Friday, March 19, 2004


Rich wrote:

I've struggled with the idea of rebirth vs. annihilation (sp?), but just ignoring it doesn't help. Given that you have what I take to be a tantra practise, and considering that the usual preliminaries include an in-depth investigation of karma and rebirth, I wonder how you square the circle so that you put/get the most into/from your practise?

I'm not sure if what I wrote at lunch today, scribbling away in a little notebook dribbled with red curry, really addresses that. (I loved the way this question was put, by the way.) Maybe tomorrow. Anyway, this is what I wrote:

When I'm actually engaged in a practice, I just take it as true for the duration of the practice -- future lives don't really seem any more outlandish to me than annihilation, anymore, so that's not a difficult stretch. In general, like most conceptual problems, it's more troublesome outside of practice than inside it.

The fear of being swallowed up by eternity I take to be just a variation on fearing the emptiness of self, and I address it conceptually just by walking through the drill -- the thing I'm afraid will be annihilated, the blueeyed boy, my unique essence, was never there in the first place. For me to dread its annihilation is like a homeless person dreading a housebreaking. In fact I have nothing to lose. In the most profound and liberating sense. I have nothing to lose.

Well, like most conceptual remedies to emotional turbulence, this doesn't usually do a lot for me. It's a faint comfort to have an answer ready to trot out, and sometimes I sort of believe it, and that's about it.

Real changes of mental habit for me usually come from practice, and they usually come unexpectedly and without fanfare. I don't know, for example, when the question of my literary mortality stopped troubling me. There was a time when I coveted literary fame. I wanted to be one of those immortal figures I read about in the introductions to cheap Modern Library editions, the ones whose enduring vision did this and whose transmutation of experience did that -- profound and disturbing, shattering conventions, and galvanising... um... something -- I forget what. I ate it up, in my youth. Not that I had anything in particular to say, but by God I wanted to achieve eternal fame by saying it.

After writing a couple of uninteresting and (mercifully) unpublished novels I knew I would never be even a good writer of fiction, let alone an immortal one. I put aside the ambition, but doing so left an ache, a deep unhappiness. I fretted for years about whether I could have done it, if only I'd acted more writerly; by, say, drinking myself to death, or abandoning my family.

The last time I checked I could find no trace of that unhappiness. It's gone. Slipped quietly out the back door. I remember it, but it's very difficult to recover or reconstruct it -- it rested on foundations that have been unbuilt through practice -- unbuilt at least to the point that they'll no longer support that particular castle of unhappiness. The relationship between the blueeyed boy and anything he might have written strikes me as fanciful, literary immortality seems a ludicrous idea, and the notion that I would attain happiness by achieving it appears pathologically self-deceiving.

But not because I thought my way there. I sat my way there. I don't think those things, I know them.

Sort of veered off course there. I actually do have some things to say in answer to Rich's question, about how I conceptualize karma and rebirth. Later.

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