In today’s column, Jonny Sava discusses why we should not mistake the parts for the (w)hole.
Challenging nature itself – Captain Crook – Vicars and tarts – Last bird on earth – Trains across the sea – Hairy, you’re a beast – Future ex-clocks of America
Dear The Recalcitrant Meditator,
Recently, I took my son, Chas. Mercy, to the newly remodeled Burger Baron on West Grand Avenue, where he loves to repose in the fantastical playland they’ve set up out back. You know what I’m talking about—it’s the one replete with all the well-known characters of our childhood, such as Baron Burger, Viceroy McBiscuits, the Fried Guys, the Hot Doggler, Rupert the Sexy Chicken, Grumpus, and Richard Widmark, as “the Mangler.” Like so many of his peers, Chas. enjoys above all luxuriating in the pit of plastic balls. On this particular day, however, one of the kids in the ball pit beside him turned out to have a “ticklish tummy,” and before long the ball pit had been turned into what I think can only properly be referred to as a pit of despair, i.e., throw-up. As the horror unfolded, I was struck by the fact that the more the children thrashed about in order to get clear of the exploding skull of their comrade, the more they became coated in the accumulating muck. Frankly, this got me thinking: are we all just children in a chunder-coated ball pit, and when we try to resist change, are we destined to end up worse than if we were to simply let ourselves be? Relatedly, if some kid blows groceries into your beard, how difficult is that to clean up? Because I’ve got a lot of appointments this afternoon. Can meditation help?
Dear M. Mercy,
You have stumbled upon the number one reason why I avoid growing a beard, and instead restrain my facial travails to the growing of mustaches. If you care to know why I bother growing a mustache at all, it is simply because, like all men in heaven and earth, I look way better with a mustache than without. My face, bereft of hair, looks startled—like it is continuously being walked in on whilst pleasuring itself in a church basement. Or as though it has just been shaken awake in the middle of a nightmare. Nevertheless, for about four godless months out of the year I consent to growing a beard, as it seems only fair to my wife to allow her to find me fuckable 33% of the time.
Listen, though—if I’m being absolutely honest, I feel the beard, in practice, has one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to make the process of growing a mustache considerably less humiliating.
Anyone who’s ever donned the mantle of the mustachioed man knows full well that one does not just “grow a mustache,” as though doing so were as easy as opening a window or a can of beans. If one’s goal is to end en mustaché, the only reasonable thing one can do is first force out an entire beard and then—only once that feat has been accomplished—wipe away the superfluous parts of the beard with a knife, as mercilessly as gas tanks are dropped from an ascendant space rocket, and as smoothly as a pat of butter slips off the crown of a biscuit. I cannot imagine anything more awkward than growing a mustache from scratch. A peacock with a fully articulated train, after all, is a sight that pleases nature entire. Even machines are impressed. But when the train trails listlessly behind the bird, he might as well be dragging around a sack of unmasked, flaccid dicks.
I’m sure a percentage of the men who set out to grow a mustache, full stop stop themselves short at the beard stage, never taking that final magic step into legend. And I get it, I get the hesitation, I honestly do. The beard, after all, is a superlative buffer. It buys a man valuable time. Confronted with a bearded belfry, the observer inevitably requires several precious beats before he or she can puzzle out where everything is situated. Sometimes it is not until after the hirsute interlocutor has opened his mouth to speak that the location of the mouth is even known; a warm, pink cavern otherwise sunken deeply into a bushy shoal. In some cases the jawline and chin are never properly mapped, lost forever in the hairy abyss.
But here’s the downside, you see. The man behind a buffer rebuffs the world. He is apt to drown in rumination. When you imagine the bearded man, what image comes to life in your mind? The man who stares joylessly at the ground, well known from oil portraits perched on the walls of many taverns? Or the man who, with visible effort, manages to lift his milky, downturned eyes to the horizon? Picture the stroking hand that lazily hooks into a shock of cheek-grass like a capuchin clinging to its mother’s tit; the tobacco-stained ring which fringes furry lips, as dignified in their comportment as a catfish closing its jaws upon a hillbilly’s elbow. Picture it and know only despair, and sorrow.
