Last week I wrote about the experience of being lost in the woods around the Garrison Institute on the banks of the Hudson. Someone commented that I were never truly lost, and this is true: we wandered just far enough off trail to have a nerve-tingling, sense-heightening experience of waking up from the dream of knowing who we are and where we are going. It was a shock, and shocks have a way of posing big questions like “Who do you think you are?” and “Where do you think you’re going?” Shocks have a way of showing us what we are made of–not just in the usual sense of revealing character traits like good humor and courage or the opposite, but that we are made up parts that don’t quite mesh–we can be brave in one way and timid in another. And at any rate, we don’t add up to an inviolate whole.
The Buddha compared people to chariots, and this analogy is very significant because it turns out that the Pali word “dukkha,” which is usually translated as suffering really means something like “bad wheel” and it refers to the hole in the hub that often got clogged with dirt and grease so the wheel didn’t turn quite smoothly–so there was always a slight bumpiness or unease: life is dukkha means that life rolls along in a way that is always a little less than smooth for us chariots, always a little bumpy and anxiety-provoking. Gurdjieff compared people (at least those who tried to see themselves) to cars with their hoods up–the point was not only that we are actually a collection of parts but this mechanism is not a pretty or smooth-running sight when you see it up close (unless you are a skilled mechanic). When I was lost I had a glimpse of this situation–that we are made up of parts like cars and chariots and these parts don’t purrrr along in perfect harmony with each other and the world around us. I triggered a surge of energy, a definite sense of being here and now. And now I’m reflecting on the experience of being found.
In Buddhism, the experience of mindfulness or “sati” (which literally means remembering) refers to a sky-like state of awareness. Mindfulness can include everything that arises, inwardly and outwardly. At different moments and in different instances, however, mindfulness may reveal different aspects or qualities. One factor is investigation, which is that probing quality of attention that arises, say, when are lost in the woods and seeking the path–in classical Buddhist terms, it refers to investigating the way things are and the way things happen, the lawful unfolding of things. Another factor is energy, which was referred to in anciet Sanskrit and its street variant Pali by the word “virya.” In the Rig Veda and other ancient Sanskrit texts “virya” referred to a hero, one who was virile (you probably guessed that). As in many other instances, the clever, radical Buddha recast or liberated this word to mean the special energy and effort it takes make the journey to liberation.
We still need to be heroes, but the quality of the effort required isn’t so, well, effortful. It has to do with opening to what it is, to letting be. I’m about to make what might seem to be a wild leap, but this is the fun of blogging and I do have a point, so please stay with me. Towards the end of his journey, Hamlet becomes at last reconciled to his particular tragic situation. His friend tries to talk him out of accepting the challenge of a duel that both sense is a trap. But Hamlet has come to understand something profound about the nature of reality–that we really are not in control in the way we dream we are:
“If it be / now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be /now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The / readiness is all.”
Hamlet came to see and accept that reality was determined ultimately by a greater lawfulness, by God. He came to see that our true freedom, our true sense of place and empowerment comes from letting go of our own will (Shakespeare knew a Bible that uses “readiness” for “willingness”) and being willing to take our true place. We find ourselves, our true purpose and path, as we learn to stop leaning forward, effortful and anxious–when we fall back on God.