“We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” Tao Te Ching, Mitchell translation, chapter 11
I have been struggling lately with not having goals. Last year, I stopped having the assumption that I would continue to live and achieve various goals in my lifetime. With no forward movement (goals, hopes, etc.) in my life, what on earth could I do?
That is where I have been. If you had zero goals or hopes in your life, what would you do?
I am discovering some interesting ironies. I am finding that working towards a particular goal or outcome puts me, to some degree, in a state of waiting. Once I have done absolutely everything I can to prepare for some eventuality (getting the degree, paying for a funeral yet to happen, getting a will for Barry, etc.), I am then in the position of waiting. And this is the ultimate passive state. So I am in the, “OK. Now what?” position. Instead of frantically preparing to live, I am actually living.
Being here is interesting. I am doing things because I want to. Not for a future goal. In some ways, I am now more active than before.
I can now do what I wanted to do many years ago—tell the truth about my family’s dysfunction—without fear of reprisal. Fear is focused on the future and I am not.
I can meditate with zero goals of enlightenment. I still have to take care of Barry and may never have the freedom to do long retreats. Pointless meditation is the best. It is a stopping of the insanity. It makes no pretenses. “Here I am. Deal with it,” it says.
The dysfunction in my family comes from not allowing issues to become conscious and from a lack of honesty in terms of what part each person plays. And so nothing ever changes. The insanity is justified throughout endless repetitions.
By stopping (and meditating), the cycle is broken and issues rise quickly to the surface. The stopping is the emptiness, the hub of the wheel, the interior of the house, etc. It is the blank tablet. Nothing is fixed, but at least you know what needs to be fixed and are no longer contributing to the insanity.
I still have no idea what I want, but now I am able to act on what I want as I figure it out. It is ongoing. I am not careless; I am fearless. When you have already let go of just about everything, what is there to fear? Audre Lord said (and I agree), “Of what was I ever afraid?”
“Many times it seems that there is no way to move forward in our lives except through betrayal. Along with our suffering comes an awakening to contradiction, a discovery that we can no longer be quite sure of our motives or even our intentions. And so we love, we collude in our own betrayal.” John Tarrant, The Light Inside the Dark, p. 49
Sometimes the only cure for betrayal is betrayal.
When I was in my early twenties, my family was highly dysfunctional. My brothers were doing drugs and/or drinking, getting caught with them, marrying their pregnant girlfriends, etc. During my teen years, I had warned my parents of what was going on. My oldest brother’s wife, I’ll call her “Sally,” pressured me to promise that I would not tell her children any of the family’s secrets. I complied resentfully, not feeling terribly obligated to keep a promise made under such a degree of duress.
Secrets are kind of like dominoes: when one falls, a whole series can tumble. The secrets required lies to maintain them. It reached a point where there were zero “safe” topics of conversation. Maintaining fake relationships to try to have a relationship, however superficial, with my nieces stopped being a worthy expenditure of time and effort. I basically dropped out of the family. It was the only option that kept the secrets and helped me to maintain a shred of self-respect.
The secret keeping was maintained until yesterday. My oldest niece is now in her mid-thirties. Her youngest sister is now getting married (pregnant like their mom decades ago, a hilarious irony). I have always wanted to be friendlier, but I can’t tiptoe around everything. So I emailed her and told her about the promise and told her some of the reality of our family. I told her the she was free to ask me any question and I would tell her the truth because I have no secrets. Who knows what will happen?
I have stopped seeing myself as a little sister and started seeing myself as a middle-aged woman with little to lose, family-tie-wise. I don’t want to enter my fifties carrying this. I wanted the door opened between me and my nieces. My sister-in-law put me in a position where, all these years later, I have zilch to lose by telling the truth. What can she do? Forbid me to come to family functions? Whatever. I am so too old for this.
The only way out of self-betrayal was promise betrayal. My conscience is clearer. Last year gave me the “advantage” of no longer caring whether I live or die. I am a little freer now. And I have moved forward.
In The Light Inside the Dark (p. 119), a story is told where a man hears cries and runs to help. He and a bunch of friends arrive on the scene and the person calling for help dies.
“When everything that could be done was done, and the ambulance called, the group of friends that had run to the scene stood there, just waiting, keeping company with the now dead young man and his world…To wait is good. It gives time for the world to turn and something else to come along. But this waiting extended and spread out. Time had stopped. There was nothing to do in the whole universe. Everything was simple, complete, still; each thing had equal weight. The man felt utterly present….This incomprehensible peace under duress is the taste of the empty world. At such a moment there is nothing to be done and this nothing has to be enough. The intimate attention of the man and his companions is their blessing on their friend, so irrecoverable, so newly dead.”
