The con man smiles his shy smile and the diamonds twinkle in his ears. Oh, Con Man! Is that what you are? Or, are you really selling me a free ticket to electricity powered by fairy-wings and Ent-farts, now and forever, Amen? I know enough to know that’s not really possible, but I prefer the version of this dance that we are living out together, now, on my front porch, whose view you admire. I prefer to give you a glass of water, so that you can recover from walking up our hill. I prefer to listen to your story of being laid off from Wyoming oil fields, before coming to sell Ent-farts in New Hampshire. I think of all the ridgelines fucked up by windmills, and of my father’s wry voice asking, What will power the plants on the days the Ents eat fartless foods, and there is no wind? Are you prepared to go lightless, heatless, and foodless, on those days?
Purity is a con man. Purity tries to say there is some way somewhere to live without causing harm. Be a vegetarian! Walk the way of the Buddhas! Vote for Bernie! But then, you pull up a nice bunch of organic green onions, and there's a chicken bone tangled right up in the dark roots. What then? Eat everything hydroponically? Separate from the soil completely, and rely on recycled fish-poo to feed your mesclun mix?
There is no purity. Let me say it again: there is no purity. Period. We are all tangled in one another, swapping molecules in ways sometimes gentle and sometimes the horrific. Not wanting to know doesn’t make it not so.
Yesterday, I listened to someone who describes herself as a “spiritual junkie” narrate his big insight, gathered at an ayuhuasca resort in Peru: There is no me! I’m just dissolved in the Whole, you know? What I appear to be is not what I am. And I wanted to strangle the con man Unity, who leaves adult people so ineffectual and seeky. This person travels yearly on spiritual pilgrimages, goes on retreat pretty much constantly, always seeking escape hatches from the illusion of me. But what about Me as agent? What about the possibility of saying, OK, so definitely Me is not the whole story, and that’s awesome, but in the meantime I’m going to set about cultivating body, speech and mind so that I’m able to offer something of refuge, in a world that’s shown me such grace in its teachings. I’m going to be focused on more than tripping out over digital camera glitches and old stones. I’m going to do the work it takes to become fully present here.
Self-improvement, of course, is a con man, too, as long as it takes the form of lonesome self-striving. When it shifts to service and curiosity, something else is happening.
My ayuhuasca friend talks about tripping. It was like, wow! So much richness! Clowns everywhere, and rainbows. Did you at least enjoy it? he asks me. And I remember choosing to keep going past surface sparkles and into the core of the experience opening. Not surface, but interior knowing – going into different consciousnesses, at first to experience each one’s suffering in its full horror and, later, in its secret knowing of being awake and perfectly all right, already.
I am lucky. As a painter, I've already had plenty of experience with the con man Beauty – seeing it, following it, distilling it, realizing how the richest forms of gorgeousness are supported by the gnarliest components. Muddy grays and jarring juxtapositions are the chicken bones in the roots of beauty. Grand gestures and rich colors can’t stand by themselves – they need little gremlins underground. They need the acknowledgment of sorrow, and of the ends of the painter’s knowing, beyond which the world can enter on its own, wild terms.
So when I took psilocybin, at Hopkins, in the Long-Term Meditators study, I wasn't looking for kicks. I was looking for a gateway into understanding what chaplaincy patients go through. I was looking for a proving ground on which to open up my practice and see what happens. It’s a big difference: “plant medicine” resort in the tropics, versus weird experiment station on the outskirts of a ruined city.
Self is a con man. Self is also a skillful means. This can basically be said of anything. Love is a con man, and love is also a skillful means. Work, religion, study, family, travel, friendship, all of the above, anything can go either way. How to tell? Intention. Am I in this for the rainbows on the wall, or am I in this to learn? Am I using the self, this love, this work as a way to escape from something, or am I turning back against the stream of not-knowing, and saying, Show me? I am willing to see now, though I wasn’t before.
Dance can be a con man, in the way that it offers an exit from the awkward self into the flowing, groovy self. Sometimes we need just that: Take me out of this constriction and worry, and into something loose and delicious. Give me rainbows, give me drums. But dance can also be a way to enter fully into the awkward body, letting go of the mind’s commentaries upon it. Oh, here we are, heavy and tender, hesitant and sure, bound to one another in these moments of arms wrapping, hands slapping floors, bellies slithering. Here we are, not falling for the con man who says, Everyone to the escape hatches! There’s nothing to see here, and no self anyway.
There is a self who can intend connection and kindness. There is a self who can choose to come out of dissociation and into the truth of what is right here, right now, without wishing for anything better. There is a throbbing bass note, like a freight locomotive, underneath whatever else may be happening. This, now. Not later, not someone else. This being, this moment. What’s the way, now?
The linden trees stand over us, at this now much chillier picnic table in the park. We write together, week after week, choosing the benefit of connection, gathering in faith that nothing never happens. Make space for experience to rise to the surface and it does. It does. Just keep the pen moving. Keep listening to the through line. There. There. A ballpoint trail of knowing, without knowing anything ahead of time. This, then this.
I had a dream once, where I was on a messy Indian bus with everyone – all the people and animals, and my Abbot as Buddha was driving. We came to the edge of the sea, and the bus stopped. I got off, suddenly alone on the beach, after all that time warmly jostling among plump and skinny, bald and furry. But not alone: my soul was there too. I understood that there was a metal beam – an eye-beam, an I beam – just under the surface of the water. I could walk on it, one foot carefully in front of the other, all the way across the ocean. I could never see the beam, but I could trust it, and it would carry me where I needed to go.
So here I am. Here we are, simultaneously on the bus together, and each walking her own beam. And how else would it be? Here we are, keeping our ancient promises.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now