Monday, August 27, 2012

Why We Suffer

Honest Ed's, Mirvish Village, Toronto, ON
"If it is so beneficial, and I know it is, from experience, to not know what is coming next, to allow ourselves to open directly to the world and be present with what our senses deliver, then why don't we do it more often? No, even more importantly - why is our culture so against it?"

A question from the last Way of Nature class at Olbrich Botanical Gardens this last Sunday. I've gotten this question before in so many ways - from people learning about meditation, contemplative writing, contemplative photography, and, in this case, Haiku.

Another student answered something about our culture - about America and its materialism. Another about a fear of getting hurt. The whole time, I was drawn to the dry-erase board, where I came back to an earlier discussion about suffering, the Four Noble Truths and what it means to truly have no reference points.

"We don't, our culture doesn't support it, because it seems scary as shit," I said, once the other discussions had died down. "Not just us - everyone avoids it - it's pan-human behavior. It's suffering."

That's right.

Why on earth would we want to duplicate, stay still with, last in, sit in, shoot from, write from a place of total unknowing? The shock after the death of a loved one, the loss of any sense of physical self after an orgasm or a sneeze, the complete breaking of thoughts into a wide open space of potential upon first sight of a baby human or animal, a corpse alongside the road. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche lays side-by-side a rose and a dead dog, and says to us that these both lead to the same wide-open state of mind - not knowing, unexplainable, totally mysterious, upon which we place our expectations and concepts (True Perception, Shambhala 2011, "Empty Gap of Mind").

It ain't pretty. Though addicts may search for that moment, if we seek it too much, it becomes escape. If we evade it, it haunts us down. But this is the place from which all else arises - nay - this is it. That's it. Hanging loose, literally. Out there. Never really knowing what comes next. This is what we are striving to be able to stay with - this is what they call Enlightenment. Sartori. Zen. We think we want it, but then, we aren't so sure we do once we get it. Especially in the creative process.

Maybe it's from teaching Haiku the last few weeks, or immersing myself in Thomas Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite, or a disappointment with how Jonah Lehrer begins to define creativity in terms of productivity in his book Imagine. But tonight at dinner, a good friend visiting mentioned, as we discussed book proposals and agent pitching, that sometimes when she comes up with a great idea for an article, she plans it out in her head then feels there's no reason to write it.
"I'm all done. I solved the problem. Answered the riddle. So why write it?"

Indeed. Why bother? Find me another riddle, for sure. After my friend said this, she made a few statements about how this relates more to non-creative writing than creative writing, and out of left field my mouth blurted:

"Actually, for me, that's what "creative" is - mystery. Not knowing. I never plan out what I am going to write ahead of time, or if I do, I certain allow it to go wherever it is going to go. For me, if I were to know, that wouldn't be creative writing."

We discussed this a bit further, realizing that as writers this was true, and also as readers. The old adage about "showing not telling" points to exactly this argument - the reader/observer needs to be able to participate in the creative process, too. You don't tell them everything, or they get bored, don't get invested.

But for me, this is more than a strategic reason in writing. It's because this is how reality is, or so I have been taught, or even better to say, how I have come to understand what I have been taught. I told my Way of Nature students that it may be sacrilege to some schools of Haiku, but in my opinion, if we had to say whether or not a gap/surprise/leap in a Haiku is more important than the inclusion of Nature, I would say the gap was more important - more crucial to the Haiku.

Haiku is not simply a description of Nature (capitalized because of course I mean: flowers, etc as nature, though humans are, too, as well are all our buildings, plastic, etc). If we get the gap in, if we let surprise in and creativity in, then that is what delivers reality to the viewer. And that, after all, is why Nature is so helpful. It's pretty, yes. But it is also our main indicator of both impermanence and interdependence. Sometimes we lean too much on Nature to show us this - "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes" - but the fact is even our desks are falling apart, as well as our bodies and skateboards and ideas. If we really deliver the gap well, anything can teach us the nature - true nature - of how everything is, not just Nature.

As a demonstration, and a closure (for now), a Haiku from master Richard Wright (yes, of Native Son and Black Boy) (Richard Wright: Haiku, This Other World). It is not at all in Nature, but certainly as natural as it gets, pointing to impermanence and leaving us with a gap of mind in which we can experience total groundlessness for just a second:

The metallic taste
Of a siren cutting through
The hot summer air

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