This is where I am. I have stopped the striving and ambition. I refuse to prepare for some future phase of my life that I may or may not have. I am here. And I am going to make the best of it.
A few days ago, I decided to volunteer at a women’s center on my end of town. They interviewed me and, while there, I signed a confidentiality agreement and a handbook acknowledgment agreement. They seem excited about me. They have some files I could consolidate for them. Also, they want me to help write some paper justifying their existence, showing how the services they provide for local women saves the taxpayers money and are no longer provided by traditional providers that have always done those services. This is right up my alley. I could do this in my sleep.
I have decided that I am going to continue helping this place until either I can no longer provide them any useful service or I move, whichever comes first. I may help them a few months or a few years. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can no longer wait for something in my life to change. And trying to change things myself has been radically unsuccessful. I have never tried so hard and accomplished so little.
I am making the most of the lack of movement in my life. Time has stopped for all, practical purposes. Also, it is January and I am enjoying the deep stillness of winter. On top of it all, there is right now a storm forming called Jonas that will close down most of the eastern seaboard. Thousands of flights have been cancelled in anticipation of it. Nothing is going anywhere, at least for a few days, and people may as well get used to it. I am hunkering down on so many levels.
“Sometimes there is not a clear moment when the fall begins; there is just a thickening of life’s energy, as if a person had been sleeping on a hillside, and awoke to find the weather changed, the landscape unfamiliar, and wild beasts approaching. That is Dante’s story, and it is common in a life that is otherwise peaceful. A man realizes his wife has drifted away into an interior place inaccessible to him, that his long marriage is probably ending, and that his children are strangers to him. He does not know where the divide began; he was busy working and doing what he thought good. Yet now when he looks at his family across a table there is a chasm, and it seems as if a cold wind is blowing in a room that was previously so familiar as not to be noticed.” The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant, p. 34-35
It is almost impossible not to be this guy at some point. You are doing what you believe is good and right, coping admirably, or so you think. La la la la la.
I “awoke” last year to discover that I did not have the resources I thought I had, that I was taking for granted. They had been removed one thread at a time, until there was nothing left to yank out from under me. It was a rude awakening.
I know that thickening of life’s energy, the grogginess. I am still rubbing my eyes, looking disbelieving at the foreign landscape.
And I have learned the hard way that I don’t have the ability to force things to change on my own. Perhaps trying to force change is a bad idea, but I’ve always thought that that was the whole concept of “taking responsibility.” I refuse to be a good, little victim. I would rather be real and obnoxious than a pleasant, amiable victim.
I am pushing fifty and am realizing just how ugly this perpetual-preparation mindset is. I’ve gotten my education, paid for my grave marker and funeral expenses, and gotten my house ready for sale. OK. Now what? I’m done. I am now past the halfway marker in my life, trying to figure out what I want to be when I “really” start my life when Barry dies, or when I grow up, whichever comes first.
Can I change my thinking? Can I ever just live my life, instead of preparing for a next phase that I may or may not ever have? This is a serious challenge. Perhaps the ultimate challenge and the only one that I will care about meeting in my life. Nothing matters if I am only living for what comes next. What if there is no “next”? What if I am not in-between phases and this is it? Can you imagine if I were 70 years old, preparing for my eighties? How pathetic would that be? That thought makes me shudder. Even if my life sucks, it’s mine and I am going to live it. Now.
“Despair is a time of waiting, of paralysis, of non-time. When we are in its kingdom we do not distinguish among things. Our experience is incomplete because it is non-experience; it is not anything in particular itself and neither is it turning into something else.” The Light Inside the Dark by John Tarrant, p. 52
I am there sometimes. I spent the better part of last year there.
I cannot be comforted at times, especially by superficial clichés, which I call “Veggie Tales theology.”
Would you tell someone in a concentration camp, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do,”? It is insipid. There is no real light at the end of my tunnel. Sorry if I get depressed. Sometimes the tough times outlast the tough people. That is truth. Patience can be pointless.
I have been having a rough time trying to motivate myself to do things to prepare for a next phase of my life that I don’t have any assurance of having.
So I’ve decided to indulge myself. I am eating things I really like, while I still like them. My tolerance and taste for white sugar is declining, so self-indulgence ain’t what it used to be.
I’ve also decided to lean on the fact that nothing is changing, to count on it, to base choices on it. I am simply taking care of myself and not concerning myself with a future that may or may not occur. If things are not going to change, I may as well take advantage of that. I am going to decorate the pit I have fallen into. I did absolutely everything last year I could think of to move my life forward. I’m done for now. I will find little things to do that mean something, but it is no longer in preparation for something.