Now compare these shades to the alertness of the mustachioed man: the shrewd, if occasionally bemused, contours of the mustachioed man’s gaze—a gaze that is like a knife made radiant by the whetstone. And why is this so? Simple. Unlike his bearded cousins, the mustachioed man knows he has nowhere to hide, that all the money’s on the table, so to speak. His only recourse, then, is to a display of finest grit and spunk. If you are challenged by a bear and all you have with which to defend yourself is a hatpin—albeit a hatpin made of rarest gems—then surely it is only by defying the beast with an upright spine and an iron gaze can you hope to drive your point home, and make it back in time for dinner. For Mustachioed Man, all the world is a bear, and his mustache a hatpin of priceless jewels—as a result, he has trained himself to approach that bear of a world with a roar in his eyes. But take care not to presume that this is so because he is unable to grow a beard—no, he has chosen his mustachioed circumstance for the very sake of becoming braver because of it. The man who leads with a mustache—even if it only precedes him by millimeters—might as well be waving a flag made out of entrails. Everyone is going to be looking at it. “Look at that mustachioed man!” they will cry. “How did he get so grand? Is he…is he coming this way? Madge, start the car! He’s coming right at us!”
When you know you’re going to be an object of speculation, catnip to every pair of eyes, the mind must remain always on the edge of its proverbial seat.
Therefore, the mustachioed man’s attention is always being drawn back to his own body. He cannot afford the luxury so many of us have, to wear our bodies like a loose flour sack cinched around the waist with an extension cord; to swim lazily within the confines of our own bodies, only occasionally skimming their surfaces where light enters and leaves gather. No, the mustachioed man, always under society’s microscope, always being pointed at by children on the street, always being slipped the evil eyeball by jealous husbands, never stops thinking about his body as body—a body composed of body parts, the mustache being only the best among them—because it is constantly being handed to him as such.
In this, the mustachioed man is deeply in tune with something we all experience, but which few of us recognize, unless we are allowing ourselves to be exceedingly mindful: the knowledge that the body is not the place where we do our business, but is itself the business we are doing. And, baby, it is always business time.
At first glance, any person’s body presents itself as a complete object composed of moving parts, each part riddled with apertures, into which the pricks as well as the pleasures of the world pour. Through these experiences, a personality is formed, to which the body is assigned. But this might be the wrong way of going about it. It may be that we tell ourselves bodies are complete, inalienable objects—owned by this person, owned by that person—because doing so makes it easier to find them, feed them, fuck them, or throw a punch at them, given what the situation suggests. Telling ourselves our own bodies, too, are complete, inalienable objects which we own—mine, mine, mine!—makes it easier to find ourselves, feed ourselves, fuck ourselves, and feel as though we’re being punched, when that’s what seems to be what’s happening. It also makes it easier to grow so attached to them that we are consumed with anxiety that they will change (grow old, decay, disintegrate, taking the personality we’ve assigned to them with them), and then are consumed with regret when they do. So it might be better, in the final analysis, to consider whether what we perceive to be complete body objects are simply a series of moving parts that, true to that name, are always and always have been in motion. Changing from moment to moment, there can really be no body that is unquestionably “ours” to treasure or defend; relatedly, there can be no body that is “his” or “hers” to cling to, lust after, reject, or abhor.
This is one of those notions that sounds unbelievably grim but which certainly doesn’t have to be regarded as such. If we are not overly attached to an idea about “who we are”—often represented as a personality enshrined in a body—then we grant ourselves the liberty to change, as surely as the moving parts we call a body change with each pump of the blood, each blink of the eye, each lungful of breath. When we come to terms with this unstoppable change-iness, we realize we do not have to be trapped by where we have been, or where we (or others) think we are going. On the other hand, said unstoppable change-iness requires us to choose how we want to act in each moment, based upon what that moment has presented to us, which can be incredibly intimidating. But this is precisely why those of us who practice formal meditation techniques (Vipassana, etc.) do so: to get comfortable making those moment-to-moment choices, helped along by our having gotten comfortable noticing and accepting change.
