Yesterday I looked for a long time at photographs of Beijing, which as I write these words is a stew of floating, drifting sludge. Some of the photographs are arresting in their beauty; if one didn’t know the people in them were being slowly strangled to death one would assume it was a misty damp day – until, of course, the eye focuses on the masks. And the universally hunched posture of the city’s inhabitants as they hurry through oddly darkened boulevards. Their eyes, I thought, as I looked at the photos. Their lungs.
And, of course, as Beijing is under siege from its own arsenal of thoughtlessly planned rapid development and obscene coal production, the recently besieged city of Paris is holding a summit on what to do about an environment that will eventually look like Beijing the world over in the not too distant future.
When I read about how grotesque and selfish the human race is, from individual choices (I drive a mini-van; I have three children in an overcrowded world) to societal patterns (mass “farming,” mass slaughter of animals), I cannot help but terrifyingly regret the births and ominous future of my own children. When a mother sees a gun pointed at her child, her first impulse is to throw her body on top of his; our environmental collapse creates in me the same impulse, but the threat is so simultaneously nebulous, immediate, and distant that my only real reaction is paralysis.
And so it is with our world. A universal state of paralysis, fear, rage, and violence. I admit that I have actually stopped following domestic news, believing that if I don’t hear about the poll numbers surrounding the hideous idiot Donald Trump then maybe they don’t exist, or they’ll go away. So when the latest racist vitriol spilled out from this nation’s shores it was from the perspective of Germany (ironic!) that I heard it first. Donald Trump has an international voice. Who knew we could devolve to such a point that a badly painted, vapid and foolish little man could capture a nation’s attention? The more fearful we become, apparently, the more stupid we become, and the more closed.
In Buddhism I have learned that this is the patterning of the human mind: fear generates narrowness; courage generates an openness that can be as wide as an (unpolluted) sky. It makes sense of course that what occurs on the micro-level (the individual consciousness) would become a mirror to the macro, but how heartwrenching that we seem, after all the wisdom teachings from every corner of the world, to not have evolved much after all.
Last Sunday my teacher Richard Freeman gave a typically lovely dharma talk on a Hindu creation story. It involves benevolent gods, lead by Varuna, and their shadows, or inverse mirrors, the demons, or asuras. The story, as all good stories do, winds and twists in strange ways that also make sense from some sort of inner logic. Except in this story there is a troubling, unsolvable mystery: the foundation of creation, it turns out, rests on the back of a turtle. And that turtle, of course, is held up by another turtle, who in turn is held up by another, and so on, until one realizes that the frustrating trick of infinite regression has just appeared, and has actually dominated the myth from the beginning.
What really haunted me in Richard’s telling of the tale is that the turtle not only holds the world on his back; he holds the sacred central axis, the sushumna nadi, as well. Is the central axis of the spirit, of the mind, of the body, an infinite regress as well? When I asked him this, he smiled and nodded and then said, “Well, or infinite progress.” He seemed optimistic about it. I felt depressed: illusion. Again, illusion. But then Richard is about half a million years older than I am, at least.
But where is the progress? In my own practice, I don’t see it. Well, a glimmer. I am more kind. Sometimes. Not to myself. Never to myself (fat, lazy, bad mother, lacking lover, selfish: the inner monologue never stops its boring drone). But certainly to others. I allow my heart to be broken now. Every day my heart is broken, cracked open like the robin’s egg in that gorgeous poem of childhood by James Merrill. Every day I am cracked clean through. Especially when I see photos of Beijing and hear that a man named Donald Trump has the nation’s ear. Especially when I look at animals, and birds taking flight. Especially when I think of my husband, from whom I am half estranged and half tied for life, diving today in the Caribbean sea. Especially when I think of my small little world, and that it is, like the big big world, resting on the back of a turtle who either is or is not self supporting.
Especially when I think… we will never know.