Really hoping this Americano caffeine buzz holds out for me to get all of these random words and connections out into successful communication.
Recently I was reading the book Sapiens which I came across because of this podcast my friend Janae shared with me and Witness World Wide interview with Katy Perry where she offered up the book suggestion. Reading this book felt a lot like reading my history text book in college Humanities. I was doing good as long as I focused really hard and read the words out loud, but if it got too late or I stopped reading out loud I would zone out or fall asleep. I ended up perusing the table of contents, figured out what chapters I really was interested in and then skimmed those. Those chapters were: The Law of Religion and The End of Homo Sapiens.
Besides a quote which referenced Alice Through the Looking Glass, one of my favorite sections of the book was his description of Buddhism.
I thought it was one of the most succinct sum ups of Buddhism I've read, and I had forgotten how much eliminating suffering was a central objective of the practice. It impacted me so much that while I needed to return the book to the library, I thought about renewing it just so I could figure out a post I could write so I could share that quote, but then I decided I didn't have enough to write about. I took the book back on Wednesday.
Friday I walked into the house from meeting with a friend to find two of the same brochures on my kitchen counter with the title "Will suffering ever end?"
Secret message much?
There was that word suffering again.
I skimmed the inside enough to find the brochures were from the Jehovah's Witnesses and went on to explain what the Bible says about suffering. Here was another religion trying to solve how to put an end to human suffering.
I sat down thinking I better write about all these loose strands quickly before I lost that faint connection that exists just out of reach. It was then I got distracted (like the dog in Up!) by Instagram where I found this post by Hannah in which she was writing about, you guessed it, suffering, and in the context of religion. (Side note: I met Hannah in the coffee shop where I used to work where she could often be found passionately moving pen across paper in a beautiful leather journal, which led me to call her "My Favorite Person.")
Interesting. So, summing up what I've said so far:
"How do I avoid suffering" is definitely a human question, and it is a question that my three examples show me is often addressed with religious myths. (I don't use that word "myths" as in a false belief, but as in a traditional story.)
I've written a lot over the years on the topic of suffering. I'm not sure how much I've keyed in on that word exactly, but a lot of what I write is about me trying to figure out how to be okay. This most recent example comes to mind. And when I think of suffering and being okay I have to reference the movie Life is Beautiful because of the creative way the Jewish father in that movie make believes a story that will help his son not suffer while in a concentration camp. Which interestingly enough, reminds me that during one particular dark hour of my spiritual crisis (circa 2013), I was reading Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning mainly because the worst suffering I could ever imagine going through is what I witnessed in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and I wanted to know how someone who lived to tell about it managed to still live a rich and meaningful life.
My point in all this is, at the root of my deepest darkest moment, I was looking for a story (a myth) that would end my internal suffering.
Stay with me. I'm going in a different direction now, but it will tie in. I hope. Last night on a whim I bought myself a dark chocolate caramel with sea salt candy bar and two magazines, one of which was The Oprah Magazine which drew me in for two reasons. The reason that matters here is the headline BOOKS, GLORIOUS BOOKS! There is a 14 page section on book suggestions for summer, which is totally work research for someone who runs The Magic School Book Club and is looking to expand it/revamp it. (I am ALWAYS tweaking.)
Last night I read two quotes from this article, and then closed the magazine feeling complete bliss due to that feeling of being seen and known. There is nothing like that feeling of knowing you are not alone. That other people feel what you feel and know what you know and witness what you have witnessed.
Here are the qutoes:
Here is where I attempt to tie up all those loose ends.
What I believe a book can do is end suffering. Not the once and for all ending like I was once searching for, but again and again. I see how the myths around religions are rooted in the desire to end suffering, and I see how fairy tales and fiction of all sorts can do the same. Long before written language, oral traditions would pass on stories because the stories contained tried and true tidbits of wisdom and hope on facing and overcoming suffering. (This comes to mind - an event I remember fondly from my college years.)
When I enter into the fictional portal of a good book, I am living a parallel life, an alternate reality. I am seeing the fictional characters' lives overlaid on my Real World, like those old anatomy books with the plastic sheets where you could layer skin over muscles over organs over bones.
The Magic School was a natural transition for me after crawling through a spiritual crisis because what I, as an Artist as Magician, was searching for was a way to end suffering with my own spiritual myth. I, as a Homo Sapien, wanted my crack at the brochure's question, "Will suffering ever end?"
What if I could say, "Yes it will end again and again, every time I open a book."
Suffering keeps showing up a new way for me, in new facets. It's like the way Tami Simon talks about Julia Cameron's Art Censor, Nigel as a computer program. I feel anxious a lot and when I feel anxious I suffer because what I think I should be feeling is happiness. If we did want to equate it to familiar spiritual terms, reading fictional books could be considered my form of meditation. All I need is one strong secret message (something that speaks hope to my suffering) sandwiched in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of a book and I have a new mantra that will carry me through until my next bout of suffering.
