First, There is a Mountain…

I have been keeping a log of my Linux experiences since August of 2002. At first, I set it up as a textbase of tips. Using the wonderful program Tuxcards, I maintained a diary.very time I had a tough question, I recorded it. When I found the answer, I recorded that, too. I worked hard to sprinkle this textbase with enough key words so I could find the answer again.

When I began, I was a noob. Two and a half years later, I sometimes wonder how much has changed — until, that is, I go back and look at the log.

The innocence of those first questions! How obvious the answers today!

It reminds me of the Donovan song:
First there is a mountain
then there is no mountain
then there is

I can think of no clearer explication of the Linux experience.

I’m using this, of course, exactly opposite the Zen meaning. Before one sits in zazen, Zen meditation, mountains are just mountains.

The deeper one gets into spiritual practice, the more mysterious everyday things become. Mountains are no longer mountains. They are, instead, something altogether mysterious, even anxiety-producing.

Finally, at the breakthrough, one rediscovers the natural and normal, finding a new clarity in simple reality. Mountains are again mountains.

That is NOT how it works when you’re learning Linux. When I started, basic operating system conventions (which files were important, where they were stored, command line syntax) were not just mysterious, they were positively threatening. The learning curve was vertical, straight up from my level of understanding. A mountain.

Over time — after lots of stupid mistakes, lots of reading, lots of Googling — it no longer looked like a mountain. It began to look possible, even ordinary or normal. A meadow.

Then, on occasion, I’m going along on my desktop, imagining myself to be reasonably competent. Then I run into a wall so hard, so steep, so resistant to my analysis, that I feel anxious and dwarfed. I am once again confronting a sheer expanse of rock.

There are similarities between spiritual exploration and the exploration of operating systems.

When confronted with total existential panic, do this: breathe. Don’t run away. Don’t hide behind the drama of self-blame (“I am so STUPID”).

Be there. Slow down. Stay in the moment. Open your eyes and look around. What do you see? Character by character, line by line, screen by screen, handhold by handhold, you can climb, touching the wall, pulling yourself up.

The way to climb a mountain is not to. Just concentrate absolutely on the immediate, the necessary, next step.

Trapped? Do what all students do. Ask. Seek a teacher or teachers.

Go to the ashram of Google. Type your query, as directly as possible. Google is the index to the unwritten manual of Linux.

Remember: Google is only one path. The humble physical place, the roadside shrine of the public library, is another. Here one may find multiple texts. These may be carried to a place of quiet, read through in calm, absorbed. Some answers must be not just swallowed, but digested, as part of a balanced meal.

The advantage of the printed text over the electronic is the stamp of authority — of editorial review. It is the difference between the forum — where a mistaken statement is corrected three screens later — and the FAQ, where the right answer is given first.

Or — and I realize this is apostasy — try to find a real human being, one to be in the same room with you, at the same screen, the same keyboard.

Alas. There are many false teachers. As the answers come, ponder them a moment before peppering the source with new questions. There are many questions, many teachers, many opportunities for learning. If one is fruitless, move on.

But before speaking again, posting on an infinity of mirrors, look again. Listen.

Linux, like Zen, must be lived to be grasped. You have to type the right, and the wrong, command. You have to live in not just the moment, but the moment before, and the moment after. The Buddha said, “life is suffering.” And this was BEFORE computers. He had no idea.

One might ask, “Why?” Why put yourself through the torment, the mental and emotional agony of news feeds and blogs and the endless incarnations of distributions?

Because the alternative is the Illusion, the Maya, of Microsoft. And here the delicate soul recoils.

I leave you with the poignant words of Issa, the Japanese haiku poet , deeply imbued with the spirit of Zen. At the top of the mountain, there are eagles. Elsewhere, life is different.

When you are tender
to them the little sparrows
will poop on you

About the author
James LaRue is a public library administrator and student of Asian philosophy.


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