Friday, August 23, 2013

When the Penny Drops

The Unexamined Lifestyle, The Yellow Caterpillar, This Isn't About My Daughter, The Prognosticator, The Wizard. These are the titles of unfinished stories and essays I've started in the past month. You can't easily tell what these pieces are about from their titles, but hopefully once you read them, aha!

          But no one will read them, so no aha. Unless you write your own story with one of those titles. I would love to be the one to say aha. Do it. I'm lonely and I want our thoughts to touch. I mean this.

          There's no lack of ideas, on my part, just a lack of faith. What is too personal quickly becomes confessional, trivial, ridiculous, and unworthy. But what is impersonal is even worse than unworthy, it's worthless.
What is in the narrator's heart, really? Although she allows us a glimpse into her deepest spiritual self when she first hears Azan and in the final sentences, her true intentions and beliefs are hidden from us for most of the piece. The narrator, as the piece stands now, is more or less impenetrable and non-forthcoming about her feelings til the end.
          These thoughts were shared with me by a sincere and painstaking editor regarding a piece of mine that is being considered for publication in an international journal that I love to read.
That's not to say she needs to take us on an emotional roller-coaster about her marriage, etc. Rather I think if we can see more of her insights and genuine ambivalence and spiritual longing and questioning throughout--culminating in that wonderful moment when the penny drops, so to will be a richer, more interesting piece.
         Lately, I've wanted to make something with writing that is simultaneously true and optimistic, rather than habitual self-justifications, the relentless coming-back-to-where-we-start wisdom, like a cat who chases its own tail. But I've been afraid of getting stuck in a new attitude—the more hopeful, optimistic one—because it may well become false as soon as I try it on. There are no guarantees, right?

          The piece that needs changing is about the physical experience of spiritual longing (literally azan, the call to prayer) and at the same time it's about the nagging doubt, because spiritual fulfillment is always elusive. I wrote the piece a couple of years ago, but I continue to be faithful to that cycle of epiphany and disappointment. Even though I long ago recognized there is no room for growth or fulfillment in that closed circle.

          I'm reading Krishnamurti for the first time. He's highly quotable and I see in his point of view a brilliant justification for my natural tendency to doubt and hesitate.
“The very desire to be certain, to be secure, is the beginning of bondage. It's only when the mind is not caught in the net of certainty, and is not seeking certainty, that it is in a state of discovery.” 
“Observation without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence.” 
And my fave,
"Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem."
          The journal, however, having no room for my lingering doubts, offers a more forceful prodding to awaken my own need for clarity. It seems simple, so why does it feel so hard?

          We must continue to make choices, especially where there is doubt, because uncertainty is everywhere, or we risk paralysis. We can't know in advance whether we have made the right choices, only that we must act. If we don't act—when we procrastinate or pass because we are afraid of being wrong, and call this kind of stagnation The Wisdom of Uncertainty—are we depriving ourselves of the chance to grow? There will always be doubt, if we're honest and intellectually open-minded, but doubt can be as tight a bondage as certainty.

          What if the journey and not the arrival is what matters, if longing—rather than doubt, fulfillment, or certainty—is the point? What if even the thirst for intimacy through writing, which is a transmutation of what is private to what is shared, expresses this deep longing?

          There is an idea in Sufism that spiritual longing can be regarded as an end in itself. We can look at this longing as a spiritual state of consciousness that is to be observed, honored and nurtured, not escaped or cured. In other words, the pain of unfulfilled longing isn't the same as doubting the existence of the divine—which means I no longer have to characterize myself as a doubter. For some of us, living authentically means ceasing to resist our yearning for something we can never apprehend, that nevertheless exists here and now, but always beyond our comprehension.

          The penny dropping is not the divine union that the narrator had hoped for. The penny dropping is a free fall: the unreasonable, fully conscious surrender to the anguish of divine longing. Am I a Sufi if I don't pray, but I accept that the way I know the divine is by my unfulfilled longing for it? This is how I understand the Sufi poet Rumi's words,

"Don't look for water, be thirsty."

          The cat still seems to be chasing its tail, but maybe it doesn't always have to be an absurd image of futility. The Ouroboros, the serpent who swallows its tail, is an ancient Greco-Roman symbol representing the cycle of infinite return and renewal. The Chrysopoeia Ouroboros of Cleopatra the Alchemist, an image from second-century Alexandria, even contains the unapologetic Sufi words one is the all