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Martine & Stephen

Batchelor

 

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural.  I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

  - Louis Macneice

 

The door opens and through it steps a man with a white stick and dark glasses.  He stands still for several moments, poised and alert.  The clamor of conversation subsides and eyes glance across the room.  He edges between the tables, his head upright and unmoving, guided by the quivering antenna of his stick.  A woman runs up to him and takes his arm.  She guides him to a table.  Behind them the sun streams across the Pacific.   He sits down, his face bathed in light.  The woman trembles and asks him a question.  He smiles.  She turns away.  Beyond them as carefree white triangles, people are out on their yachts.

           

Blindness would be the loss of the most precious faculty I have.  The world is first and foremost what I see.  Apart from the lull in conversation, everything depicted in that scene was visible.  (Try and describe it without referring to anything colored, shaped or formed.)  The sighted sense the blind to suffer a deficiency.   Blindness is a metaphor of darkness, ignorance, confusion - in which I edge through life unaware of what is around and where I am going.

              In this blindness I am confused by the sheer irrationality and ambiguity of things coming into being at all. I am confused by having been born into a world from which I will be ejected at death.  I am confused as to who or why I am.  I am confused by the labyrinthine superabundance of choices.  I do not know what to do.

            Confusion is not a state of darkness in which I fail to see anything.  It is partial blindness rather than sightlessness.  By not seeing well, I misconstrue things: like entering the pottery shed in the yard to discover a snake in one corner.  My heart accelerates and I am frozen with fear.  Only when my eyes get used to the light, do I realize it is a coil of hosepipe. 

            As long as I was convinced it was a snake, I experienced a snake.  I didn’t experience something-appearing-as-a-snake.  Might a similar confusion color my experience of life as a whole:  a confusion that not only blinds me to what is happening but anxiously construes a fictional world that seems utterly real?

            Such confusion might account for  this sense of inhabiting a reality in which I do not seem to fit.  My heartfelt sense of who I am is often at odds with the way things are.  I keep getting tangled up in things not because I fail to see them but because I’m convinced that I’m configured other than I am.  I become a square  peg trying to fit into a round hole, convinced that I am a round peg. 

            The more I persist in this, the more frustrated I get.  And all it does is feed that turmoil which drives the surge of impulses that spins me forward. 

           

When you first try to make a pot on a wheel, the clay does not obey your fingers.  You end up with a wet, muddy mess.  With practice, though, you become adept at handling clay in relation to the spin of the wheel and can create functional and beautiful things.  I likewise become adept at configuring myself from the spinning clay of my existence.  I create a personality, a home, friendships, children, ideas, business, poems, and pots. 

            If only the endeavor were not disfigured by confusion and turmoil.  Instead of a wise and loving person, I become an emasculated gorilla who clambers on rooftops, hammering his chest and roaring in anger at a world that fails to understand him.  I just want to be left in peace to make my pots, to be loved and accepted, but somehow people keep getting upset and angry.  If I become maudlin and self-pitying, that only makes things worse.  But I can’t help it.

            So I set out on the absurdly heroic task of re-ordering the world to fit my agenda.  I try to create a perfect situation, one in which I have everything I want and nothing I don’t want.   I dream of a life in which all imperfections are removed.  In so doing I find myself at odds with the very presence of things.

            I become conscious of the stubbornness of matter, the fickleness of mood, the ambiguity of perception, the wilfulness of thought and habit.  As a way of controlling them I split reality into two: the bit which is mine and the bit which is not.  My body stands in opposition not only to your body but to all other matter.  My feelings are the only ones that really count.  My version of events is always right.  The imperative of my craving wrestles with the imperative of yours.

            Each encounter with the world is complex and specific.  I do not experience matter, mood, perception and impulse as such, but as unique chaotic moments configured in unprecedented and unrepeatable ways.  This complex specificity becomes present because I name what I experience.  Do I ever perceive an dangerous arrangement of shapes and colors?  No.  There’s a snake in the pottery shed!

