Friday, June 4, 2010

Rope Trick

To the ego, the present moment is, at best, only useful as a means to an end.  It gets you from some future moment that is considered more important, even though the future never comes except as the present moment and is therefore never more than a thought in your head.  In other words, you are never fully here because you are always busy trying to get elsewhere.[i]  Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth:  Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above.  –The Emerald Tablet of Hermes

(Note: if you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that the time between posts has been increasing.  This is because once I had plucked all the low-hanging fruit about my cute children, bad mental habits and shifting doctrinal landscape, I was left with nothing to do but actually confront the root causes of my profound screwed-up-titude—and that confrontation is something my inner Senate continually threatens to filibuster. I mean, how many times can a relatively reasonable person check his email, Facebook and the Huffington Post?  Enough to fill up whole afternoons with not-writing, apparently.  A large part of my brain wants to be anywhere but here, doing anything but this.) 

“I’m probably going to bail early,” I told the grad student who requested a ride to the potluck-and-bluegrass-jam that wrapped up the first day of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology.  I had left Philly at dawn to drive to Charlottesville, daylight savings time began that night, and I was giving my paper the next day; everything argued for a good night’s sleep. 

Need I say that’s not what happened? 

Most of the non-jamming guests had left by the time we packed up our instruments and said our goodbyes.  As I looked around for the people I’d come with, I heard the sound of an axatse (a West African instrument comprising a gourd enclosed in a network of beads) and turned to see our hostess demonstrating a complex 12-beat rhythm to a colleague by bouncing the gourd between her hand and thigh. I stifled an impulse to go over and learn the rhythm, too—I have to go to bed! I told myself--then turned sheepishly to the waiting grad student.  “I guess that bailing early plan didn’t work out,” I admitted.

En route to the hotel, I told my passengers that “I used to smoke weed when I was younger, until I discovered that the world is fascinating already.”  And it is.  When I let the dogs out before bedtime and hear the wind soughing in the neighbor’s gigantic sycamore tree, its looming form blotting out the stars over our back yard, it is fascinating; when we open up the Styrofoam cooler in the shed and find that the children have filled it with grass while playing Underground Railroad (apparently the grass represented provisions of some kind) it is fascinating; when I am bawling out my five-year-old, and my six-year-old tells her, “Daddy’s not saying you’re not a good person, Sophie,” it is altogether fascinating. Bluegrass and the axatse are fascinating.  Who needs weed? 

Of course, we all need fascination—what Paul Gauguin called “a sense of the beyond, of a heart that beats.”  One evening while our first daughter Clare was still a baby, my wife and I were having dinner at a friend’s house when Clare began to get fussy. Our hostess picked her up and took her across the room to look at a candle.  “Let’s get fascinated!”  she said.  Our baby stared, rapt and slack-jawed, at the flickering flame, and I saw for the hundredth time how numinous and mesmerizing the world was in her infant eyes.  Not presuming to have all the answers about anything she saw, or to be able to control things by naming them, she was happy to let the world be its fascinating self--almost as though she could detect “the dearest freshness deep down things”[ii] with some special sixth baby-sense. “We see the world with the five senses,” said Swami Vivekananda, “but if we had another sense, we would see in it something more.”[iii] 

Longing for this “something more” is, I believe, the reason people smoke weed; having lost the baby-sense, people turn to THC to open their minds to the bottomless fascination of the world.  Because we no longer have eyes to see and ears to hear, we have lost touch with the infinite, absolute, eternal life that animates our narrow, relative and temporary lives. "I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[iv]  But changing is hard, and chemicals can seem to bypass the need for it.  It’s not for nothing that the body’s neurotransmitter that the cannabinoids in marijuana mimic is called “anandamide”; ananda is Sanskrit for “bliss.”[v]  We will, apparently, take our bliss any way we can get it. 

People do drugs because they want, as Marianne Williamson put it, “a different experience of what is.”  And it seems to work because “what is” is slippery and unstable; so much so, in fact, that many things can alter your roadmap of reality.  My first year or so of temp work was strictly blue-collar, from assembly line and warehouse work to flagging traffic to shoveling ore in a government mineral depot.  During a run of success as a composer, when my temp agency supervisors noticed my name appearing in the local papers and heard me interviewed on public radio a few times, I started getting “cleaner” jobs, like setting up insecticide displays in supermarkets—jobs for which I wore a tie.  I was astonished at how differently people treated me--even out in the country where nearly all the men wore work boots and lined flannel shirts--when I wore a white shirt and a tie.  I was the same person who had worn the reflective orange vest the week before, but when the complexion of the maya, or illusion, around you changes, people perceive and respond to you differently. If a drug could make that kind of difference in our experience of the world, you couldn’t keep it on the shelves.

