Now and Forever, Amen
Greg Spearritt ruminates on bliss.
I once had a sudden but totally meaningless experience of bliss. I had just left a philosophy lecture and was on my way down a cement staircase with a herd of fellow undergraduates. Nothing about the time or place (and certainly not the lecture) seemed the least bit related to the unexpected ’high’. But there you are: all of a sudden, bliss. Well, it was the seventies, but no, I wasn’t stoned.
So far at least, that seems to have been my quota of impromptu bliss, at least of that order. But there have been other, more meaningful occasions I would describe as blissful. I think in particular of times I have been engrossed in some creative act, even – believe it or not – the act of writing an essay for some study I was doing. I recall a wonderful and almost mystical sense of no-self. Don Cupitt captures the essence of it:
everyone, or almost everyone, knows of something – it may be visual experience, or meditation, or productive work or music – which has the power to draw them out into total absorption. You cease to be a separate, self-conscious individual standing back a little from life, and find instead that you are taken right out of yourself and drowned in the flux of events. I call this ecstatic immanence, and it is utterly blissful. (The Last Philosophy 77)
Though I shouldn’t like to compare the results of my creative endeavours with those of Australian novelist Tim Winton (I wish I could!), our experiences make us kindred spirits. He says,
when it’s happening, when you finally get pen to paper, you exist only in that present tense – you don’t have an age, a heartbeat, you’re just in this squeezed-down narrow focus which is timeless. [From an interview in the Weekend Australian in 1997]
It’s interesting that Cupitt links this state – an experience, he says, of “glory” – not with timelessness, but with “giving up all ideas of substance, of absolutes or of things outside time, and losing our Selves in the flux of life” (The Last Philosophy 77). I think I see something of what he’s getting at. While the blissful experience itself does feel like it involves a ’suspension’ of time, one thing that gets in the way of such experiences is a yearning to be free of time, or at least of change: a yearning for permanence.
So often I catch myself wishing things were other than they are: that a sudden gust of cool air would last all afternoon; that I could capture again happy events of the past; that the music or movie or game could go on forever.
I don’t think this is a desire for ’everlasting life’ as such: as Susan Ertz has so famously said, millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do on a Sunday afternoon. As I get older, I find life after death an increasingly bizarre idea. But there is a yearning, a nostalgia, a desire I know cannot be satisfied. It’s an aspect, I suppose, of what the Buddhists call dukkha, the first Noble Truth (sometimes rendered ’unsatisfactoriness’).
I’d rather not feel like this. I repeat to myself, almost a heartfelt prayer, a quatrain from Bruce Cockburn’s ’Mighty Trucks of Midnight’:
I believe it’s a sin to try to make things last forever;
Everything that exists in time runs out of time someday.
Gotta let go of the things that keep you tethered:
Take your place with grace and then be on your way.
I would love to genuinely embrace, with Cupitt,
[t]he winged joy, the non-clinging, non-acquisitive and transient happiness of those who can truly say yes to time. (The Time Being 177)
I live in hope that this kind of attitude or orientation to life can in fact be cultivated!
Much Buddhist thought and practice – particularly Zen – is directed at living fully in the moment. Diana Neutze captures this in her poem ’Here and Now’:
the four last things
death judgement heaven hell
but what about now
when sunlight riffles through the leaves
the cat lies in a ball of sleep
and blackbirds chime the afternoon?
a Zen master once escaped death
because even at the moment
of execution even then
when the light flashed off
the approaching sword
instead of an abject cowering
he smiled for joy
even for death
he wasn’t willing to lose
that one moment of crisscrossing light
eternity in an afternoon
’Enlightenment’ transforms life in less extreme times too. The Zen master who once carried water and hoed the beans finds, after enlightenment, that he carries water and hoes beans: but things have radically changed. I need this message. Is there a way I can transform the act of hanging out the washing? Or the times my child demands yet another reading of that particularly nauseating storybook?
Having discovered that he had acquired HIV, Robert Dessaix wrote Night Letters. The character ’R’ in this novel, on hearing from his doctor that he’s ’positive’, says: “The first few seconds were like an ecstasy, a rapture so pure I almost wasn’t there”. I’m not seeking that kind of stimulus to bliss. But it’s a fact that near-death experience can have a life-enhancing effect. Dessaix’s character claims
I do things these days much more for the intensity of being there now, I pay attention, I am present…that’s why you’ll catch me sometimes just sitting staring at the pigeons in the bird-bath. I’m in that slimy bird-bath with them, my consciousness is pigeon-shaped.
What is it that extreme circumstances, absorption in some creative act and Zen practice have in common? It seems to me that they all jolt (or ease) us out of our sense of self. On near-death experiences, Susan Blackmore (in her book Dying to Live) says:
coming close to death can provoke the insight that the self was only a mental construction; that all the struggles, attachment and suffering of life depend on that artificial construction and that it can be let go. There never was any solid self and there is no one to die. With this insight fear is left behind and life can be lived more directly and fully. (263)
Well, I haven’t had a near-death experience, and I’m hoping to avoid them for some considerable time. Nor am I likely to become a Zen devotee, much less a Zen master. However, I’m endeavouring to benefit vicariously and make the most of insights which might help me cultivate a now- and non-self-focussed approach to life.
There is one more ’glorious’ or blissful experience I should mention, and it has particular relevance to Sea of Faith. Honest, vital and absorbing discussion never fails to take me ’out of myself’. It creates for me a kind of ’sacred space’, in which awareness of self and time dissipates. Many an evening has been spent in this way, some of them with my local SoF group. The process of exploring meaning is by no means a mere intellectual exercise: if Zen meditation is both path and end, so for me the kind of discussion SoF is about is not just a means, but is, in some sense, a slice of salvation itself.
Diana Neutze’s ’Here and Now’ is reprinted from Unwinding the Labyrinth (Hazard Press 1996).
Bruce Cockburn’s ’Mighty Trucks of Midnight’ is on his CD Nothing But a Burning Light (True North D 30751).
Susan Blackmore Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences (Prometheus Books 1993)
Don Cupitt The Last Philosophy (SCM 1992)
Don Cupitt The Time Being (SCM 1995)
Robert Dessaix Night Letters (Pan Macmillan 1996)