Sunday, June 17, 2012

out of the war zone

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Sometimes I think that all the wandering in the desert, all the uncertainties seeking resolution, all the 'spiritual' sturm und drang that rises up and falls away in any given life amounts to little more than a longing to get on board with what is already known ... a delight in the spendthrift meticulousness of everything-everywhere-always.

I'm not talking about the poetry or symphonies or self-help paeans composed on its behalf. That's piss in a snowbank. But the spendthrift meticulousness of things ... as an experience that cannot be escaped ... whoa Nellie! Everyone has experienced it and longs to experience it again and, in that longing, bars the door to the experience itself. This is both infuriating and meticulous in its truth.

Once upon a time, I was at an indoor-tennis arena with several friends. We waited our turns to get out on one of the eight or ten courts. And while I was waiting my turn to get out and play, I came into conversation with another young man who was likewise waiting. How we got around to the conversation that touched me, I have no clue, but suddenly, there it was ... and then it was gone.

Hip-deep in Vietnam
The fellow I was talking to had been in the Vietnam war (actually it was a police action -- war was never declared). Not only had he been in the Vietnam war, but he had been in the thick of things -- the grinding, slogging, petrified heart of killing and longing not to be killed. One day, he said, he and his platoon found themselves in a mangrove swamp. They were knee-deep in water and thus slowed and vulnerable -- if the enemy opened up, running would be that much more difficult. The vulnerability of being in hostile territory, where they might be shot at in any moment was heightened by the sucking mud and water and unsure footing. Everything was slowed as the platoon advanced and the young man I was talking to was scared to death ... would he make it to the next bit of cover, the next bit of safety ... or would he be targeted and perhaps killed in the open spaces between. He was taut with fear and yet moved forward as his companions did. Around this tree, on to the next ... forward and forward, waiting for the moment when 'Charlie' would open up.

But the punchline on the young man's story was not what I expected.

What happened was that, as this scared-shitless soldier moved forward, he found himself behind a huge tree rising up out of the swamp. It was a comforting bit of cover -- a cover from which he would have to move ... back out into the open swamp, back out into the open fear. And as he girded himself and felt the fear and tautness rising up to meet the unknown threats that lurked just beyond his comforting tree, he moved slowly around the tree, knee-deep in sucking water and mud ... he was as prepared as he would ever be ... inching, inching, inching around the tree ... the tableau of danger and death shifting as he inched and then suddenly, not three feet away, in the midst of the muck and murk that rose up from his feet and threatened his life ... there was a single, white, lotus riding at ease.

It was the look on the young man's face that told this story to me. Word are not enough. In the midst of a wizening world, life somehow stepped in an slapped him in the face. "Wake up!" life said. And the young man, who was no different from any of the rest of us, knew what being awake meant and surrendered to what he had always known. One flower ... Jesus!

And then it was lost ... left behind as the soldier moved forward and regained his fear ... and yet lived to tell the tale to me while we both waited for a tennis court.

No one wants to go to war, assuming they have two brain cells to rub together. No one wants to enter an arena where life-and-death options are staring you in the face and are unremitting in their clarity. No one wants to go to such extremes in order to know what they have always known. And yet sometimes the mind is a war zone of conflict and uncertainty and whining up a storm. Please! Please! Please! ... not me! Extremes are too extreme and yet sometimes, even when things do not seem extreme at all, suddenly some small, meticulous event will bring the already-known out of hiding. A hand gesture, a pin laid idly on some well-polished surface, an untied shoe ...

Self-help books and spiritual texts may intone gravely, "Everything is it." But if that were the truth of the matter in anyone's work-a-day, war-zone world, why would anyone bother writing it down, raising the hopes of those who may feel hopeless? "Everything is it" -- fuck you! Sell your snake oil to some other rube!

And yet, and yet ... who does not remember coming from behind a protective tree and seeing ... God? And not just "God," but a God so clearly God that "God" had no goddamned meaning whatsoever? A flower, a hand gesture, a pin laid idly on some well-polished surface, an untied shoe....

At sesshin (a Zen Buddhist retreat), I was once sitting around a low table with other members of the food-serving staff. We were chanting before we ate the food we had recently served to other sesshin participants. And as the six or seven of us came to a particular phrase in our chanting, at precisely the same moment, I broke down in tears ... and one of the guys across the table burst out laughing. At precisely the same moment.

Laughter and tears and a single flower growing up out of the mud.

Laughter and tears and a single flower growing up out of the mud ... and then it was gone like some unicorn fading back into the surrounding forest. A meticulous moment that seems to be discarded without a backward glance as if it were saying, "It's always like this. Why are you getting your knickers in a twist? How could anyone attain what they have already attained ... what they are already?"

Meticulous and profligate -- bright as the sun that gives no thought to its brilliant light even as those viewing it set out once more to 'discover' its boundless light.

Everyone wants to find the unicorn, but there is something petrifying about being one. And yet isn't being a unicorn a little like being the sun? Who could or would give a hoot?

A hand gesture, a pin laid idly on some well-polished surface, an untied shoe....
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