Fermented pineapple: a blessing, a curse, a favorite snack among the denizens of Hell. All of these, simultaneously true, in the way so many things are. I open up Facebook, and find a post by my friend Andra Rose. It begins with a warning: “If strangeness is not your jam, you should skip this.” Strangeness is most definitely my jam, so I read on, having previously experienced Andra’s knack for primordial wisdom. (Self-Proclaimed job description: comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.) In the following paragraphs, she goes on to describe, quite powerfully, a dream wherein she is forced down into Hell, into the company of monsters. From the story, I picture a monster-wedding, monster-conference, or monster-awards-ceremony. Everyone is sitting around tables, eating fermented pineapple wrapped in prosciutto sliced from the flesh of horribly abused pigs. The drinks are bat-slaying tequila, sweetened with slavers’ syrup. Also, there are Unfair Trade mangoes, with no floss anywhere in fathomless space to relieve your teeth of those mango-strings that feel like they last for days, and cannot be captured by fingernails. The jokes run straight to everyone’s worst fears and most excruciating hangups. There is no doubt that everyone present (except the deluded NIMBY-monster) has done every awful thing that it is possible to do. Voilà! Here we are.
I am sitting at the lunch table with four fellow Buddhist teachers. We are discreetly showing one another a fang here, a devouring belly there. The topic of conversation turns to safety culture, and what place it has when offering the Dharma. Yes, it’s true that there is altogether too much hierarchical, traumatic student-schtupping going on. We shake our heads in sad disapproval. Not us, vile student-schtuppers! But then, what about the more or less explicitly-stated norm that requires all things Dharmic to be safe, tranquil, accessible, and enjoyable? We agree this is sort of meditation’s fault, for showing up with taglines like: Lovingkindness – Better than Xanax, Since 500BCE! It’s hard to magnetize the world with that particular sell, and then turn around snarling, We don’t want to be your Xanax. Deal with it! Hard to have it both ways. And yet: impossible to inhabit the fiery, awake heart of practice, if anything that shows up more Metallica than shakuhachi is automatically exiled from Buddha culture.
A friend describes offering a New Year’s Day retreat to a group that included a certified mindfulness instructor. “That was nice,” she said at the end of a day of inquiry, movement, and other awareness practices, “but I thought you would be offering something a little bit more Buddhist.” What does it mean, to be “Buddhist”? What kinds of experiences lead to the unshakeable insight that monsters - as in my friend’s dream - are sacred beings?
The teacher sitting to my right perks up when I describe my not-infrequent experience of building the Ramones or Rage Against the Machine into a dance playlist, only to have this intensity met with dance-participants' most withdrawn restorative yoga poses. Turns out the man I am talking with is a fellow fan of hard-core music, a former school teacher now working with incarcerated kids. We talk about what intense music – music the doesn’t shy away from the monstrous – does for us. It’s releasing, welcoming in a level of stimulation that resets the nervous system like nothing else will. When I unfurl into sound just at the edge of what I know how to meet, I am reminded of vastness and fearlessness in a way that doesn’t arise otherwise. In my experience, big chaos in sound and movement is a doorway into indescribable, unfabricated order. Warrior energy meets overwhelm and moves through it. I don’t want to be a Valkyrie all the time, but riding the wind, ax drawn, limbs whirling, teeth bared, gives depth and richness to parallel, peaceful states. No work also means no rest. No struggle means no resolution.
Recently, I passed again through what is a very painful gateway for me: a role is ending, and I’m not being offered what small-self feels to be the next role up. This gets right into the immigrant’s pain of not-belonging, the fear that showing up whole means remaining unseen. It fucking burns. It burns hard – harder than any of the hard music I have ever loved, and which has prepared me for just such suffering. I stay in it. I stay with it, I don’t hide it, don’t lash out, or at least try not to. Then a friend asks, How about no-role? How would no-role be? What if no-role, no knowing what comes next, is exactly where I need to be? What if enslaving myself to this-job, or that-job isn’t actually what Being is for, or about? That’s a hard one to settle into, when so much externally is about how to be good at one’s role, and how to move successfully from role to role.
