A Church Bell That Recalls Salvation

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Sometimes, newborn children only live as long as mayflies, 24 hours. Or the 1-in-161,856 odds of dying by lightning strike converge upon an unsuspecting, kind woman. Elsewhere, a white man shoots a grazing mother deer through the brain so the blood dribbles and pools on her limp, outstretched tongue. The man does it for pleasure; sport. Are the lightning strikes also someone’s sport? Leonard Cohen’s manager robs him blind while he’s meditating on a mountaintop at 71 years old. A praying mantis eats the skull of her male partner during sex. The male keeps pumping while she chomps.

Who’s in charge here, then? Who, what, presides over all this?

A disarming moment of blues delivers a piercing note as you pass by a busker in the street, a suspended bronze twang that grips your soul by its collar, rubs its nose in the melancholy you carefully ignore, in the visceral trenches that underlie mythopoeic livelihood. The insubstantial vapor of narrative dissipates, your life stands stark naked before you, for only that bronze moment, warmed by a forgotten flame:

“…the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.”

(Walt Whitman)

As you bathe in the unnamed ecstasy, vapors return, narratives resume. In the familiar shroud, you forget that substance is only, as Wittgenstein said of the world, all that is the case.

When I ask who’s in charge here, I’m not really looking for a name. Nor a single principle, really, like the scientists after a unified theory of everything. When I ask who’s in charge, I’m really asking how to best choreograph a dance in response to all this. I want to know where to find the steps. I’m asking how to navigate the given world. It’s like when asked if I believe in a higher power, or what my purpose in life is: I’d like to furrow my eyebrows, think really hard while backpedaling, and explode into a full body dance that involves running & jumping. Afterward, sweating and panting, I’d stare softly into my interlocutor’s eyes, conveying the earnestness of my response. Not because I’m a dancer; because it rejects the logic of the question, like responding “blue” when asked the time. I’m coming to think no answer worth giving can exist upon a narrative arc.

You can keep your coherence, your tidy logic, your analytic philosophy. They’re no good here, this is koan territory. All that is the case is too vast, amorphous, too undirected an energy to fall under a single story’s jurisdiction. Life is too astonishing to reconcile rapture with children being gored by toppling trees in a minor windstorm that might’ve been otherwise unremarkable (this happened today).

We may be stranded in fiction. Consciousness may just be a rationalization of forces we do not understand. Like Dr. Bernheim’s umbrella experiments that so enthralled Freud and planted the seeds of Western psychotherapy:

A patient is hypnotized and told while entranced that, upon a particular signal, he is to walk over to the umbrella folded in the corner of the room and open it. After being woken from hypnosis, casual conversation between patient and therapist ensues. Mid-sentence, therapist snaps his fingers. Patient stands up, walks to the umbrella, opens it, and holds it overhead. Therapist asks why he’s just opened an umbrella indoors. Responses from patients at this point were rational, such as: “I just wanted to make sure it was working correctly”, or “I wanted to see to whom it belonged”. No patient recalled the suggestion given during hypnosis; no patient suspected the motive was unconscious. This really happened.

The patient believes his rationalized reasons just as we believe the stories playing out in our theaters of consciousness. We know the hypnotized man is deceiving himself, but do we know it of ourselves?

For me, this is writing. A return to attention. A church bell that recalls salvation. This is meditation, presence to nothing but what is the case. Breath, body. Also senseless death, and ecstasy. Thoughts are not the case. They are the coursing, insubstantial vapors. Life is now or never.