“An Unsolved Mystery Is a Thorn in the Heart”

The author Joyce Carol Oates uses the above statement as a prompt for students in her creative class at Princeton.  Twenty people and I tried this exercise at the loft space of the New York Meditation Society last Saturday in Manhattan, and the results were amazing.  We had spent the earlier part of the day coming to our senses, rendering what we could see, hear, smell, taste, and sense of the world around us on the page, letting our observations speak for themselves.  After lunch, we trained our sights on an unsolved mystery in our lives.  The result reminded me of line I once read on a plaque in a diner near the St. Lawrence River about a boat being a hole n the water that a person throws money into.   In other words, it turned out that even the most stalwart, what-you-see-is-what-you-get person in the room is a walking mystery, a hole in the flowing river of life.  Even if a person started with a mundane mystery–in my case, “I wonder who dented my car and drove away?”–the questioning spiraled down deeper and deeper.   No matter what people started writing about, everyone seemed to end up questioning what is objective and what is subjective, what is outside and what is inside.

I wondered about a ghost I saw once.  Had it been a strange and particularly vivid kind of dream?  Others who stayed in the old house where I saw (dreamed?) that apparition had their own ghostly experiences.  Was is possible then that I was glimpsing a vaporous something that was really “out there”? I questioned other wonders in my life, including a near death experience in which I felt seen and embraced by a white light that was also exquisitely grave, pure form of love and compassion.   Had that been a neurological event triggered by shock or a lack of oxygen or could I really have been glimpsing the luminous force that exists behind the separate appearance of all things–a finer energy unifying all creation, rendering the experience of inside and outside an illusion.

Last Saturday for a little, a group of us reconnected with our inherent human tendency to wonder–and it was surprisingly wonderful.  We saw that the “facts” of our lives tend to give way under intense questioning and that none of us really knows what we think we know.  But that heightened state of unknowing that we all seemed to share wasn’t terrifying or confining.   For a little while, the biggest of all questions quickened our attention, enlivened our senses, filling us and the space between us.  Who are we?

As the Zen saying goes:  Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.

2 thoughts on ““An Unsolved Mystery Is a Thorn in the Heart”

  1. When I was a child, there was a door that never opened. No matter how hard the handle was turned, it could not be moved.

    Being a rather small and prone to imaginative conclusions kind of child, I naturally assumed something ghastly or fantastic resided on the other side of the door.

    That door was one of the many wondrous things that lingered in my paternal grandfather’s house in a rather bad neighborhood in the Bronx. It had been an old mansion a long time ago but had become affordable when the crime rates rose.

    Of course, had I looked more closely I would have realized that it wasn’t a door at all, that it was a remnant of a door from an old room that had been forsaken to make the neighboring bedroom larger.

    But I had no desire to really solve this mystery for I needed a mystery and the more unsolvable the better.

    So, yes, yes, an unsolved mystery can be a thorn in the heart but it can also be a rose in the heart. It can give life to a garden of its own.

    It can give a small child the kind of shivers that are good but not too frightening, that can stimulate the imagination without harming the spirit.

    It can be a touch of adrenaline, the spark that ignites the mind, an awakening to the wonders of creativity.

    Yes, yes, I miss that door or more appropriately, I miss that feeling that existed before automatically looking for the logical conclusion.

    Yes, yes, I have become like some Galileo searching for provable truths. But sometimes I yearn to be like the shaman who gives herself to the wonder of the unknown, who journeys into the portal and explodes into a different kind of consciousness.

  2. Thanks for this, Liz. What you write about the need for mystery reminds me of a description of koans I read recently. When you ask a koan like (the tradition Korean Zen question) “What is this?” You are not seeking an intellectual answer. “You are turning the light of inquiry back onto yourself and your whole experience in this moment,” writes Martine Batchelor, a former Korean nun, in a recent issue of Tricycle.

    Batchelor goes on to give instructions for using this koan in meditation, as an antedote to distracted thoughts. It struck me as I read her article–and as I read your post–that most of us (even, maybe especially kids) know how enlivening it feels to question for questioning’s own sake–it creates a sense of openness, of wonderment. An old house in the Bronx becomes a place with mysterious depths, unknown rooms…and you, too.

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