Often a spiritual quest begins with the word but. I have everything I need to make me happy, but I am not happy . . .
For my neighbor Sally, the quest began many years ago in a villa in southern France. It was a beautiful villa, covered with bougainvillea and facing the Mediterranean, and she was in the company of loving friends. “But I just couldn’t be happy,” she remembers. One restless, fitful night, she came across a book left behind by a previous guest. It was The Autobiography of a Yogi, and it led her to the practice that she has followed ever since. As for Prince Siddhartha: His parents made sure that he had everything on earth to make him happy. He lived in a beautiful palace and roamed through lush gardens and enjoyed the company of loving friends and bountiful food and . . .
Notice the and’s? They were not enough to keep the but from his life.
The but of an old man, a sick man, a corpse . . .
One day these sights pierced through the shield of and’s that the king and queen had made for their son. The minarets and the marble, the jasmine and honeysuckle, the silks and sweets, the laughter, music, and dancing: All these could not shield the prince from the but of suffering that he discovered outside the palace gate.
Outside: The word but derives from the Latin ob, meaning “out.” Suffering is what we want to keep out, but somehow it always gets into our lives.
It doesn’t always come in a strong dose. Sometimes it’s subtle, homeopathic.
When I was fifteen, I fell in love with a boy I met when I twisted my ankle and my ski went flying over a cliff in the Haute-Savoie mountains in France. A handsome, dark-haired boy took off over the cliff and, nearly an hour later, handed me the ski that had plunged into a deep ravine. His name was Michel.
He attended a Jesuit boarding school in the nearby village, where he’d been sent for being unruly. When I visited him there, in his cell-like room, he read me the poems of his favorite poet, Rimbaud, the “enfant terrible.” Then he showed me the secret stash of candy and cigarettes that he kept in a hollowed-out Bible. We went to the Mardi Gras celebration at his school that night, and he went as Lazarus, wrapped in a white sheet. That was Michel, always defying something: a sheer cliff, a school’s rules, the idea of death . . .
We met several times again that year when Michel was visiting his parents in Paris, which was where my family was spending the year. Shortly before our return to California, Michel’s parents invited me to spend the following summer with them in their chalet in the high French Alps.
Now, between our handful of vivid moments from the past and the summer’s wide-open future, Michel and I had just enough raw matter to spin a dense web of fantasy. Back in California, I set my alarm clock an hour early on school nights so I’d have time to wake up and read his letters and to imagine, again and again, the scene of our reunion. After a long journey, my train pulls up to the village station. Through the window I see a stone clock-tower, surrounded by white mountain peaks. And there he is. Waiting for me on the platform: handsome, dark-haired Michel. I step off the train, and we rush into each other’s arms.
At last the long school year came to an end, and I flew to Paris by myself and took the night train that winds through the heart of France, from Paris all the way to Provence. Too excited to sleep on my narrow berth, I lay there in the dark, wrapped in my web of revery.
At dawn’s light, I looked out and saw meadows of wildflowers flying by, villages built of dark wood and stone, and brilliant white peaks in the distance. . .
By late morning, the train arrived at the tiny village called Puy-St. Vincent. I stepped off the train and there he was, waiting for me: handsome, dark-haired Michel. We rushed toward each other, just as I had imagined. But in the moment of embracing him, I looked over his shoulder and saw a small pink plastic lobster lying on the ground. Even in the bliss of being in his arms, I felt the shock of the alien thing, the thing that—in all those hours of daydreaming—I’d never once imagined.
It is thirty-four years since I stepped off the train in Puy-St. Vincent, and Michel died long ago in an avalanche on Mt. Everest. Yet there’s a way that the moment of seeing the small pink lobster over his shoulder has happened again and again.
It’s the moment of the but. The moment when something outside the pale of our own dreams, desires, expectations, intrudes. “But this wasn’t in my plans! This is not what I had in mind!” Indeed, that summer in the Alps bore no resemblance to the summer I’d set my clock to dream of, morning after morning, in California. Unable to live up to the months of fantasy, my relationship with Michel quickly unraveled—and there I was, far from home, stuck for weeks in a house with a sullen boy who barely spoke to me. Looking back, it would be easy to see the lobster as a sinister omen. Yet from the first moment, I sensed it was a different kind of messenger. I didn’t have words for it then, but somehow I knew that this was a small monster calling to me with life’s big question: Can you include the outside, alien thing in the embrace?
To truly answer this question is to come up against the very edge of the human psyche. For from the very beginning, what we desire is and. The very opposite of but, the word and is linked to “in,” and our life begins in utero. For the human infant, bliss is the and that comes as close as possible to that primal in: I am here and you are here and when I open my mouth your milk is in me and I am in your arms.
Alas, from the very beginning, the but intrudes. Even the most attentive mother cannot fail to fail her infant at times: A hungry stomach aches, a wet diaper chafes, the bath water is too hot or too cold. . . In the mouth of even the luckiest baby, sharp teeth soon intrude in the soft site of pleasure.
Yet our whole lives long, we go on wanting a version of the primal and. We fall in love, and we think we’ve found it again. My first two weeks in Puy-St. Vincent were blissful. Michel and I swam in deep blue mountain lakes and hiked to where the world seemed nothing but glacier, rock, and clouds. Following the sound of a hundred small bells, we found the trail that led to the village shepherd: Bernard, a young man who spent his life alone with a hundred sheep. Back in the village, we had long, communal meals with his family and neighbors; we played volleyball in the evenings as the snowy mountains turned a flamboyant pink; we joined with other teenagers to help restore the crumbling Roman chapel, polishing old paintings with raw potato halves and hearing each other’s mock confessions in the carved wooden booth. As a gift to Michel’s family, I’d brought a beautiful white Mexican wedding hammock. Michel hung it up between two pine trees, and we loved to lie in it, swinging out over the blue valley, murmuring to each other as we’d longed to during all those months of ink on paper. Whatever the words, in English or French, their import was this: You are here and I am here and you are in my arms and I am in your arms and this moment will go on and on and on.
