II. Self: “I am a novelist.”
4 July 04, First floor, window seat
Sopa Choling Retreat House, Gampo Abbey
Red River, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
“Are you trying to write a novel?”
A fellow monastic asks this last night as I’ve curled up against the bay windows overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the sunset breaking over whitecaps. Who’s to say I haven’t been writing a novel over the past few days? At every significant break between sessions of meditation I’ve rushed off to document my experience. And then at the sound of the gong I return to the cushion, only to rehash my life in episodic fragments instead of focusing on my breath. I sit on the cushion and flip mentally through my “novel,” my life-long project of composing the self. Apparently, I am the central character in a novel.
Each day, consciously or not, I attempt to compose a reality every bit as tangible and indelible as that in any hardcover or paperback, something someone could hold after my body can’t hold it any longer. Something that could endure, sit intact, protected and safe on the shelf of some friend’s memory, with me hoping that they would pick it up and flip through it as I’m doing now this morning.
“BRONG,” tones the gong, and I snap back into the present. The room comes back into focus. Polished pine wood floors, bright red meditation cushions, grand wide windows through which the Labrador Sea extends, on either side of the larger-than-life bronzed Buddha. I am sitting on a thin cushion in a retreat house at the end of a road on the northernmost tip of Cape Breton Island, a temporarily ordained monastic whose only task is to watch the movement of mind while remaining aware of where I am. Apparently, I can’t even do that right.
III. Text and Self: Both impermanent
Four years later, I return to this journal entry and read it over. There is something familiar about it: the scene, the setting, the character, even the voice and style of the narrative is familiar. I remember vividly the sensations, and even emotional compositions, which combine to create the landscape of each situation: the windowbench was firm but with a seat soft enough, and with a view vast enough, to make long quiet reflections in writing a pleasure. Whenever the words wouldn’t come, I simply looked up and drifted off to rest some place near the meeting of sky and sea. Sitting meditation for lengths of time was often unendurable: I remember grinding pain in knee joints and worrying about the tearing of hip flexors in the waning minutes of each session.
Despite these vivid memories, the written evidence that I had these experiences, and a strong belief that some part of “me” endures over the years, in reading old journal entries I’m hard pressed to put my finger on what that “me” is. My body is different now. My circumstances too. Those particular instances of pain and comfort are now absent, evanesced along with the security of the monastic environment and the fear of looking dead at my neurotic and obsessive mind. My relationship with that entire experience is somehow tenuous, grounded only by a short text that itself is suspect – if only because I could not hope to record the whole of that experience that day. My connection with any aspect of it (self, experience, text, and meaning) is sometimes so tenuous as to be insubstantial. Sometimes I have to ask myself straight out – who wrote that?
Obviously, I did. The question of who, though, is not purely theoretical. It’s a practical concern that needs to be attended to each time I approach the page now. Understanding that I myself am not permanent has never been difficult for me – at age ten on a nightly basis I reminded my self as I was falling asleep of the reality of death. I try to recollect this to underscore the preciousness of each day, even though I spend most of them going through the motions mindlessly. But regardless to what degree I remain conscious of it, I am not permanent: I have not always had this conception of self, and at some point, this conception of self will fade. In this moment, I am ten again, repeating to myself the obvious but somehow shocking reality: “I will die.”
Despite my intentions and whatever grandiose visions I have for my text, it too will die. Possibly later today if I become irritated, abandoning it never to look at it again. A handwritten journal tears, is lost, burns in a fire, is given away. Books fade in the sun, crumble and decompose, are forgotten in some darkened vault. A computer hard drive crashes, the words displayed on the screen and underlying code collapsing into a vacuum of meaning. From your vantage point in the present, even as you read these words, meaning recedes simultaneously in all directions: into the past, into the space around us, into your mind. The text disappears moment by moment, and while affirming life as we read, the text whispers as you read each word, whispering: “I too will die.”
And if by chance we pick the text up again years later to revisit it, we find that friend forever changed. It is not quite as we remember it, because we ourselves have changed.
Similarly, the sense of self I had ten years ago is not the same sense of self that I have now, and as an extension neither was the self of five or even one year ago. For Pete’s sake, this time last year I was neither married nor living in this city. My circumstances have changed, and with them my views, my priorities, and actions. I am not the same self I was six months ago, or last week, or even yesterday. I had a sunburn yesterday and a headache and felt different flavors of love and harbored different resentments toward my wife than I do today. Ten minutes ago I was decaffinated, and thirty seconds ago I hadn’t even realized that caffine had introduced a change in my experience. Not only am I not permanent writ large across space and time, I can’t even say that this instant of me is the same as the last one. And if that is true, really, who did write that journal entry? And what does that say about the text?