Monday, February 25, 2013

Proust and Zazen

My husband, Brad, and I have been reading Proust’s The Search aloud for three years.  We drive to a beautiful spot and read about ten pages (which actually takes awhile).  Saturday, parked high above the Golden Gate Bridge, we have just finished volume three, The Guermantes Way. The main characters in this volume are the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes, who are aristocrats in Parisian society of the late 1800’s.

Proust is known as one of the greatest Western novelists, and, indeed, he has great descriptive power.  He can write ten pages on the beauty of a Hawthorne bush.  But, he can also be really, really tedious, especially when he describes a Parisian salon or dinner party, as he does here, at the home of the Guermantes.  Near the end of volume there is a long dialogue – forty or so pages – between the Guemantes about their aristocratic and noble families.  An excerpt:

In the past we were Ducs d’Aumale, a duchy that has passed as regularly to the House of France as Joinville and Chevreuse have to the House of Albert.  For instance, my sister-in-law’s son bears the title of Prince d’Agriente…

These descriptions became so boring and oppressive that I wanted to skip them.  But Proust always has a “method to his madness.” Near the end of this long dialogue, an old friend, Swann, is ushered in by the footman.  The Guermantes are on the way to a dinner and ball. Their discussion about their aristocratic heritage continues as they are about to enter their carriage. When the Duchess blithely asks Swann if he will accompany them to Venice, Swann says he cannot go because he is terminally ill.  The duchesse dismisses this as impossible.  She is poised with one foot inside her carriage when Swann asserts that he is, in fact, going to die within three months.  She hesitates. 

Will she stop, turn to her friend, and speak earnestly of his illness, or continue to enter her carriage, denying any possibility of her friend’s death?  She enters her carriage.  She is completely caught in the habit energy of her life.  She can speak for hours on the most trivial of subjects, but she cannot pause for her friend.  She gets into her carriage, missing any opportunity for meeting the actual truth of her life – that she and everyone she loves will one day die.

And the genius of Proust is that this applies to us all.  I often feel the rushing of my mind and life energy.  I often feel as if I have an appointment, but this is absurd, since I am retired and rarely have appointments.  I am especially aware of this crazy energy when I sit zazen. It can be very difficult to be quiet, to step out of the river of my rushing habit energy. 

But sometimes I can sit straight, and my mind is still, and this feels like the most important thing I can do for myself and for those I love.





Sunday, February 17, 2013

Unrelenting Passion

I am listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and I visualize him full of passion and longing and grief – a passion that brings forth this sad but beautiful music. 
I struggle with this passion, a lifelong friend and challenger.  What is this?  What is this driving insatiableness?   Earlier in life it felt like sexual desire.  And now ­­­­­­­­­­­­it doesn’t.  I once was an actress, using this passion to express myself, but once the curtain fell, the thrill was gone, and the passion has been as strong as ever.
One of the greatest causes of suffering is the feeling that one’s life is unsatisfactory.  So I cultivate gratitude as the antidote, but I know deep in my heart that I am still desperately dissatisfied.  And then I am disturbed that I must not be grateful enough.  What do I want?  What would fill me up?
I am practicing Soto Zen from the same place of longing and passion.  Zen could be seen as both easy and difficult.  Easy because there is no dogma and no fixed beliefs to which I must subscribe.  And this is a good thing, because I have arrived at a state of intellectual anarchy.  And yet I have faith that sitting zazen is the way.  To what? 
Now that is the hard part.  We are meaning constructing beings and our passion and longing is for some kind of coherence.  Do we need this because of our certain death – and as an older person, I think of this daily – or because there is something we need to become, to actualize?  Whenever I hear Mary Oliver’s line about how are we going to live “our one and precious life”, I cringe.  Don’t remind me.  I need to chill out around this.  I need to relax.  I shouldn’t take things so seriously. 
Wouldn’t it be great if “just sitting” was enough?  I think the spin on “just sitting” in Zen could mean to focus on zazen and not on scriptures or other forms.  But the “just” might mean: drop all hope of identity and purpose in this lifetime.  Drop all aspirations and longings and passions – even for the good stuff.
I think this is what Zen is about.  Just being yourself.  Clinging to nothing.  Now we all know these words very well, but there is a reason that bodhisattvas are called “fearless.”  Because if you really, really drop all hope for meaning and identity, you might end up in a very scary place. 
On the other hand, passion and fire may be our very selves.  To be alive is to be passionate.  The practice may be just to sit with that passion and expect nothing.