March 11, 2013
I write, in part, because it distracts me, diverts me. This is more than about “keeping me off the streets at night.” The diversion is not away from external reality, but towards my own. It is about seeking — and occasionally finding — meaning within where there is none around me. If you have ever been unemployed and somewhat impoverished for a time, perhaps you may understand.
In fact, any sort of misfortune — poverty, loss, divorce, illness, estrangement from one’s family or society — tends to turns us within. That is its purpose, its calling, if you will. We merely have to listen for its message, squeeze it as the winepress does the grape, and then let it go. That is to say, misery is not meant to become identity but orientation. Let me hear its lesson and I will not have to accept its sentence.
It is easy to hear such a teaching voice during a change of seasons. Now, the austere breath of winter passes away; buds of incipient growth appear on the trees. Life takes another turn — from stasis or even from desolation — towards regeneration, renewal. That last word itself reveals much in its very structure: the “new” within the “real” (that is, the first and last two letters of “renewal” spell “real” and “new” is within them).
Each of the seasons is unique in its arrival and passage, even if their quarterly manifestations appear fixed according to our calendars and almanacs. Nature moves towards that which supports it in its time. She whose very body flows with the quantum arcs of transformation need have no fear of change.
The parallel to this in human experience is most easily found in art. It is a matter of finding and then embracing one’s place in the natural order, while also recalling that new seasons find new positions. The cloudy heights are not my domain; I must go underground. If gold is to be forged into the gleam of beauty, there must somewhere be workers in the mines. To seek greatness is a trifling vanity; it may find us if we just keep working. Whether that will be or not, dignity best flourishes free of the fluorescent sheen of renown.
Stripped to its essentials, writing is a record of experience, just as science is a record of observation. In either case, the work is the water of a personal well: so why poison it with ambition? I cannot make the world see me as I am; if my own perception be clear, there is already abundance. Going underground is often solitary, though it need not be lonely or desolate. I have heard that stars can be seen in a midday sky from the bottom of a well.
Thus, again: the diversion is not from myself or my circumstances, but from the distortions of ego. If I can stay off the neatly paved streets of conformity, I may find a deeper and even firmer ground of truth. Pavement must be broken for the earth to be rediscovered. I am not here to walk where others have or do. If I can mine what is true of myself, the universal — that which unites me with people and the other creatures of Nature — will appear; just as gold is found amid mud or dust.
The work and the worker become one: there is grit in each. This is what the ancient Chinese authors of the I Ching referred to as “perseverance.” Throughout its poems, we are assured that “perseverance brings good fortune.” That’s because it already is. The process is self-rewarding: breaking pavement, going down, stripping falsehood in the trust that a treasure lies there beneath it all — this grit of both effort and substance is itself renewal, though no voices ring in recognition.
In our culture, mental health has little pride of place. The soldier returns from war, puts a gun barrel between his teeth and pulls the trigger. A man loses his job, his wife, or his home, and senses death in it; though he hasn’t learned to ask what has died, or must. The pavement, the shell, the hard veneer, is our reality; what lies beneath must be ignored if it cannot be made quiet with a prescription. We affirm the topmost layer and call it real, while denying everything underneath, merely because it cannot be seen, struck, or measured. We build towers to the sky as if the gold were to be found there. If we think for a moment of going under, within, below the surface; we shudder in isolation. None of our leaders is there — they are all on the surface or in the towers. The underground is a realm of fear, failure, and the fires of Hell. If you go there, you go alone.*
I write about where I have been. It is not a depressing place: I haven’t had to take a pill to inhibit reuptake of my serotonin in more than a decade. As with the living earth, there is tremendous energy — heat and light and movement — below. It supports and nourishes everything else that can be seen and touched and controlled. There are no presidents, pundits, or priests to lead you on that journey downward — the only voices of authority you will hear from there will be calling you, urging you back to the surface. And if you ignore them and stay too long, dig too deeply, they will fold their arms and turn their backs.
My experience of the underground has been different. My experience has been of a place where there are no Masters, but many guides. The further down I go, the brighter the glow of connectedness becomes — contact with people of the past and the present; with the beings and life of Nature; with the formless light of the quantum world; with the untrodden path of myself that stretches past the myopic reach of ambition’s vision and intersects with the journeys of all the others around and within me. Of course it is a solitary voyage, for no one before me has taken it. But it is not lonely.
*This was the experience of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here is his experience (from a 2006 interview):
Pirsig was treated at a mental institution, the first of many visits. Looking back, he suggests he was just a man outside his time. ‘It was a contest, I believe, between these ideas I had and what I see as the cultural immune system. When somebody goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself.’