Stories Mixed Up With A Spoon

Sometimes life appears as a blockage, a grinding to a halt, and obstruction of all the essential impulses. We come up against a huge dark wall that is somehow of our own making, looming infinitely, expanding through all the space in front of us, such that there is no moving away from it – and it is also not possible to back away from it. The wall itself seems quite tedious, without feature, with only a giant shadow made up of futility and desperation. Such can life seem. Or if it is not a wall but something more dynamic, it is like one of those stretches of beach with hugely violent waves that pick you up and hurl you onto the sea bed, and that you are powerless to escape from, either into the open sea or back onto dry land, but you are stuck there, slammed and sucked into the same surging spot.

How do I encounter my overwhelming life and participate in it in a way that is more interesting to me, not just as a bystander to it being hauled and mauled around by its irrational demands? These last few days I have run right up against a rock face wider than I can run around: 1) the last stages of my divorce, in which I have been scurrying about collecting, copying, collating financial documents for the lawyers and feeling both angry and hurt that I’ve had to do this; 2) the rigors of having a stepson with a rare auto-immune disease who is rapidly deteriorating and spends most of the time in the hospital and who hates me for all kinds of reason; 3) my love for his mother, who, caught up in her son’s disease and her guilt and love for her young daughter, has no time for me, so that on all counts, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, we have lost contact; 4) my terrible financial anxieties, as I face the reality of a tightening monetary noose around my neck as I slowly run our of credit; 5) my longing for a harmonious relationship with my daughter; 6) the presence of 5 dogs and 3 cats at home, who are my responsibility because I am the only one with the physical strength to do the wearisome task of walking the big ones, and who is up early enough to be cleaning diarrhea off the carpet when one of the little one sneaks his business; and 7) a very demanding job. I should be taking anti-depressants by now, and indeed I hate this life of being jerked around by all these different pressures. How do I not hate it but turn it into something I can create and own, turn it back into something that feels like my own life and not somebody else’s life that I happen to be incarcerated in?

Zhuangzi gives this problem a more playful expression:

Hui Shi said to Zhuangzi, “I have a large tree, of the sort people call a shu tree. Its trunk is too gnarled for measuring lines to be applied to it, its branches are too twisted for use with compasses or T-squares. If you stood it on the road, no carpenter would pay any attention to it Now your talk is similarly vast but useless, people are unanimous in rejecting it.”

Zhuangzi replied, “Haven’t you ever seen a wildcat or a weasel? It crouches down to wait for something to pass, ready to pounce east or west, high or low, only to end by falling into a trap and dying in a net But then there is the yak. It is as big as a cloud hanging in the sky. It has an ability to be big, but hardly an ability to catch mice. Now you have a large tree but fret over its uselessness. Why not plant it in Nothing At All town or Vast Nothing wilds? Then you could roam about doing nothing by its side or sleep beneath it. Axes will never shorten its life and nothing will ever harm it. If you are of no use at all, who will make trouble for you [or: What is there to be distressed about its being useless]?

 

The tree is my life: something I never wanted, never envisioned, that fits in no plan or dream I ever had, that seems to be an encumbrance on the earth and something that everyone would reject. It is of no interest to the carpenters of life because nothing useful can be made of it. The whole thing is just an ugly mess. Zhuangzi’s response to this is to compare it to the amazing animals in our world: they all have their own lives, their own weirdnesses, their own amazing capacities and dumbfounding incapacities – yet they are all alive and interesting in themselves. Why not the tree too? If we look at it severed from its ties to imaginary uses, it is its own thing with its own magnificence: Seeing this, why would anyone want to change it into something else?

Thus I have a huge tree and not a wall, that I can lie under and simply behold – very much like the novels and symphonies I love, which all seem to come from Nothing At All Town or Vast Nothing Wilds. If I do this, how could I not see that each of the threads colliding in this moment holds a story that stretches in all directions and has a life of its own, fully independent of anything I may want to make of it? The frustration comes from wanting it to be something other than what it is – even before I have seen what it is. I am reminded of our attempts to clear the garden of weeds. Here are all these unpleasant goathead plants popping up all over the place with undauntable resilience and generating potent little thorns – and yet who knows anything about this plant? It is ugly, nothing can be done with it, it must go and be replaced by roses. Then we find out that it is tribulus terrestris, an herb much prized for its hormonal benefits in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. This one thus turns out to have a use that we were too dim-witted to imagine, but its utility is only an offshoot of the potency it has in its own autonomous life. And such weeds are in every corner of my world.

