“I have tried to learn in my writing a monastic lesson I could probably not have learned otherwise: to let go of my idea of myself, to take myself with more than one grain of salt,” writes Thomas Merton. He wrote elsewhere: ” seek no face, I treasure no experience, no memory. Anything I write down here is only for personal guidance because of my constant gravitation away from solitude. It will remind me how to go home.”
The media is often, and justifiably, blamed for the fueling the fires of greed, aversion, and delusion in our culture. This is so evident right now. There is so much dramatically awful news cascading out of every media portal that it is almost surreal–Wall Street is poised to collapse, everyone’s future up in the air. Yet writing can also be a powerful instrument for cultivating a deeper attention, a support for training the mind to open rather than grasp. In James Opie’s fascinating article “Windows to Infinity” in the current issue of Parabola, he describes the challenge of deciphering the symbolic meanings that were woven into some ancient rugs: “Using our minds as we often do, as containers that we open in order to have them filled, we tend to seek a verbal explanation. Natural as if may be, this approach rarely holds up well when we reflect more deeply on the very purpose of symbols….Symbols are less a means of education than they are reminders. To be reminded, something in us must, on an experiential basis, and perhaps only briefly, have touched a higher level. Consequently, when we ask what a symbol ‘means,’ we seek to become educated too quickly.”
In our culture, we are bombarded with instant education. As I write this, the media is on overdrive, reporting urgent updates on the financial crisis and briefing me on all the issues of world consequence that will be discussed in the upcoming debates. How am I to grasp it all? Who am I to really “get” what’s going on? Yet, in the midst of the torrents of words and views and opinions it strikes me that I could be digging–not for more facts–but for a finer attention, a wider, more complete awareness of what is happening outside and inside right here and right now. Writing can become a way of emptying ourselves, a way of non grasping, non “getting,” of letting go of our old ideas so I can look and listen and sense, allowing my own perceptions to lead me to our my own original thoughts–“original” in the sense of being rooted in the experience, however fleeting, of being present here and now. This might lead to an inkling about what really matters.
Someone once asked the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano. Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”
What does it take to be capable of intention? We know it when we see it. We know it when we hear it.
What makes one rug art and another mere mechanical craftwork, according to Opie, is intention. “Intentionality–conscious action–brings craft up to the level of Art.” A person can write with the intention of bearing witness to life, noting what is while maintaining an attitude of not knowing, maintaining the