In spite of my efforts to stay neutral, I got drawn into an escalating drama between Michel and his mother. She was terrified of his growing passion for scaling mountains, always higher and more inaccessible mountains. Deep down, she must have known where it would lead.
I sympathized with her—and for this, Michel cut me off.
But this isn’t what I wanted! This isn’t how I thought it would be. . .
Inevitably, we fall out of the hammock of bliss, the Garden of Eden. In some form or another, whether subtle or huge, the but arrives to thwart our desire.
Is this the end of the story?
For there is another but, a but within the but of sorrow and disappointment. The poet Rilke knows this when he writes:
Fear not suffering, the sadness—
Give it back to the weight of the earth.
The mountains are heavy, heavy the oceans.
Ah, but the breezes, ah, but the spaces—
Breezes . . . spaces . . . what is this but that can blow through our lives, softening the hard mountain of suffering, opening us to something beyond the contraction of sorrow?
One night in the village of Puy-St. Vincent, a painful dream jolted me out of sleep with the words “I can’t take this anymore!” Michel’s iciness was unyielding, and I felt overcome with hurt and homesickness. I got out of bed and threw open the heavy wooden shutters. The black sky swirled with stars over the luminous white mountains. The scale of everything out there was so vast, and as I leaned into it, I felt something happening inside me. It was something very soft—like a breeze—yet forceful, and inside the walls of my chest, it pressed against something that wanted to shut down.
The feeling was painful, as though I might burst, yet it brought an exquisite relief. It helped me to discover a buoyancy in the heart of the heaviness, and I was able to stay through the summer. Michel remained sullen, but I made other friends, grew close to his family, and made my own bond with the mountains. When, on my last night, I stood outside his door and said, “Bonsoir, Michel,” he threw open the door and asked me to forgive him.
Two years later, when I met a monk from Thailand who taught me how to meditate, I knew I’d found a link to that sustaining buoyancy. Though I was sitting in the basement of a college dormitory in Ohio, when I followed my breath, I was opening those heavy wooden shutters again, inviting the breeze to come in, in . . .
In Buddhism, the but of suffering—the old man, the sick man, the corpse—is met by the but of the path. “Existence is suffering,” said the Buddha Gautama, “but there is a path to liberation.” When we sit quietly in meditation, but after but presents itself. “But I don’t want to feel this pain in my knees . . . this drowsiness . . . this restlessness . . . this anger . . . this grief . . . I can’t bear to sit here anymore. I want out!”
Yet something remarkable happens when we go on sitting through all the but’s, through all the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that we would so like to oust. Gradually they begin to feel less alien, less like ob-stacles in the way, rocks in the path. Our deepening awareness becomes a kind of dew, falling on everything equally, allowing everything to sparkle. Once, in the midst of a meditation retreat, a friend went for a walk in the woods and found to her amazement that the litter was beautiful. Rusty cans, a beer bottle lying on pine needles: Everything was shining like a jewel. Once, after three months in a Zen monastery, I was taking a night flight home across the country, when I became aware of a constriction in my chest: my fear of dying in a plane crash. With difficulty, I brought my attention to the fear, and then something began to happen, something that had the same huge energy as the airplane, plowing so forcefully into the night. The fear of flying disappeared and—like the lens of a kaleidoscope narrowing, then opening out again into a different configuration—a new fear appeared, then another, and another. Cancer, fire, the death of loved ones. . . . Then fear turned to grief: the heartbreak of Michel, my parents’ divorce, lost friends. . . . Each fear, each grief arose in a vivid display of color and shape that, amazingly, had its own perfection, like one shimmering firework after another. Faced with the sheer power of this display, there was no room for fear or grief—only awe, and a sense of immense relief as each fear, each grief melted away.
This magnificent melting was not an experience that I could sustain in its intensity: The plane came back down to ground on the other side of the continent, and I too had to come back to ground. But the experience radically altered my sense of horizon, my understanding of what the human mind can encompass.
Notice the but there? It’s a but with a double edge. At times, when confidence deserts us, when we contract with pain or fear or doubt, the past experience of that infinitely expanding horizon sustains us, encouraging us to rediscover it anew. “I can’t quite see it now, but I know it’s there.” At other times, the past experience seems to indict us, to accuse us of having let the hard-won jewel slip through our fingers. “I had such a powerful experience of release, but now I’m bound again.” Thisbut can be the hardest passage of all. It’s as though, having once belted out “Amazing Grace,” we now have to sing it backwards: “For I was found, but now I’m lost; could see, but now I’m blind. . .”
This is the but that the medieval mystic Julien of Norwich acknowledges in her description of the “rising” and “falling” of the spiritual life. “If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
And who was Julien of Norwich? The Queen of and. Her famous words “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” are spoken to those who have passed through the but—again and again and again. As Julien tells us, it’s and that has the last word, ringing out like a bell in waves that encompass every sorrow. Yet without the but, we couldn’t fully hear this sound. We’d be like those poor beautiful people in the deva realm who, having never felt the least bit cut off from the primal and, can never experience the joy of return. So it is that I propose the humble word but as our own seed-syllable, sacred mantram, secret of human happiness, breeze through the heart of suffering, conduit to the inexhaustible well of and.
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