Chesterton describes an incident in his life thus: ” It has no explanation and no conclusion; it is, like most of the other things we encounter in life, a fragment of something else which would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen. For the perplexity of life arises from there being too many interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any
 of them; what we call its triviality is really the tag ends
 of numberless tales; ordinary and unmeaning existence is like ten
 thousand thrilling detective stories mixed up with a spoon.”

Calabash

Every New Year I fight with myself and lose. The oncoming year seems to emerge wrapped in all the same thwartings and dissatisfactions as the previous years: the same aspirations, the same attempts to start, the same cessations, the same failures, the same tedious doomed cycles – and within a few days, I find myself stuck in the same place again, unable to step out of the magic circle that imprisons me. Of course it is like this every day, but every New Year merely accentuates the failure and makes new resolutions seem futile. Every year too I have the thought, You’ve wanted to do this for decades but never done it, so surely this is proof that you were never meant to do it and should just let it go? But I cannot, and this generates a different variant of the same thing: The failure must be organically and necessarily related to the falseness of the aspiration, the cycle exists because the aspiration as you see it is actually already impossible for you to reach, so why don’t you just change the aspiration to something that you can attain? I am aware that there is something I am not seeing. My failures even to make a good beginning must be caused by blindness of some kind: I am not looking at the matter clearly, and it is my miring in a particular perspective that prevents me from moving: a miring that is evidently decades old, has turned to iron, and is well-rusted. Zhuangzi offers us a couple of parables rolled into one:   Hui Shi told Zhuangzi, saying, ‘The king of Wei sent me some seeds of a large calabash, which I sowed. The fruit, when fully grown, could contain five piculs (of anything). I used it to contain water, but it was so heavy that I could not lift it by myself. I cut it in two to make the parts into drinking vessels; but the dried shells were too wide and unstable and would not hold (the liquor); nothing but large useless things! Because of their uselessness I knocked them to pieces.’ Zhuangzi replied, ‘You were indeed stupid, my master, in the use of what was large. There was a man of Song who was skilful at making a salve which kept the hands from getting chapped; and (his family) for generations had made the bleaching of cocoon-silk their business. A stranger heard of it, and proposed to buy the art of the preparation for a hundred ounces of silver. The kindred all came together, and considered the proposal. “We have,” said they, “been bleaching cocoon-silk for generations, and have only gained a little money. Now in one morning we can sell to this man our art for a hundred ounces;– let him have it.” The stranger accordingly got it and went away with it to give counsel to the king of Wû, who was then engaged in hostilities with Yue. The king gave him the command of his fleet, and in the winter he had an engagement with that of Yue, on which he inflicted a great defeat, and was invested with a portion of territory taken from Yue. The keeping the hands from getting chapped was the same in both cases; but in the one case it led to the investiture (of the possessor of the salve), and in the other it had only enabled its owners to continue their bleaching. The difference of result was owing to the different use made of the art. Now you, Sir, had calabashes large enough to hold five piculs;– why did you not think of making large bottle-gourds of them, by means of which you could have floated over rivers and lakes, instead of giving yourself the sorrow of finding that they were useless for holding anything. Your mind, my master, would seem to have been closed against all intelligence!’   There’s a way to read this superficially: You are so stuck in your narrow-minded habitual conceptions of the functions of things that you cannot imagine that there is an infinity of possible alternative functions to any given thing. Nothing is reducible to its place in a living system; everything is adaptable, flexible, infinitely useful, and therefore anything can take on new life in new situations. This reading is all about usefulness, effectiveness, and the pragmatic intelligence that can turn things to unexpected good use in different times and places – an intelligence, indeed, not shackled by habit or custom, that can see something new. In modern entrepreneurial self-help books we sometimes come across the puzzle of the nine dots. Here are nine dots arranged in a square: Can you connect the dots with four straight lines but without lifting your pencil from the paper? Try it.

