In the hours before my shift tonight, Saturday, I think of the suffering of humanity and all creatures, the deep secretive pain we all feel not knowing enlightenment and the refuge of the Buddha's teachings. I feel strange about the duties of work now, as if I am only adding to the illusion of escape, through wine, through promoting the whole restaurant ritual. How many martinis and manhattans and old fashionedes will I have to make? How much bubbly will I pour? I will offer dessert to every table that dines, unless otherwise instructed. And all I will do cordially and in a good-natured way.
Suffering, I know, because I too have suffered, and blindly sought to escape it, looking at my own behavior, not constantly poor or cruel or evil to others, but enough to feel shame and realize I hurt people close to me who were far more enlightened and serious than I. And I know what it's like, to go home, feeling the great angst, not knowing what else to do, but pour a glass of wine and feel the medicinal numbing, almost sleepy, as I lean back on the couch, remote in hand, nodding, until I wake up and try to go to bed.
Saturday Night is a shift of suffering anyway for those who have to work them. There is tonight the six top just before kitchen closing. That's life. That's business. "Do you want to not be busy," the boss would ask, to make his point firm. Stress is involved. I get in early and diligently, very diligently, set up.
So I write this minor meditation on it, as if to present the issue, clearly, coming out of my mind, this time, rather than bottled up within. "I'll have a splash more," a regular fellow, a very decent guy who visits the wine bar of The Bistrot of the Dying Gaul, says when he gets rolling. Of course his buddy comes, a man in his prime with lots of energy, serving him a complicated business to be endured. "Well, my friend, you do not need a splash," I might like to say tonight. For you, I, and all poor creatures are dearly suffering in this existence, ignorant of the dharma truths.
The night is busy, but it goes by. Mercifully, no bar crowd expecting entertainment. My coworker stresses. (I've begun to hint to him that meditation would be helpful, as it helps keep the calm in the air-traffic controller stress situations common in busy restaurants.) He barks orders. "I need bread on 62," he half shouts, wide eyed, loud like a bluejay. The little walkie talkie behind the bar rings its beeping electric alarm, an excited frantic tone, and he goes off running downstairs through the main dining room to the kitchen and back with whatever is ready. I would have let the busser make the trip in the hectic pitched battle hours. Enough to do here as it is.
As I student, as a young writer trying to find my voice, I was aware of the problem of suffering. I sought alternative to the deep joy of mediation. I tried the escapes of pleasure, and years went down a hole, even as I showed friendship and compassion to my fellow beings. I thought a mutual escape of reality seemed a solution, as if it was a political movement, as if it would bind people on a common ground. I went on long bike rides, stoically propping up my mood and physique. There was always suffering there, the unsatisfactory quality, dukkha, from which no one can escape, for whom efforts to escape will only generate more suffering.
But it is uncommon becoming a Buddhist here. I was an idiot and passed up several good opportunities at college, special chances that I let pass by, missing the boat. I didn't know how to go about becoming one, and still don't know what to do, except begin an attempt at my own little practice. On the other hand there were the books my father passed down to me, from his Theosophical tradition, and I read when I could, and yes, such things made sense. But then it was always, back to work, back to the shift, and then back to the modest pleasures of close friends--you bring a bottle of good wine, they cook dinner, you catch up. Always, the problem of a career, and years ticking by. Life in a city--you drink wine, keep up to date somewhat. The city's greatest paper, repository of culture and art and all the news that's fit to print, has a wine column, a beautiful subject. "Buy in, buy in," it all says. You don't want to look odd. And your own foolishness, lack of direction, career obtuseness left that your best option, knowing how to open a wine bottle and talk about it, to read people, to entertain, to get the job done.
So what do you do? The monastery? If you were honest, if you weren't stuck with too many possessions already from trying to enjoy some of life, yes, you would. You would disdain attachments as low things, and move on.
I get home, spoon up some quinoa, nothing on television, wash face, brush teeth, pour glass of water, tuck myself in in the April cold, put a melatonin tablet under my tongue. I wake at first light, Easter morning, with a day free ahead of me, but not feeling I know what to do with it, and rather feeling darkly about a lot of things, as if anything I could do at this point in life, mid life, late mid life, wouldn't help anyway.
I do a small rubber made tub of dishes, as tea brews. It's Easter morning, and I will attempt to meditate.
Who is happy? What is happiness? What if I had caught that train early on and became a Buddhist scholar, taught, had a respectable job, a house somewhere, family life… Or was it better, for the purposes of understanding, to live a suffering life with that strange beauty of enlightenment within grasp, but difficult to attain, until finally comprehending it as fully as one could from within.
The Buddha is right to explore suffering, to experience it first hand, freed from illusion. The problem is that this philosophical look at suffering, this experience of it, causes a change in one's look at things, a change one might compare to the atomic bomb explosion, such that suddenly one sees all things differently, entire great cities not mattering anymore than an anthill, all human endeavors seen in new light, separating the things that matter from the things that do not matter in an entirely new way. The things that conventionally matter suddenly shrink and blow away in importance, the bulk of human society amounting to sand pipers trotting hurriedly around on a beach as waves come up and then recede. The things that were taken as utterly important, like the kind small act of a stranger, are suddenly the atomic solar light, far surpassing the strict codified system of manners and social rules and social position and estimations of personal importance in their relevance to the good of the world, the shy and the often silent upholding the species and its footing on the planet.
But who wouldn't initially want to back away in pain at such realizations, seeing all the good one has done in the form of small acts, not wishing anything in return, suddenly more important than what all the world's "great leaders" manage, ants too, but not with the knowledge that they are ants.
"My Life had stood--a loaded Gun
In corners--Till a Day
The Owner passed--identified
And carried Me Away."
You, like I, have felt the unsatisfactory quality of conversations, particularly over the phone, talk about stuff, plans, happenings… You want to say, 'no, that is just stuff of the ego; we're not really interested in that, so let's not talk about it.' Talk about stuff can be amusing, but it falls short, distracts. Perhaps that's another reason to enjoy Emily Dickinson's poem here, its sense of great resolution. And that resolution, almost like a mantra, seems to pull the reader into a place of resolution too, a place of contentment, everything, even relationships, in the right form, proper, well-mannered. And this speaks of course of the initial state of not being content, of running things of the past through the mind and wondering why things turned out so, as perhaps she, being "the spinster," might have felt closely. And again, that sense that seems to run through her poems, of feeling that townspeople curiosity, "what's up with Emily, does she like that Colonel guy?" (which we still feel compelled to ponder--"maybe she's gay"), juxtaposed with her own deep sense of things that basically pays little mind to that stuff, having an entirely different view of time, thus being present enough, egoless enough, to see and compose a poem on its own terms.
Does that sense of time account for the enigmatic ending of her poem, born with the power to kill, but not the power to die… What is the sense of "He must longer live"? Is it desirable, to live longer, if you must? Is she speaking of living in a great omniscient present, thus no power to die, the freedom of being passively in perfect order with the Universe? That the narrator has now few worries, because of the epiphany, in one reading of it. Without the power to die, she has found eternity's presence. Still, it is an odd meeting of the normal material time we live in and the eternal, puzzling.
The palpable satisfaction of suddenly finding no regrets, of a great order to life, lasts through the end of the poem. She has found a greater purpose than would have come with other relationships. It was all easy in the end, being chosen, carried away, no need for any effort but to be what you are. What a comfort to the reader beating his or her self up for something that didn't happen.
Suffering does lead us somewhere. It's a fact we live under till we are carried away by a realization...