We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.
The title of this poem is so interesting. How sometimes we feel we must defend our pleasures, our moments of delight, in the face of so much suffering in the world.
Finding the balance between wanting to save the world (as if I could) and wanting to lay all that aside and just savor it while I can, has been a lasting theme in my life.
More and more I’m tending toward the latter.
My favorite treatise on the subject is the tale of the Zen monk being chased over a cliff by a tiger. He grabs hold of a vine to keep from falling, while a hungry alligator snaps at his heels in the river below. Just then, he spies a juicy red strawberry hanging nearby. He reaches out with one hand to pop it into his mouth.
I wrote this years ago, a kind of declaration for a state of being with which I passionately identified, although it seemed so beyond what I or anyone could reach at the time:
Epitaph for a Tombstone
I am compressed within my skin like a time bomb.
There is more to me than time allows to be.
When the end comes I’ll explode like an atom.
It is my end to explore infinity.
It seemed at the time I wrote it that there was so much I wanted to do and explore, and yet I wasted so much time on trivial things, that I feared my end would come before actualizing even a fraction of my potential. I could not accept that such would be the end of me. Surely this keenly felt unlived life would burst through the shell of being into something infinitely elastic, and all that I was or was meant to be would be realized eventually.
Now that my end of days have grown so much nearer, that sense of there being more to me than time allows to be has not diminished. But I think of it somewhat differently. That escape into an ever-expansive sense of self no longer seems to lie upon a birth-death or time-space axis but within the here and now which defies such limitations.
That smallness of being which so ill-fits us, which pinches and punishes, which we all in this present life seem heir to, does not define us and has little in reality to do with us. It’s but an ill-shaped mind-box that seems to contain us but never really can.
It’s as if this limited life which seems to bind us is like a box with four sides. Before and behind us are Birth and Death, and on either side are I and Other. Below is the Ground of Being which supports us. But there is no lid above. It is open to the Wonder or Mystery of Being, enticing us to rise beyond the strictures of time and space, birth and death, I and Other. Inviting us to explore what lies beyond this small sense of self; and so we do, each following our bliss. Through exploration of the sciences or creative arts, or by pursuing the ideals of freedom, equality, justice, service, selfless love, and the common good, we rise somewhat out of our smaller selves into something more expansive.
But until those opposing walls of birth and death, time and space, and I or Other collapse, we are still confined within a smaller, ill-fitting sense of being. We can slip in and out of that box, but cannot escape it altogether. Death is not the door that frees us. Mind is.
Rising to a higher, more expansive sense of self that identifies both with the Ground of Being that supports us, and the Wonder of Being that surrounds us, we find our freedom. There the restrictive walls that would bind us collapse for lack of identity.
All the great spiritual teachings point in that direction. Not toward something outside or apart from us, but toward a more expansive identity : the Kingdom of God, Enlightenment, the Tao. All lie within a higher consciousness or understanding of being.
We know this, it is not new. Nor is it far away. We all taste it, hear it, glimpse it in rarified moments even within this limited sense of self.
When one student asked the sage to show him this higher reality we sometimes call God, the master said, “There, do you not smell it?” as their feet crushed the sweet arbutrus beneath them.
Nothing is hidden. We all catch that whiff of the infinite in humble and exquisite ways along our journey within.
But perhaps this is all too esoteric. Here’s something more concrete.
The other day we all learned how President Trump had contracted Covid. Not a fan of Trump and angry at how he had been been downplaying the disease in a way that appeared to cost thousands of lives, I was not sympathetic. I thought this was his just dessert. I even felt a bit gleeful since he had been mocking Biden about wearing a mask only a few days previously. I hoped he would experience more than mild symptoms so that he would have more compassion for others who had suffered, and not come away saying it wasn’t so bad after all, nothing to worry about to his followers.
Yet thinking this way felt uncomfortable, like putting on shoes a size too small. They pinched. But I couldn’t quite lift my thought away from such feelings, thinking them justified.
The next morning during my spiritual practice my thought completely shifted as I once again began to identify with this higher sense of self, where I and Other melted away. I felt this deep empathy and sympathy toward the president. Not toward his plight contracting Covid. But rather toward the plight we all share when confined within this small, tight, pinched sense of identity. I thought of what he could be, and actually is, when those four walls of restriction fall away and he too experiences that more expansive sense of self where there is no I or Other.
