Friday, January 22, 2010

Zen and Memoir

At one time my Zen training kept showing me how I kept inventing and responding to stories thrown forth by my fertile mind. "Stories" was a word my Teacher, Daniel Terragno, seemed to favor as he tried to shake me loose from my iron grip on this passing, constructed self.

My graduate study was in narrative theory, so I theorized about this story thing. A story is a fiction; that's fundamental. It's made up. It is not what happened or what is happening right now. What does Zen say? Something like, The moment you say a word you have lost it.
It is possible to be quite lost in your story about your reality, not only dreaming during meditation but when you are up off the cushion supposedly engaged with reality. For instance, when I was 20 I had a story about what I felt entitled to: "I shouldn't have to work at a crummy clerical job." Much later I found that story was encumbered with feelings of frustration and with judgments and expectations. I felt demeaned by clerical work. I hated it. It bored me. I believed myself entitled to interesting, highly-paid work. I couldn't even stand to look at the fact that I should have stayed in college. Don't Want, in other words. Preference. Pain avoided and amplified. It's really hard to grow up.

Our stories about our past lives can get much more elaborate than that. What my mother should be like, what kind of father I deserved, how uniquely I suffered. Indeed, a lot of people have had very painful pasts, even here in the most widespread luxury any humans have ever enjoyed (and what a lesson there is in that). The American model of recovery from a painful past is often to talk about it. In 12-Step meetings, people get up and tell that story, a verbal memoir of suffering and redemption. We might also do this with our friends. I knew a woman who always got around to the thin stream of her misery. I don't see her anymore.

This is what "confessional" memoirists usually do - they invent a coherent story that uses selected pixels from the huge junkyard of their past, and knits them together into a story with a narrative arc, a beginning and an end. It will begin with their despair or dissolution and show us how they achieved redemption, or at least a peaceful wholesome life. (Won't it be interesting to see how Tiger Woods tells that story?) I understand that many psychotherapists believe that humans can't change much, that it is their job to get the patient past the crisis that brought him in, maybe give him some hope.

I benefited from therapy and was also harmed by it, so I don't speak for or against it, just to say that it's my nature not to be satisfied with small goals. I took to Zen and the idea of enlightenment with a lot of enthusiasm. I believed happiness was possible, that life could routinely include joy and satisfaction, and a sense of freedom, and security. At least, I was going to shoot for that. So I meditated. Listened to tapes, bought and read books, lots of books, studied. Went on retreats.

And I kept hearing from the Teachers that my past did not exist, my life was not a story at all. Just here, they would say. Right here. I was encouraged to notice as I sat that a story would arise from my brain like a thin twist of smoke from incense. To back off and realize it was just another story, to hold still and keep breathing, to let the story fade away.

There were years during this process when I did write memoir, telling the painful stories of family members who died unhappy during this time and left me grieving. I never published any of it. As the years go on, those people become more real and complex to me, and I realize that I didn't have "a relationship" with any one of them, but a stream of many, many encounters, some close, some frustrating. From this I learned something more true and painful than I could have ever written: they are dead. People die and then they are dead, and the opportunity to sit and listen to them is gone forever. The past is dead. Maybe memoir can be a memorial - I hadn't thought of that until now - but it won't bring them back.


  1. It's so funny, I wanted this post to keep going and going - guess I was into your narrative. As a writer and journal editor who studied creative writing in grad school, I've had a lot of discussions about memoir. And as a "zen person," a lot of discussions about psychology, therapy, and the place for all of that within a spiritual practice.

    In some ways, the rise (again) of memoir seemed to be tied with our collective obsession with misery and broken narratives, as well as a longing to repair that damage. But it feels warped to me. People gawk at the horrible, retell the awful, and then somehow think they'll be better on the other side.

    On the other hand, the trouble with some of the Buddhism occurring in the U.S. is that we focus so much on the present that there is a loss of awareness about the past, and it's impact on the present. Karma gets tossed out the window, and people try to "just be now," and then wonder why that now sucks so terribly much.

    It's seems to me that the stories are both completely fictional, and also something we need to "take care of" - as Reb Anderson Roshi from San Francisco Zen Center has said. The question is what kind of caring is being called for ... still working on that one I guess.

  2. I've been accused of making choices in a vaccum. It's not that I don't respect the opinions of others, it's just that I wonder what we're talking about when we talk about the future or the past or what something may "be like."

    It's such a tough pill to swallow, that all you have is this second, and the rest is either prophecy or history...I can know that, but I can't live it.

    I think it's easier to let the past go; what can I do? But the future? One more chance to play God...who can resist?