Repressed Thought Regatta
A repressed thought – isn’t that what we always write about? I think of these Tuesday mornings as Repressed Thought Regattas – all the hidden things hoist their sails, pull on their shiny satin outfits, and go shooting out into the bay of my mind, turning lazy or tight circles till somehow, they’re not so repressed anymore. These are not ordinary, holy-fuck-my-whole-family-could-drink-out-of-that-silver-cup races, empowering single victors. Instead, each boat shapes the winds, shoreline, waves, and light, so that all may move according to their natures. That’s how the Regatta works, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the company at this table.
Repressed thoughts have force, and force travels in ways that can sometimes turn ordinary features of the landscape into deadly weapons. People around here still talk about Hurricane Irene, and how it changed innocuous things into outlets for wild and raging change. A culvert turns into a firehose shooting boulders a hundred feet through the air. A covered bridge becomes a missile; a tree falls into floodwaters and is instantly flayed raw, stripped bare. What was the repressed thought? This world is not here for our convenience.
Sometimes a person can become a repressed thought in the landscape of a culture that doesn’t want to see them. Last Thursday, even though I’d slept very little the night before, I stayed up till midnight with Sr. Cynthia, watching the Olympic women’s free-skate on the nuns’ massive TV. Who was visible? THE RUSSIANS. The Old Russian, ancient and grizzled at 18, as tragic Anna Karenina. The Young Russian, pert and tutu-ed at 15, as Badass Ballerina with Knives on Her Feet. Oh, the visible Russians! What was repressed? How mothers eat their children – the two athletes share the same ice-queen coach – and the possibility that grief might have a real place in this world. Anna Karenina skated perfectly, then wept, because of course Tutu won.
Who was invisible? Two Asian skaters, one from Japan and one from Korea, who each skated beautifully, without error. Surely that is enough to guarantee being seen? But, no. The TV is interested in Russian white fairies, not Asian fairies. No, no, that should stay repressed. We’ll take the white Canadian's Swan Lake, but please, the skaters from Japan and Korea should go discreetly back to being invisible.
Only later, reading the Times online, did I see a puzzling photograph of someone who’d been even more effectively repressed – a magnificent Black skater from France. Gone. Disappeared, except for some coy reference about how she’d turned her costume inside-out, while on the ice. What? I went searching. At her best, she skates with the power of a dancer who could lift any partner she wanted to, right over her head. She skates like a runner, a panther, a trickster, a whole club on the best night ever, a force of nature. So, what the fuck, Olympic broadcasters? Why delete this woman’s power from the program? Why obsess about Tutu vs. Tragic, over there, when some very new, very fresh, important stranger is showing up, and dancing to Beyoncé in pants?
That is how repressed thought works. We don’t bother to repress thoughts that don’t really matter, because what would be the point? Who cares if you don’t like the sauce? But when emerging material effortlessly reveals the nonsense of the existing order, then we really have reason to squelch it down. Shut it out. Dismiss it. Make it invisible. The problem of disappearing the skater Mae Berenice Meite goes beyond the loss of her performance and her story. Repression has successfully crafted a narrative about a competition that belongs to two white Russian teenagers. This is a lie, and it’s impossible to live wholeheartedly, inside a lie. Under the influence of the lie, a young Black girl thinks she might love skating, sees no one like her in that world, and turns away. Another girl grows up brainwashed by the idea that tiny-fairy is the only way forward, and never owns her strength. The repressive Tutu vs. Tragic story begets a lineage of hampered lives, until it is seen for what it is, broken open, and dismantled.
Repressed thoughts are seldom completely disappeared: they poke through the membrane of consciousness like little fear-hernias, bulging and aching, refusing to go away. The current, repressed state of affairs has going for it that the earth hasn’t yet split open and swallowed your house, so that makes it safe. Of course, house-swallowing is pretty rare, so it’s not 100% likely that the new, un-repressed state would bring on this dire result, but you never know. You never know, and if you can possibly help it, you’d prefer that the house stay a house, and the bridge, a bridge. This way of thinking, of course, is more attractive for those who currently have a house, than for those who don’t. Middle-class white liberals like me, in the age of Trump, have had to hear some truths about not going back inside our safe houses, and closing the door, waiting for change to happen without much discomfort to ourselves.
