Waking pre-dawn, new bed, maybe nine hours off my body-clock, maybe three, maybe just right. I roll over, limpet myself onto Timothy, start laughing about last night’s adventures – the vaudeville of the way things are. Increasingly, I find I have a choice. Some position presents itself, such as: I can’t stand this, I am wronged, this is my enemy – and I find I can choose either to settle into this position with the satisfactions it proposes, or decline, settling instead into the basic quality of refuge just underneath – vast, unflashy, and as visceral as the sigh releasing itself at the end of any cycle.
Last night: The Bathroom Fan Is My Enemy. Fucker won’t turn off! Humming at my airplane-aggravated soul, buzzing its stupid self all around without cease, while I, exhausted I, stuff earplugs ever deeper, clench my teeth, and try to settle into this unknown bed. Even so, I know: Bullshit, Baby. You’re just fine. You’ll go to sleep soon. You’re not shivering under some sleety tarp. There, there.
This morning, waking, I wrestle with my love, roll out of bed, find my woolies, sense that it is time to sit. Where? Strange space. I turn on no light, walk towards the door, become aware of the mirror in the corner – large, square, reaching to the floor. Stop my restlessness, sit down, right there. No more seeking for me.
In the mirror I see a black space where this body blocks what little light the windows seep. An oval, paler, for the face. Sit eyes open, gaze focusing somewhere in the belly-void. Sit in twofold experience: body-as-world, void-as-world. Carrying them both. Alive. Nothing. Alive. Enormous. Some choice arises: this could be an excuse to freak out. But why? Keeping the gaze soft, settling into the shoulders, the neck, the un-impinged darkness in the mirror. What does this feel like at heart-level? A different interstellar space, warmer. I settle there. I settle down, in, out, widening circles of awareness. Alive. Then body says, enough. Time to shit oreos, fritos, bad falafel from the Pegasus place in Midway, lasagna leftovers, several handfuls of tamari almonds eaten while sitting on the Manchester airport concourse floor reading Zadie Smith.
Something not-finished. Shitting is finished, but my appointment with What-Is, is not. Go back to the bedroom? Why? Sitting on the edge of the tub, looking into the sink mirror at this tousle-haired person, I chant the seven-branch prayer, four great vows, smiling at the literalness of everyplace-is-sacred, everyplace suitable. You can get pretty cute with this, and in my day I have, but it’s also a great relief. No need to schlep through the rain to some temple. Right here in this queasily painted bathroom on the edge of the continent. Right here. No Pope, no altar. Mirror, mirror. Someone dug it into the wood trim. Someone painted the top drawer purple, changed their mind, painted the rest of the drawers puce.
I pin up, sling up, fold the whole array of plastic sheeting suspended from a PVC pipe frame over the tub, octopus out the pebble-patterned slip-mat, unfurl the purple shag bathmat, agree to the twee heart-shaped mini-soap, grab hold of the bath-plug, and determine that my seldom-washed hair can last another day or so. I open the tumbling hot water spout, climb in, and lay down.
Here in the heart of the world. Here in the heart of the body. Right here. As another cycle sighs free, I remember mantra-ing my way up an icy hill, and that memory becomes a song of the here and now. Om mani padme hum, listening to the room, the rogue bathroom fan, the shape of this wet morning forming itself. The fan, my enemy of last night, becomes a harmonium, becomes the voicebox of the world, Dolly to my Kenny, Sonny to my Cher. We sing our way through open endings and through closed, tuning one another. I start off rusty and become smooth. The room starts off musty and becomes divine. Mirror, mirror. We sing one another whole.
Now I am sitting in a fancy coffee house, and I notice the whale-song electronica is putting out a familiar invitation: you can resist this space or be seduced by it, its hipsters and tattoos, or you can recognize its beauty without sticking to it. Sure, it's a bit pretentious, running a furniture business alongside a café, so that customers must pass the test of discerning which tables are for sitting, and which for admiration only. At the same time: the whole thing works. There is a duet. I am writing the space into harmony, and it is singing me into congruence.
