Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Common Place 5

Angelica Bell and her aunt, Virginia Woolf
I edited my serialized essay, "Marriage, Family & Friendship," into a new issue of Common Place, the personal journal that I started in 2008. If you have an iPad, download the PDF, which is easier to read than the online version. If you read along to my posts on "Quotes & Thoughts," thank you. This version is shorter, removing some repetition and tightening up the prose a bit. I would now call it a speculative essay. It still has the discursiveness of the original, since I couldn't bring myself to leave any of the codas out. To me, they all relate, but the connection is not always obvious.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Coda 6: A look back

An earlier version of this essay was more of a manifesto. I came to doubt that this was the right the way to approach it. I tried writing another, "Buddha's Ladder," but set it aside, because it felt derivative of Stephen Batchelor's Alone with Others. Still, I took something away from it: an interest in the Buddhist perspective that was sharpened when I read a book by Hee-Jin Kim. In Dogen on thinking and meditation, Kim considers Eihei Dogen as a philosopher, emphasizing his radical non-dualism and non-linear approach to language.
    Dogen founded Soto Zen, so many of his writings pertain to monastic life. My brushes with Soto Zen are relatively few, but I've been struck by its penchant for formal rules and gestures. They seem to obscure the simplicity of his take on Zen's essence. No doubt monastic life benefits from an imposed structure and a defined way of being, but my own interest in Dogen's Zen is philosophical.
    In Alone with Others, Batchelor addresses what I've previously called the quantum nature of human life. As individuals who are also social creatures, saddled with biology and traditions, we live with some basic dilemmas. They can make it feel like the glass into which life flows is too small to contain it. It's not so much that the glass is half empty or half full, but that we see our potentiality flowing past us.
    "Hungry ghosts," the Buddhist call this. I think it's a gloss on ego, the "self" that we put together as toddlers to defend us from a world we couldn't fathom or control. This is what A.H. Almaas's book on narcissism, The Point of Existence, asserts. Reading it, I saw that what was tearing at me was a breaking through to another self, less armored than the one I constructed as a kid. It's tempting to call this "the real self," but it's not like the ego goes away - you're just more aware of it. What gets in our way reflects these traits, which Claudio Naranjo, following Oscar Ichazo, calls our character flaws: strategies we pursued, believing they would compensate for our vulnerabilities.
    In taking up this essay again, I've tried to set down my observations about three overlapping relationships - marriage, family, and friendship. I've noted that it would be helpful to have new traditions that serve us better by being closer to the reality of human existence. My sense of these new traditions is tentative. Each of us contributes to their evolution anyway by grappling with the life's conundrums. The beginning of the acceptance of another that each of these relationships entails is our acceptance of ourselves. For purposes of living in the world, we shape our behavior to fit in, but as we get older, we realize that life's river is as Heraclitus described it. This essay is about living with the implications.

Thesis 8: True friendship

My eighth thesis is that friendship is mutually accepting or it's not a true friendship.

The Soto Zen essayist Uchimaya, mentioned previously, makes the point that there are limits to how well we can know another. His spiritual ancestor Eihei Dogen makes another salient point about our mutability, that we are better understood as a spectrum of behaviors, unpredictable and beyond our conscious control, however much we will it. Enlightenment is a transient awareness, he asserts, that can't be privileged over other states of being. This is why he placed so much emphasis on "Just sit!" To sit is to find the ground again, by whatever means.
    "The ground" is a useful metaphor, pointing to the moment when we let go of whatever carried us away and place ourselves again in the unfolding life that in reality we've been indivisibly part of all along. Place is not quite right, since everything is in flux, but it will do. Usually, we are somewhere when we find our ground again. It becomes the vantage point, the shore from which we venture on, sometimes together and sometimes on our own. Although we cannot know the ground or the path of others, these metaphorical words are helpful to describe what we share with them, which is to be present in a world that, although we see it and respond to it individually, unfolds for us both.
    True friendship is rare, in my experience. Like light, it's one thing at one moment, something else at another. The quantum theory of life governs it, so we have to accept that it isn't bound by time or space. A true friend is often in our thoughts, but our encounters reflect our individuality. We accept each other's individuality because we value it in ourselves. We leave it to the other to shape his or her own life. We accept each other's nature, however much we may want to change aspects of it.
    This in itself is bucking the tide. We live in an era when perfectibility is on a lot of lips. There's a lot of complaining, too, since life doesn't work that way. Self-cultivation shouldn't aim at perfection, but at sustaining and enlivening one's existence. True friends accept that this is also the point of their friendship. There's an inherent playfulness to it.
    We humans are a mix of animal spirits and various higher callings. What Dogen saw - his insistence that it all shades together - is what true friends accept in the other. They do their level best to live up to the best in the other, but they know it doesn't always happen. They may have to go off and lick their wounds, but they know the other suffers, too. Find the ground again: this is what true friends ask of each other. That's what their mutual acceptance means.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Thesis 7: Friendship anchors relationships