I remembered what his niece, Mary Trump, had written about his upbringing, how he’d been shaped to be the boastful, selfish, egotistical man he seems to be, how his values and sense of self had been warped. Each of us have similar life experiences that shape and limit us, that we all need to outgrow. Perhaps this Covid experience will help him. Perhaps not. Either way it wasn’t my business.
My business was to lift my own sense of self beyond the thought-patterns that had so pinched the day before. To experience the deep sympathy that rises from the ground of being and unites us all. To once again savor that sweet wonder that lifts us beyond ourselves.
The best day of my life—my rebirthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.
It was eighteen years ago, when I was thirty-three, that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?
. . . . What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking . . . . Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
. . . . I seemed to stop breathing altogether . . . . alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void . . . utterly free of “me”, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
. . . . [I]t felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. . . . . In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words . . . . the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.
I’ve had that sensation of being “vast emptiness, vastly full” and it feels more real, more “me”, than my ordinary sense of self. The full-blown experience doesn’t last long, but the sense of it, the memory, the feel of it when I enter those words vast emptiness, vastly full is heady. It takes me somewhat out of myself and into a sense of being that is freer and fuller. And truer. It brings me home to myself.
To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980)
I wonder, is this true?
Certainly, sometimes the thing we’ve craved, once held in hand, does not live up to what was rounded out in exquisite detail when beheld in mind. Nor does the thing in hand last quite as long, if the thing we crave is not an object we can possess.
But is the thing in hand a mere shadow of the thing we craved for?
Is the matter-object we hold for but a moment in our hand less substantial than the ideal we crave and can bring to mind at moment’s notice and hold onto forever?
Sometimes I like to think so. I like to think those we’ve lost that are dear are as close as our thoughts of them fleshed out by memory and imagination. By a pure, keenly-honed desire to have and hold. Desire as sharp and hot as a welder’s flame.
I like to think that all I love and long for–that deeply felt-sense of them–is never lost. It’s shadow-substance may come and go and disappear as things do in a world of constant change. But its essence, the thing-in-itself that ever was, remains.
Brighter, clearer, than when held in hand.
Sweeter, purer than before.
The clean, keen edge of it never lost. Never wavering.
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not from you.
I first read these words from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet when still in high school, a child myself, although I did not see myself that way. His words moved me then, even as they do now, so many years later, when I am raising a granddaughter.
Then I truly was “life” in its earliest stages “longing” for the life that was to be, that stretched out before me in what seemed an endless and exciting unknown potentiality.
I didn’t want to be hemmed in by the hopes and expectations of my parents, nor by their fears and warnings. I didn’t want to “learn from their mistakes,” as they cautioned me. I wanted to live my life as an adventure, learning from my own mistakes, not theirs. My life was my own and no one else’s. I wanted to risk all, moving at my own direction, and good or bad, I alone would take responsibility for the life I chose. Such were my longings then.
So I found Gibran’s parenting advice immensely inspiring, both for myself as I was moving beyond my parents into adulthood, and also for the kind of parent I wanted to be to my own children.
He goes on to say:
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Now, as the mother of a grown son and the guardian of his child, The Prophet’s words still move me . . . and admonish me.
How I wish now my son had heeded my warnings, and that they had been louder and clearer. How I wish he had chosen paths more safe and sane, had lived up to all the potential I saw in him then and see still.
But those are my fears, my regrets, not his. I must loose him and let him go, and see the direction in which he flew as his own choice. It was never mine to make or change or regret. I had longed when young to make and learn from my own mistakes, and so must he. But that learning is his alone to make or forsake in his own good time.
As for his child, my little granddaughter, she too is an arrow who will fly beyond my bending, beyond my ability to see or guide her life’s flight. Will my warnings to her be louder and clearer? No doubt. Will she heed them, or long to learn from her own mistakes, as I had, as her father must? We shall see.
She, as her father, is in the Archer’s hand. And I must trust, trust, trust that each will reach that mark upon the path of the infinite toward which the Archer aims with gladness. They are, after all, Life’s sweet longing for itself.
How much of our lives do we view through a narrow lens, whether through the lens of a camera, our own limited viewpoint, or the stories we tell about ourselves and each other?
When we walk through life with a perpetual camera around our necks, we are tempted to see everything through that narrow focus, framing everything we see–the city streets, the sunsets and landscapes, the people we pass, the objects that come into view. As we frame what we see and take photos, it helps us to notice things we may have overlooked otherwise, and to see these things in a new light. It intensifies our ability to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, and allows us to capture and preserve those visions.
But it also breaks the whole into parts, raw experience into the photo-worthy and not-so-much. We experience things not as a participant, but an observer, a spectator or voyeur at worst, a curator of the significant at best.