 

The provocation has to suggest that this is a square and that the lines must somehow follow the form of a square. But this is impossible. Only when you have no thought of “square” might an answer present itself – for instance,

Monday, 27 July 2009

Think outside the square! they say. Simply find a point of view from which the right solution can suddenly appear, unhindered by prejudice. Hui Shi and the Bleachers of Song were stuck in their version of the square; they simply could not SEE a different possibility. They must have been kicking themselves when one suddenly presented itself. This reading has a delightful practical simplicity to it; just change your point of view! Just drop your rigidity and let go of your old self. But we know it is not that easy. I can give you a seemingly endless list of my own mistakes, especially in romantic relationships and failed friendships, when from the beginning I was pitifully unable to see the possibilities clearly, or from the middle I could not see any alternative to what the thing had become – and so I just drifted on helplessly along some cramped, interminable tunnel that had its own idea of where I had to end up: If only we could simply recognize our own assumptions and find a new perspective that can give us different ones. Then our prison walls would just melt away and we would be free as we never were before. Zhuangzi must know that even with the nine-dot puzzle most human beings do not simply find the other perspective: we work at it, try things out, think, and maybe eventually we hit upon it – after first exhausting square thinking. Perhaps this is how it has to be in life’s stickier mires too: we have to work at it, exhaust the possibilities, mentally nag and poke at the problem, and only then know definitively from failure that this way just won’t work. After all, we are blind to things because we have practiced and solidified our blindness; blindness doesn’t exist simply as a thing, it is compounded of actions. To diminish our blindness we have to practice, reflect, understand, and then what we may achieve is the dissolving and breaking up of the barriers to our vision. Zhuangzi before this conversation with Hui Shi had spent many years looking at things like a Zhuangzi would; and the stranger of Wu was already in search for something very specific. Does this story help me at all in my attempts to step out if the perilous bog I find myself in at New Year? The trick perhaps is to learn how to step out of my own skin and see my situation from the point of view of a stranger – not an objective point of view, but one from which my interpretation of things does not make automatic and compelling sense but from which a better sense may be arrived at. Once we begin this game, though, a new satisfaction arises in the playfulness with which we start to dwell in our own actualities, constantly aware of alternative ways of seeing and doing. This lifts us out of the practical into the contemplative: It may end up being more effective because it is less rigid and therefore more responsive to life’s demands, but ultimately it is more interesting than the practical could be because each moment then carries within itself innumerable possibilities which, when intuited, make experience of the moment a more three-dimensional affair. The story preceding the dialogue with Hui Shi goes like this:   A man of Sung, who dealt in the ceremonial caps, went with them to Yue, the people of which cut off their hair and tattooed their bodies, so that they had no use for them. Yao ruled the people of the kingdom, and maintained a perfect government within the four seas. Having gone to see the four (Perfect) Ones on the distant hill of Ku-shih, when (he returned to his capital) on the south of the Fan water, he forgot his empire in a daze.   After all of this there may be something much more fulfilling than usefulness and the solution of problems; indeed, usefulness cannot be an end in itself but always serves some other master. The man who not only mastered his own life but gave order to the lives of everyone else discovered something so wonderful that effectiveness as an ideal became nothing to him. These last two parables, like the one about the Bleachers of Song, are about revelations that come from travel. Does the secret lie in wandering far from oneself, far from the accustomed cycles, and then returning to them with mind and heart full of other ways, such that it is the very unsettling that makes it both impossible and uninteresting to crawl back into the ancient, obstinate order, of which the only payback is that it is a kind of order, the kind that shields us from the dangers of the new?

