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?