Groundlessness

Yesterday was Friday. I don't have class on Friday, and I have already turned in a rough draft of my master's thesis, so I was looking forward to a day of reading and relaxation. Down time. These things are good for you, I hear. At about 2pm I managed to put on clothes and started walking to the nearest coffee shop, carrying my sketchbook and some pencils. Walking through Pico Union towards Koreatown, I passed rundown liquor stores and bright, colorful murals. It was hot and sunny, and I listened to headphones. Nothing was wrong, but I felt a familiar feeling-- a kind of dull, persistent ache, although ache is too strong of a word. More like "gnawing." A feeling that something is just not quite right. But what? Nothing tangible. Just existence as a whole.


Buddhists have a word for this feeling. It is the first noble truth, the understanding that existence is inevitably unsatisfactory. Of course, this feeling is not a uniquely Buddhist concept. The French called it ennui. Carrie Bradshow on Sex and the City calls it "restlessness." Pema Chodron calls it "groundlessness." Michael Cunningham calls it "the hours."

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, is one of my favorite books. It is about three generations of unhappy women: Virginia Woolf, in the days leading up to her suicide, a young housewife reading Virginia Woolf's book Mrs. Dalloway, and a contemporary, successful power lesbian named Clarissa, throwing a party for her dying friend. None of these are happy stories, and we all know how Virginia Woolf's life ends. But it is a beautiful book (and movie) about the everyday, mundane, existential restlessness of being alive.

Clarissa, played by Meryl Streep in the movie version, insists on throwing a party for her dying friend and former lover Richard. He has won a prestigious poetry prize but is dying painfully of AIDS and is not having his friend's optimism. He argues with her about attending the party. "You don't have to go to the party," she finally concedes.

"But I still have to face the hours don't I? I mean, the hours after the party, and the hours after that."

I thought of that line as I walked through Koreatown. What do we do with the hours in our life, and the hours after that? It is a question born of that subtle, persistent gnawing inside. Gnawing, gnawing, like a question is buried so far in your heart that you cannot hear it.

I was first aware of this feeling when I was in my late teens. I'm sure many of you reading this have felt it. Whenever I settle down for long enough the feeling comes back. I remember it distinctly when I was living in Hawaii after college, trying to be a normal adult with a job and a partner. Gnawing, gnawing-- as if I had swallowed the wind and it was making its way through my insides. It was what pushed me into a monastery. It was what drove me to spend years sitting in silence, begging in the snow, pursuing enlightenment, enduring pain pushing, pushing, and pushing, because pushing and pain felt better than the sitting and actually dealing with the gnawing. A spiritual quest is a good thing to do in the hours after the party, and the hours after that. And yet, it's an odd irony of spiritual life that spiritual practice can become the very thing that distracts from our most pressing questions.

In the midst of my striving for enlightenment and purity I had certainty, beautiful certainty. Until I didn't. And then the hours continued.

I tell my friends about this gnawing feeling. My godmother offers that this feeling, for her, is what happens right before she lets go. It's the body and mind approaching some greater truth and then backtracking, flinching. I think she is right. In meditation intensives the first few days are hell. The mind wheels around and around, looking for a distraction. Pema Chodron writes, "We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can't relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased."

In Buddhist cosmology, the impulse to resist letting go is personified in Mara. When the Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree, Mara tries to tempt the Buddha with all sorts of beautiful women. But the Buddha recognizes Mara. "I see you, Mara," he says, and Mara is vanquished.

I see the gnawing. I see it. I know it wants to make me move, flinch, turn away, turn on the tv, drink, run, scream, eat, anything but sit still and relax into groundlessness. I have been doing this sitting still thing for a long time. I see the gnawing for what it is, only the sky doesn't open. No lotus flower blooms from my head and there are no devas to congratulate me. There is only this body in this place-- the colors of the pencils beside me, the sound of my fingers against the keyboard. There is only this hour, and the hours after that.

Comments

  1. I am enjoying your honest, open, and direct views. keep it up

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  2. I can relate to that> I often wake up early with the great 'desire' to write something of value. Usually, I fall short but that is ok

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  3. I often have this feeling, I personally feel something more like mental itching, yes, restlessness that you are describing. But after 30 minutes of zazen, it is more or less gone. After one hour it is gone completely. Does your zazen in the everning or morning help you feel more balanced? I think one of the tasks of Buddhist practice is to tell our restlessness, that it will always be challenged by the balance that comes from practice, and tell our balance, that comes from practice, that it will always be challenged by the restlessness. So these two are like two little siblings, refusing to like each other and we are like a parent trying to tell them that they'd better be friends and accept each other, no matter how different they are.

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