When we were sailing around the world, I wish I had done more of that capturing and preserving. There were no digital cameras then, and film was expensive and hard to store in a hot, damp climates. So now I have only a handful of photos from hikes through the enchanted valleys of the Marquesas. Three or four of our stay in legendary Bora Bora, a dozen from our three months in Samoa. Now I wish we had dozens more photos of each place to view and remember.
On the other hand, by the time my first grandchild was born we had a digital camera. Because I saw him so seldom, when I was with him I photographed him almost continuously, following him everywhere and capturing every sweet smile, every cute incident, every new thing he did.
Until I stood back one day and realized that by indulging the urge to “frame” everything for posterity, I was missing out on now, on just being with him–soaking up his presence, our time together–in the moment, raw and unfiltered.
Now though, I do not regret all those photos I took. For I am able to relive those moments with greater clarity and in more detail that I might have been able to do so without them.
It’s all a balancing act, I guess.
As writers we do that too—viewing the world and our experiences through a mental lens, framing things for posterity, seeing images, events, interactions, as fodder for our stories. We couldn’t write without doing that, consciously, or unconsciously.
But we have to know when to see things through the writer’s mind, as observer, spectator, curator, and when to put away that lens and become a participant in the raw experience that evolves around us. To “step barefoot into reality” as the poet Wallace Stevens once evoked.
It’s harder than we might imagine, to put away all the filters through which we experience life, and just “be” it. Life itself. Unfiltered.
NOTE: I wrote this post six years ago, but it shows, even then, my keen interest in photography, and even more in how we capture and reflect experience, limit and distort it. As you know, I’m researching a new novel with photography and the creative endeavor at its core, and the reading I’m doing meshes quite nicely with what I wrote here. So I thought I’d share this, my own take on this subject, before sharing what I’ve gathered from others.
That’s where I’ve been these last ten days or so, wrapped around Schrödinger’s cat in that state of unknowing. My son went missing and I did not know if he was dead or alive. Both possibilities seemed so potent. I wanted to know and not know at the same time. I wanted to peek beneath that lid and keep it securely closed forever.
I’ve always been fascinated by the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, that something can be and not be at the same time. That it exists within a perpetual state of ambiguity until the lid is lifted and someone peeks inside. The act of observation is what breaks the spell and catapults a thing, a cat in this instance, into a single state of being– either alive or dead.
Apparently, according to quantum physics, at the level of the infinitely minute, where atoms and quarks and such are the substance of reality, things exist in a fluid state of infinite potentiality. Yet at this macro level where we experience reality, all appears fixed and certain. Only during heightened times, such as when loved ones go missing, does the dilemma of Schrödinger’s cat become not only real, but preferable.
The hope that my son might still be alive seemed too fragile and fleeting to hold on to. Instead I wanted to wrap myself within a state of unknowing, where there was neither life nor death, being or non-being, but just this rich, potent potential with no edges.
I wanted to remain in that limbo forever because I knew that once the lid was lifted, the dilemma did not really end. If he was dead the long, anguished darkness would descend. If he was alive, the joy would be brief and mixed, because the eventuality of his death was so certain and could come at any instant. Life is fragile and fleeting. Death is the one great certainty.
The lid to my dilemma eventually did lift. The whole time of my unknowing was his as well, it appears. He had been in a hospital in a coma. They called me when he awoke and I went to him. But he was clearly not fully awake. He was in purgatory he told me, neither alive nor dead, and he could not tell if I was real and really there or just a figment of his imagination. He truly believed that he had died and was existing in some hellish limbo. I cannot tell you, but you may well imagine, the anguish I felt hugging a son who thought he was dead.
By the next day the lid was raised for him as well, and he knew that he was indeed alive and that I was really there. His recovery was swift and he was discharged from the hospital.
So all is well, for now, at least.
But I cannot shake this sense of uncertainty about the nature of reality. I would rather live in that quantum field of endless potentiality, rather than being stuck in this macro world of duality where the cataclysmic forces of right and wrong, good and evil, life and death, clash so ferociously, and appear so fixed.
I wonder if it truly is that lifting of a lid that “fixes” a thing? That ties it to one end or the other of an apparent duality, and makes a thing dead or alive?
Or rather, is it our firm belief in a dualistic reality that forces our rational mind into “seeing” either one thing or its opposite, and not the state between?
Is this another paradox to puzzle through? Another box to open?
Let all six sides fly apart.
Let all hard edges dissolve.
