There’s something about music in the morning that makes me weep.
We’re so vulnerable in that first hour after waking. The day’s arms and armor are still scattered around the room. It takes time to put it all on. That’s why morning is my favorite time to write and listen. I roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee and sit with the blank page, letting the moment speak for itself.
I’m not yet myself—the acquired self—but I’m also more me than I am at any other hour of the day. Listening to Camel (a vastly underrated band), the flutes and guitar soar through my pre-dawn mindscape. The notes create me, and I turn to tears running along the ridges of my face.
They’re funny aren’t they? Tears. Did you know that happy tears and sad tears actually have a different chemical composition? That’s because different neurotransmitters are involved, so different molecules make their way into the solution depending on the situation. Music in the morning always brings me beautiful tears, that aching beauty. The beauty of misty landscapes and sunrise on a lonely peak.
Religion tries to steal that longing because it causes suffering and insubordination, but longing is part of life, it’s the cognitive equivalent of gravity. I don’t think longing is the problem, it’s longing that’s chained to something in particular that causes suffering. A groundless longing, a quiet echo in the valley, that’s the heart of being human. Reflection.
Sometimes longing lets us soar through the fields and ridges; sometimes it drags us into the pit or leaves us stranded among the stars. This can’t be helped, not if we’re to make something of our time here. It can be celebrated.
We can either keep reading and writing the stories we’ve learned, stop writing and find a kind of dead peace in the blank page, or steal words from the void and write the life that was given to us at birth.
I’ve had a lifelong habit of being the me that others want me to be. It’s the curse of the empath. You see how someone sees you, so you start to see yourself that way too. But everyone sees us in their own way, so—by the end of the day—you go to bed wondering who you are.
In the morning, after the ritualized coughing and grogginess that comes with having a body that was lying inert for eight hours, there’s no one but me. Everyone else is asleep, even the sun and the trees haven’t had the chance to change my mood. The tragedy is that I can’t keep this me, no matter how much I might try.
It’s like the day’s events leave footprints. What was once a pristine snowfield gradually fills with all kinds of tracks and traces. We’re all so shocked by the wrinkles that appear on our faces over time, but we don’t pay much attention to the wrinkles in our hearts and minds.
There’s a hua tou in Zen that goes, “What’s my Original Face?” The longer version is, “What was your face before your mother and father were born?”
It’s asking us about who we are before we experience something and make up stories about it, it’s the nature side of the nature-nurture dance routine. Who was I before this “I” was born, this situational self? It’s like who we are on those rare mornings when there’s nothing leftover from the night before, and nothing pressing on us from the day ahead.
Situations change. As long as I grasp onto certain situations and push away others, I’m never going to be myself. I’m going to cycle through one mask after another until I die having never known the one who lived. Situations aren’t alive, so the situational me isn’t either. My eyes are open, I see some words, and a tower of thoughts and feelings arise from that situation. I close my eyes, I see darkness, that tower collapses and new one is built.
Zen asks us to stop building things, to stop building these situational selves; to see that trackless traceless field. To see the night sky full of stars but unburdened by constellations. As the stars drift, constellations come and go. When we stop creating imaginary boundaries, then things don’t come and go, they just move around.
This is the natural self, the uncarved block, an unaltered mind.
Each day is a soft struggle between the natural self and the situational self. They have different needs and views. If those agendas oppose each other, then we’re filled with cognitive dissonance. The armies of teachers in the old books all tell me to give up my situational self, to let go of my thoughts and feelings, let go of the things I see and hear, let go of my self-concepts. They say that if we can do that, we’ll find a Buddha.
The trick is to greet every situation without a motive, without trying to get something changeless from changing circumstances. To practice at letting go of the things that can be taken from us. Because they will be taken from us. One day, all of these situational selves will even disappear.
Buddhism asks us to not wait for that to happen, but to let it happen right now.
That isn’t easy, and it takes more than a little courage and dedication to turn away from what we see to see the seer. But if I want this early morning me to not be burned away by the coming sunrise, then that’s what needs to be done. Until then, we live at the mercy of the seasons and the uncaring tides.
As long as this heart find somewhere to land, it runs the risk of having the rug ripped from under it. A groundless heart, an open heart that beats without an agenda, that longs for something without a name or form—what situation could rattle it?
All I have to do is turn around and look.
Anshi (安狮) is the pen name for a certain Chan Buddhist. He calls his introspective, autobiographical writing, “Dharma Noir.” All names are changed to protect the privacy of those involved. If you know who Anshi is, please refrain from telling anyone.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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