December 31, 2007

I haven't felt the way I feel today...

I hadn't intended to write a summation of the old year/intentions for the new year-type blog, but I've been thinking about this Incubus song more and more lately and the time seems apropo to explain its impact on me. I've posted the lyrics before, so apologies to anyone for whom this is repetitive:

"Nice to Know You"

Better than watching Gellar bending silver spoons.
Better than witnessing newborn nebulaes in bloom.
She who sees from 'up high' smiles and surely sings.
Perspective pries your once weighty eyes and it
gives you wings.

I haven't felt the way I feel today
in so long it's hard for me to specify.
I'm beginning to notice how much this feels
like a waking limb... pins and needles,
nice to know you, goodbye!

Deeper than the deepest Cousteau would ever go.
And higher than the heights of what we often think we know.
Blessed She who clearly sees the wood for the trees.
To obtain a 'bird's eye' is to turn a blizzard to a breeze.

I haven't felt the way I feel today
in so long it's hard for me to specify.
I'm beginning to notice how much this
feels like a waking limb... pins and needles,
nice to know you... Goodbye!

So could it be that it has been there all along?

Now I unfortunately have to admit that, sometimes, I'm a bit dense. I didn't totally get this song at first. It's always stirred a strong emotional response in me, but for a long while I wondered just what lyricist Brandon Boyd was saying goodbye to. My instinctive response was to hone in on the euphoria the song made me feel, which is very similar to that inspired by "Wish You Were Here", in which he beautifully describes a moment of serene contentment and the desire to share it. When, in "Nice to Know You", he sings "I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long", I related the words to experiencing a state of joy after being stuck in a long period of doldrums. But if Brandon were singing about a joyous mood, why would that be something to say goodbye to and let go of? So where I grasped the simplicity of "Wish You Were Here" immediately, "Nice to Know You" left me exuberant but puzzled. It turns out that I wasn't totally off-base, but I was missing the connection necessary to get the full meaning of the song. Then I found this old quote from Brandon:

I had a moment in my life about a year ago where I was way too close to everything that was going on and I was blind, I felt like I was asleep. And the clouds parted for kind of a strange reason and I gained perspective. What happened was my hand had fallen asleep on the airplane on the way to Europe and it remained asleep for about 10 days, which was kind of scary. I must have pinched a nerve or something. But as my hand started waking up, the clouds started breaking away from that emotional state as well. The two happened simultaneously, so I created a simple metaphor for it. So it's basically a song about gaining perspective on a situation.

Kapow. Not only does that make more sense than my original interpretation, it also makes the song so much more meaningful.

As a self-proclaimed "student of Buddhism", I've read a fair amount about enlightenment, which is sometimes described as waking up or an awakening. Better people than I have written about this more coherently than I could ever hope to. In fact, according to Brad Warner in Hardcore Zen, the Soto school of Zen Buddhism actually shies away from discussing the idea of enlightenment at all because it's basically ineffable. If it were so easy for our intellects to grasp, it'd be way easier to achieve. But, for the sake of this blog, I'll go ahead and say that my impression of enlightenment is that it's the ultimate state of perspective. It's stepping back from all of our desires and aversions, our assumptions and expectations, and seeing things as they really are. Beyond that, it's not just seeing them that way, but actually experiencing and dealing with true reality as it is. There's way more to it than I could begin to sum up here, but this little nutshell description is sufficient for the topic at hand **

So, while I understand on an intellectual level the idea of dropping delusion and dealing with reality, I've yet to actually grasp and live it any more than any other average schmoe. It's not as if one day the alarm clock goes off, you lift your head off your pillow and swing your legs off the side of the bed and into nirvana. It takes a commitment and then continual effort to strip away all the illusions and delusions and bullshit that we all cling to and swear are "reality". It's really very much like the metaphor Brandon created for "Nice to Know You": We sleep-walk through much of our life, sometimes feeling that the world is ok and things are good, but more often stuck in a state of dukkha, a Buddhist term that's translated in various ways from "suffering" all the way to merely "unsatisfactory experience". Brad Warner takes a different angle on it and describes dukkha as "idealism":

When you look at things from an idealistic viewpoint, everything sucks... Nothing can possibly live up to the ideals and fantasies you've created. So we suffer because things are not the way we think they ought to be. Rather than face what really is, we prefer to retreat and compare what we're living through with the way we think it oughtta be. Suffering comes from the comparison between the two.

So the trick is to shake out that metaphorical limb that's fallen asleep, to wake up and take off those idealistic blinders. What makes that so hard is those damned prickly pins and needles, our desires and aversions. Here's more from Brad:

...the origination of suffering [is] our wish that things be different from what they are when they cannot possibly be. Things can never be other than they are... So the "desire" often spoken of by Buddhist teachers isn't just the fact that we desire that big car or that busty redhead... Everyone has desires. We can't live without them. Nor should we. The problem isn't that we have desires and needs. It's that we have a compulsive (and ultimately stupid!) desire for our lives to be something other than what they actually are... The problem is the way we let our desires stand in the way of our enjoyment of what we already have.

Letting go of our intense attachment to those desires is like the blood trying to re-circulate in that sleeping limb. It hurts like hell, but if we want to get rid of the pins'n'needles we've gotta let it happen. Otherwise, we end up either remaining numb and asleep, or stuck in that prickly, unsatisfactory state.

In my own case, a couple of years of reading about Buddhism did nothing for me but put me through a series of waking limbs: I'd read something that really struck a chord and I'd set the intention to follow the Path, only to have personal issues and my habitual responses to those issues throw me right back into a state of dukkha. 2007 was a particularly chaotic year, what with an increasingly meaningless job, illnesses of my own and those of family members and, finally, having to euthanise my cat the week before Christmas. Over the last couple months of the past year, there've been two things that carried me through and seemed to begin lifting me out of the sleeping state I'd become stuck in-- Incubus' music and Brad Warner's books. Warner's shown me a form of Buddhism that I can fully embrace, and finally grasping the full meaning of "Nice to Know You" has woken me up and helped me to step back from the things I was too close to. As this new year begins, I'd like to say "pins and needles, nice to know you, goodbye!", but I know it's too soon for that. What I can say is this: "I haven't felt the way I feel today in so long, it's hard for me to specify..."

** If you're really interested in a more thorough explanation of Buddhism in general and enlightenment in particular, I highly recommend both of Warner's books: Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up. Great stuff, especially if you, like me, are leery of concepts such as "reincarnation" and "loving-kindness".

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