With the help of some monsters I've befriended, I ride this role-wave as I have ridden countless dance-waves, writing-waves, and heart-waves. It begins, it burns, it goes wild, it releases into some spacious gift accessible only through sitting at this table, eating the fermented pineapple, listening to my poet friend tell me a monster-story of abuse and heartbreak, without slipping out the back door of judgment or disconnection. If I go into a restorative yoga pose in the middle of this wave, space out, go passive, I will lose the opportunity to eat poison and turn it into blessings. I will defer a reckoning that wants to be embodied. And of course, I do that. Of course, sometimes the monsters are more than I can meet, and so: bed, advil, food, social media. Sometimes also, the active response is to leave. Someone else’s Metallica might be my there-are-too-many-drunk-people-in-this-room. We do what we can. Bonking out teaches us the growing edge of capacity.
Andra’s dream-narrative is not a pleasant tale of beautiful, lovable monsters. She sees monsters who know themselves, and accept their roles as purveyors of horror, unfettered agents of the pain that may eventually grow us. She writes:
These monsters know all of the darkness in the cosmos as a function of their being. They are the practitioners and devotees of all that brings us anguish, revulsion, and shame. Like priests, they perform the sacred work of embodying these necessary elements. If you arrive in Hell without a relationship to these aspects of reality, it is… well, Hell. The monsters simply being who they are becomes an agony for you, because you’ve arrived in their territory without any kind of rapport. Naturally you’ll misinterpret howls of laughter for shrieks of rage and grins for predatory grimaces, all directed at you and your wretched personal suffering.
The real challenges we encounter in life are not delivered to us by safety-checked monster-simulators, planes without wings, playacting just the right, calibrated amount of Hell needed to straighten us out. They know, and we know, that we need to be smashed flat under gnarled toenails, without ever losing the thread of wholeness that keeps us all primordially connected, role after role, wave after wave, life after life.
Locked in. So it shall be written, so it shall be done. Yul Brynner thumps his oiled chest, and somehow his Pharaoh’s headdress doesn’t bobble. Decrees made without bobbling are a sign of quality Authority. Maybe Yul Brynner had some sense, even then, of being locked into the decree he would make years later? I’m Yul Brynner, he would say, eyes locked in with the camera lens, and by the time you see this, I’ll be dead from lung cancer. Fierce eyes. Yul Brynner, back from the dead, is telling his viewers that they can unlock themselves from smoking.
You can’t unlock yourself from being born into a vulnerable body, subject to aging, sickness, and death. What may seem a bummer also gives freedom to opt out of a whole lot of expensive and time-consuming shilly-shallying around Atlantis Sea Salts and Unicorn Rainbow Enemas, none of which will in the slightest way alter your root vulnerability. You can skip the Cryonics subscription. Extreme longevity and championship vigor are not the point.
Still, you can nurture life. You can choose to take care of body and mind in ways that open, celebrate, and support the waking-up process. Not because the Buddha loves rosy butt-cheeks, but because, among lives, maybe this one is a miracle. You’re human. You suffer enough to want to wake up, but not so much that you’re constantly overwhelmed. There are little gaps here and there, where pain unlocks into understanding, where spacing-out gives way to focus, where anger turns to wisdom, and compulsive seduction turns to discernment.
You can learn to work with What Is, instead of trying to perfect it all the damn time. Establishing the Right conditions – no matter whose version of Right you might be working with – is a profoundly elitist and ultimately doomed project. Learn, instead, to recognize conditions for what they are.
This weekend, one of my classic wounds came up, the whole pattern unfurling its rich carpets of sorrow. Perhaps you recognize the refrain? There Is No Place for Me in This World, which Is in Any Case Run by Nincompoops of Servile Disposition and Meager Understanding. The whole thing is very intricately woven for me, and not entirely without truth. But still – if I let myself get locked into it, despair is really the only possible outcome. Suicide – a not infrequent event in my family – begins to make a certain amount of sense. If this – this pattern of being unheard, unheeded, and uncelebrated – is the outcome of All My Hard Work (cue violins and sitar), then Fuck It.
