Part Three - Hand Crafted
Sometimes, I imagine the sense of one’s Self as being formed a bit like knitting. Bright woolly threads are carefully fingered and looped together over needles, until finally they form a finished garment. It’s handmade, and only our first attempt, so it rarely fits exactly. It’s worn, out of fondness, we know it’s not perfect. Over the years the wool ages, becoming dull and matted. Moths make holes that are difficult to repair. By then, the garment and us are inseparable, we’d feel reluctant to throw it away and start again. We are the knitter who has become what we were knitting.
This act of knitting, wearing and repairing this garment that we call the Self, creates for us a comfortable and familiar straight-jacket. All the more inescapable because everyone knows the sense of one’s Self is a fact. It can be backed up by empirical evidence; historical documents, photographs, even monuments, that support a life story vividly recollected. A life story is a bit like an old style movie, held on huge reels and kept in our memory canisters. Given electricity, light and a projector, our past experiences come back to life. If you stop a movie and examine it, you can plainly see it is just individual moments,a second of experience forever frozen on film. A film's sense of movement and continuity is easily seen through, its just a trick we pull on the eye and brain. seeing The sense of one's Self, and its life story, as composed of separate, fragments of experience with no continuous story attached, is not so easily seen through. Our experience of Self, is similar to individual loose links made of silver, that are welded together into a chain by the connections our memory makes. In the dying away of our body heat at death those welded together links melt. The embodiment of experience becomes a powdery ash, dispersed across a lawn by in the sudden gusts of a forgetful breeze.
It is the Self that demands something should survive from our lives, otherwise what was it all in aid of? What are we here for if not to be remembered? Both the experience and its interpreter will disappear, so it’s vital some sort of entente cordiale, is arrived at concerning this question. It provides us with a cogent reason for the existence, if not need, for history, why a sense of it remains so important to mankind. History books document individual events and the lives embroiled in them, mainly those that are considered significant to the struggles and progress of human civilisation. Each era interprets the facts of these stories differently. Tales of heroic adventurers,daring deeds and pioneering enterprise in the creation of a vast regal empire, that are valued by one generation, become regretful tales of moral cowardice, covert racism, and exploitation of economic power to another. Aside from the differing values used to select and interpret the facts, history paints an expansive panoramic picture, designing a frame of consistency within which to frame our human endeavours. Though the scale may be smaller, our individual histories have a similar volition behind them - the desire for significance, purpose and of course, continuity. The personal histories we tell ourselves, are likewise open to differing interpretation and emphasis. The meaning we bring to them is changeable and in no way as fixed as we'd like to believe.
I lived in London for nine years, the last few of them unsettled and dominated by internal conflicts. My job, the creativity of my performance work, my social life, all appeared to be on or at the point of stagnating. My entire memory of those years became coloured by recollections of painful persistent moods. During this period I floundered in the backwash from my own melancholy. I can see from my current perspective, that this was largely of my own making. Ten years later, with a few years of Buddhist practice under my belt, I returned to London. I had a plan to revisit all the places where I had lived and worked, before I flew off to Spain for a four month long Ordination Course. I had thought the visit would revive distressing incidents long buried by my psyche. Instead, looking at the sites of my old bed-sits, I was struck by how uninhabited the places were by recollections. The houses and streets where I’d spent my London years felt somehow neutral. I’d wanted to bury some demons, but failed to find any. Only then did I realise how I'd made the existence of demons an incontrovertible fact. Those concluding years were distorted by veins of darkly mordant emotion that poisoned my ability to recollect in a fair, balanced way. Yes, not all of my years there were happy, but I’d been incredibly fortunate in the opportunities and the people I’d met and worked with. In spite of the redundancies and periods of recession, I’d managed to keep in work. I’d experienced and done huge amounts culturally and creatively. I could now see it was a period equally as blessed with angels, as it was with demons. From the perspective of ten years later, it didn’t seem that bad at all.
