A Hero Isn’t Just A Sandwich

I was working on a story yesterday and the going got tough.  It struck me that I reach a point in any project–writing a story, taking a trip, household maintenance, anything really, but let’s keep the focus on writing–when the light of inspiration, interest, and joy goes out and I trudge on in the dark, feeling like a lonely and stubborn fool.  I wondered why I ever thought I could write. I tried taking a walk but in the cold and gloom, it felt a bit like a scene in Dr. Zhivago (which I recently watched, thinking it would be perfect match for this polar weather).   Sickened by war and desparately lonely, Zhivago turns his back on the red army brigade that kidnapped him to serve as a medical officer.   He staggers across icy snow fields alone in a tattered blanket, seeking the comfort of home only to find it abandoned when he got there (he goes on to have a passionate doomed romance with Lara, but that part didn’t fit my bleak scenario).  At some point during my walk, I became aware of how absurd it was to be comparing myself to Zhivago fleeing a bloody endless war, and yet I couldn’t help myself.  And yet, I found myself in a place that felt strangely familiar.  I longed for something–a state of engagement or connection or clarity or being–that I just could not muster at that moment.   I went home and trudged on through the desert of my writing until I could decently quit for the day.  By this morning I was sure–yet again–that there was an inescapable lawfulness–a necessary cause-and-effect mechanism–at work.   It seems I always go through this when I try to write a “true” story.  I haver to go through a painful phase of wandering lost and alone, in which I shed all my illusions and baggage,  all my hopes and dreams about how it could and should go, so that I can be truly alert and receptive to what is.

Here is E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel on the distinction between a story and a plot:  “A story is a narravive of events arranged in their time sequence.  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story.  “The king died and the queen died of grief” is a plot….Consider the death of the queen.  If it is in a story, we “and then?” If it is in a plot, we ask “why?”

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and assert that most spiritual paths, including Buddhism which is forever telling people to wake up from the stories they tell themselves, are about discovering the great laws–the master plot–that governs all our lives.  In the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness,” the sutta in which the Buddha describes how to wake up from, he directs people to be mindful first of the body, next of the sensations that brand our experience, then of the moods and mind states that determine our experience–and lastly of the dhammas or dharmas or laws that determine the unfolding of experience. This fourth foundation includes many of the famous Buddhist lists, like the Four Noble Truths, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Five Hindrances.  Gaining insight into any of them–or indeed any spiritual laws–requires an understanding that causality governs our experience.

In the Satipatthana Sutta (or Four Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha urged his monks to know when the five hindrances of sense-desire, sloth or sleepiness, restlessness and worry, anger or ill-will, or doubt was present–or not:

How, monks, does a monk live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?
Herein, monks, when sense-desire is present, a monk knows, “There is sense-desire in me,” or when sense-desire is not present, he knows, “There is no sense-desire in me.” He knows how the arising of the non-arisen sense-desire comes to be; he knows how the abandoning of the arisen sense-desire comes to be; and he knows how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sense-desire comes to be.
As obscure as this language is (the lilting repetition was for a pre-literate audience), we all really can learn what conditions trigger sense-desire (In from walk, cold and despairing, I tore into a bag of potato chips…ah, how cause-and-effect).  I recently wrote about what it might mean to consciously play a role.   It starts with knowing that a plot that is unfolding…or waiting to unfold.  It starts with agreeing to live out your role, agreeing live out your life as if you were taking part in a great unfolding drama (or dramedy).  What if we really did agree to play the role of hero, through every twist and turn?

13 thoughts on “A Hero Isn’t Just A Sandwich

  1. Tracy, I would much prefer to hear about your own real experiences in life than a rehash of some story or other that has already been told better by the author.

  2. Writers Block is a hard thing!
    When I think of plot, I usually see it as simply a Problem and a Goal…and the goal is usually to solve the problem. At least that is the way i taught my fourth graders.
    Sometimes it helps to take a walk, like you did. It seems that some of my best thinking and inspiration comes from when I am jogging (However, I can’t do that in this sub-zero, snow-filled weather.)
    I find it hard to connect the Writer’s Block to Buddhism, but maybe because that is not my primary focus?
    I think what you are saying is that you are trying to see what is blocking you?
    I do see you as a hero of your own story, whether it be that of a great writer, full of wisdom, or one that occasionally struggles. I suspect that you are a bit of both!
    I do enjoy your posts and they help me to be more introspective, and also to be more active in my faith…the yin and yang of life!
    And if I don’t “get it”, please excuse my ignorance! I am trying.

  3. Hi Tracy,

    You may be on to something here, “Zen and the Art of Potato Chips.” Sometimes I have a desire for salty and crunchy, and sometimes for sweet and gooey. Did I spell that right, does WordPress do spellcheck as I type. Last night it was ice cream after some hot homemade soup and a chicken salad sandwich.

    Not to be flippant, even though I feel like that a bit today, you know, sort of cocky with a smile on my face, like I have a secret I can’t tell anyone, or can’t wait to tell. ;-) This is the kind of mood I’m in today, joyful and mischevious.

