Saturday, September 05, 2009

PRACTICE 4 - Learning to go with the grain

Quentin Crisp was a man of great wit and occasional clear perception. His well honed remarks cutting cut right through any cant or sentimentality around a subject, piercing the truth of the matter. That the rapier like speed of this might tend towards waspish insensitivity, was a failing. He wasn't always a pleasant man to be around. But we all can so easily get carried away with the cleverness of our wit at someone elses expense, that the hurt given to the object of it becomes overshadowed by the self- intoxicating delight of the retort. Humour without the barbs being extracted first, is something I've been very prone to in the past. On occasions something still pops out of my mouth that brings regret and shame about my speech in its wake. Someone recently asked me to explain what something was, and instead of giving them a clear explanation, I responded with a sarcastic parody. They asked for facts and what I gave them was a soured opinion. It highlighted that I still have a little jaundiced devil that likes to come out for an airing from time to time.

However, what brought dear Quentin to mind wasn't this, but a particular aphorism of his. It concerns how he came to terms with other peoples response to his effeminacy - "the time comes for everybody when he has to do deliberately what he used to do by mistake" - for Quentin he saw this as the only way to get 'the joke' of people laughing at or mocking his appearance, onto his 'own terms'. Though this obviously had a defensive advantage, it also developed a seemingly unshakable confidence in who he was. Quentin Crisp would never have been seen dead joining a gay support group, or any group for that matter, for him belonging to a group was an act of self betrayal. This is why he was, who he was, in some depth. For him if we were here for any purpose at all, it was to fully embody who we are, to pull back the blanket of self limitation and conformity to uncover what our individual 'style' looked, smelt and tasted like - "ask yourself, 'if there were no praise, and no blame, who would I be then?' Then you'll know who you are, and what your style is."

Knowing deeply who one is and being firmly confident in that, is a state not that easy to achieve. We can misperceive ourselves, lack clarity or honesty, or simply be mislead by what we think we are doing. Arrogance can often be mistaken for confidence, and passivity be mistaken for humility. Though Quentin Crisp habitually drifted towards arrogance and rarely countenanced humility, the origin of his confidence was undoubtedly born out of real pain, from regularly having to face adversity. We all tend to learn this way, to find out what sort of person we are through wrestling with our character and the circumstances bequeathed us, often from birth. If self-awareness is present this can be instructive, if it is absent we can often be blown unconsciously hither and thither by the eight worldly winds of praise & blame, gain & loss, fame & infamy and happiness & despair. We often waste our energy and initiative, seeking resolution to our internal suffering by attempting to alter ourselves or the external world to fit our preferences. This frequently sets us at odds with the natural grain of reality, or even ourselves, and we all know how difficult it is to plane against the grain of a piece of wood. We rarely try to do the opposite - to go with the grain. Perhaps that seems far too easy, it couldn't possibly work, could it? Isn't there a danger here of accepting the unacceptable? Yet lets not lose sight of the fact that to plane simultaneously with the grain of our own character and that of reality is a state of integration that's a precondition for Enlightenment. This isn't really about self-acceptance, but alignment with how things really are with ourselves and reality.

That state of Enlightenment can seem so lofty and unachievable, but all journeys begin somewhere. Quentin's little aphorism points towards a very practical starting point - to do 'deliberately' what we've previously done, perhaps not by mistake, but certainly more from personal instinct. You begin by noticing the things you do automatically without thinking, what you do from preference because its of innate unquestionable value to you, positive skillful habits that you may have always cultivated, perhaps even before becoming a Buddhist - the things that in essence we've always put personal faith in. Well, Quentin Crisp suggests these are what you should cultivate more consciously, to plane with the positive grain, the 'style' of ones own character, not against it. I do emphasize here that its the positive skillful things that should be done more 'deliberately', we shouldn't encourage unethical behaviour for instance. Such negative unskilful habits at best should be seen as 'flaws' in the wood. If done with kindness and skill, even such apparent unethical 'flaws' can be eventually be worn smooth and integrated by practice, bringing a uniquely individual grain and patterning to the final polished finish.

In the earlier decades of my life I expended far too much time and effort in trying to be something I either wanted to be, or thought I should be, but in either case I was not. But, to an extent, even these repeated efforts eventually taught me two things - what I was not - and how futile and painful such efforts were. Though one should develop and acquire positive personal behaviours, one has also to recognise somethings are so hard wired into how we are that changing them might take a lifetime or more, if ever. Would that be a good use of our energy, effort and time? Though its good to know where our weak areas are, there is greater benefit to be had from identifying and working from and with ones strengths. Otherwise its like constantly trying to stay upright and balanced on a wobbly bridge.

I know, for instance, not only how much I've benefited from kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) personally, but also how a natural sense of empathy,and wanting to be helpful, even if that's only in being a good listening ear, are all things I do quite instinctively. Lately I've been giving further reflection to how I might take this aspect of my spiritual practice deeper. I'm not clear, as yet what form this might take, but it will inevitable mean giving more of myself in someway. This would be like rubbing nourishing polish into wood, or applying varnish to deepen and bring out its inherent grain. Somehow I need to stretch myself, to test the muscles of this innate tendency in order to deliberately strengthen it. To get, not 'the joke', but myself more fully aligned with the reality of my own terms.

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