Personal memories seem then to be dependent on the conditions that formed them; the particular tendencies and thought patterns present at the time. Memories are only as reliable as the feelings that shaped and coloured them. All historical facts require interpretation, regardless of whether it documents the sweep of human evolution, or the passing of a single life from birth to death. Perceptions are evaluated on the basis of our memories, and we respond according to the stories we’ve embroidered around them. The sense of one’s Self, is experience welded together by memories. If the memories are unreliable, then it’s likely that the sense of one’s Self will be too.
The Self is a versatile and very accomplished storyteller – it remembers the adventure stories, the fairy stories, the horror stories, the love stories, the myths and legends composed around your experience and those from your own family’s history. Sometimes these tales are literally learnt at one’s mother’s knee. As a child I remember we had an old biscuit tin, it was kept in the heavy wooden sideboard in our front room. Though rather battered, the tin still had Christmas snow scenes discernible on its sides. Inside it were family photos in a wide range of sizes and styles. I often rifled through it. My parents, grandparents, sister and myself, featured strongly, in a variety of filial combinations. My Mother would sometimes bring out the box, and look through the photographs with me. For her, each one contained a family story, tales she was eager to repeat and inculcate.
Some of the stories embarrassingly were about me. There was a photograph taken when I was four, refusing to smile for a wedding photographer, even though he’d bribed me with money and ,what was worse, given me a boiled sweet. This was followed by the statement “You always were such a stubborn child, you’d never cooperate or do what you didn’t want to !” Others told me about the mild eccentricities of some of my relatives. There was my Grandma and Granddad Tunnicliffe, captured walking along the promenades and putting greens of Lytham St Annes. They went there on holiday every year for literally decades, because “It was the only place your Grandad liked to go too,” he’d say “We like it, don’t we love? It suits us, so why go anywhere else?”
Apart from my immediate family, there were photos of relatives I’d never met, mostly because they were dead. Such as Granddad Lumb, very much the patriarch, had sired eight children and expired his last breath, aged fifty six, due to blood pressure problems, many years before I was born. “These days he’d never have died so young, or so suddenly” my Mum would say in tones of regret. George Tunnicliffe, the elder brother of my maternal grandfather, who, so my mother thought, “was the spitting image of me”. There was my Father’s Aunt Florence, who had quite an individual fashion style out of kilter with post war conventions and rationing. She'd make all her own cloths. This would cause some consternation at family weddings, “is Auntie Florence coming?” they’d whisper, dreading to think what outlandish thing she’d turn up in. Whatever it was, was usually extravagant, and involved a quirky use of colour. I rather liked the sound of her, I sensed an exuberant kindred spirit.
There were others I later identified with, for very different reasons. Cousin Lawrence for instance, part of the hill-farming wing of my father’s family. He was single, euphemistically referred to as ‘a confirmed bachelor’, clever, educated, but fussy and womanish in his manner. Considered an oddity, and a family figure of perplexed amusement. He’d lived most of his adult life alone, so far as we knew, up there on the edge of the pennine moors. With the dawning of my own sexual orientation, I sensed Cousin Lawrence might have felt doubly isolated. How he may have dealt with his experience in a less permissive era, is an unspoken story, that will sadly never be recounted now. I soaked up all these tales, it seemed important for me to remember them, because they gave me the sense of how my Self fitted into the continuity of my families history.
There were some people in those black and white photographs, in the background or just to one side and often out of focus, that my mother seemed not to recognise. She’d say “Your Auntie Margaret might know who that is” and move on quickly to a photograph of someone she could talk more effusively about. Auntie Margaret is the unofficial archivist of the family lineage, and knows how some distant relatives fit into our family tree. If she didn’t remember them, how would I find out who they were? Where does a personality and a life story go to? It seems a sad and quite obvious thing to state, that with every generation that passes away, personal memories pass away too. The sense of someone and their place in a families history diminishes, then is lost, never to be regained.
Someone in the future might find a photograph of me, with ‘Vidyavajra, 2007, Cambridge’ written on the back. They’d have a face, a strange unfamiliar name (quite misleading in terms of a family), a year, and a place. Who I was, how I was as a person, as someone to spend time with, what I was doing in Cambridge, would be matters for deduction, or guesswork. In trying to find answers to these questions, they’d do no better than an archaeologist does; trying to deduce a personality from shards of pottery and scraps of textile. It’s as if the sense of one’s Self is not only fragile, but, overtime, is also biodegradable.