             Complex specificity is nowhere more evident than with human identity.  And it is all summed up in a name.  Whether someone calls out my name, or I see it on an envelope, it captures me as vividly as does a mirror-image or a photograph.  “Yes, that’s me,” I think.  Just as I would look across the street and say, “O!  There you are!” 

            When driven by confusion and turmoil, this sharp differentiation hardens even further the division between myself and the rest of the world.  Naming freezes my distinctiveness into an absolute aloneness.  I feel lonely, abandoned, trapped in my body.  No wonder I rage against the world.

            I need to stop.  I may be able to start thawing this isolation by focusing on the complexity that I am.  I may be able to ease the spasm of self-centeredness by realizing that I am not a fixed essence but an interactive cluster of processes.

              My senses are continuously triggered by the impact of colors, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and ideas  on my eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind.  The world never ceases to bombard me.  It flies towards this sensitive instrument from all directions.  As it strikes, it resonates inside me with a singular tone. Each experience hovers somewhere along a spectrum between ecstacy and agony.  The world’s impact provokes moods which I cannot help having.

             Despite its diversity and complexity, the world is always present in a way that makes sense.  Even when I don’t know what something is, I make sense of it by registering: “I don’t know what this is.”    When a person blind from birth is enabled to see, he does not open his eyes and suddenly behold the world of the sighted.  He beholds a bewildering array of colors and shapes, which he then learns to make sense of.  The world is so saturated with the meanings given to it, that they seem to inhere in the things themselves.  It seems as though a snake is lying in the pottery shed.  It seems as though these black squiggles on a white ground are saying something about the nature of perception. 

            The world is always an arena of possibilities.  If I am sitting, I face the possibilities of standing, walking or lying down.  If I am silent, I face the possibility of speech.  At every moment I am either inclining towards or engaged in an act:  a physical movement, an utterance, a thought.  Even when I intend not to act, I am still doing something: refraining. 

            Possibilities enable me to set a direction for my life, to have purposes to realize.  I focus my mind on what I am doing and follow it through with attention.  I configure the world and myself in relation to that world.  I attend to the details of the present, recollect the past and plan for the future.

             In these ways I become a conscious, embodied identity.  If I search for the isolated self, I discover a  medley of sensations, feelings, perceptions and intentions, working together like the crew of a boat, steered by the skipper of attention.   My body is like a vessel sailing across an ocean under the direction of these processes.  But when driven by the winds of confusion, I am liable to misread the charts and stars, to make errors of judgement and end up once more on the shoals of anguish.

The woman turns her gaze from the sail-flecked blue of the ocean and rests her eyes on the man.  He is aware of this attention and speaks to her.  She laughs now and squeezes his hand.  Then she falls quiet and a shadow of incomprehension glides across her face.  She withdraws her hand, at a loss where to put it.  The man reaches out but misjudges.  The woman seizes the man’s hand and interlocks his fingers with hers.

            A hush descends once more in the room as the guests take advantage of the couple’s oblivion to study their embrace.  As the man turns to the woman, the thin translucent skin around his eyes shines in the sunlight.

            The scarring is the only mark left from the accident.  By gripping the joystick in a desperate attempt to avert a collision with the creature, he was unable to shield his face against the shards of glass from the shattered cockpit window that buried themselves like arrows into his eyes. 

Dharma practice happens in the moment of impact with the world.  Whether during a kiss or just before the plane crashes, time slows to the point where we might speak of timelessness.  These are windows of unambiguous immediacy, freedom and clarity.  Though whether we treat them as such, or just let the confused turmoil of habit keep spinning - is another matter.

            Not only does this impact trigger sensory consciousness of the world, it triggers a mood.  The speed at which this occurs, combined with the habit of treating the world as either an ally or threat, leads to confusion about the origin of such feelings.  If we find a piece of music unpleasant, we tend to blame the jarring notes for our discomfort (even while a friend beside us enjoys it).  When there is no obvious reason for feeling gloomy, we cast about for someone or something to blame and tend to come up with a culprit (a sleepless night, you, new shoes).  The same is true with pleasure - even though we know that a kiss prolonged beyond a certain point turns into slobbery drool and a crick in the neck.