Luckily, the truths that resonate most deeply for me are not results-based. They say, Unbind yourself from results. Unlock the report-card mentality that chains your sense of worth to external conditions. You are not what happens to you. Don’t expect applause.
What does that even look like, in daily life, without getting all spooky and dissociated? I remember the intentions that brought me into situations that wind up being harder than I expected. I remember I can know the world, without needing a lollipop from it every five minutes. I remember this one life is not the entire story. There is a context of sufferings and joys of living beings of every description, and I’m here as a student of these. I’m also here clearing tabs left open in half-seen lives. Maybe this perceived slight or setback is connected with those debts? Maybe it’s clearing space for something as yet unseen, unknown? Maybe it’s a reminder not to get too deeply sucked into American entitlement and success theologies, carrying trains of suffering far longer than anything I will allow myself to get locked into.
There is a wheel of life, and we are all on it, somewhere. We have been everywhere on it, and most likely will be, once again. And also, if you look carefully, you will see that every sector of the wheel contains not just its denizens – the Animals, the Hungry Ghosts, the Jealous Gods – but also the self-same smiling Buddha, extending a fear-not mudra into the proceedings. It’s not a different Buddha in each of the different realms. The alpacas down in Sector C are not grooving to a woolier Buddha than the one watching over the cavortings of the A-list in their palaces. Same Buddha. Same compassionate seeing. Same wisdom in all beings, regardless of circumstance and fate. This everywhere-on-the-wheel-at-once Buddha represents a simultaneous, equanimous awareness, needing no preferences met in order to be OK. You’re the boss? Fine. The pipsqueak? Still fine. You’re shrouded by grief, felled by heartbreak, pissed as hell, giddy with success? All knowable. The key to all the locks is the same: Know what this is. Know what is happening, and the impact it is having on you, and all those involved in the situation. Don’t forget that this role-play is unfolding in a way that cannot encompass or crush you. Nothing lasts. Nothing is forever.
Yul Brynner speaking to the television camera extends a fear-not mudra towards thirteen-year-old Julie, sitting on the floor of her family’s living room in Atlanta. It’s not like she’s ever going to smoke, but still: this person, this actor who played the Pharaoh without flinching or bobbling, this beautiful man who made Bible class bearable, is reaching out from beyond to say there is an awareness not quelled by illness or by death. Compared with Tony the Tiger telling her gleefully to rot her teeth, this makes a real impression. Pray for us now, and at the hour of our death. Forget the Froot Loops. Forget the pointless biases of all those TV fantasies. Something real is here, child, and you can choose either to be curious about it, or to squander it. Chances are, you’ll choose a little of both, without getting locked into either.
Malcontent or sage, sage or malcontent, goes the ancient refrain from the astrological chart drawn up when I was a newborn. Malcontent: locked into the circumstances of this world as a flawed mirror for the brilliance of What I Am. Sage: recognizing that circumstances cannot for one moment fix the whole of what any of us are, to one another, to ourselves, as interlocking universes.
About to lay out the tarot cards for a reading, I glimpse something scary. I am about to flick the cards at the top of the stack into the unmanifest middle, when I think, No. I am here to learn, to see, to understand. This Celtic cross, this mandala, sure enough has sorrow in it, with the spooky bat of the Hanged Man at its center. But it also has the World in the place representing what I bring to the situation I am exploring. That feels right: a blessing of comprehensive wholeness. Sorrow can be known. Failure can be known. And there is no shame in either of these, honestly come by. I let the cards speak, not with a sense of being locked in, but with gratitude for greater and greater capacity to receive patterns, unfolding.
Inside-out is an invitation to break the rules. Something comes out of the box, and you put it back in. Then you change your mind, crumple it up into your pocket, and choose again. Two come out. Which hand? The one with a colorful bracelet on the outside, and all the ten thousand things on the inside.
