Posts Tagged ‘being nobody’

dickens2One of our primary objectives as human beings is to prove, if only to ourselves, we’re actually alive. We do this by attempting to influence outcomes, by making sure others notice us and by feeling we are somehow in control, at least of those forces we perceive to be responsible for shaping our personal future. By this standard some of us clearly lead much bigger lives than others, but we all know bigger lives do not necessarily result in happiness nor insightfulness. Indeed the biographies of those who have lived the biggest lives more often read like a litany of blind disaster, lives overshadowed by clouds of profound dissatisfaction, self-loathing, and a permanent craving to be something or someone even bigger than the gargantuan mess they already are.

The shocking truth is it turns out there’s no difference at all between big people and small people. We all crave the same thing, and it’s always bigger, always “more” than the thing we’ve already got.

If I’m honest with  myself, in the early days of my writing “career”, it was not the writing so much as the desire to be published that motivated me. To be published, I thought, would be a powerful affirmation of self-worth. To have my thoughts accepted and digested and beautifully packaged by the most enlightened gurus of the publishing industry would have planted the crown of greatness squarely upon my head. It would have transformed the nervous, reticent, lovelorn teenager that I was into a demi-god, bursting with self confidence, oozing grace and charm,… and more, I would have been able to quit the day job, and attract beautiful women merely by virtue of the fact that I was a “writer” and – regarding the women – if that didn’t work I would simply buy myself a Porsche which, as everyone knows, come already fitted with beautiful women as passenger seat adornments!

Dogged persistence over many years of the dark pre-internet era did eventually result in the  publication of some words in small-press magazines but alas my earnings rarely amounted to anything more than a free copy of the magazine itself. There was always the chance it might lead on to bigger things, but it never did. I discovered this was all right though, because something had changed. Disappointment at my apparent worthlessness has shape-shifted into something else.

I had grown up.

I look back upon that period now merely as an affirmation I was capable of stringing sentences together. I also learned I did not have to work for the words to come; the words came of their own accord. I simply sat before the typewriter, opened that valve in my mind, and out they poured. Ergo, I could write, of a fashion, write for ever it seemed, but it was never going to make me any bigger than I was. But it didn’t seem to matter any more.

Reconciliation of one’s smallness, one’s insignificance, is perhaps the greatest open secret – that we miss so much of life when we turn our backs on what we are and what we have and for ever seek instead what we have not. In the great rush to become big and to disprove all the evidence of our insignificance it seems peculiar to turn against the tide and seek meaning instead in one’s apparent meaninglessness. But I think that is exactly what each of us in our own ways must learn to do.

In the great outback of Australia there stands a lone roadside shack in which there lives a man who has never, in eighty five years,  known any more of the world than what he has seen within a twenty mile radius of that sun baked, dusty spot. Question: is his life any smaller than that of the globe trotting business man, who at that moment is flying at thirty thousand feet above the toothless old man’s head?

I might have said yes, once, long ago – unequivocally yes – but I recognise this now as an immature and rather unenlightened view. It’s more a question of insight and self-awareness, and how we attain that state is more a letting go than a mastery of events. To answer for sure we would have to know what was in the heart of each of those men. Only then would it be revealed how truly big a life each had lived – because a big man with a small heart is still a small man.

It’s a mystery how and why life pops up to bear witness to itself from all these different perspectives. Nor at first glance does it seem necessary to Life that every detail of it be recorded for posterity. It will, for example,  be no great loss to the world when these words sink to that great sedimentary mire that is the resting place of even the most prolific bloggers’ pontifications. Yet those of us who can write, should, because only by writing do we broaden the vision of life, not just for others but perhaps more importantly for ourselves.

So, think you’re big enough to be a writer? Answer: anyone is big enough to be a writer. Just don’t set out with the view that by writing you shall ever amount to anything more than what you are right now, at least when judged by the usual worldly measure of these things. That’s not the deal. You write because you write. You reflect life back upon itself, without judgment or expectation, and let life itself, in all its variety, decide through your words the measure of its own greatness.

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I keep my garden tidy as best I can, and I try to brighten bits of it up by growing flowers. The latter is very much a hit and miss affair, because, alas, I’m not much of a gardener, still making the same mistakes I made thirty years ago. Having said all that, I do love my garden.

From a purely practical perspective, gardening is futile – you pull the weeds, you run a hoe through the borders, and within a week, fresh weeds are settling in once more. You can work all you like, the whole year through, but turn your back on it for a moment – say while you go away on holiday – and sure enough, on your return, the weeds are knee high, obliterating any tidiness you’ve created. You’d be better covering it in concrete – except there’s nothing like a bit of green for losing yourself in, nothing quite like running your fingers through the tangles of nature’s locks and seeing her shine.

