By Kellie Schorr
On a planet spinning through space with a natural cycle of shadow and light, growth and death, somehow, impossibly, so many of us are stuck. It’s a circumstance that greets every generation.
Children and young people exhibit stress, fear and frustration that they are stranded on this planet with plastic in the ocean, mercury in the fish and filth in the air. They aren’t falling for primary color construction paper rainbows promising a long life of hope and strawberries. They know something’s wrong.
College students and working adults stand motionless trying to pick a future career in a global arena that reinvents itself every few years. The debt piles up, the prospect of security slips away and they just can’t seem to move. Parents agonize every decision in the crucible of social media, peer judgement, and conflicting experts, wondering if this school or that toy or this food or that habit is okay. Nothing is easy. Nothing feels right. Everyone is watching.
Medical bills keep our elders working too long. Abuse keeps people silent too long. Fear keeps us from travel and hurt keeps us from healing.
We’re. All. Just. Stuck.
Along comes your friendly neighborhood Buddhist who looks the situation over and with a quick bow says, “It’s okay. You have no self. You aren’t stuck, cause you’re nothing. It’s all an illusion.”
“Oh thanks,” you reply. “I feel so much … wait. What?”
Get Over Your (No) Self
If there was ever a concept ripe for misunderstanding, poor communicating, spiritual bypassing and downright nihilism it the Buddhist idea of “no-self” or emptiness. Telling someone their experiences are all based on illusion is about as effective and repulsive as the old bypass, “It’s all in your head.”
How can you bring motion, energy and joy back to your world without falling into the quicksand of “no-self” or clinging to external projections that weigh you down? Realize the idea of emptiness can help you know what you are not (unchanging, permanent, stuck).
Emptiness means we are not saddled with a fixed, indelible core. We are like a river, changing every minute as new water rushes through. You can take a picture of a river, and it will appear the same every time but it is an illusion. The river in the photo ceased to be before the camera’s shutter closed. That does not mean it is not a river, or the river doesn’t exist.
It doesn’t mean the river can’t drown you or feed your crops. It doesn’t mean big rocks in it will disappear if the river dries up. It simply means that thing we call “river” is in a constant state of flux, empty of one meaning or one way of being. So it is with us. It is not our nature to be permanent. It is also not our nature to be stuck.
What Do You Remember?
Connie was a thriving commercial artist in her mid-twenties when her life began to derail. At 26 she was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and spent the rest of her days in and out of institutions. About three years before she died a friend of her family asked if I would visit her because she had spiritual questions. I ended up visiting her every other week until she passed away.
Sometimes she was clear and lucid; she could remember my name and talk about her drawings and her experiences. Other times she was in a state clinicians call “pleasantly confused” which could range from not knowing my name or hers, to telling me wild stories about being Murphy Brown’s secretary or the night she danced with Frank Sinatra. Early on in our visits, during a particularly clear-minded day, she grabbed my arm with a claw-like grip.
“I don’t always know who you are or where I am,” she said. “But no matter what day it is or how much medicine I take there are three things I always remember.”
“What are they?” I asked, fascinated by her urgency as she rushed to tell me this before her mind fogged back over.
“I remember I’m a woman, I remember that I am gay, and I remember that I am an artist.”
She was right about that. No matter how trapped she was by the wind and waves of confusion, all I had to do was bring up one of those things and our conversation would move forward with ease. In a mind that experienced moments of literal emptiness those hand-rails kept her from despair and from being stuck. She lived, in a very real way, the moment-to-moment presence of no-self, but what helped her was the sparse river rocks of identity she was able to recall.
As you become aware of immobility in your life, relationships, or creativity, a really helpful question to ask yourself is, “what do I remember?”
When you’re staring at a blank page or you’ve found 3,000 house chores to do because you can’t stand the thought of looking at a blank page, ask yourself why you started this project/book/story. What do you remember? Do you remember how you wanted readers to be uplifted? Do you remember your passion for telling a story about power and truth? Do you remember why your character was digging in the garden when she found that magic amulet? The more you remember, the faster the words will come back.
When you’re overwhelmed by a world that seems ugly, unfair and not likely to offer you anything other than a hard time, what do you remember? Do you remember a Nikki Giovanni poem that made you feel alive? Do you remember that song that played on the car radio and had you singing all the way home? Do you remember the Academy Award speeches you gave in the bathroom mirror holding up a bottle of shampoo? Do you remember what you can do? Do you remember there are others willing to help you with what you can’t do?
In meditation and introspection, the idea of emptiness can be an empowering notion that we are not trapped or welded to any one fate or fortune. Don’t let someone use it to downplay your concerns or pretend your pain is imaginary. Instead, embrace it and try to remember what you’re doing in this very moment, and where it can take you.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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