It seems paradoxical, and it is: by becoming absorbed in the foreground, we allow the background gently (and sometimes suddenly) to come to life.
This post is a continuation of A Matter of Misdirection: Part 1
In his first teaching, the Buddha explicitly taught that we exist in a state of suffering and that we can be liberated from it. There’s a stick, and there’s a carrot. There’s a path from A to B, from dukkha to liberation, and he went on to outline it. This would seem a straightforward description of, and prescription for, a path of training. Yet even this is not so simple.
Inherent in that carrot-and-stick model is the notion that this state we are currently in is unsatisfactory, while there is another, better state waiting for us: a deluded here and an awakened there. Yet that very formulation could stand as a description of dukkha itself—of the problem one is seeking to resolve—in that it constitutes dissatisfaction with how things are. It is surely a conundrum, one located squarely at the heart of spiritual life and elaborated in a multitude of ways. If we are seeking something other than what is already right here, we surely have a problem. If we are not seeking, if we simply choose to live out our ego-driven portion of samsaric existence, then we also have a problem. It’s something to chew on, and Buddhists have been chewing on it, and arguing over it, for a long time.
Bodhidharma, the legendary first great ancestor of Zen in China, said that when we reach the “other shore,” the promised land of nirvana, we find that there never was another shore to begin with. This is not so much Zen’s final word on the matter as its first word, or at least the perspective in which the tradition is grounded. In Bodhidharma’s words, both sides of the equation—the need to seek and need not to—are embraced.
Many paths have certain benchmarks, and as we pass them we may be encouraged to think we are making progress on the way. But our inevitable attachment to these markers traps us inevitably—in notions of good and bad, of something chased and something fled, of pride in the one who has made the progress or despair at the one who hasn’t. “Progress” itself may be, as it were, a lack of progress, any concern with it being a precise sign of our continuing attachment to it. And yet, off to the side, we may truly have made progress in ways we don’t see.
Misdirection operates on a smaller scale, too. Any spiritual training has to work with what is presented, namely the front door to our experience: our mind and our sense of self. In kanna Zen, or koan training, the student initially sits with a “barrier koan” such as Mu. The focus, the attention, is all on Mu. Mu comes to fill the foreground of the mind. The mind’s front door over time becomes completely occupied with the koan. That’s what’s needed. While the front door is busy getting absorbed in Mu, it’s not attending to the back door, where the “real” Mu can slip in unnoticed and spring itself on us.
It seems paradoxical, and it is: by becoming absorbed in the foreground, we allow the background gently (and sometimes suddenly) to come to life. Our attention expands. By means of the narrow focus, our consciousness broadens. As we absorb ourselves into the lamp of consciousness, its light opens into a more inclusive illumination. The narrow torch-beam switches off, and the background—everything else previously plunged in shadow—comes into bright relief, not to say new life.
But it has to happen by itself. We can’t aim for it directly. “Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity,” according to the Xinxin Ming, a poem attributed to the Third Chan Patriarch, Sengcan. In other words, you can’t take the mind head-on. The front door is not the way; and yet it is the only way. Our minds are fruitfully led down the garden path, an illusion of progress is fed to the hungry maw of the self to keep it quiet, like a bone tossed to a dog, and real shifts can occur—inadvertently.
In “The Student,” Chekhov’s personal favorite of his 588 stories, a young seminarian is walking home one gloomy afternoon, searching his mind for solutions to his life’s travails. He hates living at home with his parents, he hates his studies, the weather is awful: the whole world is a vale of sorrow. Then he stops in a vegetable plot where some women are warming themselves by a fire, and he is prompted to tell them the gospel story of Peter—how he stood by a fire through the night while Jesus was held by the Roman authorities, and three times denied that he had anything to do with the prisoner. One of the women starts crying. The student is shocked to find an event from 1,900 years ago having such a direct effect here and now, and he sees in a flash that the past is connected to the present in a single “unbroken chain.” The past is not merely past, it is also right here.
The revelation opens him up to a different kind of resolution, one he would have struggled in vain to find deliberately. His own efforts to sort out his life are eclipsed by a religious discovery that overwhelms him. All of a sudden, his problems find their answer in a source far other, and far wider, than where he was looking.
Many great creative lives seem to proceed by a kind of misdirection, too. Tolstoy, for example, hoped to be seen as a great philosophical and religious figure. He considered his true life’s calling to have been Christian monasticism, something for which a man of such famous passions and appetites was probably not well suited. He discounted and even disparaged his own achievements in literature. Yet perhaps his poor aim in his life’s objectives helped him. He saw himself as a larger thing than a novelist, and the novels as a means to that; but he was no good at the larger thing, and in the end the novels were the larger thing.
“Writers are often best at their second-best calling,” said the late Wordsworth scholar Robert Woof. Even Hemingway set out to be a poet in his early years in Paris, with the writing of stories a second best. When novel-writing replaced poetry as his main act, it was still in the relegated form, the short story, that he continued to excel. D. H. Lawrence likewise took the English novel as his arena for greatness, yet his best work is a handful of poems and his occasional prose. There is a great deal to be said for having a major project in life, though it’s possible that its greatest service is to provide a shelter in which our most truly valuable activities can germinate and grow.
This is comparable to the way some works achieve their greatness by fighting against their own grain. The original story of Hamlet was a simple revenge tragedy. But it is the young prince’s ambivalence about that story line, his resistance to it, and then his resistance to that resistance, that generates all its greatness. The Iliad appears to be a tale of warriors and their martial prowess. Yet as the poet Peter Levi has said, “Homer’s is the poetry of the defeated”: the true subjects of the epic are vulnerability and forgiveness, as becomes clear in the scene near the end when the two sworn foes, Priam and Achilles, weep in each other’s arms. It is surely one of the most moving moments in all literature. It is as if art, like life perhaps, succeeds through a contrary. Likewise in our spiritual lives, the lofty project of a great awakening is something we both work toward and chafe against. Within its shade, all kinds of smaller openings and maturations may spring up.
A Matter of Misdirection, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2013.