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|My vision of the new spiritual life in
by Zoketsu Norman Fischer
published in Spritual Manifestos: Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America Niles Elliot Goldstein (ed.)
When I studied religion in graduate school I was in a department called "History and Phenomenology of Religion." The assumption that the department operated under, as indicated by its name, was that religion was not to be viewed as the truth, a closely held and self contained belief system, but rather that it was an important and necessary human function.
This has always been my sense of religion. Religion fascinates me. I am amazed constantly by the various ways that humans go about the impossible task of articulating and developing their inmost feeling for being human. I would rather attend a church service or climb a Mayan temple than I would attend a baseball game or a concert. For my money, religion has always been less about being good or right, or about finding the one absolute truth that there is, than about engagement in the ongoing exploration of what it means to be human, and finding a way to live out the implications of the process.
I think it is a shame, although it seems quite natural, that religion becomes so culturally determined. When I was young, living in a small town in Pennsylvania, one's religion was what one received from one's family. It was completely taken for granted, and there was nothing lively or perplexing about it. Your parents were Methodists or Catholics so you were, and being Methodist or Catholic meant that you sang in this way, went to church in that place, celebrated holidays with this or that set of customs. You were also supposed to believe something in particular, but the fact of the matter is very few really knew what those beliefs were, and even fewer actually believed them.
This is of course all right as far as it goes, even wonderful as far as it goes. Having a place to worship and a community to worship with, a set of beliefs to subscribe to or keep at least intact for a sense of certainly about life.. all of this can be comforting, and can provide the context for a good life that satisfies. But - at least as far as I am concerned - it does not go far enough.
Because religion, most deeply understood, is also outside of culture. It is about the bottom of one's life, touched at the place where culture, even psychology, ends. I always enjoyed the Jewish background I had been brought up in and had no quarrel with it. But when I was confronted with the toughest questions of my life, questions of meaning, questions of purpose, life and death questions that arose out of despair and suffering, I knew that I needed experiential spirituality, and it simply did not occur to me to look for that in my Jewish roots. I think that the new spirituality has everything to do with this sort of experiential spiritual exploration.
***Unlike any other discipline I know of, the results of human religious exploration are almost indescribable in ordinary language. You can't use math either, and you can't use metaphor, at least not in the usual literary sense. Religious exploration seems to require a specialized language and the cultivation of a set of attitudes, emotions, and practices to go with that language, to make it, to some extent at any rate, understandable. Suggestible. And so there are religious traditions, each quite different from the other, that provide the context necessary for this deep and essential exploration of the human heart.
It is clear that we need to take care of our bodies with good exercise and diet. It is clear that we need to take care of our minds by reading and studying. It is clear also that our psychological well being, our emotions, relationships, and our own healthy sense of who we are as personalities, need tending. We have doctors, teachers, and therapists to help us with all of that.
But beyond, or throughout it all there is the need to take care of our deepest inmost intimate self: the impermanent shifting indefinable self that changes, grows old and dies, but somehow endures, the self that seeks meaning and purpose, the self that is always unknown and alone and in the dark, confronting an alien world. This is the territory the new religion needs to explore.
In centuries gone by I think religion traditions have held an imperialistic sway over our most intimate life questions. Each religious tradition has insisted on the primacy of its own truth, to the exclusion of all others, and has made a point of being completely ignorant of other religious traditions, and scornful of them as well as of secular ideologies and disciplines. Because of this, the last century or so has seen the eclipse of religion. Very few forward looking people embraced or espoused it. Instead the physical and social sciences, the arts, and psychology, provided us with all the explanations we thought we needed. The liveliness of our life was there.
At the end of the millennium this is no longer the case. We have learned what we could learn from the secular disciplines; there is more to learn of course, but it is clear that all the answers we need will not be found there. We are returning now to a clarity that religion is necessary, and I think we have a new sense of what religion is and how it functions in our lives.
It is not that religion is the truth, taking precedence over everything else, as though it were a separate totalizing thing, like a cloud that covers the sky of our lives. We are seeing instead that religion is a crucial aspect of who we are as human beings, and that this aspect, more like leaven in bread than a cloud overhead, can be found everywhere in us. It is not more important or more profound. It is simply there and necessary, as everything in our lives is important and necessary.
