“If you do something in the spirit of non-achievement, there is a good quality in it. So just to do something without any particular effort is enough.” Shunryu Suzuki To make something of these times I must make something so I will find a frame in which to nail my thoughts. I cannot beat this lone silence and I cannot take this seedless greening anymore, this yearning growth that knows only down and in, only dragging my thoughts into the night where I cannot find them though I remember having them, remember how they felt if not how they looked, remember them close and warm, and thought them somehow grand or at least telling at the time I barely had them, but now? Now I barely have them even less. Now I am not sure if I have them or if they have me. Now they are lost in their own depths, swimming silently in the rolling black medium of their making. Now they haunt me in their bare being and unmake me and swim through me and I will make nothing of them.
I try to write at night but mostly fall asleep before I can begin, before I can achieve the proper state of reverie, the space that I crave to create, that I cannot seem to make the time or the energy for. But yes, the words whisper to me when I cannot catch them and slip away before I can put them in their place, before I can place them where they will live and grow into more. I put the parts of them in little boxes, little bits of hair, a leaf dropped, a bone perhaps, found in the soil, slip them into a little book that I keep in my pocket to pull out later, to try to form into something-- something more, something alive, something that can find the light to live when I can find the silence that it needs to let it grow. My days are far too noisy, my nights too short. The soul trudges on, slogs through the mud of life with little time to dig. I offer these words to myself as a balm, a hand on the shoulder, a consolation in the true sense perhaps but without a prize to offer as I cannot prise the poems from their hidden places as often as I would like, as I feel I should, as I feel I need. The soul trudges on, slogs through the mud of life with little time to dig.
I have been thinking about the writing of death poems. How this practice can prepare one for the inevitable. I had intended to write a death poem on the forty-seventh anniversary of my birth (the beginning, I thought, of a new annual tradition) but I did not. Instead, I seem to have written a death of memory poem, something that I believe I must fear even more than death itself at this time in my life, though this is probably only because I have not come close enough to death while the death of memory is a thing that I have known closely for quite a long time. So here is my death of memory poem. Perhaps, by its writing, I will be made ready. Let my poems be a hedge between my self and the loss of my memories, a palliative against or a salve for the wounds that I saw on my father’s face, that I now have seen on my own face, that same face when I look in the mirror. My memory is gone. It is a broken thing beyond fixing that will just run down and down over time. But maybe these words, these poems will give me something that my father never had, something that he never knew how to find on his own, something that I do not know that I know how to find on my own and yet still I search and yearn for—a changing of the heart, a look in this mirror, a softening of the self (hard, hard thing that we make within us, our myriad actions and phenomena uncountable that we cling to, these never-ending evanescent folds in the cortex of time, these simple tricks we use to try to woo security to sit at the table with us, to say to us that we are we but not alone and yet somehow still solitary…). Perhaps I can find this thing for both of us, my father and I, though he is long past finding and I find my self searching still. Perhaps, if my memories must leave me (and it seems that they will) I can have them replaced with poems. If my memories are to be dislodged, if they are to fall to the wayside, I would rather have poems in their places than just more fears of losing more memories. What is the self but a bag full of memories that we cannot put down? Though we are boarding a train to a place of no things and we stand ultimately alone on the platform and the bag is full of useless things and our arms are already full of all the things the world has given us that we did not want or need or ask for, still, we cannot put it down. I want to be able to put it all down. When the time comes, I want to be able to board that train with empty hands. Let me board it with empty hands, alone.
I see you there on the other side of forty-seven, waiting for me like a father, like a child, looking up, looking back, waiting for me to catch up, to start making sense of what I see. Well, stop. I won’t do it. I can’t do it. This is why I do what I do and you know it. So stop. Stop waiting. Stop wasting both of our times. I’ll get there when I get there or maybe I won’t. You’ll just have to wait and see or wait and not see. It’s all the same to me. I don’t care anymore. I will do what I do.
Are your words still with you? Did you carry your stories deep into the night and leave them like luggage on a railway platform, an age and more down silver tracks, with just the wind, the stars, and leaves like dust blowing and hissing in the dark? This silence leaves a fading mark. The thing that took you left your face in bodies unknown to you, lace filaments tracing what the eyes of others cannot see: the ties that generation takes away; the look in eyes that cannot stay.
“What?!?! Is he serious?! How cynical! What a pessimist! What a Downer!”
Wait, wait…hear me out. This is not some nihilist rant, though it may sound like it.
I’m not saying I’m not cynical, only that perhaps you may not understand what I mean by “hope”.
Let me explain.
With some quotes (Yes, more quotes. Yes, from Stephen Batchelor again.)
And some rambling from a Crabby John…
Buckle-up and bear with me. This may take a while.