My seventh thesis is that friendship is the core of all successful human relationships.

In elaborating this thesis, I could argue that affection is the core of all successful relationships. Yet I want to bring friendship to the fore, especially as other parts of this essay have emphasized marriage and family. 

    La Rochefoucauld exemplifies how with love and affection friendship can overcome the obstacles that plague close relationships. Late in life, unhappy and disillusioned, he met a woman who truly befriended him and placed the friendship ahead of other considerations. Said to be "successful with women," he was by then disfigured and outmaneuvered, his ambitions thwarted. But the mind is the true engine of our feelings, to which the tongue and pen give expression. Left with his essence, he found a friend who loved him for it.
    Consider again Vanessa Bell. Married to Clive Bell, she grew to resent his familiarity with other women. Falling in love with Roger Fry, she tried out what would have been a second marriage and household, but gave it up, returning to the households she and Clive Bell originally shared. Their marriage kept going. Meanwhile, she fell in love with Duncan Grant. Her physical relationship with him, which Grant found singular enough to record, produced a daughter, Angelica Bell. Once she was pregnant, or soon after, he told her that this aspect of things had to stop. Despite the unhappiness this caused her, their relationship continued. They lived together and painted together. Their closeness seems only to have grown stronger.
    Angelica Bell wrote a memoir that describes her ambivalent relationships with her parents. Gradually she came to understand that Grant was her biological father, although Clive Bell had always stood in. Ten years after writing her memoir, she wrote a new foreword acknowledging that her annoyance with all of them was expunged, that she saw them in a different light. And even in the first edition, she pointed to her daughters as compensation enough.
    I recount these episodes in one extended family to note how, as the I Ching  says, affection underlies all close human relationships. Marriage, family, and friendship alike are either grounded in affection or risk becoming a sea of unhappiness. In asserting this, I recognize that I'm projecting my own nature, which is more affectionate than not.
    In an interview in the Paris Review, the poet Frederick Seidel said that you reach a point in life where you're unwilling not to be yourself. You write what you write, he said, and if people don't like it, that's their problem. I agree with his attitude, but feel it has to be tempered when one is together with others. I've observed that some people take pleasure in constant strife. "This is sex for them," I sometimes think. I'm not speaking here of the flashes of anger that are inherent to close human interaction, but of a chronic penchant for behavior that quells affection.
    As we get older, the loosening of the mortal coil allows us a greater openness to others - a clearer sense of who they are beneath their foibles and quarrels. It's as if we can feel their hearts beating, sense the humanity that connects us. We no longer think of them as ours, as part of our circle or orbit or whatever, revolving around us. As this happens, friendships take on a different hue. We're grateful just to be with a friend when it happens. How it was, how it might be - memories and speculations may well up, but they no longer gnaw at us. We're finally on better terms  with our past and more willing to let life surprise us with its possibilities. It's at this point that friendship takes center stage.
    Friendships take many forms. I'm not arguing that one form or another enables closeness to blossom, but that closeness is independent of the form a friendship takes. And while affection is necessary to a friendship, its closeness really depends on mutual acceptance. This is the lesson of La Rochefoucauld and his friend, and of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.