For a number of years now I have been a student of Buddhism. Despite its ancient practice as a religion, I don’t turn to Buddhism for religious experience. Actually, Buddhism can meld compatibly with nearly any religious practice or with a denial of all. What I have found in it is a fascinating and highly beneficial form of psychology.
Western psychology is so negative, so bent of naming dysfunction: neurotic, psychotic, obsessive-compulsive, paranoid, narcissistic . . . and on and on. There is a category or two for every one of us, and they are anything but affirming. I have been intimidated by that highly principled name calling all my life.
In Buddhist teaching, however, we have skillful behavior and unskillful behavior, and Buddhism teaches skill. All begins with a deep acceptance, first of ourselves, then of those we love, then on to accepting, caring about those we struggle with and finally to caring about all the world. But all begins with and always returns to self acceptance. And a significant part of self-acceptance is being alive in the moment, every moment, whether filled with suffering or joy.
How much of my life is lived in obliviousness, my mind set on some future goal? Or tangled in anger or regret about the past? I am learning, slowly, to wake up to, to rejoice in the morning, each and every morning. To see it, to smell it. To taste the food I eat. To feel the keys beneath my fingers as I type.
Do I stay in every moment? Of course not. The best I seem to be able to do is to dip into my own life, to feel it, to live it many times a day . . . and then leave it behind again while I return once more to the future or the past.
In Thorton Wilder’s classic Our Town, Emily asks the stage manager after she has returned from death to witness her twelfth birthday party, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” And he acknowledges that we don’t, except for “saints and poets, maybe.” He is, I strongly suspect, giving too much credit to saints and poets.
But I’m convinced that writing is one of the ways some of us have of paying attention, of “realizing life.” That’s a curious assertion, since in writing, at least in writing fiction, we seem to leave the real world behind for a manufactured one. And yet that created world comes out of the deepest substance of our psyches, out of our most finely tuned noticing.
If our stories bring us closer to the truth of our own lives, they will bring our readers closer to theirs.
We live our lives as an endless search, but, truth be told, it is a search with no goal. Nothing is waiting out there at the end of the road, nothing except death, that is. What we have, what we always have, is the air in our lungs, the bird chirping outside the window, the garbage truck rumbling and banging down the street.
I close my eyes and breathe . . . this breath, now this one, now this. I open my eyes and select a word . . . then this one and this and this.
Every, every minute sacred.