photo by James.
“For some, collaboration is not a deliberate choice,” writes architect Barry Svigals in Parabola’s current issue, Alone and Together. “It is a way of solving problems that is deeply interwoven into the communal experience.” He is writing of aboriginal people who couldn’t help but work together to solve puzzles in an intelligence test (and accomplished them in record time) in spite of the anthropologists’ efforts to have them work as individuals. Svigals (and his collaborators) contrast this to our culture’s celebration of the “lone genius, the myth of the hero leader….”
Yet as I was alone in the yard this morning planting flowers, it struck me that all our efforts in this world are really collaborative. I went outside to be alone and found I was in intimate contact with life. I was collaborating with the flowers, the soil, the soft morning air, the water from the hose, the ants that swarmed up and helped me turn the soil. I went outside early because there were trailing petunias to plant–but also because I was grieving. I was grieving exactly the same thing that I was just celebrating: my daughter’s college graduation, her successful launch into the world.
She is moving to London at the end of the summer to pursue graduate school, a loving relationship with an English boyfriend, a happy social life with friends there. I am thrilled for her, really. She has worked hard for this—and so have I. Yet, inevitably, I am deeply aware of the impermanence of life just now. Wasn’t she just in high school? In preschool? In Brooklyn? Where did the time go?
Around midnight last night, I concluded that the only thing to do is to let go—or its more gentle English variant, let it be. Letting go, letting be, may be the last word—or perhaps the first and last—the exhale of the Big Band and, well, the next Big Bang (or the Great Sigh of Relief, whatever the next cycle will be called). In the end, there is the act of seeing, which is not separate from accepting—which is not separate from knowing—or from loving.
This morning while gardening, I realized that there is a kind of complete seeing—the kind we associate with Near Death Experience—that happens when we let go of our insistence on ourselves, when we forget ourselves and collaborate with life. As the Zen sage says, forget yourself and find yourself in the 10,000 things. And if he was less poetic and concise, he might have added: see and experience yourself in a new way, not as an idea or label or story but taking your part (which is itself changing) in the whole of life.
I woke up early and went outside and gave myself over to life—to the red petunias, the soft air, soil, water, and ants. I felt better, and I saw glimpsed something that doesn’t boil down to words. The spiritual teacher Gurdjieff emphasized self-observation, and so does his foremost pupil, Madame de Salzmann, who discovered on her own that “seeing is not an idea.”
Now more than ever, I am touched by De Salzmann’s efforts to attain realization after Gurdjieff died. And by all accounts, she found it. She taught that self-observation “is one complete act, an experience that can take place only if there is no separation between what sees and what is seen….” When the act of seeing is more important than what is seen, a special feeling can arise—“an affection that embraces everything that I see and is indifferent to nothing. I need to see. When I begin to see, I begin to love what I see. No longer separate, I am in contact with it, intensely, completely. I know, and this knowing is the result of this new condition. I wake up to what I am and touch the source of true love, a quality of being.”
I once interviewed a Taoist master for Parabola. He spoke of being taken to meet Madame de Salzmann. I asked him what she was like, his first impression, and he drew on his love of white water rafting. The white water is at the edges, he told me. The fastest water looks as smooth as glass. It looks still. Yet, if you put the raft down there, it shoots off because the water is so fast. That is the quality that Madame de Salzmann had, said the Taoist master. She was very still, yet very fast. She took in everything.
When we let go and open to life, there can be a kind of seeing that, in Madame de Salzmann’s words–“is like following a fast current, a torrent, anticipating the rushing water with one’s look, seeing the movement of each little wave. There is not time to formulate, to name and to judge. There is no more thinking. My mind becomes quiet and sensitive—very alive but quiet.”
This kind of seeing allows us to be in disorder (in our judgment) yet to see in a new, much more expansive way—to be part of a new order. May we all let go and accept and become part of what is.
9 thoughts on “White Water”
If there is no self, then solitude is always an illusion. When I realized that I found it comforting, although there are very few comforts in Zen. As we know.
I find this a comfort also, Chris. May we all be on intimate terms with life and free from loneliness and longing. Peace.
Thanks again, Tracy.
