The circle of life: to learn, to teach, to pass on, our guide tells us. He takes my hand and draws a circle with his forefinger and says, In Thailand we believe in magic. We learned of a man who saw darkness and death; he witnessed the suffering in the world and sought to go beyond it in to find enlightenment. Realizing that material delights were fleeting and temporary, Buddha found himself beneath a tree of knowledge and remained there, in study, until he could make sense of the world around him. Once he’d found this truth, he made it his life’s work to share it with others because he knew there would come a time when he would leave his body for another place, nirvana, the paradise of which all faiths speak. Our guide takes us around Bangkok to visit the Buddha in his various representations, seated in deep meditation, standing, reclining.
We could talk about the 24-carat priceless monument to a faith rooted in knowledge. We could talk about the grandeur of a small emerald figure seated upon a jeweled throne, or the music the chimes make when you run your fingers across a row of dull metal, or the architecture that borrows from India, China and Cambodia, but in light of where my head’s been, I’ve given a lot of thought to life, how we live it and what we do with it before we pass on.
Time is my spectre. Ticking clocks, the movement of days into weeks and years frightens me. There was a time when I’d wake from a deep sleep to pace my apartment because there would come a day when I wouldn’t pace. When my feet wouldn’t feel the ground beneath, rather my body would become part of the earth from which I’d come, and I still can’t wrap my head around it. When it comes to death I have no peace or calm about it, and I know when that time comes I will want to hold on as long as I could rather than fall gracefully into the dark. For me, there is no beauty in that last breath shuddering out–there is only the uncertainty which follows. People have their faith, they cling to it and I get it, but I can’t imagine a binary afterlife where I ascend to a home of gleaming white or fall into a column of fire. I just don’t buy it.
Perhaps this is why I’m so fixated on what I do in this life. And while I admire the story of Buddha and his relentless pursuit of truth, I don’t believe enlightenment comes through a succession of time. We’re constantly learning and then the hope is that we teach and then relearn and then do it all over again. For me, the magic has always been a photo once blurred coming into focus. The magic is crawling your way out of the dark and knowing that there will always be dark, but there will always, always be light. And this truth is comforting amidst a temporary life that ends (at least for me) with the gravest discomfort. Of a sky or ground burial, a body burned, or a body carried down a body of water.
Joan Didion says, we tell stories to live, and I believe this in my heart but I also believe we secretly tell stories so that we can leave our mark. We tell stories to be remembered. Don’t you forget about me, and like that. I think about this and I think about how I don’t want to have children and I wonder if my passing will hurt, if people will remember me in some capacity. And this selfishness (let’s call a spade a spade, okay?) coupled with a compulsion to find truth, to know everything one could possible know in a life, is sometimes the thing that gets me out of bed.
I once knew a person who said she had an aversion to anything dark. She won’t watch sad or disturbing movies, she reads stories that always deliver that neat, idyllic end, and she presses her eyes shut to the world around her. Sure, she might read The Skimm to get the Cliff’s Notes version of the world delivered in a tone of wit, stories of which are digestible and tweetable, but she refuses to know, to see. At first I thought this was an anomaly until I started to discover that many people live this way. They rationalize the need for reality television (as an example) to escape the world. They need some levity in their day. But then they shut their eyes to the world, and if they don’t know the darkness of it, and they surrounded themselves only in false light, what is it that they’re escaping? Are they fleeing the hazy awareness that the world is sometimes bad and people do evil things?
Why is it that people run from the dark? It’s been my experience that despair, loss, heartbreak, rage–this is all temporary. There is much to be learned from settling into the dark, breathing through it to get to the other side. That side is true light because you’ve once felt the absence of it. Someone asked me the other day how I felt about not drinking for the rest of my life. Admittedly, that’s still a scary thought, one with which I occasionally wrestle. And I said that I try not to think in those terms–the vagueness of an indeterminable amount of years I’ll be here, rather I think I just won’t drink today. But more importantly, what I’ve gained from not drinking is so much greater than the fact that I’ve lost the ability to do it.
It’s about the maths, I say. Because it was only the fact that I spent so many years under anesthesia and some years without that I know the difference of a life lived within the two. And I know that I can’t go back. Why would I? Yet I only truly understood that by having traveled through a dark country and building a temporary house there.
I think all of this is part of knowledge, this circle of life as Buddhists would have it. And this is the kind of thing I like to share with others, but the struggle is many don’t want to hear it. They want the tra la la pretty shiny life. They want the periphery, the ah, yes, I’ve heard of ISIS, but I’m fuzzy on the details.
Sometimes I feel punished for what I write and my need to share it. I do. And this has consumed much of my vacation, regardless of all the fun I’m having and all the beauty I see.
I woke this morning and said, out loud, what the fuck is so wrong about the dark?