Let me wrap my mind around the soft warm body within where nothing is fixed or final.
I’ve become mesmerized by the quote below I found on The Beauty We Love. These first four lines, especially, move me.
A wife loves her husband not for his own sake, dear, but because the Self lives in him.
The husband loves his wife not for her own sake, dear, but because the Self lives in her.
Children are loved not for their own sake, but because the Self lives in them.
Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it.
Reading these words, I feel the truth in them. When I look at and love my husband, my son, my daughter, what I’m seeing and loving is something, a Self, so much larger than what we each are alone. Something that resonates within me and within all the things I love. Something that is not an other, but what runs through and connects all others. It makes each loved one more dear to me, more rare, more real, than what mere personality or even individuality, personal affection, or familial attachment alone would support.
The tenderness in the Chagall painting above captures that reflective love, that mirrored Self, so beautifully.
The rest of the quote lies before, which I also sense to be true, although more abstract.
This Self has to be realized. Hear about this Self.
As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste, the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal.
Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification dissolves, there can be no more separate self.
~ from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The self dissolved into “a sea of pure consciousness” is a lovely, restful image. But it’s missing the intimacy and immediacy of those first four lines where that sea washes through the faces I love. That image is far more meaningful to me, and truer, I believe, to the intent those verses imply. That Self is not abstract. I feel it in my bones.
As you read this, I’ll have flown across the Atlantic and landed in Madrid. I may be strolling through the Prado marveling at the artwork, climbing castle steps in Segovia, or sipping espresso at a sidewalk cafe in Paris.
It all sounds like a fairy tale to me now, sitting here tapping out this post to the beat of Jimmy Buffet’s “Trip around the Sun.” Wondering at the wonders to come.
Our whole lives are like this, spinning through time and space on this tiny planet. Traveling through a transient present, glancing back at the slide show of our past, gazing forward into a hazy future full of airy phantoms zooming toward us.
Who knows how this all will unfold?
“We’ll have to keep pinching ourselves to believe we are really there,” says my cousin who I’ll be traveling with.
And so should we all, every day of our lives. To keep present in the moment, right here, right now, before it slips into the past. Before the future with all its airy uncertainty settles around us like a warm blanket and slowly unravels into mere memory.
This life is too loose, too swift, too fluid, to do anything but marvel at its passing, to be dazzled with dizziness as the earth spinning beneath our feet spins around the sun.
Sometimes I think I must keep dancing in place just to keep up.
If only we could live every moment of our lives as tourists, pinching ourselves awake.
I’ll leave you with the song I’ve been listening to.
Some works of art speak to you on a level that is hard to define. You gaze and are drawn inward. Something in you identifies with what you see there. It’s not outside, it’s in here. It was there before you saw it, and the seeing is just a reminder of its presence.
I felt that way when viewing some of the artwork at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Especially in the faces that follow. The one above is my favorite. I cannot help smiling when I see it. I’ve paired the faces with a few favorite Tao verses and Zen anecdotes that capture a glimpse of what I see in each face.
THE MONK – OH SO DELICIOUS
Once there was a monk fleeing for his life, a tiger at his heels, chasing him over the edge of a cliff where he grabs hold of a branch. He dangles there just out of reach of the tiger’s snapping jaws, while below another tiger is snapping at his feet. No escape. Just then he notices a fat juicy strawberry dangling from a nearby vine. He plucks it loose and pops it into his mouth. “Oh, so delicious!” he sighs.
THE SAGE – WHERE WONDER RISES
“From mystery to further mystery is the entrance to all wonders.” -Tao Te Ching, (Ch. I)
THE SAVANT – RIDING THE WIND
“My eye becomes my ear, my ear becomes my nose, my nose my mouth. My bone and my flesh melt away. I cannot tell by what my body is supported or what my feet walk upon. I am blowing away, east and west, as a dry leaf torn from a tree. I cannot even tell whether the wind is riding on me or I am riding on the wind.” -Lieh Tzu
THE MYSTIC – WHO AM I?
“Once I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there. Suddenly I awoke and was surprised to be myself again. Now, how can I tell whether I am a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who dreams she is a man?” Chuang Tzu
THE MOTHER – OBTAINING THE ONE
Knowing the Male, But staying with the Female, One becomes the humble Valley of the World. – Tao Te Ching (Ch.XXVIII)
There was something complete and nebulous Which existed before Heaven and Earth, Silent, invisible, Unchanging, standing as One Unceasing, ever-evolving, Able to be the Mother-of-the-World. – (Ch. XXV)