Monday, June 20, 2011


(Cross-posted from The Buddha Diaries)

I'm the "persistence" guy, right? I wrote a whole book of essays on the the subject. It's ironic, then, that I find myself in the persistent doldrums. I can hardly bring myself to write. I chastise myself for failing to find anything new or interesting to say. I wake in the morning without an idea in my head, and without the slightest motivation to write another post. The only thing I feel is an unforgiving sense of guilt for not being able to do myself what I have urged others to do: persist.

I was talking about this to my friend Brian at dinner the other evening. At least he helped me find a way to laugh about it. We concluded it was time to take the opposite approach. Write some essays titled "It's Not Worth It," or "Why Bother"? "Chuck It In" might be another good topic. Or "Time to Quit." There was an interesting op-ed piece in this morning's New York Times, "In Praise of Not Knowing." With so much information instantly available to us, we are suffering from a surfeit of knowledge. The author, Tim Kreider, concluded that "learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simply not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life--why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us--are things we're never going to know."

I like that idea, and I see it as somehow related to my problem. It's like I have reached a plateau in my writing where I know what I'm doing, I kind of understand the things I talk about, and for this reason I get bored with myself, get bored with the sound of my own voice. I wish I'd just shut up. And I do toy with the idea of shutting up. Not blogging. Not writing tedious essays. Not trying to understand or explain things, even to myself. Not endlessly stroking my own ego with the imagined importance of what I have to say. Instead, I'd like to be able to "transform mere ignorance into mystery, simply not knowing into wonder." But I'm not sure how to go about it.

At our sangha this morning, after our hour's sit, talk turned to the matter of "letting go." I have two books in progress, one of which--the one I put on the back burner in order to concentrate on the newer one--is tentatively titled "This Is Not Me." The essays in this book have all to do with my interest in letting go parts of myself that are no longer particularly useful but which I cling to simply because I have so much identity wrapped up in them. Suppose I were to let go of "the writer"? A dreadful, fearsome thought. But a challenging one. I might just launch myself into the mystery, the wonder of it all...

Thursday, June 9, 2011


There are dark days, of course. How could it be otherwise? It would be absurd—even dishonest—to pretend that it were not so. I have been watching myself these past couple of weeks, slipping down from my normally quite balanced perch on the happiness scale, until ending up this morning in something of a snit. Well, actually, more of a funk. If not quite yet the slough of despond. I woke without an idea in my head. I sat down to do a little writing anyway—the words you’re reading at this moment—and looked out the window to discover that the pump in the fish pond had ceased functioning. Just one more spoke in the wheels. That’s how it goes…

I’m thinking of the John Lennon song, “Strange days, indeed.” He was onto something a little different, of course—the whole social shift that’s taking place, and the resistance to it; but somehow my mind managed to catch on to the words and give them a spin to reflect the mood I’m in. Dark days, indeed.

The last thing I need when this mood strikes is to sink into self-pity. It’s also, unfortunately, the easiest thing. But once I start feeling sorry for myself I become the passive victim of the nasty tricks that life can play on any one of us, of which the fish pond pump is only the most recent in the series. But sliding into victimhood is not only pathetic and undignified, it simply makes things worse. If I’m willing to relinquish responsibility for my own predicament, I might as well give up.

Which is the big temptation. As of this writing, I actually feel like nothing more than chucking the whole thing in. The writing, the new book, the blogs, the social and political commitment to doing what I can to leave this world a slightly better place than when I found it. I hear myself asking, what’s the use? Why waste my time putting in all this effort when it seems that no matter what I do, the difference I can make is insignificant.

This always seems like a good time to bring in the prosecuting attorney and allow him to have at me. Let him bring on his whole list of indictments. What’s the very worst he has to say about me? It’s not a bad idea to dispense with the services of the defense attorney, which just bring it down to the level of petty argument and will always seem inadequate. Better just to cop to it: “Guilty, your honor, and… ?” (An “and” is always better than a “but,” in any circumstance) This leaves me free to go through the whole list and, hopefully, purge myself and leave it all behind.

You’re lazy. Guilty as charged, and…?

You’ll never make anything of yourself. True. And…?

Self-important. Ouch, and…?

Incompetent. You never achieve what you set out to do. Yes. I get that. And…?

You’re just not as good as all those other writers. You just sit around and envy their success. Okay, and…?

No gumption... Right. And?

What happens is that sooner or later my nemesis will start foundering about, scraping around for increasingly stupid and transparently false charges. He’ll run out of the steam that got him going in the first place, and his exhaustion in itself can seem like a gratifying victory. I will have listened to the most dreadful things he can think to say about me and still come out at the end with that “and?” that puts it all into perspective. What more can be said? It has all been brought out into the open and nothing has really touched me.

All this, by the way, can be done in a half hour’s meditation.

There’s another useful antidote to self-pity. It’s called generosity. I watched an interview last night with the architect Hugh Newell Jacobson. Not having known his work before, I was impressed by its often Quaker-like simplicity, its clean, honest lines and clear spaces, the serenity of both the private homes and the public buildings he creates. There’s a kind of generosity in this work, which reaches out and offers peaceful refuge to his fellow beings. And I was impressed by the words of advice he extended at the end of the interview: the artist, he said, should “cultivate a rich heart.”

I like that idea. The rich heart is a generous heart, an expansive one that is open to both the vicissitudes of life and the needs of fellow-travelers on life’s journey. It’s a heart that breathes in the love of life, and breathes it back out into the world. It will acknowledge the dark days and stand ready to absorb their message without attachment or self-pity.

The dark days visit us, I believe, for a reason. It’s no more helpful to fight against them than to wallow in them. They offer us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. Pain, sadly, if heeded in the proper way, is the greatest of all teachers. Like it or not, it will come along; indeed, it is needed to contribute to the development of that rich heart. We will not get through life without it, and its measure is likely to increase as age approaches; but happily by then we will have been given many opportunities to meet it with patience and good grace.

It is my intention, then, that these particular dark days shall not pass in vain. It is not hard to find an act of generosity to perform, something of service not to myself but, in this case, to a friend. I will be leaving shortly to spend some time simply looking at the paintings in his current exhibition, so that I can talk to him about them when the time comes; and perhaps, in the coming days, post a few good words about them on my blog, in order to play my own small part in bringing them to the attention they deserve.

There. Feels better already.