Friday, April 1, 2011

the sparkler effect

In what seems like another kalpa, long long ago, I can remember sitting in a philosophy class and feeling my whole life light up like some fizzing, twinkling sparkler. This was what I had been looking for -- an answer or framework what I could hang my hat explanation that worked not just as a matter of philosophy or psychology or homework or grades, but really touched and responded to the uncertainties I felt as a 19-year-old sophomore in college. Hot damn!

The teacher was talking about a particular school of philosophy (relativism??? I really can't remember all the names). In this school, he said, the cornerstone was that everything changed. Change was all there was. And out of that premise, philosophers wrote their treatises and came to their conclusions. I was so smitten with this suggestion that I hardly heard the rest of the lecture. My heart opened up with a huge sigh of relief. Everything changed: To have it enunciated was both an explanation I could agree with and a comforting home in the kind of world an angst-ridden teenager can inhabit. Demons of the past that haunted and gnawed were diminished in this revelation. They were no longer so huge and no longer so all powerful. Or, put another way, I was no longer so helpless when I faced those demons. My heart soared like a hawk.

This euphoria lasted for about 20 minutes. It was glorious. It dealt a stunning blow to the past, but then ... but then... but then I thought of my then-girlfriend. I was ass-over-appetite smitten with her and could not imagine anything that could change. It was a definite chink in the armor of everything-changes -- the armor I had decided could save and protect me. I twisted. I squirmed. I did everything I could to make an acceptable exception of "love." But I couldn't do it. Either everything changed or it didn't. The past had been dealt a ferocious blow, but the present and future could not be denied. Bit by bit, my initial euphoria was whittled away. Another safe haven was proven not so safe after all. A safe haven was a world in which there were no exceptions, no yes-but's. But I would have given just about anything to rest easy in the bosom of everything-changes ... except my girlfriend.

At that time, I was not equipped to embrace my own doubts and the nourishing aspects of those doubts. I simply felt defeated. My "hot damn!" turned to "oh shit!" Like any teenager, I couldn't help feeling that there had to be an answer, and explanation, a school or a resting place that would assuage the edginess and uncertainty of my life. I sympathized with those who sought out "God," but "God" didn't really ring my bells. I was skeptical ... and not yet prepared to accept an answer that seemed to lack empirical underpinnings.

I was looking for a home -- a place of peace and certainty and warmth and ... well, no more uncertainty. Home was a place of hugs, a place where people yawned comfortably and put their feet on the kitchen table and basked in each other's company. It had to be out there somewhere, didn't it?

I guess I'm off on this recollection because I was thinking about spiritual endeavor and its initial sparklers and the fact that sparklers, invariably, burn out. They are so bright and so enticing and so fulfilling as they brighten up the dark places of the past. They are such a sigh of relief. "Enlightenment," "compassion," "peace," "mindfulness," or even "heaven." A sigh of relief. A home to rest in. A bright star in a dark night. Hot damn!

Some people spend their whole lives lighting new sparklers, begging for that sense of relief that once filled the heavens. They believe and will do damned near anything to keep that belief alive and bright. Pass the sparklers. Pass the matches. Fill the night with brightness. If you keep saying it's true and keep praying it's true and keep philosophizing that it's true, then, of course, there is less time to notice that it isn't true, that there are up-close-and-personal doubts, that where there is belief, there is always (pardon me ladies) a girlfriend.

Some people refuse the evidence that is right in front of their noses. They chatter and twitter and light an endless array of sparklers. Maybe someone will go ooooooohhh!

But some do not refuse. They gather their courage and their uncertainty and their doubts and vow to get to the bottom of things. Not as a means of selling some kind of spiritual Tupperware but rather because at last this matter becomes what it has always been ... utterly personal. Agreement is not the yardstick of spiritual life. Each goes alone. And that can be scary. In a world where the sparklers of religion or philosophy, of towering spires and moving ritual, of profound longing and delighted discovery fall away, I am left naked and alone.
Perhaps the only consolation to this sense of utter vulnerability is the fact that since I am always naked, no matter how many clothes I put on, it's not all that unusual.

And in that world where doubts and girlfriends play, there may be a sense that I have to start over. Sparklers do not provide a good foundation. What is it that provides a good foundation, a good point from which to build a reliable world? The idea is not to build some new and improved defense mechanism. The idea is to find a cornerstone that will allow for something less vulnerable to the whims of sparklers.

Each finds his or her own cornerstone or cornerstones, I think. These are things that actually touch the naked and vulnerable and standing-alone me. These are points to which I am willing to give my energy and determination and investigation. Others may suggest and point, but this time, the choice is mine and I am willing, however uncertainly, to own it. Better and worse make no difference. Intimacy makes the difference.

For example, one of the cornerstones that I have chosen is this:

The past is gone and cannot be revived.
The future is unknowable ... if you doubt it, just give it a try.
And by the time anyone speaks, sparkler-fashion, of the present, it has turned into the past.

For some, this may be just another sparkler, another bit of savvy philosophy. But when you own it, when you refuse to avert your gaze or be distracted, there are implications -- empirical, in-your-face, on-the-ground implications -- that grow up and flower like daisies.

I would not presume to describe or count the daisies. And I would not presume to say that what I choose as intimate is what anyone else might choose to own. In Zen Buddhism, they say there are 84,000 Dharma gates ... a kool way of saying that the ways to a truthful peace are infinite. Starting anywhere, you can go everywhere. But you have to own it first. Sparklers elicit delightful wows and can illuminate the way, but each of us has to walk that way.

Ladies and gentlemen, light your sparklers.

And walk.

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