(Sometimes a little maya bait-and-switch can be fun.  During a period when I was getting a lot of commissions and performances, expensively-dressed people would approach me at post-concert receptions and ask me where I taught.  “Actually, I work at K & W Tire,” I’d tell them.  The visible discomfort in their faces and bodies before they extricated themselves from my company and went to freshen their drinks:  priceless.)

So what happens when our experience of our lives is wildly out of tune with any rational assessment of our circumstances?  During a rehearsal at another musician’s house, my hostess handed me a drink.  Distracted with a piece of sheet music, I took the glass, seeing peripherally the clear liquid inside and assuming that it was water.  I took a drink and was appalled by the nastiness of the fluid in my mouth—which, as it turns out, was Sprite.  Which I like.  But because I had been expecting water, and my mind was configured for it, I experienced the Sprite as unpleasant.

My life is like that.  I have a fantastic life:  two wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful, exuberant children, a loving wife who puts up with me and keeps me honest and earns enough to allow me to stay home, keep house and garden running, compose and perform music and spend hours on a self-indulgent blog.  But because it isn’t what I was expecting, I often experience my life as confining, unfulfilling.  I expected it to be full of height and depth and gravitas, and have found it full of dog fur and goutweed.  I looked forward to being intellectually and aesthetically stimulated on a daily basis.  (What I thought would happen about the dog fur and goutweed I don’t know.)  I thought I would feel more important.

There are no Desert Fathers around when you need one to adjust your attitude.  I am haunted by the story of the young monk who went to Abba Moses for advice on spiritual advancement. “Go and sit in your cell,” the Abba told him, “and your cell will teach you everything.”  Your life as it is, here and now, is gravid with everything you need to know--but it seldom appears that way.  And yet, if we had eyes to see—if we could get our thoughts out of the way of our perceptions, if we could stop labeling everything with a “yes, I know all about that”--who knows what we could detect in the seemingly undifferentiated landscape of our lives?  If we had no mental category for “green,” the woods would be a riot of color.

I have never owned a television in my adult life, but when I was a child I watched a lot of TV.  And of course, life on TV always seems more interesting and fulfilling than life elsewhere, as it’s meant to. My own life involved a lot of being bullied on the schoolbus and playground, so TV had a lot of allure for me.  Moreover, my budding religious sensibility was stewed in a sort of vindicationalism: I got picked on at school, but I was going to reign with the saints in the Kingdom.  So there were some pretty powerful incentives to regard day-to-day life as unreal--a preparation for some more fulfilling, fascinating “real life” that was going to happen at some time in the future.

The worst of this is that so much good passes us by while we are on the lookout for something better. I read somewhere that most of us meet some 1400 people during our lives with whom we could be compatible life partners.  So why aren’t we all happily married?  Because we see other people through the filter of the ridiculous ideas in our heads.

And not just people.  Early on in my folksinging days, a number of friends urged me to “go on the circuit” as a folk musician.  I was reasonably good at it, and I loved doing it.  But something had happened in my brain that made me regard ballads, pub songs and fiddle tunes as mere avocation, and somehow frivolous; my real work, I always told myself, was in the musical world in which I was being trained in graduate school.  It didn’t matter that playing my concertina and inviting my listeners to sing along made me happy; I was a composer—which is to say, a “serious” musician.  I cringe with shame to recall this—some of the most phenomenal musicians I have known have worked in traditional music--but that is honestly how I thought about it.  I could watch a group of novice dancers and extend a tune until they had completed a figure before moving to the next part of the tune, I could invent lyrics on the spot, I could improvise a musical accompaniment to a Commedia dell’ Arte performance, I had several hundred songs in my head ready to go at any time—but those skills all involved music in the service of something else, while serious music existed purely as a sonic object to be politely contemplated in a concert or recital hall.  So I spent years of my life, great pots of money, untold hours of unflagging industry and enough emotional energy to power a small city trying to fit into that world and make that music.  Why didn’t I see earlier that I was barking up the wrong tree?

Half my lifetime ago I had an experience that, had I known at the time how to interpret it, could have saved me a lot of anguish and wasted time.  But life, as Kierkegaard pointed out, can only be understood backwards, and it would be many years before the lesson the experience had to teach me would finally become clear.

(All my former students should stop reading now.) 

The summer after I graduated from college I was with a group of friends, and we had all eaten psilocybin mushrooms.  For some time, I didn’t understand what the fuss was all about; I didn’t seem to be what I thought of as “tripping” at all. “I just feel stoned,” I said to a friend.  “That’s it,” she replied:  “Just relax into it.”