In addition, we are seeing that the various traditions are not really contending and mutually exclusive truth systems. Traditions are of course different. Each has something to offer. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Each can be useful to the person who chooses to use it. Religion, in other words, we now know, is for people, not the other way around.
In the last few years, as I have become more flexible with my own tradition, I have come to see something that is I think rather new in the history of spirituality, as least as far as I know it.
A religious tradition is a coherence; in other words, it makes sense in a coherent way. The scriptures, the practices, the customs, all fit together. Many thousands of great minds, over centuries, have worked things out, often through bitter disagreement, eventually smoothing the way, so that a religious tradition is something beautiful and whole, in and of itself.
People, on the other hand, are not quite so coherent, and, I would say, they have become less coherent in recent centuries. The more we look honestly at ourselves, at our impulses and deepest thoughts and desires, the more contradiction we find. Insofar as we have given ourselves more and more permission to be open to what we feel, we have found more and more contradiction, more and more complexity.
In my own working with people over the last ten years or so I have seen that the contradictions within people do not always fit the coherence of religious traditions. For many people a particular tradition may fit quite well in some ways, but in other ways it simply does not, and people sometimes suffer, do violence to their spirits, in order to fit themselves into a particular tradition. And sometimes, for some people, one tradition fits in some ways, but another tradition fits in other ways. People experience a lot of pain over this sort of thing. If I am a good Christian why do I need to practice Zen? And if I am a good Zen person why do I feel the need to go to church on Christmas eve?
I think we are now just beginning to discover that these contradictions may be all right. Of course to practice religion one needs a sense of giving up preference and going beyond one's desire and conditioning, so it is not the case that anything we want or prefer is always just fine. We do need a sense of renunciation and rigor in our practice. And it is practice, an ongoing committed willingness to go on with something, even if it is sometimes difficult or even unsatisfactory. But still, given this, I have found a certain ecumenical mixing, not only between traditions, but also outside traditions, with other disciplines approached with a religious spirit, to be characteristic of the new spirituality.
I think in particular of a Zen friend of mine who has been practicing diligently for many years. He has done daily meditation practice and countless one day and one week Zen retreats. He has lived in a monastery for a training period, has taken ordination, has studied texts.
But little by little over the years he began to feel that there was something missing in Zen for him. That the tradition, while warm and friendly, was missing a dimension of passion that he increasingly felt a need for as the years wore on. Eventually he found that dimension in the Christianity of his youth, and he returned to that, even as he went on rigorously with his Zen practice. And I have known other people, equally rigorous in their practice, who felt the need after a time to take up some artistic or intellectual discipline as a supplement to their practice, as another means of exploring their inmost lives.
In the rest of this essay I want to talk about the ways in which I have tried to bring these essential characteristics of the new spirituality - that it is existentially not culturally based, that it is experiential, that it is flexible and tolerates contradiction, that is it ecumenical- into my own practice and teaching. Some of these ways are subtle; they have less to do with major changes in the way I do things than with the attitude and understanding I bring to the things I do. But others are not so subtle; they involve some innovative sorts of retreats and programs I have created in order to fill needs I saw were there.
Our particular lineage of Zen is quite conservative. I appreciate that. Tradition is strong and positive, as far as I am concerned. Doing things that have been done for a long time by respected elders seems more solid to me than making up what works for me today.
And yet a strong aspect of our lineage has been to always keep our minds as open as possible, even while our bodies are doing things in the old ways. Our founder in America, Shunryu Suzuki coined the phrase "beginner's mind." "In the expert's mind there are few possibilities," he wrote. "In the beginner's mind there are many."
Every morning I get up and go to the meditation hall or zendo, which has at its center an altar with a Buddha on it, very much like an altar you would see in a Japanese Zen temple. I wear Japanese robes with outlandishly wide sleeves, a style that was taken into Japanese tradition from the T'ang dynasty in China centuries ago. Our daily chanting service, which is now mostly in English, still does have some Japanese, and is, in any case, modeled on the chanting ceremony you would experience in a Japanese Soto Zen monastery. When I lead retreats or monastic practice periods I conduct the traditional ceremonies and model my talks and statements after those of the teachers of old. I even have a snow white ceremonial fly whisk, that I use for special occasions, almost certainly the same as the whisks used by S'ung dynasty Chinese monks.
