In today’s column, Jonny Sava considers the potent dangers of arriving in a physical location without first taking the time to arrive in the present moment.
Framing it: From dis- to re- and back again
Listen, I think I really “got” my tattoo for the first time yesterday. I’ve written about this sexy MF elsewhere, but in case you need to be reminded, here is what it looks like:
For those of you who don’t recognize the design, it’s based on an ensō by Thich Nhat Hanh, who I think we would be well within our rights to call the “bad boy of the ensō,” on account of his provocative insistence on inserting calligraphy into the centers of his circles. When I’ve described this tattoo to people in the past, I’ve typically taken the tack of calling it a celebration of this hypothesis: that in every moment, with every breath, we return—or at least are given the opportunity to return—“home,” to our center. This is certainly plausible from a mindfulness standpoint, but until yesterday, I had not grasped how fraught it can be to attempt to literally arrive home before figuratively making an effort to do so.
See, on account of work demands I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Princeton and Boston much more than usual this season. Usually when I head to the main office I’m away for roughly a week, during which time my wife descends into what I contend is a flagrantly feral state. Let me be clear: this assessment is accurate only in my mind. What actually happens is that my wife begins to behave like a normal human person, in the absence of my addling influence upon her. And here is what I imagine normal people do: they make a mess—adding to the pile of wigs in the corner; overturning a box of goffering irons in search of screws; stacking seaweed salad-encrusted dishes in the sink for future scouring exercises—and then at some point after that, they rectify the mess. In other words, things become disarrayed, and then in time, they become re-arrayed.
This is something I have struggled my entire life to accept. For me, the amount of time that elapses between “dis-” and “re-” is in direct proportion to how much I feel like I’m eating a box of bees. When dining alone and therefore not in a position to skeez anyone out with my creeptastic behavior, for example, I have developed a technique that involves cleaning the dishes I’m eating off of between bites of what I’m eating off of them. It looks strange, like that gonzo M.C. Escher lithograph of hands drawing each other, but it gets me back to a state of neutrality—or, more properly put, the illusion of a state of neutrality—as quickly as possible. One day I shall teach these techniques to the world, and then I shall vanish in a puff of soot and sulphur.
Clearly this sort of behavior is bound to make me feel and behave like a hysterical, pilled-up housewife from the dark days of non-robot-powered vacuum cleaning. And there’s no doubt that it does. It keeps me chasing a false image of “home”—as a state of predestined, predictable order—and consequently leaves me in a perpetual state of mental homelessness.
You’ll often hear Jon Kabat-Zinn railing against such strains of skewed and skewering logic: when I finally get to go on vacation, then I can relax; when I finish this last bit of work, then I’ll be “done.” The reality is that one is never finished, not really, at least not until the Big Finish, but that’s a different topic. And yet, when commuting between Boston and Princeton, having spent six hours on train after train, having drug my trunks across the student-choked sidewalks buttressing both ends of the trip, when I finally tumble through my door, I am still liable to declare to myself, sometimes out loud, “I have arrived! I am home!”
The victory is fleeting, of course, as so-called victories always are. Because then the unease creeps in. The knowledge that other humans (in this case, my wife) have been living their lives, peaceably enough, but outside the realm of my control, all the time that I’ve been gone. Observe: the couch has moved a quarter-inch across the floor. The spatulas have made their way into the ladle slots. A bag of pumpkin gore is sitting on the front porch covered in flies. My gut response to such cyclonic chaos is to immediately begin sweeping, scouring, scrubbing, razing, hosing down, hosing up, unfurling, furling; in short, unfucking up what I perceive to be superfucked.
We might name this a failure of perception.
My mistake is obvious. Any child can see it. I anticipated returning to a fabricated idea of “home,” one resembling some perfected state, some neutered normal, and so when my expectations failed to be fulfilled, my brain immediately started freaking out and doing its damnedest to iron out the inconsistencies it found, which were legion, because what it was anticipating was a fantasy.
What this process cheats me of is the feeling of being settled, because reality is always going to be one step behind the things the brain can conceive of and hope for. Being convinced of the opposite can be a useful delusion when you’re working out how to shoot monkeys into space; less useful, however, when you start expecting your house to have miraculously cleaned itself while you were out gassing up the yacht. Feeling settled must always involve a certain amount of “settling” for what you’ve got. On the other hand, that feeling of having “settled” only needs to last as long as it takes to transfer the energy that had been devoted to the task of wanting to the task of observing. From a place of energized observation, it becomes possible to see how a few layers might be shaved off the desiring mind and repurposed towards shoring up the appreciating mind—the mind that is settled, and never feels as though it is settling for anything.
