ATTORNEY: Doctor, how many of your autopsies have you performed on dead people?
WITNESS: All of them… The live ones put up too much of a fight.
In the West, we are taught that we can change ourselves by an act of will. If only we will hard enough, long enough, we will bring about the desired change in ourselves. But is that true?
In America, at least, there is a billion dollar self-help industry that seems largely based on the premise we can, unlike Sisyphus, someday roll the stone of change all the way to the top of the mountain without it slipping away from us — without our constant, eternal backsliding. For isn’t that what willing ourselves to change most often, most frequently, results in? In backsliding? In two weeks of willful effort followed by the stone slipping from us to roll back down the mountain?
There are exceptions. There are times willing ourselves to change really does result in permanent change. But in my experience, it is usually a petty change that can be brought about that way.
Is there some way, besides willing, of bringing about change in ourselves?
From a conversation at The Coffee Shop:
VINCE: “Thank the Lord I’m a Buddhist!”
PAUL: “What do you look for in Buddhism?”
VINCE: “I’m into Zen. Some people don’t think that’s Buddhism, but I’m into koans. You know, ‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping?'”
PAUL: “Yeah, I’ve heard….”
VINCE: “They’re short. That’s what I like about them. Some religions are too long. You don’t get much out of those religions because they’re too long.”
PAUL: “Too long? I’m not following….”
VINCE: “You fall asleep. I’m devout. Every night, I study the koans. I get a six pack. Lie in my crib. Read koans. I used to be a Christian and read the Bible, but I’d fall asleep or I’d get wasted in the middle of a verse — it’s too long.”
VINCE: (Impatiently) “So you can’t expect to be enlightened if you fall asleep in the middle of the verses, man.”
Paula called from Utah one night. She wanted to visit the Springs for a couple weeks and could she stay on my couch?
A few days later, she showed up with one piece of luggage and a dozen plastic sunflowers. The sunflowers, she said, were something she always lived with. Then she distributed them around the room her couch was in.
She was easy to get along with. She laughed at my jokes, complained about nothing in life, and we traded off chores: One night, she cooked Buffalo wings and I washed the dishes; the next night, I cooked a casserole and she washed the dishes. It went on like that.
We talked a lot. She told me of one summer when her older brother urgently fetched her into the yard of their father’s house to show her how thunder will roll from the mountain where the Ute woman died. Another evening, she asked me to read to her from my book about whales. And, on three or four evenings, we invited mutual friends over to party with us.
For two weeks, she slept on my couch and told me she’d feel better if I kissed her goodnight. It struck me that she kissed so softly. She liked waking up to classical music on the radio.
Before she left, she told me in a wondering voice, how over the past dozen days, she had witnessed three of the Twelve Apostles, reincarnated on earth for the Second Coming, pass through my home as my guests, and that she was wondering just who I was.
I asked her then in my gentlest voice whether she knew she might be ill. And she replied she always thought it might be a possibility, and that back in Utah, she saw a therapist — an old Indian woman who was both a therapist and a spiritual teacher, too.
“Are you taking any medication”, I asked. She replied she didn’t believe meds could be effective in her case, given what she might have, but she was taking some vitamins at the direction of her therapist.
A day or two later, she moved on, but not without leaving me her dozen sunflowers for some reason that she never explained.
People sometimes seem to be living out roles written by hands long ago and far away from them now.
“The other day, I was looking at a George Washington quarter. I could tell that George’s most famous words must have been, ‘In God we trust’. And that made me right proud of him for a moment, but then I noticed he didn’t seem to be wearing any clothes. So I gotta ask: What kind of man trusts in God so much he doesn’t wear any clothes? I’m not entirely sure now Old George was getting all his coffee beans ground. Know what I mean?”
— Overheard in a bar
Some time ago, I went to a poetry reading. About 20 participants showed up. Unfortunately, it became apparent most of the poets were unprepared to read or recite their poems. Some of the poems were rather good, too. And I don’t think laziness entirely explains why so many poets were unprepared.
It seems most of us do not think of poetry as a performing art. A written art, perhaps. But not something we compose — like we might compose a bit of music — to be performed. And perhaps that explains why so few poets showed up that night having first practiced reciting their poetry.
It is in the night that our thoughts can become our hunters by pursuing us.