Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Beauty and Egolessness

Understanding the three principles of Buddhism--that impermanence is a quality that pervades our lives, that suffering and all its lesser cousins are part of the human condition, and that we should all strive for liberating moments of egolessness--has been helpful through the beautiful summer the prairies have decided to grace us with.  It will be 30 degrees today in Regina, so it doesn't feel that summer and its embracing delights have left yet. The days have been still, as if time also wanted to slow down. It's often windy days that I find difficult because it's as if I can see time fleeing.

But being able to name something doesn't mean you can simply pull it on like a T-shirt.  So last Thursday I had one of those bittersweet, aching moments, so full of beauty and deep sadness.  Knowing that my sadness came from my struggle with impermanence didn't shift my feelings much.  It's not my mortality I'm worried about.  Like many people who have contemplated suicide, I know that there are worse things than dying.  It's time.  I can't remember when I had enough time to do what I wanted to do.  Certainly not as an undergraduate or a graduate student.  Certainly not once I began to teach.  Even now, with my diminished energy, there's not enough time. There are so many things I want to do, poems to write and quilts to make. Or am I splitting hairs here?  Give me enough time and then I'll be okay with dying?  Maybe.  Who makes good bargains with death, anyway?

Usually I can talk myself out of counterproductive feelings.  Self-pity?  I think about what I'm grateful for, starting with the room where I'm sitting, which undoubtedly has cats in it.  Then I circle out from there  Bill.  Veronica.  My wonderful friends. Then larger:  I love my neighbourhood.  (I'll give Saskatchewan a miss right now, given the way 'vaccine hesitancy' has filled the hospitals and shouldered aside the other kinds of care people need.)  I have an immensely privileged life in Canada.  It's hard to pity yourself when you feel grateful.  Or if I'm angry at someone or something but can do nothing about it, I smile.  I just paste a smile on my face.  Pretty soon this feels silly, so I look around for things that make me smile and usually find them. Anger quickly abates. 

But dealing with the complex emotions around beauty and impermanence eludes me.  So I decided to be disciplined and simply go for a walk.  For a long block, I only found more things to reinforce this bittersweet and unmanageable sadness.  Trees that have become flames of yellow.  Cotoneasters that turn a bronzy red.  Even just the air, hanging out inside time.  Soon I came to the brick wall at the front of a yard on Leopold Crescent where some children have painted rocks to thank essential workers and to make a wonderful collection of faces with googly eyes and goofy smiles. My mind went off like a beagle chasing...whatever it is beagles chase. Squirrels?  Cats?  I remembered the early COVID walks that were so liberating.  I thought of creative parents--one of whom seemed to have collected the most interesting little things that could become part of a rock face and who happened to have a supply of colourful paint that would withstand a Regina spring...and winter..and spring again.  And happy kids home from school with something fun and useful to do--kids with a purpose and some very bright colours of paint.  And glue.  Kids and glue.

Then I began noticing how people's gardens were faring during this frostless September--how it brought out nameless colours.  Then the canopy of golden elms further along Leopold Crescent.  And the light:  just enough leaves have fallen and grasses dried that everything remaining is cast into clearer light.  It's as if autumn makes leaves and grass individuals, not just part of a tribe. Somehow this simplifying change brings a clearer mind.

I suddenly realized that Harvard professor Elaine Scarry and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron saw something similar. Aesthetics met Buddhism.  In a book that started the last twenty years of interest in beauty and the aesthetics of daily life, Scarry says this:  "The structure of perceiving beauty appears to have a two-part scaffolding:  first, one's attention is involuntarily given to the beautiful person or thing; then, this quality of heightened attention is voluntarily extended out to other persons or things.  It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level" (Beauty and Being Just, 81).  Chodron says this:  "Egolessness is the same thing as basic goodness or buddha nnature, our unconditional being.  It's what we always have, and never really lose....[It] is like regaining eyesight after having been blind or regaining hearing after having been deaf....Egolessness is a state of mind that has complete confidence in the sacredness of the world.  It is unconditional well-being, unconditional joy that includes all the different qualities of our experience" (When Things Fall Apart 61).  

Mindfulness has just been made part of aesthetics.  And maybe I am coming to understand why Ken Wilson walks. ;)  Because walking is the perfect pace for unfolding those small daily beauties that might give us "complete confidence in the sacredness of the world," all while body meets mind. So this will be my new prescription:  when that feeling overtakes me, I'll simply go for a walk.  I don't have to do anything besides be in the world.

That night, Bill and I were out after dinner, watering the garden in the still evening.  The light was a dusky gold, the clouds nearly amber, the trees golden and bronze.  It was like being inside a golden orb or censer.  Inside a Russian icon or a Mediaeval alterpiece. Inside a Rembrandt, perhaps his "The Philosopher in Meditation," held by the Louvre.  I have always loved the Escher-like staircase in this painting, where we can see both the steps and their undersides. It is as if Rembrandt created a visual  metaphor for the paradoxes and complexities of thought and feeling that the philosopher seeks to understand and maybe reconcile.

Rembrandt's philosopher

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