Tuesday, 17 February 2009

EVERYDAY ZEN




“A voice said to him – Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these. But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever-increasing respect.”
Thoreau, Walden

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve played the silver ball. From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all... Oh no, wait. Wrong movie...

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve had a lust for adventure. I’ve wanted to go and find the unusual experiences, the peak experiences. To ‘suck all the marrow out of life’ to quote Thoreau.

I think it’s a fairly universal desire for the young man – the quest to find the boundaries, and hopefully to pass beyond them, into new territory. To take some risks and taste the extremes.

This is one reason why young men drive too fast, drink too much, experiment with drugs, travel the world with a backpack and one change of pants, and tend to be a real pain in the arse at parties. (NB many cultures have initiatory rituals to deal with these drives and initiate young men into manhood. I think we could do with some of them in our culture too).

So here I sit, in the middle of the night on a mountain far from my hometown, in an alien culture, in an alien structure, warming myself on wood from trees planted by someone else’s great grandparents. (I only use the dead wood – no trees were harmed during the making of this movie).

This desire to get further and further out has never really left me. I have always hunted out the fringes. The highs and the lows. I have shared the pavement with the homeless and I have shared dinners with the aristocracy. I experimented with drugs until it was no longer an experiment, and then I experimented with other ways of surfing the psyche, and diving deep into its oceans – that’s how I landed at Buddhism. I’m still experimenting with that. I guess this drive is one of the reasons I love to make music. Art is a never-ending experiment. No one seems to know what art even is...

The most surprising feature of the fringe for me has been the speed with which it becomes incredibly ordinary. Peak experience cannot be maintained, by its very nature. The sublime is a fleeting thing that can be glimpsed, but cannot be lived in.

There is a book by Jack Kornfield (which I haven’t read but it has a catchy title) called ‘First the Ecstasy, then the Laundry’. So much of life is laundry.

My life on the mountain has become an everyday experience for me. It has become the laundry.

I am older now and I have come to expect this. The trick for me, and I guess for all of us, is how to live with that in peace and contentment. What that actually means is, when your ‘self’ catches up with you, what then? Run off and attempt to escape into another adventure, or sit with it and... and... and???

I can’t remember where, but I remember reading years ago that all of the problems of the human race stem from our inability to sit happily in a chair for any length of time.

Samsara, which is the Buddhist term for unenlightened existence, literally means something like ‘wandering on’. Nirvana on the other hand, has its root in a term meaning ‘to put out’ or ‘to extinguish’. The flames of desire are extinguished once and for all. Sounds kind of boring though, eh?

Well, not really. That’s the problem with trying to use words to describe something beyond language. But the discussion on mystic wisdom will have to wait for another time.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that here, on this mountain, I am getting into the everydayness of my life. I have emptied out all the unnecessary alienated drudgery (as far as is possible right now). What is left is fetching water, gathering wood, maintaining the yurt, waiting for the rain to stop, cooking food, waiting for the kettle to boil, etc, etc.

This kind of drudgery seems acceptable to me. It feels real. In fact most of the time it doesn’t feel like drudgery at all. Even though I may have times when I want to escape from it, I know that here is a place I can genuinely try to practice ‘everyday Zen’. In the complex life of contemporary Western society I spend a lot of time thinking ‘What the f***? This is mad!’ and looking for a way out. I think it is possible to practice everyday Zen in that kind of a life too, but not for me.

Here I feel that life is sane. Me as an organism, me as a person, and my lifestyle are pretty much in balance. The pain seems reasonable, the pleasure seems reasonable. The risks and the comforts all make some kind of sense. I watch the flow of my mental states and the flow of my emotions and all of it is grounded in something grounded. Know what I mean?

Of course in writing this down I am being far more clear than all this really is, and I am painting a picture of purity and simplicity that isn’t totally there, but nevertheless, there is some truth here. There is something of value here.