I very much have the sense that in order to really steep one's self in a tradition, and to receive the benefits of wisdom and depth that the tradition can bring, one must do the daily work of training in a lifestyle that may be restrictive or difficult. Zen may have the reputation of being a "sudden awakening" school of Buddhism, but there aren't any shortcuts.
On the other hand, the attitude with which all of this training and traditional activity is presented can vary quite a bit. Traditionally, it has often been presented as an absolute: this is the way to train, this is the way to live. And the Zen teacher, the Zen Master or priest, is the authority, a person to be revered and obeyed.
I try to present a much different style. For one thing, I try to emphasize the personal. I myself try, without being inappropriately friendly or informal, to be as natural and as honest as I can with my students and congregants. I work pretty hard on my practice, but I am certainly not perfect at it, and while I try to understand as much as I can of the wisdom of the past, I have certainly not mastered it, and can and do learn from others all the time. I express this, and often tell stories of my own stupidity or confusion. In fact "confusion" is a word I often apply to myself, not I suspect, entirely in its usual sense, but to make the point that I do not have the answers, that each person needs to find out for him or herself. Although as I have said I wear robes in the meditation hall and for formal occasions, and shave my head, I have made a point of dressing in ordinary casual clothing most of the time. I have eschewed all formal titles and am known everywhere by my first name. I appear around the temple not as a revered figure of august proportions but as an ordinary person, and I try to come across that way in all social and work situations. Kind, I hope, and considerate of my speech and actions, but ordinary and approachable.
This may not sound like anything unusual, but you need to understand the Zen context in order to appreciate it. In days gone by, certainly in Asia, and even here in the West, with Asian as well as Western teachers, there has been quite a cult of the "specialness" of the Zen master. This has been, I think, on the whole quite counterproductive., If, as I believe, the goal of Zen is to free each person so that he or she is fully able to be him or herself in the deepest and fullest sense of that, then to focus attention on the teacher goes quite against the grain.
So I have made the effort to maintain the delicate balance between holding my necessary place as leader and teacher and, at the same time, giving it away completely, and letting the student come forward.
In addition to this I have made a special effort, in my lecturing and teaching, to always speak inspired by the question, "what does this have to do with our everyday living; what does this actually mean?" Religious talk so easily becomes abstract, and despite Zen's reputation for being concrete and and illogical, it is no less the case with our tradition.
Religious talk, which is, I am convinced, fundamentally intended as medicine for our human sickness of alienation from self and other, too easily becomes poison, promoting increased idealism and misunderstanding.
We have enough problems as it is without introducing another ideology that we must live up to and judge each other for. Goodness knows there has been plenty of this throughout the history of religions. And one doesn't need to look to history. One can read yesterday's newspaper, or simply look at one's own judgmental and prejudiced mind. So I always take as much care as I can to bring the lofty Zen insight and language down to the everyday.
Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a tremendous amount of Buddhist and other religious activity. Many Western religious teachers from all traditions of Buddhism- Vajrayana, Theravada, Zen, Shin; Tibetan, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, Thai - as well as rabbis and ministers and Catholic priests and nuns- find occasion to meet with one another and share insights. I have found this very valuable, and over the years have given myself permission to be eclectic. In Soto Zen there is a particular meditation technique that is exclusively used, and this is what I myself practice, and mostly teach. But if I encounter a situation or a student for which something else is called for, I do not hesitate to use it. While I realize that too much mixing and matching can be counterproductive, because steadiness over time is necessary for religious practice to be effective, still I use whatever will work in a particular situation. And I try to be flexible in the same way in my private interviews and other meetings with students. I try to come from a place of listening and discernment, rather than from a stance of preconception about what is acceptable and workable.
This attitude of openness, or at least the effort to be as open as possible (because one never knows whether or not one really is open!) is not, I would say, typical of religion of the past, or, in some places, of the present, but is, as as far as I am concerned, a crucial element in the new spirituality.