I spent the whole of Sunday weeding, knowing full well that what I was doing would be overwhelmed in no time by nature’s relentless passion for a more uniformly shaggy look, and I wondered what trace would be left of where I’d been, say in a month? And what of another ten years? Another twenty? Maybe by then I would have sold the house to someone else, who might indeed cover the garden in concrete or excavate it for a swimming pool. Try as you might, suburban gardening is no way to make a lasting mark upon the earth. They say there’s nothing like a garden for teaching you about the cycle of the seasons, and that’s true, but there’s also nothing like a garden for bringing home to you the impermanence of things.

My weeds were knee-high in places, and those that weren’t were thickly knotted in a clay-soil, still black and heavy after rains. I worked methodically, forking out the weeds and tossing them into the trug. Then I lugged the trug to the green waste bin, and returned to where I’d left off. I kept this up all day – nurturing a sense of satisfaction at the progress I was making. Yes, it’s a pointless exercise, but I know of nothing else that can leave you feeling quite so mellow at the end of the day.

It’s an idealisation of nature, this gardening business, this “tidying up” – the weeding, the manicured lawn, the nicely painted fence and shed, the floral displays; it’s an attempt to harmonise our dwelling within its little patch of mother earth. There’s no vanity in this, provided our point is not to outshine our neighbours of course, but more simply to submit ourselves to the experience and spend time with our fingers in the earth. If we can do this we will eventually arrive at a state where we do not mind the ephemeral nature of the impact we think we’re having.

We do not mind the futility of it.

We do not mind that we are nobody in the face of nature, and that when we finally hang up our trowel and shuffle off to that great garden in the sky, there’ll be no lasting trace of us left on mother earth at all.

And that’s the way it should be.

I don’t know if I’m there yet, at this sublime level of acceptance, but it’s where I seem to be heading.

The weeds will return, just like the moss will re-infest my lawn until it’s like walking over a sphagnum bog, and the slugs will eat my hostas and my strawberries, as soon as they work out where I’ve put them. There really is no labourless solution to these things and we should not chase them. Like life itself, gardening is a process of continual application; we turn up, we get stuck in where we can, and we try to make a difference,… but also like life, when we’re weary of it, it can leave us wondering about the point of things.

One of the biggest psychological challenges we face, whether we’re on some kind of mystical path or not, is reconciling our apparently infinitesimal smallness with the feeling we are each of us of infinite worth, that what we do somehow matters, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I believe we do matter, as individuals, but I also believe that in order to attain our greatest potential, we have to undergo the trial of making ourselves very small indeed, of sacrificing our ego, our imaginary sense of self worth. It’s not easy, for in losing our ego, there’s a fear we are also losing the most vital part of our selves. But it seems this is not the case.

Being nobody, going nowhere. It’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from Buddhism because it encapsulates much of the angst we’re haunted by: that we’re nobody, going nowhere. It’s unthinkable. I mean,… if that’s really what life is like, then what’s the point? We instinctively resist it, because whether we’re rich or poor, there is always the urge to be more than we are, to feel ourselves going places, getting promotion, moving on, moving up the ladder – for how else are we to demonstrate our worth in the world, both to others, and to our own selves?

I’m fortunate in this sense, having recognised early on I simply didn’t have the nerve for it – this “getting on” business. I’ve not done too badly, as an engineering drone, embedded in the collective of a big company – and 35 years of continuous employment is a blessing in these uncertain times – but I’m careful to mind my craft and leave the managing of it to others. I’ve only to spend a few days in the company of the managerial classes to find myself in desperate need of solitude and Tai Chi. How you cope with the soul denying stresses at an executive level, or the Punch and Judy of politics, I just don’t know. It seems an unnatural way to live, at least for me, and I can only surmise they’re a more resilient breed – and thank God for it because the world would be a materially poorer place if everyone was such a timid little field-mouse as I am.

But in our pursuit of material success, it’s easy to forget the real challenge of our lives is to discover the secret of a true and lasting happiness, also to feel the suffering of our fellow beings and to adopt an attitude of compassion, regardless of the social sphere we find ourselves inhabiting, regardless too of our personal nature, and our abilities. It’s a road with many a twist and turn, and one of the earliest insights is that material goods, wealth, and material success don’t make us happy for very long.

We will always want more.

We all know this.