Dynamic Vedas

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“You can’t understand the Vedas without a teacher,” the swami insisted. “They are too difficult for you. The people of the Vedic age were sophisticated beyond our comprehension, and the language they used has so many layers and complexities that you need a real Sanskrit scholar who can teach you what they are saying.” He would go on to say that the Vedas are esoteric in their teaching, setting up a veil of obscurity that can be penetrated only if you have the code. And yet — whenever I went to consult a teacher, they would disagree with one another, or else the teaching to which they reduced the poem would flatten out everything that was interesting in the poem to me. Yes, the Vedas are the beginning of the Hindu traditions, and have been assimilated into those traditions by being interpreted to fit — but coming at the beginning,  are they not forever prior to and outside the traditions? They are often baffling, contradictory, riddling, full of confusion regarding temporal sequence, connections between sentences, and coherence in metaphors — but perhaps this difficult surface is something that has to be listened to and respected, and not reduced to something else that we think we know. In other words, perhaps the difficulty of the Rg Veda poems is not in fact their surface but their depth, and that they express something essentially difficult in the experience of living. To a contemporary reader — used to the obliquities of modern philosophy and the jagged, fragmentary, elliptical styles of modern poetry — the difficulties of the Rg Veda may be satisfying and compelling, and when they are read with the same kind of intense, careful respect that we give to a poem by T.S.Eliot, more meanings blossom out of them than can be contained in an interpretation that seeks to bring them into line with orthodox religious views.

In what follows, I want to read only the words in front of me, which will be from a good scholarly English translation, with all the sensitivity and insight that I can muster as an experienced reader of literature and philosophy. Let us see if the Vedas can open up to an honest, sincere reading that doesn’t seek to impose any predetermined theological scheme onto them — for we know enough about anything to justify having such a scheme for the whole of things?

The non-existent did not exist, nor did the existent exist at that time.
There existed neither the midspace nor the heaven beyond.
What stirred? From where and in whose protection?
Did water exist, a deep depth?

Death did not exist nor deathlessness then.
There existed no sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed without wind through its inherent force.
There existed nothing else beyond that.

Darkness existed, hidden by darkness, in the beginning.
All this was a signless ocean.
When the thing coming into being was concealed by emptiness,
then was the One born by the power of heat.

Then, in the beginning, from thought there developed desire,
which existed as the primal semen.
Searching in their hearts through inspired thinking,
poets found the connection of the existent in the non-existent.

Their cord was stretched across:
Did something exist below it? Did something exist above?
There were placers of semen and there were powers.
There was inherent force below, offering above.

Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it? –
from where was it born, from where this creation?
The gods are on this side of the creation of this world.
So then who does know from where it came to be?

This creation – from where it came to be,
if it was produced or if not –
he who is the overseer of this world in the highest heaven,
he surely knows. Or if he does not know… ?

 Rg Veda, Mandala 10, hymn 129 (translator: Joel Brereton)

This is the famous, and famously obscure, “Nasadiya” hymn from the Rg Veda, a hymn that has generated thousands of commentaries attempting to solve its riddles. The Nasadiya is unique among hymns: it doesn’t ask for anything, it doesn’t praise or appease any god, it doesn’t describe anything, it doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t prescribe ritual actions – but it does ask questions, and even ends with a broken question, as if unsure about the question itself, as if questioning the question. Although nestled in Book 10 of the Rg Veda, this poem expresses the radical open-mindedness of the book: We give voice to our aspirations, we address the gods (whom we made), we engage the universe with speech and action, hoping for a response — but in truth we do not know where it all came from, and so we cannot know what it all is. All the other poems in the Rg Veda feel different when read in light of this one; they become voicings of a direct participation in the universe, and not philosophical or theological summations.

So where does it all come from, this world in which we find ourselves, this self in which we find our worlds? It must have been from something like a conception, an idea, an image, not like an architect’s blueprint but like an artist’s intuition as it makes manifest the unmanifest and surprises even the hand that moves the brush – and it must be compelled into life by something like desire, an urge to take form. Perhaps only an artist or poet can know this process as it happens, and thus uniquely has access to the mysterious origin of things. Or not. For even the artist has no clue where the brushstrokes are coming from, and the poet has no power to will the right word into being. “Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it?”

Imagine then rolling out of bed in the morning with this poem on our tongues: we are thrown back onto ourselves in this marvel of the new morning, everything just lit up and created before us. Not only do we not know the ultimate origin of everything, but we don’t even know how today’s world came from yesterday’s world – and each day this fact will be proved by the unceasing river of surprises and shocks that demonstrate all too clearly that yesterday we understood nothing of what was happening in front of us, let alone beyond our immediate horizons. We are forced to take it all as it comes, as wholly new, not made by us, not reducible to pre-existing schemes and notions, not making any theological sense, but turning us into a fountain of questions – which is perhaps the fountain of all genuine worship.

“The world will never starve for want of wonders,” says Chesterton, “but only for want of wonder.”