This, I think, is what we are here for. To listen. To knit together. To sing the 108 names of everything, and be sung by them, day in, day out, allowing the body to be the resonator it has always been. Otherwise, where is the sigh of letting go? Where is the real moment of discovery, where yesterday’s enemy reveals itself as true love?
It is hard to describe this without sounding a bit like an advocate for jellyfish-hood, and yet that is not what I mean at all. There is effort here – effort of maintaining attention. Effort of choosing wisely where attention enters and rests. Effort of rising both to the intentions that present themselves, and to the surprising forms their fulfillment takes.
Mirror, mirror. Show me. Show me, in this vast grey rain-field, where shall my steps land? In this world of birth, aging, and death, show me the next lines of this song we are improvising together out of cell phones, lattes, rogue fans and rescue dogs, family ties and the intimacy of everything with everything else. Make me an instrument of the peace beyond and within ideas, inside the vast open space of pre-dawn shadow, the drone of electronic instruments, and the hum of jet-engines circling the planet without ever leaving center.
Soon this writing ends – I know this from my mother-in-law’s cell phone, which I am using as a time-keeper, and from the way the edges of my underwear press into my sit-bones. I know it from the rumbling of a bus on wet Grand Avenue, and from the slightly glassy chill of my big toes in the warm winter boots I am so glad I brought. Eyelid-twitch. In-breath. Fingers working to hold the pen, to keep it moving. Eyes scanning this page and multiple shadows, all at once.
It is, after all, hard to keep settling into the truth of this perpetual wedding with the world, within which nothing is missing and all is constantly unfolding, ever-present. What if there is something better? What if it is all here? Shifting shapes like kaleidoscopic shards, tumbling and contained, together. The breath catches and releases. The body-mind sings a duet with the world, as best it can. Silence between drones, voices calling. I am at home here, sending love. May all beings everywhere, in the concourses that we move through, be well. In the ruined cities and in the marketplaces, in the empty houses and the full ones, in the schools and the abattoirs. May we all be well, and know for ourselves this wakeful resting, this laughter that refuses the fixity of position, and settles into the mirror’s surface, as into its depths, without cease.
Pain is pretty much why everything.
Why skirt the edges of life?
Why eat the extra taco?
Why lash out at your nightmare?
Why kick the cat?
One of the things that makes being a Buddhist a little bit tough is the bad reputation we have, on the pain front. How many times have I heard some solemn fucker declare that Buddhism teaches Life is Suffering? So many times that there’s a pain in my left shoulder specifically dedicated to the repercussions of that simultaneously glib and dour statement. Some Buddhists do have superpowers – the ability to clean windows with obsessive patience, the ability to sit very still for unreasonable amounts of time. Luckily, the ability/desire to transform all experience into pain is not a universal feature of being Buddhist. Instead, it appears to be a universal feature of being human, but perhaps I am getting a little bit ahead of myself.
I am writing, in this moment, from a kitchen table belonging to friends who live not far from the monastery where I first came to train, twenty years ago. At the time, I was hoping like crazy that Buddhism had the capacity to lift me out of pain. That is actually just as misguided as declaring that Life is Suffering, but at the time, it was the best I had. Some delusions are very helpful. Someone might have sat me down and said, Look, Honey, this whole monastery thing is actually going to be a pressure-cooker for bringing out your most fucked-up longings and squirrelly patterns, and you are going to be living in the rich company of dozens of others whose patterns are likewise being coaxed out through a potent combination of communal life, sense-austerity, and religious observance. If someone had said this, if I had believed them, if I had understood half of what this meant, I probably would have headed Anywhere But The Monster-stery. But I heard otherwise, and so I marched up to the monastic elevator, in my backpacker’s rags, and pressed the Up arrow for all I was worth.
