Russian Satori

December 25, 2010

I am in Michigan now, and it is snowing lightly as I near the end of War and Peace.  The much-reproduced graphic, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, tells the story of the military defeat.  Is that the real story?  Or is it the twin spiritual journeys of Prince Andrei and Pierre?  When I return to NYC, I will go to this exhibit at the Japan Society – it’s all about what Andrei and Pierre discovered.

Andrei and Pierre have an important conversation, a little debate, on the meaning of life while they ride on a river ferry early on in the story.  They didn’t know they were being ferried back and forth across the Styx.  Andrei is destined to remain on the far side, achieving enlightenment through war and death.  First, he is wounded at Austerlitz (1804) and encounters the infinite sky as he lies wounded.  In 1812, back in the military, waiting in the reserves during the Battle of Borodino while his troops are killed off by stray artillery shots, he confronts death in the form of a spinning, hissing shell that seems almost like a toy top, until it explodes.  He realizes the pointlessness of everything, and the true meaning of a few things, and dies of his wounds among his family.

He is barefoot as the weather is still mild.  He looks down at his big fat toes wiggling and he feels happy, complete.  This scene is echoed, perhaps purposely, by Thomas Pynchon when he brings Tyrone Slothrop, a character with some similarities to Pierre, to a state of calm peace as he regards his bare feet wiggling in the mud, in The Zone, as he wanders across the debris of WWII in Germany near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pierre survives the invasion and burning of Moscow, has a near-death experience with a firing squad, and is kept prisoner as the French begin to retreat.  A soldier bars his passage as he tries to visit some prisoners – he sits down and thinks for hours, then breaks out in uproarious laughter as he regards the dark, starry night.  They are keeping him prisoner!  Him, and his immortal soul!  They think they have locked up in a shed something that is infinite, for he is the universe, and it is in him!  Satori, the zen enlightenment,  comes at odd times.


The Unbearable Pain of Mindfulness

April 6, 2008


The goal of enlightenment, mindfulness, being-here-now, is much sought after these days…perhaps always. Many associate it with zen or other varieties of Buddhism, and eastern religion. It is, I think, generally discussed as a state that partakes of bliss – certainly a cessation of earthly pain. Odd, then, that it is so hard to attain; that our minds and beings seem to actively frustrate our attainment of the state. Perhaps we don’t want enlightenment?

I am beginning to suspect that mindfulness is so difficult to achieve not only because it is difficult per se, but because we actively flee from it, just as some flee from love that they claim they want. Like love, mindfulness can bring pain, terrific pain?

I am lying on my bed – I have no obligations – I am free to do what I want. I need think of nothing – do nothing. My free time, free to attend to the moment, appreciate the here and now…My mind is racing like a formula one car engine, but not in gear, a high pitch scream – – “What shall I do?” Most times, I would dive into a book, do some chores, clean, watch a movie, kill time surfing the Net, read the paper, but at this moment, I don’t feel drawn to any of that. Just sit and attend, observe yourself observing the universe…and what happens? A high pitched whine as of an engine running at full-tilt without load…will it explode?

To simply spend such times attending to the what-is is so painful, so disorienting, so explosive in its energy, the tendency is to rush to fill the time with something more trivial that will get the mind in gear and discharge its energy safely. Perhaps that is the real difficulty in mindfulness. Not that we cannot stop the incessant chatter of our minds no matter how much we want to, say we want to, but that we do not want to!

The alternative is to be left naked, still, simply sitting and observing the nature of what-is at the moment. The light filtering in from the window. The complexity and simplicity of the tree branches. The calming geometry of my room. The rebus of my history that is the clutter of knick knacks around me. The then and the now…The unfathomable indifference of everything to the trivial thing that is me. The weight of the universe pressing down on a single point on my head where my mind perceives it and comprehends it…without a reciprocating care or concern. It’s too much to bear!! Where is that crossword puzzle!!


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