            Impact triggers not only consciousness and mood, but habitual patterns of perception and behaviour too.  Just as rainfall runs along the gutters and drains designed to catch it, so does my interaction with the world tend to follow the most familiar and least resistant course.  When I see the snake in the shed, everything I have ever known or feared about snakes configures my sense of the world at that moment.  And as I stand there frozen in terror, possible actions flash before me: do I rush for the door? tiptoe out slowly? scare it away?  kill it? 

            However irresistible these feelings, perceptions and impulses might seem, they are not the only options.  For in the immediacy of that experience lies the freedom to see more clearly.  I can stop, pay attention to the breath, feel my beating heart, and remember to be aware.  Then I may respond with care and intelligence to the viper’s presence.  Or realize it is just a coil of hosepipe.

The man and woman toast each other and begin a lunch of oysters, breast of duck, cheeses and gateaux with Medoc and Sauternes.  They move to the lounge and sink into a capacious settee to sip green Chartreuse with coffee.  In the elevator he carresses her breasts and buttocks as though they were rare fruits concealed in the precarious, foliated higher branches of a tree.

If I don’t let go of the fantasy at this point, I tend to replay it, with slight variations, until the moment of coition, then start again.  I collect pornographic loop-tapes in my brain. 

            I invest these icons of craving with absolute finality.  Be it sex, fame or wealth, they shine before me with an intoxicating allure unsullied by the contingencies and ambiguities of lived experience.  I do not consider  their implications.  Diapers and tantrums figure as much in my fantasies of sexual conquest as do journalists and taxes in my daydreams of fame and wealth. 

            Such craving is crystallised from the spinning turmoil of confusion.  In my metaphorical blindness, I reach out desperately for something to hold on to.  I yearn for anything that might assuage the sense of loss, anguish, isolation, aimlessness.  But craving is distorted and disturbed by the very confusion it seeks to dispel.  It exaggerates the desirability of what it longs to possess and the hatefulness of what it wants to be rid of.  Bewitched by its own projections, it elevates its goals into matters of supreme significance.  Under the spell of craving, my whole life hinges on the acquisition or banishment of something.  “If only...,” becomes the mantra of unconsummated desire.

           

                       

Enhaloed by flowers, baskets of fruit and lit by the glow of candles, the woman reclines on a velvet couch, wearing a long dress that floats to the floor.  Her hair cascades over her bare shoulders. A baby boy sits naked and upright in her arms, gazing at the cameras with innocence and authority.

A world of contingency, anguish and change can offer only simulacra of perfection.  When seduced by craving, I am convinced that if only I were to achieve this goal, all would be well.  While creating the illusion of a purposeful life, craving is the loss of direction.  It is the condition of being without a path.  It spins me round in circles, covering the same ground again and again, until it self-destructs.

That damp gray morning the man swooped low over the studio lot.  The crew were not ready to shoot and signalled him to wait.  He swung out over the ocean, banked hard against the pale sun and dived toward the hotel in the hope his wife would hear the screaming engine and wave to him from their room.  She didn’t, so he returned to the lot.

            The gorilla was now standing on top of the Empire State Building clutching the girl.  The man lined up the sights of his gun with the back of the creature’s head.  Then he switched off the engine and soared towards his target.   The beast unexpectedly turned its head and raged in defiance.  The plane shuddered and spun out of control as it was struck by the creature’s fist.    As the animal’s teeth closed around him, the man glimpsed another life in which he was blinded by the glass shards plunging inexorably towards his eyes that moment:  he returned to the hotel, ate oysters, drank wine, made love to his wife and she bore him a son.

This is an early draft (later rejected) of the chapter “Becoming” (p. 67 seq.) of  Buddhism without Beliefs.

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