Most people, so far as history is concerned, have unremarkable and therefore undocumented lives. Over millennia, billions and billions of lives have passed in this manner. Whilst we are alive, perhaps we still hold out a hope to find our own small place in History. Most of us will not. Our culture’s current obsession with gaining celebrity at any cost, would appear to be fueled by the desire to ensure a small footnote in history. A desperate lunge towards eternal validation. In the creation of a history for the sense of one’s Self, we are crying out to an indifferent world, for our experience to matter, for our lives to be of some significance. Every day we live and breath, we rail against the dying of our distinctive and clearly distinguishable Self.
When I worked at the Cambridge City Crematorium, I heard bereaved families and friends eulogizing on the virtues of their recently deceased relatives. Though these would often list their achievements in life, what they did seemed less important in comparison to how they were as people. What was most treasured and worthy of note was the emotional character and presence of the deceased. Kindness, an ability to love and be loved,a sense of fun, good humour and playfulness of character, cannot be captured in a snapshot or on film, drawn on paper or carved in stone. This sense of a Self is clasped fondly to the hearts and minds of those who knew them, and when they too die, so do these memories. Whatever we see as notable or significant about someone, will eventually crumble and turn to dust on a shelf.
So far, what I've described, is how the sense of one’s Self pretends to ignore it's own impermanence. Turning our gaze away from the characteristic marks of conditioned existence, distorts how it is to be human within it. We are bound by our human nature - to Nature, and cannot exempt ourselves from its stipulations. This thing called the sense of one’s Self might wrestle with our conditional nature, but it's a Pyrrhic struggle. At every onset of sickness, from a cold to a coronary, the encroaching frailties of old age, are read as oracles of our own mortality. Fear arises as the truth of this situation is made abundantly clear. Consequently,there’s an urgent impulse propelling our desire for self-fulfillment and self-realisation - to insure a small grain of immortality before our time runs out.
The Self, as we are seeing time and time again, is primarily conditioned by circumstances, choices and consequences. The Self has also formed a lifetime's bond, a marriage of convenience with the mind and the senses. This relationship is a complicated mix of functional and fictional strands, an entangled, knotted and frayed ball of memories, desires and self-justifications. Though it has been revealing to explore the Self, I wouldn’t really know where to start if someone asked me to disentangle these threads. Perhaps this is its final, and best, means of defense; presenting such a perplexing mess of motivations, no one in their right mind would tackle them head on. In essence the Self is a fabrication, though a fabrication with foundations dug deeply into the earth, fed by the nutrient rich streams of experience and consciousness. It would be a very difficult plant to uproot.
It's behaviour is similar to bindweed. Gardeners have struggled for centuries with bindweed. Left to its own devices it runs rampant through a garden, creating a tough resilient mat of growth, weaving itself over, round and through any plant it encounters. It is tenacious and persistent, if you rip it up, the tiniest strand of root left in the soil will re-locate itself, and grow rapidly with renewed vigour. The only thing that kills it, is to remove all existing growth, then cover the entire ground affected with the thickest of plastic sheeting, impervious to light. Some gardeners suggest leaving this cover on for several months, even a year. This cuts out all sunlight and basically starves to death any remaining roots or strands. By the way, this doesn’t always work.
Of course this would be a pretty drastic strategy to apply to the sense of one’s Self’. So, if extermination is out of the question, when Dogen said ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope.’, what was he meaning us to do? What is the best way to approach the tangled issue of the Self? When faced with its intractable character, how you approach ‘Binding the Self’ becomes a very genuine koan. Dogen’s early monastic training was based strongly around reflection on koans. Those baffling statements with little in the way of logical premises or outcomes, problems whose solution will not be found within their own terms of reference. Though the Soto tradition, which Dogen co-founded, is primarily focused on meditation, koans remain a significant practice for monks with a degree of spiritual maturity. Dogen’s discourses, particularly in ‘The Shobogenzo’, can be read as poetical explorations of the koan form. Another way you could approach the Self, and indeed Dogen’s phrase ‘binding one’s Self without a rope’, is to ponder and reflect on it as you would a koan.