The climate change documentary I begin watching over rice-and-ratatouille begins with humpback whales swimming, diving, breaching, rolling in deep ocean bliss. Turquoise water deepening to indigo. Suddenly, my screen is filled with a whaling ship, shot from above. The harpoon rockets out on its line, the harpoon finds its target in the unafraid whale, tearing her tail, lodging in her flesh, destroying her, reeling her in, and I can't watch, I can't not-watch, my whole body flinches as the beautiful body of the whale is torn, savaged, pulled in without mercy, struggling all the way, an unclean kill if ever there was one, the whale winched in struggling to the maw of the ship, the drains spouting red into the ocean, dead space, dead hearts, unflinching stupidity "harvesting" beauty for what possible acceptable end?
(I eat more ratatouille. No one hunts humpbacks commercially. Nevermind.) The story moves on. Climate change experts, crimes against humanity. Honestly, after that harpoon, humanity is the last of my concerns. Unflinching green climate expert eyes, showing whites above and below, a rictus of righteousness, holding little promise by way of compromise, compassion, and change. Life itself has ways of sorting out problem species like us. Not Atlas Shrugged, but, Being Itself Moved On.
My friend Anna says she's sat in shamanic circles who've asked about climate change, What, then, shall we do? A collective hand-wringing of the sensitives, and the answer that came back was, Are you kidding? This is as far beyond your weather-working as it is beyond your science. Do your work. Get clear. Heal and release the whale-wasters and the wounded whales within you, so that you don't yourselves wind up as deniers or self-inflated prophets. Do your work. Heal yourselves. Being will take care of itself.
There is a portal through which all energy must pass, say Anna's guides. What is dying now, and disappearing, will pass through and return in its new forms. White Rhino energy, Bengal Tiger energy, is energy that will find its new shapes in Being. We need to feel, but we do not need to be literalists, mourning as utterly gone something that is finding its way back through the portal. This is so. That this is so means we do not all need to develop the exorbitant eyes of the activist, nor the misty eyes of the professional mourner.
This week a visiting artist came to my class, and there was much potential for flinching: unresolved work, very loose assignment, compassionate stagnation, the great man entering as an outsider with his ideas of greatness. But instead, what arose was a beautiful mirror. Here, Friends, is where you are flinching. Here are your fuzzy edges that help no one.
What does it mean, when from within a kind of trance-state, you produce writing or painting that is in retrospect totally crappy? Does it mean the trance was delusion? Does it mean that craving viable objects as proof of extraordinary states is delusion? When I say, I am making art, what do I mean? If it is an indigenous process, whose doing is its own reward, then, what could it mean to show the results? Is it Bruce Nauman's The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain?
Is it, witnessing the results of the artist's process is desirable, as a revelation of exalted states that are possible, even if inaccessible to mere non-artists? Is it, making time to view such objects temporarily removes the viewer from the distractions and predilections that otherwise keep her trapped? Is it, the artist triggers in the viewer a resonance of her own awe, her own melancholy, her own knowledge of the whale-harboring ocean from which we all arise?
Anyway, what was on the walls was mostly messy, unresolved stuff, some of it sentimentalized, some of it trite, and yet underneath: young people making gestures towards becoming the singing whales of their own oceans. And our visitor, who describes his studio as a cross between a laboratory and a monastery, could see those gestures for what they were, though he could also see laziness & evasiveness, as unsuited to whale-refuge as scaly motel bathtubs.
We flinch from immersion. We flinch from allowing the body-mind to die in life. I lay down on the studio floor, pull the nubbly cotton blanket under my chin, and resolve to die. Dying in the feet: feet don't want to die! Mind wants to think about next week. Dying in the calves: calves don't want to die! Mind wants to think about yesterday night. Dying in the shoulder blades: shoulder blades concede that dying might not be so bad. Breath says, We are dying all the time. Dying in the back of the head, I am dying with all who die, in their beds, in their accidents, in their battlefields, on the end of that harpoon, tail thrashing. Each breath in draws strength from the earth from the sky, each breath out tells those who die that they can do so unflinchingly, and be received. We pass through a portal, into the ocean, and are re-formed.
I walk over the bridge over the White River, and know: Each time dying like this is clearing some of the madness from the world. Souls surrendered to the river do not hoard, recriminate, or shoot pain into others. The water flows very slowly south to the ocean, brown-emerald, clear all the way to the bottom.
Here is a classic four-ingredient recipe for not-flinching in dying:
It's a hard recipe to follow, from within most of the structures we've set up for ourselves in the world. Academic teaching and learning occur within stupid structures. Politicians and voters make laws within stupid structures. Physicians and patients approach life and death from within stupid structures. All too often, religious seekers practice devotion within stupid structures.
None of that means we're doomed to flinch. We can say, unflinchingly, No. That's not the way I want to go. Let's use these skills in this other way. Let's die more, so that who's talking is the Ocean-in-me, and not the flinching-in-us. May I, may we all, work to clear the way for the ocean to speak through us, without needing to tear down so many flimsy structures on the way. Not-flinching is possible for us all, as it is possible for each of us. It begins by noticing the things that cause us pain, and dying into them.
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