Inside-out is encrypting your new hard drive, and then forgetting the password that lets you get inside. Voila! Welcome to the useless plastic thingy, formerly known as a terabyte of storage. Some things are only useful if you can get inside them. Some things are only useful if you can get outside them. Inside, outside. This house only functions as a home if I can leave and come back. I leave and come back. My friend Karen gives me morning glory seedlings, which I’m taking through the inside-outside dance called “hardening off.” Don’t leave them outside overnight – they’ll catch cold. Don’t leave them inside during the day – they’ll never learn how to grow in the blustery, changing world of New England.
The inside is outside, and the outside is inside, say the alchemists. As above, so below, they say. I say, Maybe. I say, that fails to account for just how much there is going on, all in all. This feeling– is it mine, yours, ours? Clenching my teeth and my hands in my sleep, am I letting the outside world too deeply into my dreams? What is too deeply? How could I sleep unclenched, when elsewhere, cynical men are poking sticks at desperate, cornered people, in my name? When elsewhere, Oligarchy Barbie stands next to the cornerstone of an abomination engraved in her father’s name? So, that is what it’s like when the outside is inside.
On a bad day, when the inside is outside, I am cranky from whatever countless causes, looking at Chloe the Pirate Dog with frank annoyance. Dammit, Dog, you breached the fence again. Now, we can’t contain you. Now, we can’t know exactly where you are, when. Now, we’ll have to build a better fortress. In another mood, I can see her defiance in light of my own. I can laugh with her toothy old-dog smile, and have both our insides be outsided in conspiratorial joy. Way to dig out from all obstructions, Big Girl! You show me my own stubborn freedom.
On a good day, inside-out recognizes the wisdom and wonder of What Is, because that’s what I’m carrying around within. Flow-state is inside and outside sitting companionably with one another. Tangoing passionately with one another. Inside-out. I drop my resistance to the forgotten password, the unhired model, the many ways that days and plans go lumpy. I allow surprise, innocence, the unexpected. I play.
Here’s the news: the thing that you crumpled up and put inside your pocket isn’t done yet. It’s coming back. You can’t build a wall around it, and even if you get Ivanka Trump to declare it a victory for insiders everywhere, it won’t last. Something is already digging it out from underneath, with sharp, stubborn black claws. With bolt cutters and shovels, with root refusal to obey your notions of what should rightly be inside, or outside, here, or over there.
The Tao Te Ching is very specific about this sort of thing. No treasure without a thief, it says. No sealed-up space, without the inside and the outside carrying on an illicit affair that you can never stop, no matter how much shooting and gassing, or lying and covering up you do. What Is hates a sealed-up space, will do everything to open it, will insist on the more natural rhythms of breathing in and breathing out, smashing everything in its way to get there, if necessary.
When I listen to the headache I wake up with, most every day, and carry around, sullen but workable, I am aware of a sealed space. It begins in the left side of my skull, travels down through the jaw, neck, and shoulder, and then anchors in my sacrum. When I listen to it, I can open up the top of my skull, and unseal the space. Immediately, relief comes. Good. Now it’s pain with contact, with harmony. I stand taller, and the right side also remembers it can breathe.
But what about when I am asleep? Then, there’s no control over where body-awareness goes. Then, whatever it is that I am clenching against comes into this being, inside-out, outside-in. I am not saying that I think I am being stalked by something sinister, at all. More like: I become permeable in my sleep, susceptible to the ten thousand sorrows of this world, who need someone to acknowledge their existence. This can be Gaza, or it can be down the street. This can be someone seemingly else, or it can be the pains of my own life. I get into my car after aikido practice, one bright Saturday morning, and am momentarily transported back to the parking lot of Kiddie City, in the Sandy Springs suburbs of Atlanta. I am 11 years old, and must, somehow, spend the morning shopping with my mom. We can’t afford anything. Whatever we find will become co-opted as the outside of this very awkward inward being. Time crawls by in a perfect disjointed dance of inside and outside, out of sorts. What can my mother see, in these overpriced eighties clothes? I’m unsuited to them – not blonde, not petite – and what she knows comes from a French girlhood spent in convent schools, wearing gloves on the outside; wearing assumptions about place and class, on the inside. I try on a pair of pale-yellow corduroys, peel them inside-out as I shuck them off. How is this petal-velvet a solution to the armor I instinctively know I need? The outside and the inside are at war. I’m outside my mother’s insides, and her notions of curating me feel desperate, without power to reconcile world and self, self and world.