I have prepared as much as a human can for various scenarios. I’ve gotten an education, planned for my own and Barry’s demise, gotten new windows for the house, cleared out the basement, etc. I’m done preparing. It is time to live in the meantime. This may not be a bardo at all. Things just are as they are. Lesson learned: I cannot move my life forward without life’s cooperation. I cannot find that house buyer. I cannot have that certainty (good or bad) regarding Barry’s health. If someone asked me if he has cancer, my response would have to be, “Maybe. We can’t be sure and he won’t have a biopsy.” I know nothing and all the prayer and meditation in the world do not fix that. I only meditate to be here now. I am not pretending to accomplish anything.
Transformation involves change. When the necessary changes do not occur, then maybe it’s not a phase. Maybe it’s the new normal.
It reminds me of a story of Shunryu Suzuki. A student was asking if he had ever met some renowned Japanese roshi. Suzuki said yes. The student asked what ever happened to Roshi So-and-So. Suzuki’s answer? Drum roll…. “He died.” I read that and cracked up. I laughed so hard it hurt.
I am reading The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life by John Tarrant. OMG. This is probably one of the top ten books I have read in the last decade. It speaks to me on so many levels. I am not done, but it has had me crying more than once. I am sure I will be quoting it a lot.
It explains why I want a life of spirit while going through this dark night of the soul. Spirit is idealistic, seeking the pure and detached. Soul lives deeply and messily and, at times, angrily. Soul is down and dirty. It changes diapers and feels the endless losses of life. I have always wanted the spiritual and then found many of the most spiritual people I know to be kind, but airy-fairy and ungrounded. For example, I love the idea of living in a convent and being totally devoted to spiritual goals but the nuns I have met in person have been creepily childish and weirdly innocent. Maturity simply does not develop when all of your real world needs are taken care of for the long haul. Uncertainty develops coping skills.
Much of “spirituality” is pure escapism. That is part of what always attracted me to it, I’m sure. I feel a need to be careful with Zen because using it for escapist purposes is just too easy.
It is showing me the effects of my dark night and how the superficial reassurances of others can never help. I need the guidance and supervision of someone who has been where I am. I hope to meet that person in my lifetime.
“During the descent we also lose the way others see us. This is not always a bad thing in the long run, but it is humiliating and painful. The mask that we present to the world slips off and the face behind it becomes visible, with its expression of terror, greed, despair, dishonesty–whatever is usually kept in the cellar. The moment of surrendering the old image–of life, of the self–is most painful. At such a time we know that we must strike out on our own, but in our new solitude and shame sometimes we go under, for a while, or forever.”
This is me, submerging. I wonder if I will ever surface.
Now that life has calmed down (thank goodness), I am looking to make my life saner. And I’ve been doing fairly well with that.
One of my priorities has been trying to figure out how to get my house sold. It happens that one of my New Age-y friends knows a local realtor familiar with my neighborhood. She has given me his phone number and email. Why am I nervous about contacting him? I already have a realtor, but checking out what he has to say cannot hurt.
My pain seems habitual to some degree. But I am also oh, so tired of it. In “The Transformation”, Audre Lorde put it best:
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed I would have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence.”
Looking at my own mortality this past summer has done something similar to me. Am I still nervous? Yeah, but I don’t want to die like this. Sure, I’m nervous; I just don’t care that I’m nervous anymore.
Part of making my life saner has been major decluttering. The issue, I have discovered, is a matter of letting go of everything. I am approaching 50 and just figuring this out now. Last year, I let go of so much that it hurt: possessions, money fixing up the house, relationships, illusions, Barry’s health, and even my possible life. It was not cathartic; it was traumatic. Nevertheless, my life was simplified, even clutter-wise, more than I ever imagined possible.
Every object represents something. A relationship. A hope. A dream. A cherished illusion. Once the underlying issue is resolved to some degree, the objects are easily discarded. The hard part is tossing objects with the meanings still attached. It resolves nothing and brings up the pain all over again. The internal work must be done first or the process doesn’t work.
I’ve been reading a book called Buddha’s Daughters, written by multiple women Buddhists. One of the authors is Anne Carolyn Klein, mentioning her teacher Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche. He visited the University of Virginia and reminded his students “that so long as there is anything left to stir, paths of practice will stir them. It is like taking a whirling whisk to a floor. The floor might have seemed clean enough before we started sweeping, then the air gets so thick with dust we can hardly breathe. This means our sweeping is effective.” (p. 161)
This whole realtor thing raises questions. What on earth have I not let go of yet?