Is laissez-faire an invitation to exploitation and entropy, or a recognition of the inherent Buddhahood of everything, shining forth unstoppably? Depends on who’s speaking, and what they might imagine is in it for them. Is there a laissez-vivre? A laissez-entendre? Are we interested in the results of our actions all across the board, or only for ourselves and our close tribe?
Timothy and I got into a tiff about tax policy this morning, because I basically didn't want to talk about it, even though I had initiated the conversation. By the time he answered, I was already reading (again) about the local woman whose husband poured lye all over her. It melted her face and eyes, and then she had to have a face transplant. In the end, he died in prison, she forgives him, and I don't care about the details of the tax bill, because my brain is full of pain. I just want to drink my coffee, while allowing the day’s quota of horrors to roll off my back. Laissez-faire. You know.
There is this: how do we consume the pain of the world? Are we seeing real beings in real situations? At the end of the day, I click open a link that takes me to a story about famine in Venezuela. Children and their parents have so little to eat that babies are dying of malnutrition, and women of childbearing age are lined up in hospital beds to be sterilized for free. Yes: awful. Beyond the facts-awful is another, maybe more profound kind of awful. Where are these people’s actual stories? Who are they? In opening up this window, I’ve tapped into a version of these beings that is voiceless, historyless, statistical, and powerless. There is a kind of laissez-faire in this journalism. We go in, we gather facts and pictures of dead babies, and we leave again.
What has transpired? Is anyone helped? Do I know more about human nature, human strength and vulnerability? I know more about some of the more painful births that beings take, and there's a desire to fill a U-Haul full of American excess and head South, but no one’s soul has been given a path to speak to mine, or vice-versa. Why do I keep reading, viewing material that only laissez’s viewing, but opens no real window into faire?
Deep friendship is a funnel for voice, body, and heart. It takes time and courage to keep opening to someone else's stories, and to our own. Stories build on each other, too. I listen deeply, speak deeply from what’s stuck and broken, free and whole, and then recognize these qualities in the further stories that come inevitably in their wake. This is a kind of built wisdom that depends as much on allowing – laissez – as it does on doing – faire. I come back again and again to wanting to feel and to know. You tell me, I tell you. Something real is growing.
By contrast, the children in Venezuela can only tell me that their coffins are small and white, their mothers weigh sixty-six pounds, and one of the ways that small children can die is of heart failure. Sometimes there are wings stuck to the opening through which those who love the recently dead can weep. The image sticks: a winged coffin carried through muddy water by skinny brown children. But the story isn’t really told: the channel for story isn’t open.
This is why I read memoir. Memoir is by definition an open channel for story, a way of training the heart in telling and receiving story. I am not saying, Let me click this one link and consume the statistics and particulars of your horror. Instead I say, I have hours and hours to drive. Talk to me. Tell me what happened, and what the alternatives are. Tell me what it’s like to be silenced, and to demand to be heard. There is room in me for what you have to tell me. I am ready to adapt my ears to your language. Tell me.
Not all memoir is an open channel for story. Sometimes it is instead a bludgeon – Here Is How Life Should Be Lived. I drop these very quickly. Here Is the Story of My Glory. No thank you. Some books are all faire and no laissez, and I've long passed the time in my life when I long for someone else to tell me which certitudes to adopt.
Great faith, great doubt, great determination – where is the laissez-faire in that? In the last few weeks I've been conducting interviews with students I’m mentoring in a year-long meditation program. Faith, doubt, determination. How much of this process is Me, Doing Things? Well, Me has to agree to meditate daily. Me has to be willing to wrestle with the undoing components of the practice – actually, a kind of défaire – and Me has to be willing to put up with the often sandpapery touch of organized religion. Beyond that is a lot of laissez – allowing practice, intuition, and lived experience to shape us.
My friend Rebecca recently taught me the wonderful word cledon – an oracle arising from a seemingly chance occurrence. That’s a way of laissez-faire: the universe wants me to wake up, is reaching out to me again and again, and I will laissez myself be faired. I will listen, and act accordingly.
I resist the economists who have shaped this beautiful, receptive phrase into code for Fuck the Poor, the Land, the Animals, and Everyone Else. That's not it all what it's meant to be, not if you believe that all beings are profoundly interconnected wisdom-beings. Then, it makes no sense to imagine that society inclines to the good of some, but not all. It makes no sense to allow greed to rampage through the tax code, and violence to rampage through households, public spaces, and foreign policy.
If I and all beings are primordially Buddha, then laissez-faire looks like wide and reverent curiosity for what is trying to show itself through us, moment by moment. A purple mohair coat winks from the trash can. Just exactly the right companions are waving from the back of the room, or from the stage. The soft nose of love pokes out of a burrow in the trail, and instead of startling away, I stay to catch the shape of its snout, and come back later, with toast.
Internal laissez-faire shouldn’t be about abuse and entropy, any more than the external version. I stop letting dirty clothes unseat me from the place I need to sit, to write down my dreams. I stop letting crappy moods tell me they're all that is. I step up to the actual contents of my dreams: squirrelly and lyrical, vast and petty. I laissez the course of dream inform the faire of waking life.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now