Participating in more or less conservative, mostly-white, institutional Buddhism (which I’ve been involved with for more than half my life) now feels very much like going into my safe house and closing the door. I know it’s not my work right now, and yet it’s hard to let go of the affiliations that go with it, the affirmations of expertise, the orientation towards no-reward-is-my-reward that I’ve been schooled to since birth. But I can’t really embrace it, either. If I ask myself what’s important for me to be doing right now, I see I want to spend more time outside the house: more time in the South, more time talking with people less like me, and more time collaborating with and learning from new friends and colleagues. I want to spend more time with repressed-thought-incarnate, since that anyway is where I tend to feel at home.
The bay sparkles, the wind riffles the water, and the boats of today’s Repressed Thought Regatta soar out, each buoying and quickening one another into the shape of this moment.
What if all our ideas about desire are upside-down, pointed the wrong way, picked up by the wrong end, like grabbing a shovel by the blade and trying to dig a hole? What if, by shaping/shoving/pointing desire, splashing and thudding it around, we are failing to see that, all along, desire simply Is, needs no confirmation, no affirmation, no this-job or that-job? Desire can be experienced as a force, a field, moving through, without requiring any particular sort of rite. I lay here with you, eyes focusing only to the very short distance that they can, and I feel how desire animates the spaces through and in these bodies. Doesn’t mean must anything. Doesn’t mean shape up, act out, prove this, deny that. Just: Is. There is more risk in writing about this, than about a banana, or my dogs. My dogs have in some sense been de-sexed, but I have not. Still-sexed, I lay here, and allow desire to flow through without any particular sense of where it ought to go. What form, what rite, what observance? These are all several steps down from the experience I am describing.
In the next room, a bell goes off.
Outside: February fog.
Old pain in the side of my neck, warning, Don’t simplify, don’t pretend, keep finding the voice to say what must be said, upside-down.
I am writing about desire as a force. I am sitting in a body, in a room, in a city I once knew well. Which way is home? I swallow the big white tablet that helps fight off the sinus infection that would otherwise leave me upside-down with fever, chills, desire compressed down to a simple wish not to be so ill anymore.
What happens when you simultaneously decide to follow desire in its course, and to drop the desire-scripts you’ve built and absorbed over lifetimes? Answer: sometimes, not much. Sometimes what Tantra looks like is being able to bear with the uncertainty of how desire interacts with complex, layered beings, once the scripts have all been turned upside-down.
Yesterday, on the skybridge to my flight, I stood in front of a group of college kids. One of them was trying to bully another into coming to his bed that night because she owed him from not having made the effort to go see him the night before. This is some serious bullshit, I was thinking, and dangerous. But the student sort of shook herself off, and said, Brian, you’re being a butt! I thought, Good girl. Then Brian started in again, belittling her and what she said. I turned around. In case you need a voice from the outside to hear this, you ARE being a butt. I smiled. The student was surprised, but not angry. Something in him wanted to let go of the desire to hurt his friend, the desire to make hurtful claims. I turned his butt upside-down, and he settled.
Have you noticed the sometimes very fishy relationship between what we say we want, and what actually turns up? We say we want this experience, this person, this connection, but what we are really saying is we want our idea of these things. When these ideas meet a more unpredictable situation, it can be hard not to feel turned upside-down. I fly far from home, come to a city that used to be home, and find myself taking a shower, eating breakfast, practicing tai chi in the warm, foggy morning air. What need to go to Gaia? When body, speech, and mind are all in accordance, every well will be your Gaia. Waking up is accepting being upside-down, right-side up, wherever you go. Waking up is not minding so much, being upside-down.
Have you ever tried the neti pot? For me, holding a weird teapot upside-down into my stuffy nose feels very much like self-waterboarding. Luckily, there’s another version, a plastic squeeze bottle you fill with saline and squirt up one nostril. If you look down, and keep breathing through your mouth, the water percolates back out the other nostril, minus about 75% of the drowning sensations associated with the neti pot. You’re still upside-down, breathing water, something the body doesn’t like to do, but it’s OK. The water flows in, flows out, taking with it all the muck you’ve been manufacturing up your snout. Goodbye!
