Groundlessness (Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart') & Tim Buckley's 'Hallucinations'

Even though I’m challenging myself to think differently about my life, why highlight one moment over another, I ask myself; why hold onto one experience as being transformative, rather than another especially if this way of thinking encourages a certain narrative.

Earlier tonight, when listening to music and feeling moved by the music, I had a sensation somehow connected to diffuse memories of something I couldn’t recognise, perhaps something related to Australia. I wanted to hold onto the feeling, locate it, but was unable to and this inability to do so made me feel sad. I wanted to take hold of this feeling, and my longing for this place, or something related to one of my earlier lives (I wanted to remember the enormous skies, where the sunset paints the world above you in ridiculous extravagant hues – shards of pink, orange at times and darker colours too - and the aberrant wildness of the ocean beaches; that sensation of space, even in the cities where most of the people live).

That sensation – of sensing something and it remaining outside your grasp, inherently elusive – says something of what it is to be alive, to be human; it’s something we all share. It reminds me of an idea that I really loved when I first encountered it, carrying it around with me as if it were a charm, a rabbit’s foot on a key-chain perhaps (during one of those troubled times, if not the most troubled time). ‘Groundlessness’ in Buddhism refers to the fact that nothing is fixed, in life – in our experiences – but also in ourselves, we are constantly changing, shifting. Nothing is fixed. So it is too for our thoughts, our desires, our fixations.  

The first book by the North American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön that I bought, When things fall apart is small, the size of my hand, with a white cover that is creased, with pen marks (perhaps written by a child).

Immediately I fell in love with Chödrön’s writing and her perspective. Many people have this view of Buddhism as a happy-clappy (smiley-face) singing-thing where all the sins of the world are forgiven by people sliding through their lives with beatific smiles, well, that’s not quite accurate, let’s say. Buddhism, in its purest form, is tough and centred on discipline, while sustained by compassion for ourselves and others and the desire not to cause harm, or add to the harm that already exists. But it’s also about being honest with who we are and the nature of our lives; many, if not most, of the teachings tell of flawed protagonists bewitched by various ‘vices’ and the teachers themselves admit their own failings. It’s not as if you get to a point where you see the light and suddenly transform into some kind of angel.  

Within the covers of this book, with its subtitle, ‘heart advice for difficult times’ I found something perfectly suited to my temperament and where I was at that moment (overwhelmed by fear and feelings of being lacking, inadequate unworthy for the task facing me). The tone of the work was playful at times, but straight. What resonated with me was the idea that we needed to be still, simply be there with what faced us, not to try and escape it in diversions and distractions (even though this tendency is something we, or I, will never fully be free of: I’m always trying to escape).

We just needed to be still, there with the experience. I loved the austere tone of this, non-judgmental, but reminding us that we need to face what we fear the most (and in various forms of the traditional teachings suggesting that we speak politely to our fear and be grateful for its presence in our lives).

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
— 'Intimacy with Fear', When Things Fall Apart

Coda:  

Tim Buckley: ‘Hallucinations’ (Goodbye and Hello, Elektra, 1967)