I come back to this May morning, remember I am on my way to meet my friend, tug the warrior/healer suit I’m wearing back into alignment with this body’s shape. I wear nurse on the outside, because nurse is what I need on the inside. I wear severed heads on the outside, because severed heads are what’s happening on the inside. I slice through old ways of seeing, reacting, assuming, taking a chance that somewhere in all this mayhem, a heart of wholeness cradles the inside, and the outside, without being fooled for one instant that they have ever been other than turning one another inside-out in the ocean’s tides.
Cliffhanger is what prompted my brother and his friend Keith to ninja-rappel down Keith’s mother’s apartment building in Atlanta. They watched the film over and over at the bargain matinée, and then decided they knew enough to do the deed. The deal was, they had to have good timing, because half the façade was glass, and the other half, balconies. Balcony-bounce: good news for young ninjas. Window-bounce: not so much. They cliffhangered their way down successfully, making space for their wildness where others simply saw Home.
Cliffhanger implies just this kind of suspense, suspension, an in-between state that just can’t last, and shouldn’t. Get out of there! Find the secret code, punch it in, and emerge into this May morning, in the company of noisy mockingbirds and feeding bees. Leave the bunker. Ditch the falling tower and rejoin the commonwealth of beings.
Right now, working on my thesis project, I have to remind myself again and again to leave the transcription software, open the door, and go outside. The transcription can wait mid-sentence, if need be, a mini-cliffhanger, while I go out to admire the asparagus shooting up. While I go out to bob around in the warm-water pool with round ladies in sturdy one-piece bathing suits.
The opposite of Cliffhanger is aqua-aerobics. You bounce around in the water, playing its resistance against the strength in your body, realizing there’s absolutely no place to fall, no void, and no drowning. Aqua-aerobics is the underachiever’s dream exercise, and it is also a good way to release all the tension of listening for what comes next, earbuds jammed into my ears, parsing meaning and structure from rivers of words. What did she say? What did she mean? Why did I ask this question, instead of that one?
I am writing about the embodied sexuality of long-term women Buddhist practitioners. I am buzzing with stories. I am listening for the unsaid within the said, for the heart of what it is to be waking up in this world as a woman. What happens? What happened?
The bees know, but they’re not saying. The noisy mockingbird might know, but is speaking in someone else’s voice.
Cliffhanger. Poised between a dilemma and its outcome. This is ending so fast! This is ending so slowly! The crabapple flowers smell of everything lovely and fruitful, honey and wildness pouring over the fence without end. The crabapple is a cliffhanger whose answer is Spring. Later, other answers will come.
I feel, this morning, into the countless generations of women ancestors whose job has been to soften male worlds into beauty and wisdom. Fuck that shit, I think. Fuck being caged and made small, and then asked to make sure things smell nice around the place. Crabapple is planted in one place, and draws the bees, but as far as I can tell, no one’s deeply invested in telling her that Real Trees, Important Trees are essentially different than she is. Cliffhanger: what happens when, age forty-six, functionally before the beginning of some new life, marriage comes to seem a ceremony I’ve been groomed for, and no longer wish to enact? Marriage comes to seem like a tower needing exit, as soon as possible, via ninja-rappel if necessary, but more likely slowly, down the stairs, with frequent stops for aqua-aerobics along the way.
I can feel old stories rousing themselves in the cellar. Go out alone, and who will keep you safe? Go out alone, and who will pay the bills? Give up this perfectly reasonable, kind man, and enter the territory of loose witches beyond the edges of things. There’s a mighty chorus whose job it is to keep me on the safe side, away from the cliff, up the tower, in place, rooted like the crabapple tree, though not a tree by nature.