Upside-down sometimes leads to rightside-up. With aikido, I am beginning, just barely, to accept how upside down can land you in a place that’s more resilient than anywhere resistance goes. Let the arm be open. Let the weight of the body find ground without stiffening. Here I am, upside-down, but not broken. I still have no idea how experienced students take their enormous flying falls, but that knowing either will, or won’t come. I can’t desire it into being.
Upside-down foggy morning. Three? Four? Hours of sleep, and yet bright, and yet pen moving across paper, and yet purpose, possibility, kindness. How do we shape ourselves to limitations that keep us upside-down? How do we cramp our sense of the possible, the allowable, the fields that hold and underlie all the particulars of our desires? I am traveling in a city that was once my home, and I am at home in this body that is in no way a city. Fields of sound: the sirens we don’t hear in small-town New Hampshire. Trucks rumbling with supplies to keep massive, phantom stores open and humming.
I do not know where this goes, and it is not my responsibility to know. Upside-down means: maybe something strange is happening, but fundamentally you understand bewilderment and how to recover from it. Upside-down means you have some sense of where your axes are, and how to come back into alignment. Eating toast and drinking tea are not upside-down. Tai chi in the fog with sirens is not upside-down, even if you have forgotten some transitional movements between up and down.
I sit here rightside-up, feeling the force of desire, the force of sunlight rising in the east. I feel the way a labyrinth can open either way: masculine or feminine, each one leading curve on curve, inwards, upside-down, rightside-up, towards a core where all journeys meet. I cover a large white sheet of paper with thin black letters made of breath, of being here, of turning inside-out, outside-in, with ease. Pearly grey is not the upside-down of day. It is the core, and I am here to meet it. Desire, end of desire, breathing in, breathing out. Taking in, releasing. Here we are.
Unconscionable. A young woman calls Spirit Airlines to double-check that it is OK to bring her miniature hamster on the plane. Sure, sure, whatever, the airline says. Buy your ticket. (Would things have gone down differently on Soul Airlines, if there were such a thing?) On the day of the flight, the young woman arrives at the airport with the hamster, Pebbles. What happens next? Does the young woman good-girl reveal the hamster? Does the hamster peek her nose out of a pocket? Does the hamster squeak out a rendering of La Cucaracha, from inside her tiny carrier? Who knows? The person at the desk says, No hamster. What? No hamster? But I checked. But you said. But I need to go home for surgery. Perhaps you could flush the hamster down the toilet? But this is Pebbles, my friend. Can I rent a car? I am too young, and there are no cars. Can I ride the bus? The bus is slow and scary. Can I retract the hamster-showing? Oh, no. Here I am in this stainless-steel stall, looking at Pebbles in my hand. She is scared. I am scared. My stomach is turning inside out the way it does when I know something really bad is happening but I don’t know how to stop it. I put Pebbles in the toilet, and push the button for an industrial-strength flush. I almost throw up into that same toilet. What have I done? Wanting to get home, I have driven a wedge between myself and any true sense of home I might feel, from now into an unknown future.
Unconscionable: the parts of us that see the use or uselessness of other beings, but not their innate worth. The parts of us that issue death-warrants for the sake of protocol. The parts of us that obey those orders. The parts of us that want to be good, to be praised, to be in line with the laws, and will push the button, pull the trigger, drop the ballot in the box, and make the phone call to keep ourselves clean.
In a culture without Trickster, without Holy Mother Life and Death, we will forget true protection, true refuge, resistance, and the importance of breaking unjust laws. We will become easily cowed. What happens to our young tricksters, our love of all creatures, when we are small? Are they held to be wicked, in need of reform and better manners? Then we wind up working for Spirit. We wind up giving the order to flush the hamster, and obeying.
A client tells me a story of catching butterflies as a boy, loving their beautiful colors and shapes, especially the majesty of Luna moth’s pale green moons and furred feelers. One day, the boy shows his father, who marches him downstairs to the basement workshop, and tells him to put the fluttering creature in a can of acetone, to kill her. (Every father-ogre has a killing can.) The boy obeys, though he doesn’t want to. The father shows his son how to pin the creature’s beautiful corpse for display. At school, at home, the boy is praised for the kill, for the trophy, so he finds more creatures and kills them, even though he still only wants to catch them, look at them, and set them free.
Unconscionable: forcing a child to kill wonder. Praising a child for overriding love into cold use. Unconscionable: the parent knows best, and refuses any knowing that comes from the child. The child’s wish becomes irrelevant, feeble, shameful. Something in the man is stuck at the point of release, and needs help to let go, to run free, to open again into a relationship with life that is not focused on trophy and hidden pain.