No less important, however, is informal meditation practice, i.e., a conscious attending to change throughout the day. Now, you may have noticed that for the mustachioed man, every encounter with a mirror is not only an excuse but a mandate to tune his instrument. Not only traditional mirrors, of course, but any reflective surface will do: the sun-darkened window outside a bedroom at midday; the chrome of a 1956 Cadillac Sixty Special; the silver side of a serving bowl. Of course, if you see a man crouched before the belt buckle of a bystander trimming the edges of his hairy terrace with a switchblade, it is easy to regard such a scene as vanity run amok. But it is something more. The mustachioed man has let himself grow so mustachioed precisely because it requires him to constantly perform upkeep on his grassy eminence. Let’s examine the alternative. Tending a beard is like tending a jungly garden. You could uproot an entire shrub and not even the dog would notice. The pruned beard, at its heart, is the equivalent of a junk shop, where the sale of a human-hair broom stashed behind a rusty wheelbarrow causes barely a stir, if its absence is registered at all. Tending a mustache, on the other hand, can be nothing less nerve-wracking than tending an orchid, where a small detail out of place threatens to send the whole arrangement into disarray. The mustachioed man knows that there is always an outlaw mustache hair waiting in the undergrowth to punch at the air like a raver’s fist, if not an entire legion of discontents ready at a moment’s notice to merge with the hairs of the nose in a sordid “take back the face” campaign. The mustachioed man is always upper lip-deep in a bubble bath of change, so when you see him whipping out his tiny comb, please don’t think, “What a complete asshole!” Instead, think, “Gosh, what a meditator!”
Okay, I’m not saying this type of behavior can’t or won’t devolve into vanity. The risk is there. But it’s the same risk Buddhists have recognized since forgotten times, a risk that lingers at the party in the shadows by the punch bowl and the radio, which is why chants like this are common among them:
All beings will die,
they are of the nature to die,
and I too will also die,
of that I have no doubt.
So it is also the case that Buddhists recommend meditators contemplate their own rotting corpse, with long and deep contemplations, until one has calmed one’s proclivity to cling, and can rightly repudiate that haunting line from Full Metal Jacket, “The dead know only one thing—it is better to be alive.”
So it is that the righteous mustachioed man, as painful as it may be, must contemplate his face free of mustaches, with long and deep contemplations, until he has calmed his proclivity to cling to his pretty prize, and all the privileges that travel with it. Those who still have pictures of themselves as children might consider carrying around such a snapshot in his wallet, to be taken out and studied whenever he finds the attentions paid to his mustache have more in common with fixation than meditation. I might also recommend using PhotoShop to remove the mustache from present-day portraits of oneself, by utilizing the program’s provocative “joy murderer” effect. More extreme personalities might consider using the occasion of a very long trip abroad to shave off his mustache, particularly if journeying to a place where no one knows him nor is likely to ever see him again, and/or a place where Americans are loathed and despised anyway. This affords one the valuable opportunity to contemplate the rotting corpse of his naked upper lip, and also grants access to advanced lessons in mindfulness. For example: observe how you react to other people’s reactions to you, especially when clinging to expectations of how those reactions “should” be. Do you tense up? Do you feel a halo of heat around your temples? Do you find your finger unconsciously drifting to your upper lip as though in protest, only to remember that you have no bullets left in your chamber to fire?
To remind yourself that death comes to all people, no matter how learned, no matter how beloved, no matter how mustachioed, take a moment, and settle into contemplating great figures of mindfulness wearing mustaches of varying degrees of sumptuousness. Here—we can do it together.
Affecting an upright and alert posture, bring into your mind the gently creased, unrelentingly delighted countenance of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Now, while slowly breathing in, imagine His Holiness sprouting a lush, bird-concealing bandito mustache. And now, while slowly breathing out, imagine the mustache receding again. How did you feel on the in breath, as compared to the outward one? Did you first feel exultation, followed by a crushing sense of loss, as though everything good and sweet about the world had been extracted from it with a resin-crusted pair of pliers? Now, repeat the exercise, this time imagining the bright and serene features of Thich Nhat Hanh, upgraded on your in-breath with the appearance of a thorn-thin Clark Gable mustache—as fine as though painted on with lasers, or the ink-dipped beak of a nightingale, yet strong as sailing rope. As you extinguish the invoked mustache on the out breath, try to be at peace with the knowledge that all life is transformation. If you find yourself objecting, observe your objections, so that they do not overwhelm you when they arise again. Repeat as often as necessary, adding, as needed: Jon Kabat-Zinn with the neatly pointed Cupid’s bow mustache of a tubercular gunslinger; Joseph Goldstein with the radical “inverted Hitler” mustache Peter O’Toole wears in Becket; and Jack Kornfield with…ahhh, well, it’s already there.
