Saturday, January 6, 2018

Will or Grace?

No, this is not a blog about the TV sitcom, Will and Grace. Rather, it’s about the difference between two modes of getting something done—via the exercise of conscious will, or by allowing grace or intuition or something-very-hard-to-name do its work. I’ll try to illustrate the area I mean by citing an example from my own experience. Thirty or so years ago, after ‘sitting’ or doing zazen meditation on my own for several years, I finally got the chance to sign up for an zen intensive or ‘sesshin.’ This involves five (or seven) long days of 25- to 40-minute periods of meditation, normally sitting in lotus or modified lotus position, with rest periods at meals, and a solid period of work in the afternoon. The biggest hurdle for beginning western students tends to be knee pain. After a day or two of constant sitting crosslegged, the knees of even experienced sitters begin to protest, especially in long afternoons when heat and exhaustion tend to set in. On about the third day, in spite of my pride at being able to sit morning periods without much strain, I was in this exhausted condition. By the end of each afternoon period, my knees were not only sore, but on fire. The whole exercise began to seem stupid if not masochistic. What was the point? What was possibly being accomplished by this self-torture? This kind of thinking means the mind is on fire too. And there seems no solution to the dilemma. Either one moves to a less stressful position and wastes the periods already accomplished, exposing oneself as a wimp, or one persists in lotus and pushes the painful knees harder. And the pain continues to get worse—to the point that one begins to worry about doing serious damage. I was worrying about precisely that, my mind on fire trying to figure out what I could do to ease the pain, how I might subtly move to put less pressure on my knee joints and tendons but still maintain my commitment.
            Then, at some point, I simply decided to stop: stop worrying, stop trying to make things better, stop imagining my tendons snapping, and give up. There was nothing I could do to ease the pain, nothing I could do to salvage my pride, nothing I could do to prevent my total collapse. And so I yielded to what appeared to be my unavoidable condition of pain—pain in the knees and pain in the mind. If my knees snapped, I told myself, so be it. And that’s when it happened. Something shifted. Something eased. And, in what seemed like seconds, the pain had vanished. And I was floating on some sort of relaxed cloud, fully alert to everything around me, and feeling as if I could go on forever.
            I actually wrote about this, researching the then-scientific information about pain and its causes and sources in the muscles and brain (something called ‘gate theory’ was the reigning favorite), trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Because to me, this seemed like a miracle. One minute I feared for my physical (mainly) and mental health; the next minute I was in a kind of bliss with no pain whatever and nothing done on my part to cause it. I should also say that this condition lasted for most of the afternoon after that. No pain. Able to sit in lotus for whole periods without moving or desiring to move, and then easily able to get up for the periods of kinhin (walking meditation) that usually came as a relief, but now felt just the same: easeful, concentrated, totally under control. And along with this, of course, my confidence that I had finally figured this zen thing out, and that I could maintain this mastery the whole two days left in the sesshin. Of course, I was wrong. Though my knee pain didn’t return with the same intensity, it definitely returned. And here is where will comes in—for in spite of my earlier experience, I was simply unable to will my mind and body to return to that earlier state. I kept trying to remember what I had done, how it had happened, and kept trying to duplicate that yielding that I had read enough about to know was somehow the key. But I simply could not do it, could not will it to happen. In fact, it turns out that this attempt on the part of practitioners to duplicate some “state” that they have experienced is very common, and one of the key mistakes in the practice. Such insights cannot be duplicated. Ever. They never occur the same way twice. And it is one of the hardest lessons of all to learn because we want to get back, we want to duplicate what worked before, it’s one of the things that humans pride ourselves on, learning from experience: ‘I’ve learned that one, so now I know how it works and won’t ever have to suffer in the same way again.’ NOT.
            And this is the point of inquiry here. Why can’t we duplicate that which has worked in the past? Why can’t we assert our conscious will, based in memory, and make the same solution happen again? Get to the same level of bliss again? Or expertise. Or insight in any domain. Why can’t we write another book, play another concert, win another ballgame using the same techniques? Why can’t we find that same level of inspiration once we’ve found it the first time?
            We don’t know. Somehow, inspiration cannot be forced. We know what it is. We know how good it feels. We know roughly how we got there the first time. But we are unable to get it to return, to force it to come again. This applies in so many areas that it seems useless to cite them all. What a great gathering that was, what a great New Year’s Eve, or birthday, or homecoming, or lovemaking. Let’s try it again. And it never quite works. Though we think we’ve put together the same elements, and mustered the same mental and physical state, the repeat always falls more or less short. The second novel, or the sequel to the hit movie, is commonly a letdown, often a failure. Why is that? We don’t know. So we use words like ‘inspiration’ or ‘grace’ or ‘yielding to life’ or ‘accepting’ or ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’ to try to characterize it and thereby capture it. But these are only words. They don’t get to the essence of what we’re after even as well as the way earlier cultures like the ancient Greeks tried to image this kind of experience. They imagined the influx of some sort of divinity: Athena, goddess of wisdom, descends and infiltrates the soul of Odysseus so that, thus ‘inspired,’ he is able to find a solution to whatever difficulties he is facing. And that way of imagining things still has power today. Even our word, inspiration, suggests an influx of some sort of potent breath, divine breath or grace entering from we know not where to give us the idea or strength or insight without which we could not have performed what was necessary, found what we were seeking. Every writer, every creator of any kind of art knows what this means. ‘The poem came to me fully formed.’ ‘The answer came to me in a dream.’ One of the most famous of these moments is recorded as a dream or vision by the chemist, Friedrich August Kekule, of a snake eating its own tail, which revealed, he said, the shape of the benzene ring he was looking for.  Apocryphal or not, the idea is clear: very often we cannot solve the problem by using our will alone; at some point, we must relax and let inspiration do it for us. Whatever inspiration is.
            To be sure, preparation is necessary. Perspiration is necessary. In my case, I couldn’t just give up, in the sense of uncrossing my knees, getting to my feet and leaving the zendo with a good riddance. No, all the previous work was necessary, the determination and exhaustion vital. The same would be true of Kekule or anyone trying to discover something. Willpower up to a point; and then making way for inspiration. The thing is, we never know what the perfect combination or the right timing will be. We never know. And that’s what makes this fascinating. We never know quite how to combine persistence and yielding in such a way that it will work. Which, in itself, is a kind of sabotaging of the effort. Because if we’re still looking for that optimum combination, trying to ‘trick’ or ‘sneak up on’ inspiration, we can’t do it. We can’t fool ourselves. We’re always aware of our devious minds, though that doesn’t stop us. We try all kinds of tricks to fool ourselves into success, or wisdom. But wisdom can’t be fooled.
            And in that sense, it may be well to end with the idea in a central zen text, the Heart Sutra. The Sutra ends with this puzzling idea: “wisdom beyond wisdom.” The Sanskrit words are “gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha.” Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond gone…And that is often what we are trying to do: go beyond. Go beyond what appear to be our normal capacities.  Our normal limits. Our human, our rational, or physical endowment to something beyond, something we know cannot logically exist, and yet somehow does. So we call it inspiration. Intuition. Grace. Wisdom beyond wisdom, wisdom beyond sense, beyond reason, beyond normal brain function, bodily function, physical function. And though it is in some senses the most unusual, miraculous of experiences, it is at the same time as ordinary as dirt. As heartbeats. As breathing. Which, in the true scheme of things—dirt, heartbeats, breathing—are not ordinary at all.

Lawrence DiStasi