Right now I am in the middle of what surely is not, but feels like the longest living stretch of sinus bullshit endured by a human. I wake like a prickly squid, closing my eyes to sunlight, refusing connection with the world or any of its inhabitants. I am a mess, and the goo juddering out of my snout is disgusting. Slowly, slowly, I come back. Could it be that someone else, somewhere, is also feeling ill? Maybe…Shame, shame: I am laying around like an unfresh, prickly squid, when others have cancer-ebola-leprosy-tuberculosis? Could it be that someone else, somewhere, is also feeling shame? Softening. Pain in my head. This also. Every discomfort I can allow, name, and feel, becomes a bridge into the heart of being. Before, I did not know what this is like, but now, through my own experience, I do. May we be well. May this be well.
I remember my dream from last night: I am in Chögyam Trungpa’s office – dark wood, big table. On a page in my dream-notebook, I am drawing the iris of an eye, rendering radiating lines in delicate pencil marks. Meanwhile, running head to toe, beyond, above, and below, are waves and waves of desire, like a magnetic force field. It’s incredibly strong, very uncomfortable, exhilarating, impersonal, and yet very much experienced in this body-mind, right now. I keep drawing the eye, to anchor myself. Unconscionable: to confuse this force with an individual being. To confuse it with myself. This force can be met, enjoyed, and endured in the presence of a carefully drawn “I,” but it is not to be thrown out or splashed around. I can ground it, pay attention to how it moves, feel its arising and passing away, as long as I understand what is showing up, and the risks involved.
To test for the safety of handling another person’s body with your own, use lemon juice to detect minute skin-breaks. To test for the safety of handling another person’s soul with your own, understand that no such safety exists. Understand that, in addition to trickster parts in all of us, there are mean parts, kind parts, awake parts, and unconscionable parts. Know that soul-breaks are inevitable, and that what breaks is not actually all of what we are.
I am in Trungpa’s office in the dream. Is he there? Is he not-there? Yes. I go to sleep reading his wife’s memoir, a book largely bereft of feeling. I did this/that; Rinpoche did this/that. At the point when I am setting the book down, Trungpa is about to administer LSD to his inner council, as part of a late-night meeting to resolve an ugly interpersonal power impasse. Unconscionable? I don’t know. Maybe the LSD is a way of invoking a force-field like the one in my dream, something so overwhelming that careful moment-to-moment attention is the only feasible response.
I am in the midst of a time
Anticipatory grief, anticipatory love, anticipatory awareness of the ways things go. These can help to build conscience, as long as we are aware that none of them are valid maps for what will actually transpire in the powerful field of the moment.
I walk into the airport with Pebbles safely tucked into a pocket of my sweatshirt. I’ve taken care to write her a bulletproof Emotional Support Document, signed by myself as Dr. Harrumph, printed on swanky card stock, with an impressive border. But really, who wants to fuck with all of that? Once we clear TSA, I add alfalfa to the pocket, velcro it shut, and make sure the air-holes are free. I choose an aisle seat, and get up a couple of times during the flight to let Pebbles run around on the small bathroom floor, having first made sure the toilet lid is safely closed. Together, we are flying home. We are always coming home, together.
Hopeless Diamond. No dangling above Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts for you. Also, no woo-woo curse for you. No Smithsonian magazine cover, no lockdown inch-thick Plexiglas display for you. Hopeless Diamond, you are something altogether more secret and more rare, more common and more obvious. Why deny you? You are here: patched-up Narcotic Anonymous plaid shirt, unboxed heart, improbable midwinter daffodil stalk.
The Zens talk about the True Person of No Rank. Maybe that person has the unofficial, off-budget rank of Hopeless Diamond. Toast-crumbs in the corners of her mouth, old Cheetos bags under the seats of her salt-rimed car, stains on her hoodie: these are the regalia of No Rank. Spit-bubbles and misspelled words. Inexplicable falls between slick parking-lot lines. Inability to remember what’s-her-face's name, to save your life. Clumsy invitations and misdirected emails. Slowly, over a lifetime, we sink through the ranks. We get better at relaxing into hopelessness. No better thing, elsewhere. No meeting to run off to.