I am more immediately concerned with the enjoyment of ending the suffering than fixing a problem. I actually get joy from the treasure hunt. For instance, my car steering wheel has been pulling funny, and today I made up a story that my car, which I happen to call The White Rabbit, is growing stronger, and soon she will be capable of determining my course. I will have no choice but to Follow the White Rabbit. When I told my daughter this story she said, "Oh, so you're excited that your car can cause you to get in a crash?"
"What? It wouldn't do that. She won't cause me harm. It's not like an evil robot who is out to get me. She only chooses a course that will benefit me in some way. She is like Kitt in Knight Rider."
My daughter was instantly able to poke holes in my ImagineNation story. I told her that adults would poke even bigger holes, offering up their helpful and concerned and good intentioned Real World speak at me by saying, "So, did you call the repair shop and get an appointment?"
I told her as an adult, I've had enough trips around the sun to know if you can't handle people poking holes in your enjoyment, you just don't share your it with them.
Now, if my car truly starts to show dangerous signs, sure of course I'll get it looked at, but at this point I will be in the right frame of mind to deal with the Real World stuff of broken cars and potentially expensive repairs because I've first imagined a tale that takes the suffering away. The struggle of real life can have its own form of enjoyment because I know I have a way of dealing with it that I prefer. The priority for me is the magic. The Real World stuff follows after.
In my life I want to find the path of least resistance. The path with the least guilt, the least baggage, the least rules, the least expectations, the least protocol, the least steps, the least headaches, the least sacrifice, the least brow furrowing. Doesn't it sound like what I want is the least amount of suffering? I want to do life as childlike as possible with all engines of wonder firing. Fictional books (and the particular ones I'm drawn to) do this for me. They are my shrug and my twirl in a world that says, "But you must suffer together with us. It's been agreed upon."
Course 101 of The Magic School is the extent of my digging deeper into WHY stories work for me, but I don't have any energy, interest or passion for developing more of these sorts of teachings. I'd rather be reading fiction and playing creatively in these imaginative worlds. Even writing this post has been more laborious then I'd prefer, but I'm honoring my intuition that this will be as life-giving and freedom-finding and inspirational and enlightening for someone to stumble upon, as awakening to this has been for me
Come play with me, and we'll see what happens is really the only method of teaching I offer. Maybe this makes me a poor teacher. The jury is still out on that. But researching the WHY FICTION or WHY THE MAGIC SCHOOL feels like resistance to just plain living with the least amount of suffering possible. I want the in the field experience not the class notes. The WHY is simply because I love it so, and when I choose to do something I enjoy for no other reason than because it makes me happy, suffering dissipates, especially if I'm picking and choosing the books that will make me feel light and echo my beliefs back to me. (Again that wonderful feeling of having yourself be witnessed, known and affirmed.)
I read a book about the history of the Dick Tracy comic recently, and it talked about the newspaper industry was saved because they incorporated comics and sports. It said life itself was sufficiently disheartening without the newspapers telling us it was so. I wrote down these two quotes:
This is exactly what I mean. I want to end my suffering in a way that feels best for me. I need fiction to meet my reality, and I need it to do so again and again. I don't need for the story to be true. I don't need for it to be real. In fact, I'd rather it not be. I just need to be able to read it selfishly (meaning I am scouting for clues to end a certain aspect of MY suffering and meanwhile I'm taking a break from MY suffering) and discovering some new tricks (I like to call them magic spells) that I could take back to my life in the Real World.
Watching someone else do life gives me a reprieve from my own real life. It takes the pressure and the responsibility off and lets me shadow someone else. Basically, I get to be the spy in the sunglasses with my notebook in the corner and someone else can be in the spotlight for awhile, making all the mistakes, taking all the flack and processing all the emotions and ultimately overcoming. (Yes, I want my book choices to include an aspect where the hero/heroine prevails.)
My magic spells are not happily EVER AFTER. They are happily ever until the next wave of suffering. I don't prefer them that way. I still have a Sapien hankering for suffering to just pack up its bags and move to Australia (Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day Reference). But I have found this to be true of suffering - it shows up again on its own without me going and looking for it, and so I'm going to work with the science of that, the raw earthy matter of factness, I'm going to accept that like the man at the ocean who sits down and accepts the comings and goings of the waves and make sure that for me suffering creates the least amount of drag on my life as possible. I'm going to fly off to some beach in the ImagineNation, open a fiction book, swirl my drink, let a secret message wash over me and, when I'm ready, use my newly acquired magic to enter back into the Real World. Books offer me this luxury, and I accept. When I'm in between books, I'll use my powers to make believe my own story like one about a car called the White Rabbit who takes over the steering and chauffers me exactly where I need to be.