Now, here’s a bombshell I’ve saved for the post-script: you do not actually need a mustache to act mustachioed. At least not in the way we’ve been talking about here. Yes, the mustache may be the face’s finest centerpiece, jauntily doffing itself to the world like gay icon Mr. Peanut’s top hat, and yet like every moving part in these gloriously changeable things we call “bodies,” it is eminently replaceable. Likewise, it is not the only, or even the best way to notice change happening around you. The opportunities for that abound, and the more you pay attention to them, the more you will notice them, and others. These include the fickle shapes of clouds; the way the shifting angle of the sun alters how the stuff of the earth gets shaded and illuminated throughout the day; the way the taste of a cup of coffee is refashioned as it cools; the tremors of machinery of heating and cooling kicking in and kicking off in the walls of the buildings where you live and work; the sound of a voice receding in the distance.
Notice, and love what you notice, but do not fall in love with what you notice. You may not be able to avoid missing it when it’s gone, but do not practice clinging to the missing. In taking note of the change-iness of the world, act as though you are trimming your mustache with a colossal pair of gardening shears. If you do not bring complete awareness to every gesture, you’re likely to blaze a stripe straight through the fruitage. But when this does happen—as it no doubt will—do not despair. You are not one with your mustache, after all, it is only there to remind you that all things, and all moments, must sprout and flower and die. A mustache devastated is as clear-sighted a teacher as a mustache resplendent.
I remain, as always, obediently yours,
(1) Except, of course, that there can be no pleasure without the mustache, only empty yanking.
(2)Except, of course, that not having a mustache is a nightmare from which one’s face can never awaken.
(3) A.K.A., the “poor man’s mustache.”
(4) In this, my marriage compares well to some of the great marriages of legend, in particular that of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. You remember the story. This is the fizzy corker in which Gawain—the Montgomery Clift of the Round Table—agrees to marry a subhuman hag, because Arthur pissed down her wizard-dad’s drainpipe or something, and this is the only way Wizard Daddy would agree to spare Arthur’s life. As a result of his act of idiotic heroic generosity, it is revealed to Gawain that Ragnelle only need appear with a face like a bowl of eggplant pulp for half of each day, and during the other half she will appear as the most comely creature Gawain has ever seen. Sidebar: how long do you think we’ll have to wait before having an Arthurian legend-style name becomes de rigueur for fedora-topped hipster children? I sincerely hope/dread that my unborn children will one day attend kindergarten alongside a Ragnelle, a Bertilak, a Sir Gromer, et al.
(5) For added effect, I recommend adding in a lot of grunting and sweating.
(6) These parts are easily recognizable as the parts that are not sandwiched neatly between the nose and tongue.
(7) Sometimes I wonder if I have what it takes. Do I really deserve this mustache, as mediocre as it is, in the grand scheme of things? Left to my own devices, would I really rise to any challenge? Left alone in a cabin for fear of zombie hordes, there to live out my days, would I be able to teach myself to fashion two squirrel teeth and the elastic gut of a goose into a makeshift toenail clipper?
(8) The most tender, desirable cut.
(9) Or dressing a child for a pageant. Or trimming the fingernails of the dead. You know, all mustache metaphors may be destined to make a person feel super uncomfortable.
(10) Or, as Ajahn Brahmavamso recommends, witnessing a Buddhist funeral, which he describes thusly: “There the body of the person who has died is not sanitized by embalmers. It’s just put into a very simple coffin so that everyone can go and look at, and even touch, the person who has died. It is then burnt out in the open. The very cheap wood of the coffin quickly burns away to reveal the body. The body burns away part by part, bit by bit, and you can see the members of the body come apart from each other. You can see the skull pop and explode, and all the other parts of the body eventually just being burnt away. After many hours, all that’s left are the bones. To be able to see death in the raw is a marvelous privilege in one’s life. By sanitizing death we are preserving the illusion … that life will go on forever.”
(12) If you do not have your own mustache to work with, try practicing with a colossal pair of gardening shears on the mustache of a friend.