As it happens, the elevator I had more or less made up was actually connected to something real in the universe. So I pressed the button, and in addition to ordering up a freight-train’s worth of pain, I also got a brief excursion into the universe and myself in it that undid those categories, as hard and fixed entities, forever. Yay! Good news! Except, actually, more pain. Because, if you remember from a few sentences back, meanwhile I was being flooded with this beatific vision, everything grotty, selfish, deluded, unresolved, evasive, ignorant, hasty, and impulsive about human nature, as accumulated from beginningless time, was coming to claim its own within me.
It’s one thing to be feeling really horrible from a background of not expecting all that much from life, and another thing to be struggling with all these things, while also clinging desperately to a felt remembrance of the unalienable beauty and rightness of every single thing ever made, thought, felt, endowed with toes, and illuminated from within by the very nature of its being.
So, pain. And beauty. Side by side.
Years ago, I went to see the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Met. I didn’t even really mean to. I was in New York for a project, and there was time, and so why not go to the temple where in my twenties I went to visit Bronzino’s wall-eyed youth, in his satins and the inevitability of his death? Room after room of incredible, prosthetic beauty. Leather masks and headdresses, torn lace and fur, a white sprite of a woman dancing forever enclosed within a holographic cube that one had to lean down to look into, uncomfortable, mesmerized. McQueen was saying, over and over and with impossible skill, Life is suffering, and meanwhile, here’s some beauty to tide you over this particular patch of the abyss, and then here’s some more. The whole thing – the spider’s silk thread through the void – struck me as outrageous, heroic. Then of course the thread ran out. Beautifying your way through pain is a risky proposition, as I well know.
What, then? I would say What, then? looks like turning around and being willing to engage with everything on its own terms, in a careful, measured, ecstatic way , recognizing that on its own terms, even pain is not so painful that it cannot be met.
Trungpa Rimpoche liked to say that every situation is workable. How can that be so? Better not to say, except that in my experience the definition of workable shifts from I can handle this to something more like if it be Your will, in the hands of a You whose preferences do not run to an order easily understood by humans. If it be your will, this anger arising has a place in the world, and I am not, on the basis of my own aesthetics or self-image, going to say, No thanks. If it be your will, I am going to settle into this experience, and find out how it works, even if it means passing through some dark tunnel whose length, composition, and destination I have no way of knowing.
Walking yesterday with the friend whose kitchen table I am sitting at, we came to the entrance of a tunnel. It was built by prisoners, he tells me. What is that like? I am forced to build a tunnel into the earth. I do not know if my body can do what it is being asked to do, in this space of compulsion, in the company of other slave laborers, in the absence of anyone who’s ever seen any worth in me besides digging. I don’t know how long the tunnel will be. The choice Life is Suffering is open to me in every moment. The choice Everything Is Illuminated is open to me in every moment. Breath by breath, the tunnel opens. Walking with my friend, the artificial lights in the tunnel come on, and I wish they hadn’t. This is a cheap light, a light of masking something dark, but nonetheless glowing from the inside.
Pain is like that. There’s a way to be with it, accepting its darkness without resorting to patches of made-up light. Opioids are the fluorescents on the tunnel ceiling. They distract from the actual experience of pain, and make us forget that we know how to enter tunnels, and how to leave them, if it be your will. They even things out, so that we see neither the growing dark, nor the faint coming glow of something else. So many things can be like that: pain-killers, we call them, when really all they are is pain-mufflers, pain-shufflers, ways of forgetting that the thing we call pain is only one name for the enormous space we travel in, and are, and come from, only to resolve into it, and arise again, over and over, amen.
This morning, my friend will take me to the Black Madonna in the church nearby, the one whose body is the space inside the tunnel, and the way through. I hope there will also be some signs there of prayers made and relinquished, of the dark earth and the pale stones rising through it into the bones of everything we know, when we let go of thinking that we know already.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.