Fronting the Essentials
May 10, 2011 § 7 Comments
There was a blackout in these parts yesterday afternoon. It was the best possible kind of blackout, happening on a warm and golden spring afternoon. Also, I was alone. I didn’t hurry and call the power company and get as much information as possible as my husband would do, along with any number of other good citizens. I sat by the window and deliberately experienced not knowing how wide ranging it was and how long it was expected to last. I just let the light stream in and drank in the silence that descended like an unbidden grace. Suddenly, no white noise of electricity in the house or in the distance. Suddenly cut off from the outside world (since my cell phone was turned off). I thought of Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In the quiet, I realized, again, that I live with a perpetual white noise inside as well out. There is a constant hum of thought, a stream of images, a vaporous, changeable dream that doesn’t have any real force or connection to the here and now. Like Thoreau, I have often felt that I was missing something essential. In the footage confiscated from Bin Laden’s compound, there are home movies showing him watching himself on tv–a frail-looking man with a white beard watching a perfected, macho image of himself with a dyed black beard, delivering a speech. It made me shiver to recognize something so familiar. At a benefit in New York right weeks after the attacks, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Gelek Rinpoche encouraged us to be brave enough “find the Bin Laden hiding in the caves of our own heart.” Or, as it turned out, the comfortable suburbia of our own hearts. In the golden silence that fell yesterday, I glimpsed how I usually am, all my awareness attached to thoughts, images, desires that are separate from the rest of me and split off from the nourishing reality of the here and now, all of it in the service of a phantom self that is projected at the rest of the world.
Most human beings are not as full of hate, delusion, and desire for destruction as Bin Laden–and not as self-conscious with the image they project– but the monsters among us can show us a thing or two because the fault lines in them are so pronounced (I think Freud may have said this). Most of us live most of the time at a remove from life, hiding out in a narrow bunker of the thinking mind, which isn’t really capable of immediate knowing, direct perception and insight. It meets life by coming up with speeches and judgements based on memory, stale rehearsal, incapable of revealing something new.
With her unique French-into-English precision, Madame de Salzmann describes this bunker mentality: “Always preoccupied, it holds back my attention in this space, isolated from the rest of me, from my body and feeling. With my attention continually projected from one thought to another, from one image to another in a flowing current, I am hypnotized by my mind….”
Yesterday, I felt for a little while how extraordinary it is to be aware in the moment, to experience an attention that isn’t separating from life in the service of a projected “someone”– even if it isn’t a grand and villaneous someone spouting hate on the tv. How wonderful it felt to pad around the house with the light streaming in, feeling the difference between that narrow fixation on the computer screen or the tasks in mind and this free attention that was in my body and feelings as well as the mind. And then, well, it became familiar and I went back to sleep.
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one,” he wrote in the conclusion of Walden, which he published in 1854. Thoreau found that he wasn’t there a week before he wore a track between the cabin and the pond. In short anything can become habitual, and we find our way back into the deep grooves of our own habitual way of thinking and being. What can we do? It doesn’t work to be in the woods or on retreat forever. And let’s face, I was happy the power came back on in time for me to make dinner.
What works is being willing to see ourselves–and with the kind of nonjudging awareness and compassion we usually reserve for children, dogs, loved ones. There is a quiet, a collectedness, that comes just by seeing how lost in thought we usually are, how far away we live from our hearts and bodies and from the wild and precious life of the present moment. Strange as it might seem, getting down to the essentials of life doesn’t come from the thought resolving to get collected or get out of town and back to basics. It turns out that it come from an act of seeing, and the impressions that flow in and touch us in such a moment are fleeting. This kind of seeing often comes in a moment of shock, a moment of not knowing and urgently needing to know. When Thoreau moved to Walden, he was grieving the loss of his brother. He was seeking something thought could not satisfy.
The impressions we receive in a moment of seeing are fleeting but they can fill us with a conviction that there is something really valuable to find–and that we really make something of our lives. In the light this conviction, it turns out that thoughts and dreams and images have their place. They help point the way. Assessing the value of what he had accomplished, Thoreau added: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success in uncommon hours.”