A last point about my approach and attitude: all religious traditions include compassion and concern for the benefit of others as central. For me, this concern is tradition's protective armor: as long as it is kept shining and bright, and at the heart of what is practiced, you can't go wrong. But all too often (and this has sometimes been the case with Zen not only in Asia but here in the West) a tradition loses sight of this, or if it does not lose sight of it entirely, forgets its centrality. So in my teaching I have tried to come back to this point again and again. It is not our insight or our wisdom that counts, I try to tell people. It is our conduct and the warmth of our heart. It is not our brilliance in explaining a text or the physical prowess we display in our upright meditation. It is our kind speech and our beneficial action, our ready smile and our helping hand.
Zen is inherently a very stripped down and austere spirituality, and there is something wonderful in this, especially in our consumer era, when we all have so many possessions and interests we can't keep track of them all. But simplicity need not be standoffish coldheartedness, and must not be. So I harp on this point quite a bit, and, more than harping, I try to demonstrate it in my everyday conduct.
Working with my own mind and heart and with the minds and hearts of people I encounter in my life, I have tried to follow my nose to develop ways of practice that will answer the actual spiritual needs of people. I have not tried to be inventive or innovative. I do not hold that as a value: there is plenty that is new already. I merely do whatever I can to meet conditions that are in front of me.
With that spirit we have developed at our centers a number of new approaches to Zen practice. We now do non traditional retreats for business people; we engage very actively in Jewish-Buddhist and Christian-Buddhist dialog; we engage creatively with the practice, doing retreats using poetry and other art forms; we take the practice out of the temple, entering prisons, schools, child care and drug re-hab centers to teach meditation; we speak out on social issues; and we emphasize intimate relationship as a form of practice. In the remainder of this essay I want to speak about these areas.
Several years ago I attended a large meditation retreat at the end of which people broke out into various occupational or interest groups for discussion. I decided to attend the business group out of curiosity to see what people in that world would have to say about meditation practice and how it affected their lives.
What I heard surprised and disturbed me a great deal. Person after person spoke to the tremendous stress and grief they felt as they experienced mergers, cut-backs, the pressure for more speed of production, and an increasing feeling of a spiraling out of control technology-driven lifestyle, with almost no time for reflection, let alone friendship.
At the end of the discussion I asked whether anyone felt it would be of benefit to have a special retreat for business people, in which these issues could be discussed and explored, with meditation as a backdrop. The response was an overwhelming yes, and so began our ongoing retreat series called Company Time.
Company Time, which I co-lead with several Buddhist students who work in business, has been a very moving experience for me these three or four years. We convene several times a year for a week-end during which we practice silent meditation together and take a Buddhist ethical precept and discuss it carefully as it applies specifically to work in the business world. I have been consistently impressed by the numbers of people who feel the need for and, little by little, the possibility of, making work into an occasion for spiritual practice. Company Time has become an ongoing community of support for these people, and many of them come again and again, exchange addresses, and become allies for each other in times between retreats. Many people have used the retreats as occasions to find the courage to change their lives, where that was necessary, or to learn ways of going back into the work place with a renewed vision of what is possible.
The retreats emphasize silent meditation practice very strongly; this practice is absolutely at the heart of what we do. With meditation practice we can have a different kind of conversation: more friendly, less fear-driven, more open-minded. And we can begin to see our conduct, our human problems, in a different light. During the week-end we give people the instruction and the encouragement they need to continue to meditate informally in groups, or alone at home, as a way of opening the heart and finding the silent strength to see what's right and to follow through with it. We encourage them to meditate also in order to find the peace and spaciousness within to sustain what are often difficult and demanding lives.
Our discussions during the course of the retreats are not in the form of the usual corporate offerings that present high concept solutions to perceived problems. Rather we speak personally and intimately, respecting the immensity of the problems of our time, knowing that no one has answers, and that satisfaction will only come through personal integrity and long effort. We emphasize the courage necessary sometimes simply to go on with a good spirit. We hope that the meditation practice, along with some simple Zen teachings, can help people to have a wider sense of what is possible. Many of them report that our hope is not unfounded.
Among the techniques we have taught in our retreats are a form of walking meditation that can be used on lunch hour or a bathroom break; a phone-answering meditation that emphasizes greeting each new caller with freshness; the practice of mantrams or affirmations to remind us of our potential freedom in each moment.
Company Time retreats draw an audience of people from a variety of businesses, both for and non-profit, and there is a great comfort in being able to talk together with people from other companies who may share your problems, but not your workplace. Lately I have begun doing similar retreats in companies. Brought in by managers or owners who feel as if meditation practice will help foster an atmosphere of peacefulness and friendliness among coworkers, I have taught meditation and yoga, and given simple teachings about the application of Buddhist insight to the challenge of business life.
