Portrait of a dervish, Uzbekistan, 16th century
Islamic collection, Metropolitan Museum, New York
Over the last few years, it consistently occurs to me that we have become victims of the old Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times." Yet all of this trouble–if trouble it is, and from a certain point of view, it isn't–is created by man. Not a single other creature on the planet is even remotely aware of the “trouble” that mankind is in. Each one of them simply goes about its business.
Today was a day where I didn't worry much. The larger events on the planet– currency crisis, environmental deterioration, absurd electioneering, war– seem oddly pointless. In the abstract, of course they affect everything I do, and certain parts of me consider this, ponder it, calculate. Nonetheless, there is very little I can do about them.
I can, however, attend to myself. Perhaps this sounds like an excessively passive approach; maybe I should get involved and occupy something. If I were younger, maybe I even would. Age, however, leads me to the perception that what I need to occupy is myself.
If I don't develop an intimate relationship with my Being, an active intelligence, an active interest, an active respect for myself and my life, nothing else will work well. This is something I can have an effect on– as opposed to the downward spiral of the planet, which is well beyond my control. Don't get me wrong–I try to save water, turn off lights, and recycle. That is, I do the little things. But I can't save the Euro.
As they say in Zen, life is a matter of getting the flesh, the blood, the bones, the marrow of practice. There is a need to get to the heart of things, and the merry-go-round of human affairs is not at the heart of things: it is an artifice, a distraction that drags us away from ourselves.
I take the famous dog Isabel for her usual walk along the Palisades this afternoon. The weather for the past week has been dry, and all of the leaves are finally coming off the trees. Miraculous! It is one of those perfect fall moments when crisp, dry leaves lie deep in the forests and across the paths. Ten thousand subtle shades of brown catch the afternoon sun and curl it up in pockets. It's unnaturally warm: mid-November, and I am walking in shirt sleeves.
The inevitable sense of love as a constant presence is with me. I can sense it hiding under the leaves, lurking in all the negative spaces created by geometry. There are moments when all of the matter around me sings of love the way bees in a hive point one another towards the best honey.
In the midst of this, an enormous sorrow penetrates everything. A unique and particular sorrow, related to the very act of Being itself.
Well, perhaps not so inexplicable.
Yesterday, my wife Neal and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see their new exhibit of Islamic art–which is, by the way, absolutely outstanding, and so extensive that it was seemingly impossible to see more than half of it in one day. While we were there, I encountered the portrait of a dervish with which I have headed this post.
The inscription at the bottom of the picture reads: “Why am I then obliged to heaven that it has given me a soul? For it has created within me a source of sorrows from which that soul suffers.”
For me, the question here is the difference between personalized sorrow, a temporal or horizontal anguish, such as that which I feel on the death of a loved one, and that transcendental sorrow which penetrates reality, descends from above, and suffuses the soul with both the bitterest love and the sweetest anguish at the same time.
We truly lie at the intersection of forces we do not understand. If the soul does have a purpose–if it carries an obligation to heaven, which is the question the dervish asks–the obligation must be to help bear this sorrow, to inhabit life and to help carry that burden, on behalf of everything that is.
It is hard to remember this in a world that specializes in setting up windmills to tilt at.
May our prayers be heard.