What would it be like to become a? Already this is framed outside No Rank. What if I succeeded in? What if they finally noticed? What if we could just?
If Hopeless Diamond has any question, it begins, I wonder, and even so, from the low places, wondering gives way to noticing ripples in the field of What Is. Ah: this goes this way, and this stays blocked for now. Give up entirely here, and there lets go. Interesting… How can flowing straight to the low, loathsome places not be a dead end? Dante descends through the circles of Hell, and is shat out the other end, onto the still, starlit ground of Purgatory. He’s lost his teacher and guide, seen every possible form of suffering, and winds up alone someplace he could not have imagined. Out from the frozen reaches into something perfectly hopeless, and alive.
We’ve all ended up places we couldn’t have imagined, alive, looking around in the faint, but palpable light. No rank, no place. Just, here. Here in the dark forest, where there’s a new friend, after all, and the light drifts just enough to confirm that there are trees. We listen with our feet, with our whole bodies; we listen with the forest, and it lets us walk for hours, steadily, unknown path, unknown destination, hopelessly alive. A clearing: fireflies. A hilltop: the vault of Heaven opens on the shortest night of the year.
The original Hopeless Diamond is an awkward flying thing, a swindle engineered by people of rank so secret as to be nonexistent. Build a thing strange enough, and the searching eyes of enemies spin in their sockets without taking purchase, look elsewhere, lose connection. Seeking sleek missile-bristling eagles, reconnaissance misses a scrambled lump, its facets pointing so many directions as to bend space into nonsense. No rank is not universally without danger: both proto-Diamonds crashed. There’s a reason most of us like rank. There’s a reason most of us like hope.
Elliot and Chloe are for sure Hopeless Diamonds, beginning with the question, “What breed are they?” They are what happens when certain Southern dog-packs get together and fuck at will, over many generations. Biggish, black, thick-coated, long-toothed, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irascible, and undeterred. But, breed? Hopeless somethings. Diamond monsters. Sometimes, very restrained, very respectful. Yes, we will sit on the side of the trail, and accede to your desire that we not have knife-fights with every passing Golden. And other times, impossible, unruleable, adamantine. Elliot takes off after my friend and her dog, and there is nothing I can do about it. Collar-zapping may tone him down, and my friend’s calm discipline works smoothly. Nothing terrible happens, but what unfolds is clearly outside the scope of my Rank ordering Elliot's. Now someone else’s beast is the one not to be deterred: he follows Chloe and Elliot and I off the trail, picks a fight, and gets a skirmish. Well, they sorted out THAT debate, says the dog’s unperturbed companion, walking off. No rank, no problem.
Yes, we are Hopeless Diamonds together. These humans, these animals, this cold forest at the close of day. I find a place to lay down in the sun, to gaze up at the wide blue sky as the dogs sit patiently at my side. Hopelessly wonderful feeling of my back cradled in crunchy new snow. Green hemlock needles illuminated from within. Our breaths are tiny diamonds suspended in the freezing, lambent air.
What Is does not like rank or mastery. What Is changes, and change destroys hierarchy, cozy agreements, and coercive ones. I stand much taller than the dogs; I lay down, and they tower over me. I dangle above Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts; I sink in mud under miles of dark ocean water. This is the truth. This is the way that cannot separate itself from any living being, because, how? No Rank means dancing from one state into the next without losing hope, because all there is worth hoping for is the grace already built into the matter of our bodies and souls.
I have work to do: we all do.
I am in training: we all are.
I am in love: we all love.
I vow not to let the wrestlings of false rank, the jinglings of tacky crystals, sideline me from what is really to be done. Sure, I love a blingy set of teeth, a bedazzled t-shirt, a chandelier dripping with rainbows. Hoorah for all that. But also, importantly, hoorah for the stillness of morning, receiving love into this body of No Rank. Hoorah for what refuses to be trained, ordered, licensed, prescribed. Hoorah for the tough ice-patches on northward slopes that won’t let go of their hardness till April. Hoorah for unseen, unknown dignity and endurance. Hoorah for diamonds so small they coat the blade of the saw that cuts the bone, freeing change, one stroke, one breath, one clean moment of hopelessness at a time.
The Hopeless Diamond is always right here, shining forth from the heart of this sometimes painful, always-whole body.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now