Cliffhanger: what to do with the buzzing, wild energy of Spring, when at least overtly, not much in the world seems to want it? Wild doesn’t get shit transcribed. Wild crashes in to old ladies in the aqua-aerobics pool. Wild rejoices with unleashed skinny mutts exploding from the trailhead, running pell-mell, and laying down in every mud-puddle between here and home, twice if possible. Wild’s not necessarily who you want to meet at the bend in the path, and wild may not settle down to dinnertime like a good girl. Wild might smell like crabapple one minute, and fox turds the next. What to do?
Well, get up early, make a list. Squander as little time on nonsense as possible. Keep connected to wild in ways that don’t tear the tower down while you’re still living in it. Find a place to build a dwelling that’s not a tower, and keep adding to it, day by day. If you are the tree, you can’t fall out of it.
Cliffhanger is a way of forcing all of everything into some will she/won’t she funnel, when actually, maybe Her Hasty Escape isn’t the best plan, after all. Ground and roots; tower and pool; crown and all the new leaves that can only come in their own time. One day, there is absolutely nothing at all showing on the surface, and the next, purple-tipped asparagus wands are vying with each other to see who can penis out the furthest in the space of one afternoon.
Do we believe – do I believe – that there’s actual work to be done in this world, and the Universe would like me to please keep getting my shit together, because it’s actually kind of pressing? Yes. Yes I do. Well then, fuck the chorus in the cellar. It’s important to keep coming back to whatever supports real growth, and not to get distracted by cliffhangers with names like I cannot bear this for another moment or Not this crap again. It is important to stay connected with path, allowing only a minimum daily allotment for eye-rolling, or wishing the kitchen cupboards contained something more snackable than a hand-me-down bag of panko crumbs, an ancient can of cherry pie filling, and some vinegar. Cookies would be great, but it’s not much of a cliffhanger to imagine how fast I would try to use them to muffle the voices in the cellar, all to no avail.
No, there really is no solution here, other than to keep doing the work I know I need to do, to build the space I will live in, and to understand that cliffhanger is a construct that makes no sense, in light of how long we’ve all been at this. Beginningless time does not allow for narrow funnels, only steady work, with a sense of possibility opening around every tight corner.
Falling doesn’t sound so appealing, in general. It sounds dangerous, inconvenient, painful, and potentially injurious. It sounds out-of-control and embarrassing. Falling sounds like things winding up not at all precisely where we’d like them. Like drool on our shirt. Like mud on the seat of our pants. Like affection or hatred, landing in places we really wish they wouldn’t. Falling sounds like every pain in the ass we’ve ever encountered, and so, no thanks, really. We’ll take climbing, or sashaying along, or even boring old sitting, any day.
This preference for control over wild wipeout is pretty much what the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta seeks to dismantle, relentlessly, and possibly for our own good. It goes piece by piece, in a way I’ve heard described as a side effect of the oral tradition through which it has been transmitted, and which also happens to be necessary, to get through the armoring we carry around.
Form is not self. If form were self, then form would not be accompanied by affliction, and it would be possible to say of form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
That’s pretty clear, already, but just to make sure, the Sutta continues:
Just so, since form is not self, form is accompanied by affliction, and it is not possible to say of form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not-thus.’
Whap! We fall into some alternate reality, where toning and trimming, waxing and tucking, shaping and exercising make no sense at all in any of the old ways. Sure – go to yoga class, keep your nose-hairs from growing down into your mustache. But also, realize that none of these things can really be filed in the self-improvement drawer. They can be considered in the same general framework as keeping the sink free of dirty dishes, or picking up stray lube-packets from the edge of the woods, but they cannot be seen truthfully as I Am Improving My Self. They can’t fall into that category and stick, with any degree of truthfulness.
What do you think? Is form permanent or impermanent? Impermanent. And things that are impermanent, can they be considered reliably satisfying? No. And of something that is unreliable, impermanent, and subject to decay, can we say, ‘This is mine, this is me, this is my self?’ Nope.
