Saturday August 15, 2009
Yesterday I bought myself a second-hand bicycle. It is not, it has to be said, a thing of beauty. The bicycle’s purple hue is not the colour that I would have chosen, and the seat is decidedly uncomfortable. But despite all of this, it was wonderful to be back on two wheels after a few years. I pedalled away from the cycle shop and headed along the Great Central Way, following the path to the end as the dragonflies wove to and fro across the path. At the end of the Great Central Way, I met an old man and his dog picking apples. Or, to be more precise, the old man was picking apples, and the dog was just sniffing around in the undergrowth. So I joined in (the apple-picking, not the undergrowth-sniffing), and with a good few apples in my bag – cookers, not eaters – I wished him farewell and headed back home. And even though, as I cycled back home, it was hard to ignore the fact that the seat really was uncomfortable, this brief interlude in what has been a week of editing and proof-reading and so on, was a thing of absolute delight.
This morning, catching up with various bits and pieces, I came across a comment piece on the Guardian website which made me reflect a little more on this sense of delight. In the piece, Naseem Khan responds to a piece that Zen teacher Norman Fischer wrote in the New York Times. Fisher’s essay, For the Time Being, was about a retreat that he led on Puget Sound. Here is a brief passage from Fischer’s article:
I am a Zen Buddhist priest, so a meditation retreat isn’t exotic to me: it’s what I do. But this one was particularly delightful. Sixty-five of us in silence together for a week, as great blue herons winged slowly overhead, swallows darted low to the ground before us as we walked quietly on the open grassy space between the meditation hall and the dining room. Rabbits nibbled on tall grasses in the thicket by the lake. The sky that far north is glorious this time of year, full of big bright clouds that can be spectacular at sunset – which doesn’t happen until around 10 p.m., the sky ablaze over the tops of the many islands thereabouts.
This is, I think, a lovely passage. Of all the words that fill the New York Times, not many are, I suspect, as filled with such straightforward wonder and delight as these. ‘Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline,’ sings Rufus Wainwright, ‘“Life is Beautiful”, in the New York Times?’ Khan, however, does not entirely agree, and her piece calls into question the value of this kind of retreat. ‘If William Blake could find heaven in a grain of sand,’ she asks, ‘shouldn’t we look for it in a thrown-away tube ticket and a MacDonalds hamburger. is it really necessary to retreat to settings of unimaginable tranquility in order to attain tranquility?’ In asking this question, Khan is not, it should be said, entirely unaware of the way that retreats work. As Fischer points out in his piece, and as she also notes, if retreats seems like ‘getting away from it all’, the thing that one does not get away from is one’s own mind. That, for better or worse, comes along for the ride. And so if, on day one, you are thinking ‘Oh, look, there’s a beautiful heron!’ it is very likely that by day five you might find yourself thinking, ‘If that damn heron croaks loudly in my meditation again, I will personally wring it’s long and beautifully slender neck.’
However, providing that you manage to deal with your irrational heron-hatred, the real problems, Khan suggests, begin when you get home. It is then that you realise that the cat has been sick on the carpet, your great aunt is up to her old tricks, your house has been vandalised whilst you’ve been away, and your email inbox is groaning, and you suddenly seem to lose every last shred of the apparent wisdom and compassion, every last twinkle of the gratifyingly spiritual glow, that you seemed to possess whilst on retreat.
As a corrective to this, Khan talks of other models of practice – for example, Bernie Glassman’s street retreats – which may act as a “counter to blue herons and fine sunsets.” Yet, for me, whatever the value of these other forms of practice, I am not at all sure that blue herons and sunsets need to be countered. To be sure, if one is fortunate to find oneself on such a retreat, it is always worth being aware that these are very particular conditions, that they will come to an end, that when you get back home you will almost certainly have to deal once again with your vomiting cat, with your backlog of emails, and with your troublesome great aunt, as you did beforehand. But at the same time, there are definite benefits to such experiences of delight. It is good to be reminded of the beauty of things, it is good to cultivate wonder and awe at the extraordinary fact of our being here, thinking and feeling beings, in a world filled with sunsets and croaking herons and mad great aunts and vomiting cats and so forth. In itself, there is nothing self-indulgent in delight. It is attachment to the things that delight us that is self-indulgent. And to have periods in our lives in which we can open ourselves more than usual to this kind of delight can be profoundly useful. Of course there are things to be getting on with. There are ethical demands and responsibilities upon us. But without delight, I suspect that our ability to respond to these demands and responsibilities is limited. And this is why, I think, it is important to be able to open up spaces of delight within our lives – those impromptu cycle rides, those retreats, the time spent with friends.
The world contains both the possibility of delight and the possibility of suffering. If we are interested in cultivating the art of seeing things clearly, then we need to be open to both. If it were possible to allow the awareness of suffering to enter into our experience of delight, without this awareness thereby diminishing the delight that we experienced, and if it were possible to allow the awareness of the possibility of delight to enter into our experience of suffering, without this awareness obscuring the urgency of the suffering with which we are confronted – then, I think, we’d really be getting somewhere.
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