Yesterday whilst indulging in the diurnal ritual of my postprandial parboil (a warm baking soda bath which helps the Vectibix-induced skin condition and incidentally has the effect of profoundly exhausting me), Lisa Costello and I had a talk about what a terrible Buddhist I’d make. My observation was that in my extremely limited understanding of the practice, one of the keys of Buddhism was releasing the death-grip that most of us keep on our inner narrative and sense of self. Given that I pretty much define myself by my inner narrative, this strikes me as an improbable stepping stone on any path to enlightenment I might ever follow.
Somewhat to my surprise, Lisa disagreed with me.
We got into a long(ish) talk about how narrative relates to external reality, the nature of truth and what people tend to want to hold on to, mind-body dualism, and a few other related light conversational topics. As I’ve often said on this blog, I’m a relentless empiricist, firmly moored in the world of logos, who doesn’t have any trouble acknowledging the value and power of mythos as a key component of human existence. Including my own personal version of mythos.
My sometimes ugly public quarrels with religion and the religious have entirely to do with people confusing their personal beliefs with some form of objective truth, and then projecting that confusion into the public square to the detriment of both themselves and the rest of society. When it comes to religion, I am a First Amendment absolutist. I will defend to the death your right to worship as you please (and equally my right to find your worship ridiculous); and I will defend to the death my right to be entirely free of the pleasures of your worship.
In the faith-holding sense, I don’t believe in anything. The universe just is, evolution and thermodynamics don’t require my spiritual assent to exist, any more than gravity or climate change or tomatoes do. That’s not to say I’m some mindless, amoral spiritual void. My mythos is always aboil, bubbling over, as anyone who’s ever read my fiction can probably attest. I just don’t confuse the structures of my consciousness with the external reality of the world.
And cancer, like a morning hanging, has a way of focusing the mind. Cancer, at least my path of it, has seized my narrative, and will likely drive me for the rest of my life, whether to an early grave or to a long and thoughtful post-disease survivorship.
I would be a terrible Buddhist these days because the literalized metaphor of my suffering is written in scars across my body, in the daily convulsions of my stomach and my bowels, in the despair and fear and occasional triumph of my thoughts. I live in the valley of the shadow of death, and there is no one here to succor me except myself, and those whose hands reach back from the light beyond.
This suffering would make me a terrible Buddhist, because it keeps me too focused on my sense of self and my narrative in this world. But it might be making me a better human being. At least I love more thoughtfully and live more carefully than I used to. If I am coming to believe in anything in the faith-holding sense, it is that I have come to believe in my own death. Which is of course the least surprising aspect of life.
The narrative? She keeps changing.