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.