I was talking with a painter friend of mine this morning about art and communication. On some level, we’re each in the fog bank of our own lives, and while we think we can clearly see each other, well, it’s often more opaque than that.
So here’s to sending up a small signal flare from inside this fog bank, from my fog to yours.
In thinking about making and sharing images, I’ve decided that my photo site will carry one or two collections of images at a time, no more. My intention is that each collection will offer something of beauty in its own right. Further, my hope is that one might enter the collection and linger for a few precious minutes. A bit of an anti-instagram perhaps. This won’t be for everyone. Come in and browse.
The first collection is entitled “Human Places.” Click the “slideshow” button in the upper right corner, then take it to full screen. Turn your sound on. I hope you enjoy the experience of this first collection. From my fog bank to yours…
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.
Last week I had coffee with a friend who’s living under a cloud of uncertainty about his job; the company he works for is embroiled in complex, very public litigation with a competitor that could cause his company to go out of business or merge, with radically unpredictable consequences for him and for his co-workers. The fatigue was etched on his face—he’s worn out by worry– “I just want this to end, to go away!” he said.
No solution. Can’t fix it.
Later, I spent some time with another friend who’d recently been fired from his job, and he was manic, absolutely bewildered. He’d been taken by surprise, and to make matters worse, his old boss was seemingly out to get him, even after the fact. Bewildered. Be-wild–ered. Transported back to wilderness, to deep shadows and mortal danger.
No solution. Can’t fix it.
I could go on. Another friend entering year three of cancer therapy, a relative who underwent a life saving transplant operation, only to face intrusive therapies for the rest of his life. My own battles with health and my own peculiar psychology. The list is long, all with one thing in common, whether it’s my own predicaments or those of others–
No solution. Can’t fix it.
Maybe it’s age, but it does seem like the hallway is narrowing, like fewer things are new, more things are breaking down. I can be completely empathetic for my friends in distress, but that’s not what they want, and it’s not what I want for them. They want, I want, whatever it is that has them feeling cornered to stop.
We want it fixed.
When the vice begins to tighten and fear arises, space collapses and time stretches. We feel crushed, andwe’re certain it will last forever.
The Shambhala teachings point out a couple of important truths here- first, that this “crush” is an essential part of the human deal (it happens on some level pretty much all the time to each of us); and second, that there is no other place to go, no place to fleeto.
The truth of our lives is that there’s no way out. Fear of death, of loss, is with us from our first in-breath. Each of us will eventually lose everything and everyone we’ve ever cherished, and our “job” is somehow to be Ok with that.
Ultimately, it’s the very inescapability of our predicament that contains its own answer. From minor irritation, to the loss of a life’s work, to the loss of a life’s love, to our own moment of death, this is the ground of being human. Like it or not, we’re staying. And yes, this can indeed suck. Pain is real, we do age and die and encounter innumerable challenges along the way. But there’s a profound element of choice in how we react to these challenges, how much of the drama we write ourselves.
Happiness and comfort aren’t the same thing. Maybe joy can permeate pain. Perhaps great suffering and joy can (must?) co-exist.
The core Shambhala teaching of Basic Goodness, that we are all basically good, sufficient unto the task, that all of this sacred world is basically good, suggests that right here, even in the midst of our worst predicaments, magic can still arise. If we can stop struggling to control the every fact of our lives, even for a moment, space and luminance can emerge.
This is the essential truth and magic of the world, that it doesn’t come out “right,” that there’s no “right,” that in fact, there’s no “out,” there’s only this; and the more we can stop fighting and begin to flow with “this,” the more our experience of the world and of our lives might be transformed.
I heard a story once- a great Tibetan teacher was asked what he thought a fully awakened being actual experiences. He said “impermanence and emptiness all the time.”
I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a 92-year old woman named Ann and fell completely in love with her. We traded life stories—hers was longer. I asked her, from her limb “at the top of the tree,” what “really matters?” She smiled. People, she said, your people matter — other than that, more and more I think that not much else really matters.
We care for each other. Each of us is alone and we’re all in this together. We offer our hearts and our compassion, our tonglen practice, and we share in each other’s pain for as long as we’re here.