Can I ask you, and anyone who reads these words, for something? Our dear teacher at Empty Hand Zen Center in New Rochelle, Susan Ji-on Postal, needed some emergency surgery last week and is undergoing a difficult recovery and physical therapy at a local rehabilitation center. Because of the risk of infection she cannot have visitors. If you could send her a card it would lift her spirits.
c/o United Hebrew Geriatrics Center
391 Pelham Road
New Rochelle, NY 10805
You can read a little bit about Susan at
and a wonderful interview at
We treasure every step she takes, and hope to see her again soon.
Hi Chris, Of course. May your beloved teacher recover swiftly. May everyone at the Empty Hand Zendo be happy and at peace. Bowing, T
I met Susan twice a while ago I believe at Wainwright House in Rye. I work sometimes as a Musician in United Hebrew so know where it is. Hopefully she will be released before my next show. I will definitely offer positive thoughts and send a get well card.
I’d be very grateful for that.
I’ve acquired an interest in René Daumal. He studied with Jeanne de Salzmann and a very close with Simone Weil. what could be better?
I was reading his letter to Jeanne de Salzmann
Now I read your entry and it raises questions. He wrote:
I also see the distance already covered when I compare the meaning of the word “being” some time ago and today. Some time ago, “being” meant “to delight in oneself”: having reached a certain state, to stop to enjoy it and admire oneself (and from there, what a fall!) Now, “being” means rather to fulfill consciously one’s place and function, and that is why I know that I am not; but I know this only when I say “I am.”
) Concerning my “concentration of thought”—here, too, if there is a change, it’s in the direction of a struggle that is larger, sharper, more frequent; but if the enemy appears to me stronger and more numerous, it may well be a sign that I have a little more force myself. The fact is that during the exercises, or when I reflect, my thought is now cleanly split in two: in those moments the active part no longer blends with the mechanical part; and the latter I sometimes feel to be quite submissive, no longer bothering me with its associations. But here again, the issue is to make it last longer. As soon as the effort is let go, the flow of associations seems to me much worse than before.
What is developing in these days is the taste and need for struggle. An answer of Mr. Gurdjieff’s about the need to go against the body in everything it likes or does not like has recently shown me this more clearly. It’s certain that in my case I can’t apply this rule to the letter (unfortunately, because in times past when I believed I could, it gave me a great deal). But if, under the word “body,” I also include everything that is most mechanical in my functions, an entire field of work opens up. With my intellectual mechanism, in particular, I can apply the rule of thwarting it in everything, of opposing myself to its tics, its manias, its clichés, etc.—in a word, its laziness. It goes without saying that this makes my work as a writer more difficult, but much more interesting and inwardly fruitful.
I know in these times where thinking is frowned upon I know I have to learn to think as he apparently did and I know Simone did.
He speaks of the need for “struggle” and you wrote of the need to let go. Can this be reconciled?
He speaks of being not as delight or consolation but rather the inclination and ability to “fulfill consciously one’s place and function,”
I hope you realize that it will be your fault if I stay up tonight enjoying an extra scotch and pondering these apparent contradictions.
Ah but wait. You are saved. I just remembered another Simone Weil observation. She wrote.
“When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door.”
Maybe there is something to be gained here through impartial pondering more than just good scotch.
Hi Nick, I hope you enjoyed your Scotch and reflection. I think it is a very fruitful contradiction. It arises every time I sit. The mind is unruly, like a puppy straining at the leash. There is a struggle to tug it away from its mechanical meanderings, back to the present moment. This can feel like punishment, like being a child told to go sit in the corner, like a forced submission to a greater will. This returning to the present can feel bleak and boring compared to the fun world of thought. Until it doesn’t. Until those moments when we arrive fully, body, heart, and mind. Until we let go more completely and emerge (for a moment) into a greater awareness, a greater wholeness. This is a comfort…what has been experienced as a struggle is experienced as a refuge and consolation. Cheers!
This invites the question of what is being consoled. I’ve always associated consolation with self justifiction.
I come back to the question of aim. Is my aim self justification or the experience of my nothingness? If it is my nothingness, then it seems that consolation would be a hindrance.