Another series of retreats that I have found to be enormously valuable for others and personally enriching is the series I have been doing with my old friend Rabbi Alan Lew. Called Meditation and Torah, these retreats, the fruit of our long friendship, combine versions of traditional Jewish prayer service with silent meditation practice. They also include times for teaching of both Buddhist and Jewish texts, as well as times for sharing and dialog. We do the retreats in one day or five day formats, and they are usually quite emotional and lively, sometimes bringing up much complaining and perplexity, as well as joy and insight.
Alan and I have been dear friends and comrades on the Path for almost thirty years, and we enjoy practicing together, and exploring Jewish Buddhist issues, very much. Alan, who became a rabbi after many years of Zen practice, has become a leader in the new Jewish meditation movement, and through him I have been able to learn much about directions in Judaism.
I am quite passionate about the importance of these retreats. The majority of Jews in America are inactive religiously as Jews; it is by far the minority that participate in, or even belong to, congregations. And the congregations themselves seem to be in a time of great transition, feeling a strong need to look for new ways to understand and practice Jewish spirituality, now that it is beginning to dawn on everyone that European Jewry is quite dormant, Israel can no longer be entirely responsible to hold all of the Jewish heart's need, and that in America intermarriage and secularism are having serious effects on the possibility of Jewish survival. Although my practice is as a Zen Buddhist, I have a strong passion for these issues, and I want to help as far as I can. It seems very much as if meditation practice can be an aid and an ally in this time of change for Jewish people.
It seems to me that inter religious dialog in general is an important practice in itself these days. When our world is so much overcome with hatred and deadly misunderstanding of various sorts, it seems clear that all efforts to understand one another in our differences are worthwhile, and will build bridges of peace little by little as time goes on. And so, in addition to my work with Jewish Buddhist retreats, I have been very active in recent years with Buddhist Christian dialog, taking part in several large events that have brought together leaders from Catholic and Buddhist traditions from all over the world. In 1996 at Thomas Merton's Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, and again in 1998 in Bodhgaya India, I have participated with His Holiness Dalai lama and Catholic monastics in significant inter religious meetings that have been enormously illuminating for my own practice. I have made many friends, and have opened myself to whole arenas of study that I never knew existed. One of the consequences of this has been my detailed study of the Rule of St. Benedict, the sixth century monastic rule that still regulates the daily life of Catholic monasteries.
Having been a working poet almost all my adult life, scrawling down poems between training periods, and publishing books and doing poetry readings when I could, I have been interested for many years in the relationship between spiritual practice and poetry. Out of this interest I have created a series of retreats that combine the two disciplines.
As with all of my non traditional Zen retreats, the poetry retreats include meditation practice done in an informal and relaxed setting. This practice is juxtaposed with some writing exercises or reading of poems. For retreats that involve writing, I have created all sorts of techniques for opening up a person's sense of language, so that he or she can make discoveries through writing, rather than simply repeating ideas or emotions that have been floating around in the mind for a long time. These techniques include ways of collaborative writing, timed writing, and the use of found words. The exercises are usually a lot of fun, and are presented as experiments rather than as occasions for the creation of Nobel Prize caliber literature. Experiments are opening: they do not require evaluation or judgmen t, only finding out what happens, and so they are generally quite helpful in allowing people free and surprising access to parts of their own deep spirituality that otherwise might never come forth.
Retreats in which we do reading and discussion of poetry are easy-going and sweet. After our meditation practice we meander through a small booklet of poems that I have collected over the years, reading favorites and using the poems as take off points for talking about our lives, our spirituality, our joys and our sorrows. Great poetry has resonance, and can provide us quite often with a better mirror for the spirit than traditional religious texts can afford. Poetry brings up the human side, the affective and emotional side, of our religious impulse.
Another important effort I have felt inspired to make with our practice is to take it out of the meditation hall, out of the temple grounds, and out into the community in whatever way that I can. Starting with the proposition that meditation practice is worthwhile, even transformative, and that it does not depend on a set of religious beliefs, but can be used with almost any belief system, or none, I have very much wanted to share what we have with others wherever they are, especially those who need it most and may not be in a position to find it.
