Yesterday, I really felt a need to get up into the mountains, so I took my dog and headed up to the Uintah National Forest. As always, I stuck a camera in my pack, but unusually for me, I set out with intention of NOT taking pictures. Rather, I just wanted to walk, throw a stick for Jack, and look.
About halfway through the hike, we came to a deep alpine lake at about 10,500 ft. In the shallows, the grasses were curling, undulating with the small waves.
The whole time I shot, I thought “I can’t believe this is being given to me…”
Recently, a Shambhala teacher told me “I’m going to give you the secret ingredient.”
What is this vehicle we call the self? Certainly, the infamous ego is a part of it, but is that all of it? What does that even mean?
From the perspective of our 21st century consumer economy, the self has become the repository for all that we try, over the course of a lifetime, to accumulate — think of the shopping cart icon on any of your favorite e-commerce sites.
There’s a famous Zen cartoon of a little man who is born into this world and proceeds to ingest the full contents of a massively rich cornucopia, to pass the residue, and then, in due course, to die, leaving behind nothing more than a sizeable pile of, well, you get it…
My friend and noted Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, often says that what we call the self isn’t a thing, it’s an experience (sorry Ken if I misquote a bit here – see Ken’s excellent website, Ken Mcleod- Unfettered Mind ) Like a child’s flipbook, these experiences pass so fast that we mistake them for a continuous film, an entity with some sort of permanence.
And then of course we die.
As anyone who has ever had the duty of cleaning out the cherished possessions of a dead loved-one can attest, even the most closely held keepsakes are simple junk once we’re gone.
So, using this life, this self, as a cosmic shopping cart probably won’t work out.
But neither can we function without a self, an identity- we’re creatures of a relative world. The IRS insists that we maintain a self, and our significant others probably do as well. So how do we work with this self?
How best to drive this rusty vehicle?
One classic Buddhist image of ‘self’ is of waves in the ocean, each somehow distinct but each still entirely of the water, inseparable from it. I like to think of each of us as a local concentration of sentience, of mind, of life force. Why the universe has chosen to organize itself this way I have no idea; but I think it does — moreover, I think it’s through this manifestation that the universe expresses itself and looks to experience itself.
If I’m right about this, then our mortal selves remain essential, but in a rather different way — what if the point isn’t to see how much we can accumulate for our selves, but instead to see how much we can express of our selves?
This shift changes everything — instead of contracting and gathering, our life experience might take on the quality of a gift to be offered rather than a treasure to be hoarded.
This expression of self, of life, can take almost any form – an art, a skill, parenting, a job. The blood of the difference is in whether or not we’re subtly trying to bargain for a specific outcome from offering. Again, Ken McLeod talks often of the insidious nature of the exchange mentality, the bargain of the marketplace co-opting all of our human actions. For artists who need to sell their work to pay the rent, this is a perpetual quandary. Even in the spiritual realm, we’re so deeply conditioned to the exchange that we’re often subtly (or not so subtly) looking for a payoff. But that’s just another form of shopping, of using our precious time on this earth as some sort of coin.
No, I’m suggesting here that the only “payoff” worth the race is the freedom to stop gathering, to stop hoarding.
By “expressing the self fully,” I mean taking this life-stream as a gift to be given completely, as an offering of all of one’s talent
and all of one’s difficulties –
as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, no privacy.
Whatever our gift, we manifest it fully, without reservation,
We live completely into our lives through the full offering of them
to this sacred world.
We come to recognize our own basic goodness and that of the world
as being one in the same.
We manifest sacredness and we offer that back to the source.
My father, Allen Medford Fink, died of lung cancer in 1986 at age 72. He was not an easy man. As I explained once to an adult nephew, he was our father, so we wanted to be close to him, but it could be a dangerous place to stand. He taught us to be strong. But as I grow older myself, I can see that if my brother and I are, in our own ways, more gentle, well, he must certainly have given us the seeds of this gentleness as well.
My father was 42 years old when I was born, so he was dead by the time my sons Patrick and Nathan were born. But his presence remains. In the Buddhist cosmology, the “three times” of past, present and future and not as solid as we ordinarily take them to be. Perhaps this is how I know that if he were to meet my sons today, I am certain he would be amazed. I am certain that he would be most pleased.
My father with me, the baby, and my big brother Joe on the lawn of our small house in Detroit in 1958.
Written April 2015 in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah —
Note- some poems are prompted by a word or a phrase, perhaps an experience. This was suggested by an impossibly beautiful tree deep at the head of the unfortunately named “Negro Bill Canyon” off of the Colorado Rive near Moab Utah.
by the time we reach the top of the canyon
we’ve walked through most of our words
this trail of sand and stone, the solitary blooms
of tattered desert flowers. this deep in the canyon
all light is reflected, shattered light,
passed from rim to rim until it settles like mist
luminous dust, a dry and brilliant rain.
we never know what we’ll find in the deepest canyons
of our lives like these incandescent leaves,
such improbable green, or this stone, the rich red
of freshly oxygenated blood, the red of iron and of time,
of pressure and erosion, the true red of benediction, the hard,