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.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now