What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Maybe this is true sometimes, but certainly not as often as we’d like to imagine. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say, If it doesn’t kill you, you’re still alive, and leave it at that?
I’ve always admired the first two lines of the Faith-Mind Poem by Seng-ts’an, the Third Chinese Zen Patriarch: The Way is easy/for those who have no preferences. The catch is that most of us don’t possess the spiritual clarity to consistently live up to this.
The NYTimes recently reviewed The Dude and the Zen Master, a new book by the actor Jeff Bridges and the Zen teacher Bernie Glassman. It is a transcript of their conversations about the Cohen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. Roshi Glassman quotes a line from the film—The Dude is not in, leave a message—and says, “Not being in…is the essence of Zen. When we’re not attached to our identity, it allows all the messages of the world to come in and be heard.” This is quite wonderful, but when the chemo nausea and exhaustion arrive, I’m overwhelmed in about thirty seconds. My bag of self-help tricks is empty. Then I try to get as still as possible and just concentrate on my breath.
My best hearing aid broke just before I left Ann Arbor and because I had the remnants of a cold, I was moved into isolation after arriving in Bethesda. My ability to communicate with people was quite limited. The Hospital staff all wore gowns, gloves and masks when they entered my room. The masks muffled their voices and, of course, I couldn’t read their lips. Fortunately, my brother Richard, whose executive command functions are excellent (as the neurologists would say), was there to translate for me, but I began to fear that my own executive functions are wrecked.
My hands tremble. Sometimes it is hard to hold eating utensils or turn the pages of books. I think this is one of the side effects of the anti-nausea medication I’m taking.
It is difficult to remain emotionally balanced under these circumstances.
I came across an epigraph from Daniel 12:3-4, 9 while puzzling my way through the intense, severe poems in Geoffrey Hill’s Canaan (1997). The Biblical text reads:
Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever and ever, but you Daniel keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase….He said, Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret until the time of the end.
In our post-religious age we dismiss talk of sealed secrets as so-much religious mystification, but what if we were to take this seriously? What if we were to struggle with its meaning? The text seems reasonable to me, but I suppose that’s not so surprising given the shaky ontological space I occupy these days.
In Quantum Shadows, the cover article of the January 5, 2013 issue of the New Scientist, the physicist Anil Ananthaswamy informs us that “when it comes to the true guise of material reality, what’s out there is beyond our grasp….We do not have the words or the concepts to express…the building blocks of reality.” We pull back what we think is the final curtain, but the wizard isn’t there. The secret is not revealed, the book is still sealed.
One morning in the late spring this past year, a big rainstorm blew into Ann Arbor. My grandson Gavin, who was two and a half at the time, hadn’t experienced anything like this. I scooped him up onto my lap and we sat in the kitchen next to an open window. At the height of the storm the wind was shifting around a lot and a mist drifted into the room through the window. We both sat quite still for what seemed like a long time—maybe twenty minutes—watching the downpour and listening together to the music of this world.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013