(this article originally appeared on Elephant Journal)
I’m in a love-hate affair with words. Our first relationship crisis occurred when I was a teenager who suddenly realized that words could never express how I felt. I honestly feared that I could never completely share myself with anyone else as long as words had to do the trick. Teenaged style lonely and angry, I dramatically pasted onto my bedroom walls lyrics from Madonna’s song ‘bedtime story’: today is the last day/ that I’m using words/ they’ve gone out/ lost their meaning/ don’t function anymore.Strangely enough, this desire to let go of words all together pushed me into the most word-y job there is: writing. Inspired by writers who maybe couldn’t “get it all down”, but came remarkably close, I started using words as best as I could –and discovered a joy in that endeavor that to this day remains unequaled by anything else.
My connection to the dharma was crucial in transforming my relationship with words. The famous Zen saying that ‘words are like fingers pointing at the moon’ has been one of the most powerful instructions for both my writing and life. The finger in this metaphor that points at the moon implies that words give you a sense of direction, a notion where to look for the moon. But the finger that points is never the moon itself. It’s a simple metaphor, but like many simple things it doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Using words to point at the moon is a practice, very much like a meditation or running or guitar practice, requiring both discipline and surrender. In my case it tends to bring both great sadness and great freedom –often at the same time.
In my experience, the sadness comes from realizing that you will never “get it”. How could you ever really understand the person who you’ve started calling your mother halfway through her life? How could you ever transfer your dog snoozing in the morning sun onto a white piece of paper? How could you describe the love you feel for your best friend? It’s impossible. And these are relatively easy things compared to loss, trauma, birth and the meaning of life. The fact is that we are soaked in complete mystery. We don’t know where we came from and when we go when we die. We hang in a universe that is completely unknown to us. And just as the unspeakable cannot be told, this incomprehensible nature of the mystery called your life cannot be understood –at least not by the conceptual mind. That’s huge. Not only writers deal with this. It is not only a philosophical problem. Everyone at one point or another is confronted with situations where you realize you will never get it. When you wish you could express all that you feel, all that you wanted to say, all that you are filled with, but can’t.
The experience of sadness however, is always connected to the experience of space. They go together. We live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender, according to the poet John O’Donoghue. Our use of words embodies that predicament. We awake to our experience and try to share and express it as genuinely as possible, but ultimately we have to surrender into the experience itself. This surrendering creates a freefall kind of freedom. This freedom dawns when you realize that you actually don’t need fingers, or words, to know the moon. Although we try to understand the moon by placing it in the sky and launching rockets at it, that actually says nothing about the moon itself. We actually already know it in our most ordinary, inexplicable, non-verbal experience. By simply standing in the moonlight, by being in its presence, we know the moon. It is that incomprehensible, unspeakable knowing, which is too often pushed into the margins of mainstream culture. This kind of knowing without necessarily understanding takes great courage but in return offers tremendous freedom. It’s the space from which all things arise, constantly, fresh, unimaginable.
This kind of knowing takes courage. It takes courage to let go of words and all the insights, all the effort, all the tears shed and life lived that they carry. Just as sitting down on a cushion and being silent, it is a daring act to shift your weight onto the needle-point of now. It takes tremendous confidence to trust the space behind the words and our familiar world of concepts. But shifting our weight from the fingers to the moon –without losing a heartfelt connection to the fingers- is our practice. It is the doorway to both skillful, life-affirming communication and this wonderful, unexplainable, incomprehensible moment we call our life.
This article was published on Elephant Journal
I’m listening to Natalie Goldberg on a seven-hour audiobook called Thunder and Lightning while writing a book on writing. She is the only one I’m letting in. Her thick Yersey accent is slowing down my writing like melted taffy poured onto the tip of my pen. I lift it and gnaw on it. It gets stuck between my molars and seeps into my mind.
I just finished listening to a piece where she talks about being swallowed whole by a book. Everyone who loves to read knows that strange spell that a writer can put on you. Like an alien abduction they suck you into their space ship only to bring you back home where you look at your world through their eyes. I hear Natalie Goldberg’s voice reading the words out loud that I’m writing. It has been like this for weeks now. We are in relationship, and as with all relationships I’ve known, it confuses me.
It confuses me because it makes me feel groundless. Her honesty is too much to bear. Like dharma, all good truth, it breaks my heart a little. When she warns me at the very beginning of the audiobook that writing will not make me happy –that in fact nothing I do ever will- I know that I’ve met my teacher. I sigh and remember Chögyam Trungpa words: the bad news is the good news. Reluctantly I realize that once again I’ve gotten exactly what I need: a Buddhist writing teacher.
Natalie makes me feel as welcome and as uncomfortable as any good teacher does. In the open space of her small commentaries that follow each chapter, I can feel her uncertainty. Her vulnerability. In that relentless way that only a trained heart and mind can, she -sometimes clumsily, sometimes poetically- reveals her nakedness and it makes me uncomfortable. A long time student of Zen, I suspect Natalie knows that by dipping us in her uncertainty, while at the same time offering the doubtless container of practice, she is giving the most generous gift possible. A groundless determination. Isn’t that what love is? I bow to her and all teachers that are courageous and generous enough to reveal themselves. Have a lovely weekend.