Saccade: Two tales of presence

Michael McKinney spent most of his working life in universities, seeking to further their transformation. His life-long fascination with language and how people use it to create and navigate reality continues unabated. A decade of working with Jeddah Mali has deepened his awareness and understanding of language as an energy field. His fervent hope is to hold off the last of his enemies (old age) long enough to share his emerging understanding with others.

Teituro Suzuki was born in Japan in 1870 and studied languages (Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, English, perhaps others) at Tokyo University, where he also began studying Buddhism. He worked with Zen master Kosen Roshi and, after his passing, with Soyen Shaku, who gave him the name Daisetz, apparently meaning “great humility.” It may also mean “great simplicity,” and Suzuki himself reportedly joked that its true meaning was “great stupidity.”

(Having taught linguistics for a number of years, I originally developed the first part of this story to introduce a lecture on Japanese syllable structure and so-called “whisper vowels,” This is not that version.)

In the 1890s his teacher sent him to the US, to the World Parliament of Religions, part of the World’s Columbian Exhibition (Chicago World’s Fair), with Suzuki’s English translation of the teacher’s book. Subsequently, D.T. Suzuki became probably the most influential proponent of Zen Buddhism in the west. He held university positions over the years (in both Japan and the US) and participated in local, national, and international conferences on Buddhism. He died in 1966. I encountered some of his writings when I was 16 or 17 and I’ve read him intermittently since.

Around the time of Suzuki’s death I heard a story about an event that happened toward the end of his life. I don’t know now where I heard it, so I have no sense of the reliability of the person who told me, and I’ve never been able to confirm that it happened at all. For me, it’s always been true, and it provided me with an exemplar for the life I’ve wanted to live.

In the 1960s, somewhere on the east coast of the US (I think I recall the Boston area, but my memory sometimes has an imagination of its own) there was a meeting of a few influential Zen practitioners, perhaps a sort of steering committee for Zen studies, to discuss the state of Zen in the US and what might be done to further its understanding. The group met in a conference room on the top floor of a university building, probably the fifth or sixth floor—this was pre-high rise.

It was autumn, Indian Summer, and quite warm, and this was before the age of universal air conditioning in the US. Participants, perhaps 15 or 20, were seated at a long conference table, and Suzuki sat toward the foot of the table on one side. Because it was hot, the windows were all open, to catch any potential breeze on the still day. It was the afternoon of the second day of the conference, and Suzuki had spent the entire time seated erectly at the table with his eyes closed, not participating at all, not saying a word.

Suzuki was in his nineties and very frail at the time, and other participants had begun to wonder, privately, whether the old man was beginning to lose touch with his own insights and wisdom, to be less present in this world. They wondered with love and respect and appreciation. Still, they wondered.

And during that afternoon session, there was an abrupt change in the weather—a cold front. A sudden burst of much cooler air through the windows behind the session leader caught the piece of paper on which he had been making notes on the group’s agreements and plans. The gust carried that paper swiftly along the table, a foot or two above it. Because the wind was sudden and strong and sustained, the paper was clearly headed out one of the windows at the other end of the room. Because there were no screens on the windows, it immediately seemed to everyone to be lost forever. There were exclamations and cries of surprise and dismay as this happened.

And D.T. Suzuki opened his eyes, leaned forward slightly, and plucked that piece of paper from the air as it passed his place at the table.

And that’s how present I’ve wanted to be, how totally in balance with the energy of the universe.

Or to be precise, that’s how totally in balance with the energy of the universe I’ve wanted to be again.

Because for one brief and baffling moment, I once was there.

And that’s the second story. It’s one I’ve never fully told before, perhaps not even to myself.

When I was in Grade 10, I went to a military school. I’m not certain whether this is a peculiarly US institution. It used to be more common than it is now, I think. We lived two to a room in a sort of combination of dorm and barracks. There were probably 2-300 of us, all in secondary school, with all the bad craziness and raging testosterone that accompanies male adolescence.

We wore military uniforms, marched to most destinations, did close order drill with World War I vintage rifles, had personal and quarters inspections, and were generally subject to rather strict military discipline. We got holidays to go home at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. I turned 16 that winter. Much of the formal disciplinary system rested on merits and demerits. Demerits were easy to get (poor behavior in or out of class: two to five demerits; messy quarters or personal appearance: one to three demerits). Serious infractions (late for curfew on nights we were allowed to go to town, fighting, cheating), could earn considerably more—up to 50. Merits took more time—good academic performance for a six week period earned a few merits; exceptionally neat quarters for a week was rewarded with one merit. Demerits came in a torrent, merit accumulation was glacial. Privileges were determined on the basis of demerits. There weren’t a lot of privileges, and losing them could be catastrophic. Especially around holidays. A boy with too many demerits spent the holiday at school.

