O Captain! My Captain!
The Buddhists say that awareness is the most important thing.
Actually, as the parable goes, it is the three most important things, sometimes called attention. Attention, attention, attention. Hiding in plain sight in that word is (the sound of) the word tension.
Now, I suppose that when one has become a master, the tension part of attention goes away, and there is only relaxed awareness. But I’m not really qualified to talk about that.
In fact, let me just relieve any suspense and tell you from the beginning that I am probably not going to do this subject the grace it deserves. So I’m going to recruit a little help.
David Foster Wallace once told a graduating class the story of an old fish swimming by two young fish, greeting them and asking, “How’s the water?” After a while, one of the young fish turned to the other and said, “What the hell is water?” His point being that the most important things in life are often the most obvious and the hardest for us to see.
The other thing Wallace said was that, in order to see life, really see it, we need to put aside our own arrogance about our ideas of it. My interpretation of his speech is that we lean too heavily on our own ideas, beliefs, expectations, worldview, in order to get through the day…
… when the irony is, these are also the very things that keep us from living the life we want, from true happiness. And yes, that seems like a really cruel joke for life to play. But it doesn’t make it any less true.
Life is dangerous.
There are things that happen in life that cause us to pause. Like death or sudden violence, mostly. And so many things that don’t. Like the patient presence of beauty all around us. Or, using the fish analogy, the air we breathe all day and night. Every day and night. Our whole lives.
I can’t explain exactly why, but the unexpected death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman shook me. It was just something I didn’t see coming. Something senseless. Something that happens in a dream. And then I wake up and think, that was weird.
I was also a little embarrassed to talk about it. Or to write about it. I mean, lots of innocent people die every day all over the world in terrible circumstances (and most of them did not voluntarily stick needles in their arms). So I processed it silently and (mostly) got over it.
Then came the untimely death of our beloved O Captain! My Captain! And I decided, instead of just stuffing his death away as a silly romantic media-fueled event, I would explore why it felt the way it did.
Life is uncertain.
“O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths — for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.” ~ Walt Whitman
Just like the fishes’ water or the air we breathe, there is much we take for granted. Like our ideas of the world, we somehow think that we have to take these things for granted, you know, in order to function. In order to do the so many other things there are to do in a day.
Yet I believe the masters would say that this thinking is folly, that this constant ignoring we do is part of the grand illusion. That, in fact, it is the exact opposite of what we think.
That the reason we find life so difficult, so much of the time, is that we have stuffed away most all of the things that are essential to life, in favor of the illusion.
I believe death rocks us because it temporarily wakes us from our near perpetual slumber.
Whether it is the death of a loved one, known to us personally, or the death of a bright light — the likes of PSH, Robin Williams, or even Wallace himself — who we had come to take as a never-ending part of our human landscape.
We relied on them, like water or oxygen, to provide us with the illusion of permanency.
Life is beautiful.
The morning after I found out about PSH, I slowed down a little.
Instead of being hurried and stressed about getting me and my son out the door in time, I just slowed down. I watched him. As we gathered our things. As I asked him for the seventh time to put on his coat and boots. As we walked to the car. As I fastened his seatbelt.
I slowed down enough to watch what was happening. I saw him. I saw us. I savored every little moment. As if it were a delicious but tiny meal.
I hadn’t slept well at all the night before. We were late to wake up. And on top of that, all the usual Monday morning complications and frustrations were there. But somehow these things didn’t get to me.
A smile crept to the surface, even as I was struggling to get dressed and to collect all manner of things for our day.
We must let life happen. We must allow it to get our attention. To wake us up. And then we must do our best to stay awake. That is the whole point. Stay awake. Shake others awake. Grab them and hug them and kiss them.
Show them the stars and the equally incomprehensible numbers of leaves of grass right in their own backyard. Get down in the grass and see how they would look if you were tiny bugs.
Stare into each other’s eyes and wonder at the remarkable ability we have just to see things, how many billions of organs and tissues and membranes and cells and firing neurons it takes just to gaze upon a bee getting drunk on a sunflower. Stand on your desk.
Don’t get used to any of it.
We get used to the light.
Here in the high desert, we get used to more than 300 days of sunshine a year. So when it rains, we pay attention. I love the rain, more than I can express with words. And I also imagine that if I lived somewhere like Seattle or Portland or London, I’d get used to the rain in the same way.
There are people and things that shine brighter than others. And we need their light. Their light is important to remind us of beauty, of humor, of lightheartedness, and grace.
And, as the Master Ajahn Chah reminded us, the glass is already broken. It is important to understand that the glass is already broken and to enjoy it all the same. It is the balance of the spiritual and the material worlds.
Life is random. Life is complicated. Life is often unforgiving. And we must each live it anyway. And I don’t mean live it as if it’s a chore, something to be endured, survived.
I mean, dig in, get muddy, howl at the moon, take pictures of sunsets, play in the rain, make love, savor your food, smile as much as you can. And cry when you’re sad.
Live it despite the fact it pisses you off. Live it and pay as much attention as you can muster.
So when a light goes out, as even the sun will eventually, you can say, Damn, now that was a beautiful one!