how precious.

3 thoughts on “Winding Your Clock Without Setting It

  1. Thank you.
    I see narcissism in some closest to me, and can also see that through some of my actions, they may see it in me as well.

  2. Thank you.
    It’s a narcissistic age.
    I think we all have a narcissistic wound – a wound to being – it’s what we do with it…

    I’ve tried to witness this in myself rather than enact it.
    And navigating the every day world in a conscious way can be perilous.

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