If we think back to the moments when we were happiest, we realise our happiness had its roots in other things – things like the love of others, or the awe we’ve felt at glimpsing an underlying, mystical quality to the natural world. Such things loosen us up, they have us smiling to ourselves and feeling good, even though these days the  material world seems to be in freefall, because true happiness is always non-material by nature. Do you think two devoted lovers coming together right now, for the first time, care much about the parlous state of the Eurozone? Economists can wring their hands all they like, parade their funereal expressions on the TV news, and, grave though things appear to be, these pundits will always look ridiculous if you can only see the world from a transcendent perspective. And what is more transcendent than love for someone else, or to feel oneself loved, or to feel a genuine compassion for someone else’s pain?

One of the most significant mileposts along life’s mystical path is this acceptance of our anonymity in the great scheme of the material world, an acceptance that really, in life at least, we are nobody and we are going nowhere, that we will leave no lasting trace of our presence, other than perhaps a vague smattering in the gene-pool. It sounds like a miserable recognition of the bare facts of one’s nameless, fleeting life, but it needn’t be so if, in accepting our anonymity, we also seek a personal relationship with whomever, or whatever we think might be in charge of the non-material underpinnings of the universe. It’s like one of those infuriating little paradoxes quoted at you by Zen Masters: to truly realise your self-importance, you must first let go of it.

My garden’s been overwhelmed in recent years by a particularly invasive crocosoma. I planted it for its beautiful flame like flowers. It blooms gloriously for a few weeks in July, but the rest of the time great bunches of drab leaves droop all over the lawn, killing off the grass. It also multiplies with impressive vigour, so I’ve been thinning it out, digging up the bulbs – and discovering other bulbs among them: forgotten daffodils, and the tiny white pickled onion-like bulbs of the bluebells.

Curious thing, a bulb. Slice one open and it looks pretty much like any other. I remember in biology classes, how we drew the cross section of a bulb and carefully labelled all its bits and pieces. And I thought to myself, that’s all well and good, but where’s the part that determines the coming into being of say a crocosoma? And how does it differ from a bluebell, or a daffodil, or an onion for that matter, when, materially at least, they look like pretty much the same thing?

It’s still a mystery. Even biology professors cannot spark life from a handful of materials, no matter how cunningly they’re arranged. We cannot manufacture DNA, we must always borrow it from nature. There is more to the universe than matter. To get anywhere near an understanding of it we have to abandon our materialist orthodoxy. We have to dare to speculate that somewhere underlying the material world, there might be an invisible matrix wherein resides the information for the unfolding of the whole of creation. The changes, the development and the evolution of species takes place first in this so-called morphogenetic field. So the difference between a crocosoma and a daffodil lies at a deeper level, more subtle than the one we can easily see.

And like the crocosoma, so the human being unfolds to a pattern written at the same subtle level. But it’s not a static pattern, no more than nature is a static phenomenon. It can be changed, influenced by feedback from the material world, by what works, what doesn’t, but also by our thoughts and feelings.

As I turned out to work this morning, the lawn sparkled under a veneer of dewdrops, like fairy dust, and seemed all greener and more beautiful for being highlighted by the worked soil of the weed-free borders. It pleased me to see it. I caught a glimpse of something in it.

I’m sure we each make a difference, and we each mean something, if only by virtue of our unique perspective, our unique way of looking at the world, so the world can see itself through our eyes in a myriad different ways. Where we do not make a difference is by shouting the odds, nor by standing on the necks of others to get what we want. Proper stewardship of the material world is very important of course. There are so many of us alive now, and dependent on mother earth, we need managers and executives and politicians with extraordinary qualities of insight, leadership and selflessness, or the world’s suffering in the years to come will be immense, and the staggering gulf between those who have and those who have not, will widen even further. Some might say that judging by past and current performance we’ve not much to look forward to. But I remain optimistic.

What are we to do then? We who are too timid, or feeling ourselves too small and helpless in the face of the overwhelming power others seem to have over us – the shouters, the stampers, the “look-at-me’s”, and those who look with cockeyed grins and raised eyebrows at our non-materialist, transcendentalist aspirations? Well, accepting we are nobody, and going nowhere isn’t about reconciling ourselves to a lowly position in the foodchain, while others enjoy lifestyles of outrageous excess – though that may often be the way things work out for us anyway. It’s more about grasping the crucial insight of the shallowness of those materialistic values. It’s about the sense of knowing, that if you can look at the world and see beauty in it, anywhere, and if through that beauty you can manifest a profound happiness, or an uncanny sense of the otherness of things, no matter how fleeting or seemingly trivial, then becoming nobody, going nowhere, you also become one with God, and in that moment you too acquire the power to change the world.

Use it wisely, we must.

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