I remember reading, I think it was Gary Snyder (well-known Buddhist, early environmentalist, and Beat poet) talking about when he was living in a Zen monastery in Japan. They had to fetch the water from the well and do various other chores and he came up with a way to get the water into the kitchen without having to carry it, and a number of other labour-saving ideas (I am paraphrasing madly here but the vibe is true to the text). When he shared these ideas with the monks they chuckled and said ‘You haven’t got what this life is about at all, have you’.

We can keep creating bigger, better, faster, easier ways of doing life forever. Where does it end? When is enough? And what is the point? What are we trying to achieve? I mean really, what??? Nobody seems to ask these questions, and until we do, we will not get a grip on the semi-conscious attitudes, beliefs and values that are leading us to environmental, and therefore personal, ruin.

To want to improve one’s life is natural. The question is, what will bring a genuine improvement? When I think this through, I always end up concluding that spiritual practice is the only sane answer. Working with our mental states is the only way to achieve anything of genuine value, once the basics of taking care of ourselves are put into action. A vacuum cleaner that does the carpets while you’re at work then gives you a blow job on your return might well be the next must-have appliance, but will it really make life really any better than it was before, once the novelty has worn off? When is enough?

6 comments:

Steve Cole said...

Thanks for another wonderful and thought provoking blog. I wasn't quite sure why I have wanted to take a step back in time, so to speak, and live a 'simple' life style. It was not to have an easy life. Living in the middle of a field in a yurt and producing all my own food from the land could never be easy.
But would I be happy? Not all of the time. But what I realised from reading your blogs is that I am looking for contentment and, more importantly, myself. I used to work in marketing and I have seen first hand how the commercial monster of western society has thought for us or told us how to think. Being an individual is not an option there.

I had better stop before I get on my soapbox, I’ll end up rambling on for pages and pages.

Thanks again for your wonderful writings. Until the next time I hope life treats you well.
Steve.

Padma said...

Hey Steve

Thanks for your comment - and for the encouragement! Happy yurting! (BTW yes it can definitely be hard and you crave the comforts of modern life sometimes, but all in all, this is BY FAR the best place I have ever lived).

Enjoy

Padma

jason palmer said...

Colin Wilson ( who wrote the outsider book ) has been studying peak experiences, and the quest for it, since the 50s.

Perhaps you could visit him, at his farm in cornwall, and film it, that would be super cool :)

jason palmer said...

Nice blog, susan blackmore has done research, she specialises in the brain, and reckons we have no free will, that our mind takes things in and creates and illusion of free will, so our environment is highly important.

Glad to see you getting in tune with nature, you will think people strange 'talking into mobile phones' and 'rushing everywhere' when you pop into society.

Wretha said...

Looking at the land in your videos, your land looks similar to my land, but mine is quite a bit drier, I am on a mountain side in the high desert of far west Texas USA. I love what you have done! My husband and I (along with our little chihuahua) live totally off grid, we built our cabin ourselves, we generate our own electricity with solar panels and use deep cycle batteries. We too have learned as we go, it's been great fun. We have been here a little over a year now.

I enjoy reading about other people who are also living off grid and away from "normal" society. It's amazing what you can do when you just do it! :)

I love your music, the song you have on the youtube video on this post just went right through me, I hope that makes sense. I wasn't expecting that to happen, but it was wonderful.

I can't wait to read the rest of your blog and read your continuing adventures. :)

Thanks for sharing your life with the rest of us. I'm linking my blog to your blog.

Wretha

Padma said...

Thanks Jason - I will check out Colin Wilson - not sure I'll be heading over to his farm though!

And Wretha - thanks for your comment - I will check out your blog. The music is from a track called 'Waiting for Dolma' (which is available on iTunes - plug plug ;-) ). It's about waiting for the arrival of Green Tara - a mythic goddess-type being from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

BTW, for people who are interested, there are two versions on itunes: the album version and the EP version. The EP version is the full version of the track and has some extracts from the Dhammapada in Catalan on it. Worth a listen, for sheer weirdness value!