As a claustrophobic, the idea of being shuttered in a five-by-five room over an extended period of time is not appealing. And what is not appealing from a descriptive distance is even less appealing in reality: Some visceral scream erupts and will not be denied no matter what the rational soothings of others.
I knew all this even before I sat down on a hard-wood stool in front of a microphone in a coffin-like sound booth yesterday. Below the microphone, there was one of those flimsy collapsible music stands on which to put the papers from which I planned to read. The music stand made the room seem even smaller, if that were possible. I was mildly worried about making the mistakes I was bound to make when reading for 40 minutes straight and I was worried, below the surface, that my surroundings would actualize the death I viscerally imagined.
Outside my coffin, Steve Unkles sat in front of an array of sound equipment, keeping an eye on the levels of my voice. But I couldn't see him. I was alone, wrapped in the burial shroud of a very small room. Later he would say, "That was about an A-minus," but sound recording is what puts spaghetti on his table, so I wouldn't be surprised if he said that to all his clients.
Roughly, the situation was eek ... and I was nevertheless determined to see it through. Really determined ... I didn't care, somewhere within, if I dropped dead in the process. I didn't care that I was spending a $200 I could ill afford on a fixed income. I didn't care if I was scared. I didn't care if it required more energy than I could easily expend. This was important ...
It was more important than what anyone else said; more important than if someone else agreed; more important, even, than if I called it 'important' ... which is to say that the crescendo of importance was not really all that important at all. It was, on nobody's terms but my own, worth dying for ... I knew it and was at peace, however antsy I might be. And later I would be well and truly exhausted.
A Modern Monk's Tale," a work by John Cavanagh who died Sept. 9. Cavanagh was once a Trappist monk and in that capacity he had brought various sexual malfeasances to the attention to his superiors ... and then been forced out of the church. The essay was well written and as a human tale it reached me, but, having read and been touched by it, I then conceived the notion of reading it aloud and putting it on YouTube. Why? Because it was ... important. To me, really important.
And that's what interests me this morning ... importance.
For my money, if anyone wants to assure a little peace in this life, s/he has to enter -- and be consumed by -- a realm that is deeply important. But importance is an interesting critter and one that deserves honest investigation. Lip service or emotional crescendos may sound important ... but check it out.
"Family is important," "life is important," "war is important," "death is important," "injustice is important," "money is important," "love is important," "freedom is important," "chocolate is important," "I am important" ... the list is literally endless and with each new assertion of importance, the "importance" shapeshifts. This is the kind of importance that relies on the agreement of others ... there's the importance and then there is the importance of finding agreement. In this sort of importance, something is always held back, no matter how 'sincere' anyone might be. And that holding back means that peace is forever elusive. Peace is not a matter of approval; it is a matter of actualized life, right now. Anything -- including reading an essay into a microphone -- can be important ... anything at all. But the true importance ... well, that's a personal matter that is utterly impersonal.
When I was into what I think of as a Marine Corps phase of Zen Buddhism, I considered what I was doing to be important. I was determined and I could come up with a lot of self-serving reasons why it was important to me and also to some universal deeeeep-meaning. This was profound, I was serious and it was all important. My determination to practice meditation (zazen) 40 or more hours a week meant, in one sense, that it was important ... but how important was it?
The lucky thing about what I considered important (zazen) was that in the midst of being important, my right knee might begin to hurt like the fires of hell or my mind might find itself in a swirling mass of joy or anger or anguish. In the face of such facts, the 'importance' of what I was doing was brought up short. This was a reality check. My sense of what was important was limited ... socially acceptable to some or even me, perhaps, but still limited. When my right knee ignited with pain, well, fuck all that important stuff! What had been merely important became through-and-through important. But how important was that?
Once upon a time, I came into email correspondence with a former army colonel whose son, a lieutenant, had been killed in the Vietnam war. I had seen the man on TV and he struck me as a balanced and thoughtful person ... so I wrote to him and he wrote back. The idea that this man's son had died before him struck me as unutterably sad and I approached with some gingerness and awe. But when I asked about his sense of the import and meaning of war, one of the things he wrote back was, "Perhaps virtue is its own reward."
And maybe that's what he truly believed or, better yet, actually knew. But the observation made and makes me want to throw up. What does real life -- important life -- have to do with virtue, a commodity that forever puts one's life in another's hands?!
I'm not saying this man was in some sense wrong, but right and wrong simply don't apply to peace. Right and wrong apply to practical importances and peace is not practical. Anyone might, as a matter of practice, start with what is practical and seemingly sensible and socially agreeable. There may be practice of what is important and that practice may lead to what is truly important, but what is truly important has no particular importance. As Shunryu Suzuki once observed when asked the importance of zazen, "It's important, but it's not that important."
And isn't that the way for anyone -- it's important, but it's not that important. Moments come and moments go, each complete and consuming and inescapable. Vast, vast importance ... vast, living importance -- every second of every day -- and it's not that important.
Hold nothing back. Dive into the swimming pool. Climb out of the swimming pool into a new swimming pool. Cool and clear and relaxed.
It's a perfectly peaceful matter. Effortless.
Might as well get with the program.