Here’s a list of questions a good lawyer would never let her client get tangled up in. For starters, who said we should be able to depend on any external thing for satisfaction? Precisely. That’s where this whole thing is going. It’s pointing the spear back at us. We can sort of see, once the package has been opened, and the thin layer of tissue paper has fallen out, that these new swim trunks aren’t going to be the salvation of us, after all. But it’s harder to see that about our minds, bodies, perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. We want very much to be able to improve those into some state where they won’t fall or fail, and what this series of questions is trying to get us to do, is to receive all of these with the same degree of not-grasping that we can sometimes muster for seemingly lesser things. Sometimes. Those swim trunks? In the first few seconds of maybe-ownership, they look pretty grand. Soft, stylish, promising to cover our rumps and new squidgy bits with grace and aplomb. It’s only later we find out the velcro is in a stupid place, and the zipper’s not going to last long, in ocean saltwater. We send them back, feeling virtuous.
What happens next? What happens if we can learn to work with all the components of our constructed selves in a way that falls open a little bit, or a lot?
Honestly, part of what happens is: we feel queasy, seasick, and like we might throw up if everything doesn’t fall back together right away into a shape that might be wildly uncomfortable, but at least has a shape. In the beginning drawing classes I teach, the time we spend learning to look at negative shape is very difficult for some people. There’s a visceral aversion to focusing on not-things, on space, on the unknown, unfelt matrix, within which all the stuff that preoccupies us is unfolding. People get angry; people get fearful. It can feel like I am the mean witch, stealing everyone’s binky, over and over again. If I let go of looking at that jar/chair/basket, how will I possibly be able to see? Where will I be? If I let go of me and my opinions, where will I fall through to? It’s not at all appealing.
And it’s also not at all the whole story. Many us have received such strong, painful training in overriding what we feel, think, and want that we first need to become quite ferocious in expressing these human impulses. We need to know them, before we can honestly make space around them. The point of learning how to see and draw negative shape is not to make weird flat drawings of the gaps between things, forever. Instead, with much time, patience, and training, we become able to switch back and forth at will, to come closer to an accounting of reality that weds the impermanent and the deathless, the thing-view and the space-view, without fixed preference for either.
Falling into relationship with Being Itself is an ideal for which there are lots of skilled ad-reps loose in the world, making it sound like bliss, blue sky, realization, hoorah! Don’t believe them. The more space intensifies, the more things do, as well. There’s a kind of interrelationship at work. More seeing means also becoming more aware of not-seeing. More rising means more falling.
Thus, with wise discernment of things as they are, a practitioner comes to see: for any form, past, present, or future, refined or coarse, internal or external, better or worse, far or near, ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’
Is that our big invitation to the Depersonalization Ball, where we wind up with all our tendencies to dissociate validated, once and for all? I don’t think so. I don’t live so. What actually seems to happen is something more like compassionate curiosity. Wow. I really went for it, in this morning’s argument over the hot-water kettle. That came together in a way that makes divorce over beverage-habits feel like a real possibility. I wonder what is happening here? I wonder if divorce is where the story of these two people is actually inclining? I wonder how the spaces between and inside this situation are influencing each other?
I don’t need to manifest a nicer self. I don’t need to pussyfoot around this uncomfortable pattern. I don’t need to fall into the idea that It Will Always Be Like This. But I do wonder: is it helpful, to keep sharing these spaces?
Falling is also falling into the possibility of walking away. What is this like right now? What would not-this be like? What have I been telling myself about the way things are, the way I am, the way we are, the way you are, that keeps generating these particular shapes? What limits me to perceive space, but not shape; shape, but not space?
Depending on whose translation you are reading, the denouement (literally, unbinding) of the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta can sound like a clinically-inadvisable total bummer, in which the Mary Kay pink Cadillac reward for hard practice is “estrangement” or “weariness” towards form, self, other, and every possible anything. To me, that language reeks of ill-humor, bad breath, and eyebrow-stubble. More promising is “disenchantment.” What is it like to let go of our illusions about ourselves and others, and as a result, love more deeply, not less? What is it like to fall out of infatuation, and into something that depends less on frantic editing?
Falling can be unbinding, and unbinding, love.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now