And she was right:  as soon as let go of my prefabricated mental construct of “tripping” and simply allowed my experience to be what it was, I discovered that I was indeed tripping, and in a big way.  It was all happening already, but my willing-it-to-be had kept it from my awareness. Sober, I had the life I wanted already, and I didn’t know it, because I never “relaxed into it.”  The Zen teacher Sunryu Suzuki made a very similar point about the pursuit of satori, or sudden awakening, in meditation:

(A)s long as you think, “I am doing this,” or “I have to do this,” or “I must attain something special,” you are actually not doing anything.  When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something.[vi]

Relax into it.

(Now, let me be clear:  I am not recommending mind-altering drugs.  There are far too many uncontrolled variables, too many dangers.  And the mind, moreover, is like a computer:  garbage in, garbage out.  The second time I used mushrooms, I was in a worse state of mind than I realized, and the drug released an amazing trove of mental garbage; the experience was so terrifying that I vowed never to do it again, a vow I have kept for twenty-four years. Finally, drugs and the like only seem to be expanding our minds while we are under their influence; they make no real and lasting change in us.  Eckhart Tolle posited that, while things like meditation can take us above our thoughts, things like drugs and television take us below them; both can free us from our thoughts, but not in equally beneficial ways.[vii])

Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint who is regarded by many Hindus as an Incarnation of God, used a telling metaphor about wisdom seekers “doing something” in their quest for God. They climb the stairs of renunciation one by one, Ramakrishna said, and when they finally reach the roof, they discover that it is made of the same brick and lime as the stairs.[viii] We are not going anywhere, because we are already there—or at very least, “there” is not essentially different from “here,” now matter how much we sacrifice to our belief that is surely must be.

I’m tired of wandering; if the “one indivisible Self” resides in us all, where is there to go?  The Infinite does not “go” anywhere.  It is—you are--already there.

Jesus was apparently trying to get his hearers to “relax into it” when He told them, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."x  There is no place to go;  it is already here--you are already there. 

This is how the world regains its fascination: by our looking at it neither through the eyes of deluded desire that compare it to something “better” in our heads, nor through the eyes of calculation and greed for gain, but through the eyes of the Kingdom within, the eyes of a little child who sees “the dearest freshness deep down things.”  Not of drugged sleep, but of alert wakefulness.

“Could you not stay awake with me for one hour?” Jesus asked His disciples on the last night of His earthly life.[xi]  I think He asks each of us the same thing—“Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”[xii]  When Jesus asks us to keep awake with Him, he is inviting us to share in His divine life and ministry.  According to poet Andrew Hudgins, Jesus is

…someone walking through his life—or hers—
Until God whispers, It’s you. And God’s ignored…
Or does God simply choose us all?[xiii]

So OK, smartass, I tell myself:  if you’re Jesus—if you abide in Him and He in you like vine and branch[xiv]--stay awake with yourself! Don’t be continually falling back into the sleep of life inside your head, don’t be always drawing a veil of expectations and desires between yourself and the circumstances in which God and your karma have placed you.  Don’t end up like Jacob, who had to physically wrestle with his Creator and sustain a painful injury before he could say,  “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.[xv]

Vedantic philosophy uses the image of coiled rope in a dimly-lit room to explain our cognitive dysfunction. If upon entering the room we mistake the rope for a snake, we will be unable to see the rope, and we cannot see the rope until we stop seeing the snake.  As long as we see our lives as preparatory, stalled, unreal or unfulfilling, we cannot see them as numinous, fascinating, “charged with the grandeur of God.”[xvi] These, says Paul Simon’s song, are the days of miracle and wonder—but all days are the days of miracle and wonder if we are fully present to them.  The earliest Christian texts speak, not of the “return” of the Christ, but of Christ’s “revelation;” when the scales fall from our eyes, we will see that we are already in God.  This is surely what the Psalmist longed for when he prayed,

When I awake, I will be fully satisfied, for I will see you face to face.[xvii]

[i] Tolle, Eckhart.  A New Earth:  Awakening to Your life’s Purpose.  Plume, 2006.  (202)
[ii] Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  “God’s Grandeur”
[iii] Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.  (28)
[iv] Matthew 18:3
[vi] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Shambhala; 2006. (page 44)
[vii] Tolle, Eckhart:  A New Earth:  Awakening to Your life’s Purpose.  Plume, 2006.  (229)
[viii] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Abridged edition.  Translated by Swami Nikhilananda.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1988.  (271)
[ix] Katha Upanishad  II.i.9
[x] Luke 17: 20b-21
[xi] Matthew 26:40
[xii] Matthew 25:13
[xiii] Hudgins, Andrew. “Crucifixion—Montgomery, Alabama.” Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry.  David Impastato, Editor.  Oxford University Press, 1996. (8)
[xiv] cf. John 15:15
[xv] Genesis 28:16b, ESV
[xvi] Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  “God’s Grandeur”
[xvii] Psalm 17:15b, NLT

1 comment:

  1. This single posts better adjusts and piques my despairing outlook on life than anything I've read in a long time. I love you, Scott.


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