With this thought our Center has become quite active in offering meditation classes wherever we find a sincere interest in the cultivation of meditation as a tool for the good. We have an extensive prison project, that not only offers meditation and yoga classes in local jails and prisons but also sends books and tapes to prisoners, and offers correspondence. We have done meditation classes in child care centers, drug re-hab center, and churches. I myself have often taught meditation classes in the local schools. We have done classes and special retreats for political activists and teachers, for whom burn-out is a constant problem, and a spiritual viewpoint probably a necessity for a sustainable active life.
The final area of practice that I want to mention is one that I have spent a good deal of effort on over the years. My efforts in this area have been personal and private, on a one-to-one basis, and yet I feel that this aspect of my practice may be the most important, and certainly the most heart-warming, of all. I am speaking of the practice of intimate relationship.
My parents were together for over forty years before my mother's death ended the marriage many years ago. Such a thing was not unusual of course for their generation; in the small community in which I grew up divorce was not completely unknown, but it was rare, and it was considered a great failure and a tragedy. In more recent times divorce is so common that my wife and I, who have been married for twenty-three years, feel like very unusual and special people! Marriages that last, in creative and happy ways, are simply not the norm in our time.
There are so many quite funny jokes about the difficulty of relationships, about the impossibility of men and women ever hoping to understand one another, that it is obvious that we are all generally quite aware of the problem. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, a popular book tells us, and there are many books that dispense advice about how to do this thing that used to seem so simple: fall in love and stay in love.
It is clearly not simple, if it ever was. It requires intelligence, courage, and emotional acumen. Intimate relationship- the need for it and the difficulty of sustaining it - is a powerful element of the new spirituality, whether or not anything thinks it ought to be. I think that the only way to approach intimate relationship is precisely as a spiritual practice. But how to go about it?
When I am asked this question I often point out that the Buddha, when confronted with the question himself, said, in effect: this one is too hard for me! Since I am sure I cannot handle it, I will start a celibate order of monks and nuns who will strive for spiritual depth without the difficult challenge of married and family life.
If the Buddha thought it was too hard it's no wonder that it's hard for us!
But it is not impossible. While it is true that there isn't that much teaching and lore in Zen or Buddhism that is directly about marriage, family, or relationship, there is much that is relevant if only we can develop a way of applying and adapting the teachings. This is creative and important work that I have been engaged with for many years, not only in my own personal life, but in the many encounters I have had with students as we have tried to work with this issue in our community over the years.
Our three Zen Centers are not single-sex celibate communities. Both sexes are welcome, and although we have rules against getting involved in inappropriate relationships, we recognize that intimate relationships, if they are conducted lovingly and honorably, can be an important element of a person's spiritual path. We encourage students to talk frankly with their teachers when they become involved in intimate relationships, and to try to treat the beloved with great kindness and sensitivity, practicing with the relationship as a way of developing one's capacity for compassion and selflessness. Relationships in our community are, as a consequence, never casual, and they are always, or at least almost always, conducted with dignity. I am sometimes frustrated at the amount of time leaders may have to spend working things out when rules are violated or relationships become disentangled, but in the end I feel that it is worthwhile, and there is little that I find more moving than a couple who have, through their spiritual endeavors, found a way to be truly loving toward one another. Such relationships usually inspire and encourage many others on the path.
Our tradition has a very beautiful marriage ceremony, which involves the couple not only in a commitment to each other, but also to a way of life, defined by the Zen precepts, that will give them the maximum possibility of staying together along the winding path of human change and development. Counseling and encouraging couples and watching them blossom has become an important part of my practice.
The new spirituality may not be so different from the old spirituality in the end. It is really impossible to know how people of the past understood things, how they lived and how they felt, in the intimate texture of the lives they led. Books don't tell us, and no document can ever really show what things were actually like, on the inside, long ago. Each generation is different, each individual is unique. Probably all discussions of sameness and difference are really more an exploration of how we feel in the present than about anything in the past, or elsewhere. But I imagine that a spirituality that is not pompous or judgmental, that honors life as life and looks toward happiness and kindness as the essential human birthright, is neither old nor new. It is something that has always been with us, and has always been elusive. Elusive, but not unfindable.