Irish poet Brendan McCormack, our brother in the Dharma, has pushed the ego’s “bitter and painful” consciousness-of-self to its time-bound limit. Next step is transcendence, often a bridge too far for Irish poets.
Perhaps because so few can bring themselves to swap sentimental attachment to their well-mapped landscape for the terra incognita of Detachment – or as it is more commonly called, Holy Indifference, or Ego Death, it will be interesting to see how McCormack uses his Zen acquired insights to cross that border.
Detachment first requires Humility. Pride goeth before a fall, we’re reliably told; and indeed, we find the landscape on the earth side of Nirvana littered with those who take pride in their achievements – their vaunted piety and superior knowledge, and the credentials that evidence such excellence. It surprises no one that they can spit out the muck to speak with absolute authority on the subject of Enlightenment.
Those who make it to the frontier survey the smoking ruins of their lives and have the decency to drop to their knees and say, with tears and agony, Mea culpa. It’s not a particularly notable admission. Usually, as their personal histories reveal, they’re the only ones left standing.
At the border, McCormack presents his passport. He doesn’t know whether or not it will be stamped. He knows only that he has at least earned the right to present it. He extends the precious book with Dublin wit as in his The Portrait.
I’d like to paint you.
Go ahead, I said.
Having a woman paint me
Would be a rare treat.
When she was finished
She showed me a painting
Of a dog licking his balls
And he had eyes that
Reminded me of someone.
There are other essentials. Detachment requires us to get our emotional teeth and claws out of the people and things of the material world and to get their teeth and claws out of us. For so long as we derive our sense of self, our identity, in terms of our relationships to other persons or things, we bind ourselves to the future and to the past. We attach our ego, like an umbilical cord, to whatever is “other”‘ and we reduce ourselves to fetal creatures who are dependent on those “others” for our sustenance. Attachment, therefore, is to possess or be possessed by someone or something outside ourselves.
“My” establishes that dependency. We forfeit our right to appreciate anything for what it is, and bestow upon the “other” the right to determine when we shall be happy and when we shall be miserable.
We enjoy baseball. Fine. But when it is “my” team that is playing, we surrender our enjoyment to the prejudices of winner and loser. It isn’t baseball any more. It is self-esteem, self-satisfaction, or else it is the whipping boy upon whom we hurl our anger and contempt.
Attachment says, “My team is better than your team.” This isn’t love of the game. It’s jingoistic nonsense, a vicarious participation. I have given “my” team the power to make me happy when it wins and to make me miserable when it loses. In this way we are bound to hope and reverie, future and past. The second hand sweep of our wristwatch tells us that time is inexorably moving, future-past, future-past. For those who are attached, there is no “now.”
Only when we are not prejudiced, when we have not prefixed a person or a thing with “my”, when we can observe with eyes that are not veiled by ego, can we observe clearly in that state of Holy Indifference. One does not have to be a balletomane to appreciate the beauty of any well executed double play. It is only when we attach ourselves to a specific team that the beauty of, say, a 4 to 3 to 5 play becomes dependent on whether “my” team is on base or whether “my” team is playing defense. And it is the same with everything we believe that we possess. It is always future gain and loss, or past gain and loss; and we oscillate between the poles of future and past until we’re stricken with an existential motion sickness, a “Sickness Unto Death.”
What do we attach to? Some things admit no other description. McCormack uses the word “my” exactly 10 times in his book of poems. Ten times and only once per use: “my mother”; “my father”; “my girls” (daughters); “my brother”; “my mind”‘; “my hand”; “my finger”; “my back yard”; “my window”; and “my pages.” Already we see him removing those tentacles of inane prejudice that suck our souls into monstrous oblivion. We find no “my friends:” or “my country” or “my religion.” Sentiment is leeching out of him. He wants to love for what it is and not for what it does for him.
Of course, Holy Indifference has its own Mount Everest. The moment we luxuriate in the Now we hear Kunti’s voice in the Mahabharata. “When one prefers one’s children to the children of another, war is near.” There is a reason Zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire, and achieving its goal, Detachment, is that reason.
What is true is Real. The Real World is defined as that which is unconditional, universal, immutable, and eternal. Eternal is to be outside of time; and this can occur only in the “ego-absent” immediate moment.
How do we arrest the flow of time and enter the Eternal Moment? What is the Wall that we must surmount? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Where is the Light that leads us out of darkness.
McCormack brushes aside facile explanations. Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? Sure, just as we assign directions – heaven is above and hell is below, the ancient mind sees hope in the east and fulfillment in the west. Student at dawn, master at sunset. He came to teach us The Way to surmount the Wall that lies on the other side of sunrise, to awaken us. The answers come from that “spiritual West.” But such explanations do not help us gain the goal.
It cannot be mere coincidence that someone who Quests finds himself in West Berlin during the 1980s. There is East and West and Wall and Ego Death and, though he did not know it when he arrived, there is Light in a museum.
As he first enters the Western sector he encounters the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Church which has been left as it was in 1943 to be a war memorial. In West Berlin, 1988, The bus takes him to:
The center of the half-bitten city
Where a headless Church
Prayed with its wound open
To the sky and history,
Unlike our own entombed vaults.
He grapples with the enigma of Time. We’ve all been there. The boring dead-end job versus the need to earn a living. Sometimes we find ourselves so desperate to get free of the painful monotony that we become an animal who’s foot is caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Freedom requires us to gnaw off our foot.
McCormack does just this, In Pizza, West Berlin, 1988, he gets yet another dreary assembly line job:
I worked in a pizza factory
Where no Italians could be found.
His challenge? To put olives on the rolling belt of three-at-a-time pizzas.
I went mad for eight hours a day,
Until they moved me…
And like the trapped prey,
…I put my finger into a machine, That slices cheese, and me.”
Time, Light, and the Wall. The Berlin Wall would be demolished in 1989, but in 1988 McCormack is still trapped in samsaric illusion, searching for the Way to spiritual liberation. And then, in an awesome conjunction, he discovers the spiritual fulfillment of West, the Eternal Moment, Ego Death, and a golden Light.
In Rothko, Orange his own ego death merges with the artist’s, imagined then and there. For, as he prowls the exhibitions of an art museum –
“Seeking, – something
After finishing another eight hour shift
In a West Berlin factory
Filling cardboard boxes with
Empty shampoo bottles.
In front of me
The orange space
Squeezing sorrow from me.
In a West Berlin Museum,
Near to the Wall,
Rothko killed himself.
I don’t know if the painting killed him
Or he killed himself
While the painting watched.
I didn’t know.
Outside, the towers watched,
Men in grey watched
1988 became 1989.”
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Photo credit: www.radford.edu/rbarris