“Places to which I am instinctively attracted are places where I imagine suffering to be absent. ‘There,’ I think, ‘if only I could get there, then I would suffer no more.’ The groundless ground of contingency, however, holds out no such hope. For this is the ground where you are born and die, get sick and grow old, are disappointed and frustrated.”
When I was growing up and complained about some perceived injustice in my life, saying, “It’s not fair!,” my mother would always say, “Dear, life isn’t fair,” and then she would hug me.
Life doesn’t have to be fair.
Life doesn’t have to make sense.
Life doesn’t have to make you happy.
When you stop expecting it to do any of these things, life’s own implicit possibilities open up to you. Once you stop expecting life to be or do any thing in particular, you are able to see its ability to do any thing in general.
“To know, deep in your bones, how everything you experience is fleeting, poignant, and unreliable undermines the rationale for trying to grasp hold of, possess, and control it. To fully know suffering begins to affect how you relate to the world, how you respond to others, how you manage your own life. For how can I seek lasting solace in something that I know is incapable of providing it? Why would I stake all my hopes for happiness on something that I know will finally let me down?”
Your past is just a story.
Once you realize this,
it has no power over you.
Regret has no hold on you.
Your future is a also a story,
but hope is not its author.
Hope has no hold on you.
Hope seeks better answers.
Stories seek better questions.
“You come to a point when you know for yourself, without a flicker of doubt, that your response to life need not be driven by your craving for things to be the way you want them to be. You realize that you are free not to act on the prompts of craving.”
My oldest sister died when I was twenty-four and she was forty-two. It was sudden. No-one knew it was coming. There was no reason for it. She was healthy as far as anyone knew. She had a hidden ticking time-bomb in her chest. It picked Friday, October 28, 1994 to go off. Why? There was no reason.
I found it fascinating that other people—veritable strangers—were more uncomfortable with her death than I was. I found myself sugar-coating it for their sakes. Saying “My sister passed away,” instead of “My sister died.” Using all the usual euphemisms. But really, she died. She was dead. She was gone and I was still here. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I was sad. I cried harder at her funeral than I think I ever had before and possibly harder than I ever will, and, some twenty years later, I have now lost both of my parents, and I still don’t think I have cried that hard. Death became a thing like the rain. It simply happened. It did not care whether I was hurt by it. It did not care if I was scared. It did not care if I understood or not. LIke the rain, it simply happened. In accepting this simple but difficult fact, I was reassured. I found peace in not searching for a reason; in simple acceptance.
“An eternally vanishing world will never stay fixed in place long enough to satisfy the desires of a self or society for permanent stability and well-being. Yet we instinctively look to such a world as though it were capable of providing such happiness. This deep-seated utopian longing would appear to have biological as well as psychological origins. The evolutionary success of human beings is in part due to our conceptual capacity to anticipate and plan for a future in which we, our kin, and offspring will thrive and prosper.
“The success of this strategy requires the notion of an enduring self that is not destroyed by the flux and turbulence of life. Only in this way can ‘I’ and ‘we’ still be around to enjoy the fruits of our efforts when the future arrives. But as we carefully examine the unfolding patterns of life within and around us, no such self can be found.”
As to the future, I will not hope. I will either do what I can now if I can do anything or I will not do what I can or there is nothing that I can do to change it anyway, and if there is some thing I can do and I do not do it then I will accept the consequences of my not-doing when the time comes and I know that there will be no one to blame but myself for what I did or did not do or perhaps there is just no one to blame. “Hope for the future” is as much about blame and recrimination and self abuse for what will not have gotten done when of course it didn’t get done because all you did was hope, you did not do. This is when and how hope changes into regret.
“After all, people desire immortality and do not wish to embrace the inescapable reality of death; they long for happiness and shy away from the contemplation of pain; they want to preserve their sense of self, not deconstruct it into its fleeting and impersonal components. It is counterintuitive to accept that deathlessness is experienced each moment we are released from the deathlike grip of greed and hatred; that happiness in this world is only possible for those who realize that this world is incapable of providing happiness; that one becomes a fully individuated person only by relinquishing beliefs in an essential self.”
Hope so often is just a way of not looking at what we don’t want to see. Instead of looking future suffering in the face and accepting it, we look the other way.
Instead of saying I hope and then trying not to think about what will happen if what-I-hope-happens doesn’t happen, why don’t I think now about that possible occurrence of my-hopes-not-being-answered and really think about what I will really do in that case.
Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down, your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms that arise
from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.
—Tao Te Ching, Ch. 13
hope for the future or
regret for the past
both hold us helpless
awaiting first and last
“…happiness in this world is only possible for those who realize that this world is incapable of providing happiness…”
[This post is as much for my own reassurance, me speaking to me, self-affirmation, as it is for anything else. A number of things have been clarified for me in the process of putting this together. If you made it this far, I thank you for reading.]
[All quotes are from the writings of Stephen Batchelor, except The Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell]
[Credit to juntamng for the beginning of the “Your past is just a story..” quote]