The rooms were about 16 x 12 feet, with bunk beds, a dresser for clothing and supplies, a closet, and a library table for studying. Toilet and shower facilities were centrally located on each floor.

It had been a seemingly endless time since our return to school after the Christmas holiday. The Easter holiday (in April that year) was almost upon us, and to be honest, most boys were about as crazy as anyone could imagine. It was also the end of a grading period, so there was academic anxiety in addition to the anticipation of a holiday and, I suppose, intense cabin fever. Everyone was on edge, everyone was tense. Tempers flared easily.

Sunday afternoons were quiet time. We were confined to our rooms for study or other quiet activity. I remember I was relaxed, leaning against the study table. My roommate was beside the beds. Perhaps about eight feet separated us. We had been talking, probably doing the kind of joking insults that adolescent males of all ages and cultures engage in. I suppose I made a joke—I certainly said something that triggered a strong reaction in him, and he suddenly took a step toward me and dropped into a boxer’s crouch (feet apart, left foot ahead, knees bent, shoulders hunched, fists raised in front of his face). And he began yelling, challenging me to fight, threatening to kill me, to teach me not to do whatever he thought I had done. I have no recollection of a single phrase he uttered; I recall only that he was pure anger, pure aggression, and he was poised to fight.

And there was a saccade. If you’re around horses a lot, you probably know that a saccade is a single sudden jerk on the reins to stop a horse (the word, originally from Latin, took on the meaning of “jerk” in Old French). Its meaning has been extended to mean the rapid jerk eyes make when they move from one focal point to another. The best way to experience this is to look in a mirror and focus your gaze on one eye, then shift to the other. The shift or jerk of your eyes is a saccade, and you have no conscious perception of any content in the middle of that shift. While it’s true that sometimes your eyes blink during the shift and so your eyes are shut and see nothing, that turns out to be fairly rare, and we usually shift our gaze without blinking. And even though our eyes continue to be open and functioning during that shift, we register nothing in consciousness.

It’s also like an electron. When an electron in an atom shifts from one orbit to another, it does not travel between orbits. It’s in one orbit, then it’s in another. It’s never in between. I suppose some of us might say that that it blinks out of existence in one orbit and blinks into existence in another. (That is what I understand physicists to be saying.)

Again and again, over the years, I’ve brought my full focus and attention to bear on this event. What happened? When my roommate dropped into that crouch, did I have a sudden understanding that if we fought, there would be lots of demerits, so many that we would lose the privilege of going home for Easter holiday the following Friday? Did I become aware of that and act on that knowledge? In my memory, I never find any content, any more than I can find content when I’m looking in the mirror, between the moment I’m focused on one eye and the moment I’m focused on the other.

So--a saccade: I was leaning on the library table, turned a little to the left, so that my right shoulder was nearest him (he was probably five or six feet away), the door behind me beside the table.

Then I was behind him, and I was holding him in a wrestling hold called a Full Nelson. That would imply the following process: I crossed the room, went behind him, turned in the same direction he was facing (toward the door of the room), slipped my hands under his armpits, and then clasped my hands together behind his neck, putting on enough pressure to lift both his arms above his head and bend his neck forward.

The Full Nelson, properly applied, makes an opponent almost totally helpless—it is almost impossible for him to leverage his weight or his strength. He’s completely in your control—in fact, it’s known as a control hold (illegal in amateur wrestling). I’ve only seen it (except for this instance) as an elementary school playground hold, applied after sneaking up behind a victim and using surprise to apply the hold. My roommate struggled for a while, to no avail, because I had locked the hold very securely. After a bit, he calmed down and relaxed and said something like, “Okay, this is over, I’m not going to fight now.” And I let him go. In a minute or two he mumbled some thanks for saving Easter holiday for both of us.

In a while, he asked me how I did whatever it was I did.

I still don’t know. I think now, after years of meditation and learning to focus and stay present, that it might have had to do with a microsecond of total presence and total awareness and total alignment with the energy of the universe. There was certainly no moment of choice for me, no planning, no decision, nor even, I think, an intention. And that’s not an explanation, just a possible description of the mechanics. How did I summon up the presence and awareness and surrender?

More important, how can I live there? How can I find more such moments of presence and awareness and surrender? I no longer encounter extreme physical situations like that one. How do I find it in what I do every day?

And every day, I seek to live in that timeless present moment so that like Suzuki, I can be ready for any gust of wind.