So there’s another way of going about arriving, one the better angels of my nature would endorse: treating home not as a 1:1 scale model of my desires and expectations—a map, that is, both directing me towards those things and also drawn up from them—a place, that is, where my beautiful ducks are all in a row, quietly waiting to be fed and then de-headed—but rather as a state in which one resides as best one can, embodied in the present moment.
This is a superior method for a few reasons. Firstly, your body—as it was yesterday, as it will be tomorrow, as it is in the moment you are reading these words—is the first and last home you’ll ever have, changeable as it may be. It’s a good home. Quit trying to buy up or opt out of the program, buddy. You’ve already paid off the mortgage—cultivate what you’ve acquired, for Christ’s sake. Secondly, when you’re feeling comfy and cozy in your body, the body that is both in and of the present moment, you’re inevitably less inclined to go casting around for how much things are shit. Quite the opposite! You open yourself up to seeing how things actually make a lot of sense. Consider: the couch having been moved a quarter-inch actually makes sense, because, hey, weren’t you forever running into it and spilling your drink? Think how much drunker you could be right now if you had all those wasted droplets back. And it’s not like some psychopath just marched up to your front porch and deposited a bag of pumpkin innards there in a chilling prelude to murdering you in your sleep. No, these were the wages of your wife having carved a pumpkin for you to enjoy on Halloween, and moreover, a pumpkin that looks exactly like you. And this was no easy feat—you have a mustache, after all. A lot of fine motor skills went into this work!
The insertion of the spatulas into the ladle drawer, however, was just ridiculous. That was real amateur hour shit. But feeling centered as you are—right? You’re feeling centered now, right?—this ceases to cause the hot iron of anxiety to swell up in your skull.
Doing it: Return already arrived
Don’t do as Jonny does. Do as Jonny says: center yourself in your body, as it is in this moment, before arriving— before arriving somewhere you’ve never been before; before arriving home after being away; before arriving at a response to a question that has been posed to you. Return “home” before ever walking through the door. Be eternally returning, refreshing your mindset to what’s happening right now as you reach into each new experience.
Start by observing any sense of anticipation you have built up—your investment in expecting—and how that has made itself manifest in your body. Make your expectations squishy. Imagine them as a nest of dried pasta strands, dropped into boiling water, which you are carefully teasing apart with a pair of wooden forks, or your superhuman, heat-resistant fingers. Unknotted, the strands of expectation soften, billow, become flexible, with a lot of space between them. Let your expectations, then, become just another part of the experience unfolding before you.
(1) Does it seem odd to admit to having required a solid six months before grasping the deeper meaning of something that I’d willingly had hammered into my body? I can countenance that view. But let’s be honest, there’s plenty of stuff about my body that I still don’t understand, and I’ve been hauling this thing around with me for over 35 years. I think six months is pretty goddamn good, if you ask me.
(2) Yes, this is the sort of thing that passes for provocation in the mindfulness community. Don’t hate. It’s not like we’ve got hot rods and smokes with the filters broken off that we can resort to for getting our kicks.
(3) Often while struggling to roll up the sleeve of my shirt to reveal it to them, which, because I am usually wearing long sleeved shirts, consistently threatens to end in injury, specifically, my whacking myself repeatedly in the face with my elbow as I try to get the sleeve to tolerate just one more fold.
(4) I thought this sentence would flow better if I could make believe “ferality” was a word, but this proved difficult. The best support for such a claim came from a website entitled “Hermit’s Thatch,” and that’s obviously a street term for a duck’s anus.
(5) Admittedly, it would probably be more appropriate—from a mindfulness standpoint, I mean—to describe everything as being constantly in a state of “array,” with no “dis-” or “re-” about it.
(6) I consider such behavior to be the baseline for decorum in all undertakings: arranging your efforts, that is, so that preparations, execution, and cleanup all wrap up at the same moment. Keeping that tight of a lid on things is the only way, for example, that the physical act of love can be prevented from resembling a cake-eating competition.
(7) For example, your brain may be conceiving of and hoping for a sentence without dangling prepositions in it. But that isn’t what you’ve got, is it?
(8) And also these words!
(9) Although probably also in anticipation of murdering you in your sleep. TBD.