    Anyway, this is my secret for the day. Sometimes, maybe most the time, we take ourselves far too seriously. In this case, when that happens to me, the best medicine I can think of is laughter. Laughter is the gift of the gods, it is meant to loosen all our cramped up and shut out places of the heart and then to release all our creativity, or at least our creative energies. It open all your chakras, or spiritual wheels turning inward.

    So, instead of Dr. Z, a movie I dearly love by the way, try something light. I came across the old movie “Stripes” with Bill Murray on TV this weekend. My wife could hear me laughing downstairs and three rooms away. It was an enlightening and joyful experience. I love the old Road Movies with Bing and Hope too, I loved those as a kid and love them more now I think.

    There are times I think, perhaps most of the time, when life just takes care of life and of us too. Maybe it’s that God watching over the sparrow thing at work, and watching over us too. I don’t know about everyone else, but I think that God loves a good laugh too, and doesn’t want us to take ourselves too seriously.

    There is a great proverb I heard once, it is this.

    “The reason that angels can fly, is that they take themselves lightly.”

    There are other variations to this saying I’m sure, but it is wise advise. Isn’t there an old issue of Parabola that is about Laughter (Joy), if not, there should be one.



    1. Tracy,

      In my very awkward way I was trying to point out that in laughter there is so much life and deep healing, even enlightenment, and this it seems is not so different from your statement.

      “It starts with agreeing to live out your role, agreeing to live out your life as if you were taking part in a great unfolding drama (or dramady).”

      We are born with the gift of joy and laughter, you could even called them a gift of the Spirit. Such a celebration of joyfulness can lead us into new experiences and new levels of consciousness it seems, new and wonderful places of the heart.


  4. Thank you Elizabeth and Ron. The story I am working on has to do with waking up–over and over again–to the way our thoughts spin out. Yet at moments we wake realize that we are actually part of a larger plot–and we can play the part consciously if we wish. But writing is actually the way I describe–and not just in my case. I have another writer friend who describes getting to the point of feeling like a beggar, then a different, more receptive phase of writing kicks in.

    The beauty of blogs is that you can try out ideas and let them be rough…all though in another sense cyberspace is forever.

  5. Tracy, I know what your friends mean, I do feel like a beggar with a begging bowl when it comes to any kind of writing. Anything good that I come up with feels like a gift of grace, or a response to the grace of life that is given us all.

  6. Hi Tracy, you wrote:

    It seems I always go through this when I try to write a “true” story. I haver to go through a painful phase of wandering lost and alone, in which I shed all my illusions and baggage, all my hopes and dreams about how it could and should go, so that I can be truly alert and receptive to what is.

    I remember reading in “Lost Christianity” that there are no esoteric thoughts but only the process of esoteric thinking. It has taken me a while to become open to the idea that the process is more important than the results. Yet I still find myself fixated on results. These results become interpreted by me and become my plot.

    As you suggest, I’ve come to see that the truth lies in the process. How can a writer express this with?

    As usual I’ll refer to Simone Weil and offer these quotes as food for thought since they refer to the opposite of what is often called spiritual writing:

    “There is something else which has the power to awaken us to the truth. It is the works of writers of genius. They give us, in the guise of fiction, something equivalent to the actual density of the real, that density which life offers us every day but which we are unable to grasp because we are amusing ourselves with lies.” Simone Weil

    “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real” Simone Weil

    Yet more often than not I see spiritual writing accepted as flights of fantasy that amuse us by concealing and flattering our inner lies.

    It isn’t something I can do. I know you are striving towards it and I really appreciate your efforts.

  7. Hi Nick, I love that quote and I believe it. The other day I went walking and listened to Roger Angell read a story by John Updike. Compared to the dharma talks and other spiritual talks I usually listent to on my ipod, Updike’s observations about the impermanence of life were so fine, so dense with reality.

    I think the important thing is to shif the focus from result to process, and observe the process–and where we’re really at–over flights of loveliness (as you’ve said in the past). How hard it is to dare to be where you are and see it and say it honestly. Yet some writers can do that and unknown depths coming shimmering up through their bare reports. Awesome!

  8. Lovely. Lovely despair, lovely reflection, lovely Buddhist wanderings. Writing is heroic every day, putting just one damn word after another.

  9. “The means are the ends in the process of becoming.” Encountered this quote while reading John Howard Yoder on the fallacy of viewing non-violent action’s success as separate from its end and of evaluating the effectiveness of non-violent action by its ability to achieve its goal. Thought the quote was apropos of the discussion.

    Been ruminating on non-violence a lot since Tucson and had it reinforced by the intentionally non-violent revolution in Egypt which may have actually achieved its desired end. Let us hope and pray that the end is not simply Mubarak’s ouster but the creation of a peculiarly Egyptian democracy. What it not be wonderful if the Arab world made itself over from the bottom up?


  10. Hey Scott,

    Thanks for checking in. It has been a long time. What you share is interesting. On a personal level, I’ve been reflecting on how important our state of being is. Not doing but being. We have to be peace, don’t we? Not that I have much experience, but a little.



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