By Duane Toops
Groucho Marx once said “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as one of its members”. It’s a pithy remark that I’ve taken to heart over the years. It’s been my tongue in cheek response to invitations to join groups, clubs, traditions, and other organizations both religious and professional. I’ve taken a kind of pride in being the outcast. I’ve garnered a sense of comfort, satisfaction, and, even security, from posturing myself towards the periphery of communities. I’ve tied my identity to being a loner, but I’ve also begun to discover that there can be an almost unidentifiable and unrecognizable shift that occurs when one goes from being a loner to simply being alone. And, no matter how wittily you turn down the invitations, do it enough times, for a long enough time, and the comedy turns tragic when the invitations stop coming all together. With that being said, after more than a year of what has felt like a ceaseless barrage of brutal beatings, both self-inflicted and life-inflicted, I decided not to question the questionable judgment of a group that would have me as a member, and I accepted the invitation to join The Unusual Buddha team.
In the film, Almost Famous , Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman says that “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” I knew I was uncool, but I had no idea how emotionally bankrupt I had become due to my prolonged deficit of communal and reciprocal exchange. As it turns out, the shared comradery of the “uncool” is the miraculous and unexpected economy of grace. Perhaps, it’s exactly what Tolkien meant when he said that “the unbidden guest proves the best company” and that “help unlooked for” is “twice blessed”.
During my first week on board with The Unusual Buddha I decided to put my new found Facebook admin privileges to good use, and let this little nerdy light of mine shine by sharing a few passages acquired from my early morning reading ritual. My friend Jim Martin would probably refer to this as part of my “gravitas”, that is, an expression of my earnest solemnity and/or my academic seriousness, I’m more inclined to think of it as part of the reason I’ll probably die alone.
I posted the following few lines from Thomas Merton’s book, No Man is an Island:
“We ought to be alive enough to reality to see beauty all around us. Beauty is simply reality itself, perceived in a special way that gives it a resplendent value of its own. Everything that is, is beautiful insofar as it is real”.
In my opinion, so much of creativity and the creative process is about seeing, seeing clearly and seeing differently. In fact, Seth Godin writes that “Artists, at least the great ones, see the world more clearly than the rest of us”. This is, for me at least, why “artistry” and spirituality are so intimately connected and intertwined. Achieving and maintaining this kind of atypical ability to see and perceive is intrinsic to being an artist, but being an artist has absolutely nothing to do with one’s mastery over watercolors, oils, marble, or clay, because art, itself, has nothing to with any of those mediums, or any other other medium for that matter. The medium is irrelevant and ultimately inconsequential. “Art,” as Godin goes on to say, “is the intentional act of using your humanity to create a change in another person”.
Merton was an artist not because of his intellectual prowess and insight, nor was he an artist because he had so eloquently mastered the craft of written language. Merton was an artist because he was capable of seeing the beauty and aliveness inundating the whole of reality, and even more so, he was an artist because he had the ability to help us see it too.
In response to posting that passage from Merton someone left a comment that perfectly encapsulates exactly what I mean:
“Shortly after I started meditating, I saw snowflakes for the first time…I’ve lived through hundreds of snow storms. But for the first time, I actually SAW snowflakes, with my eyes open, to appreciate and adore the marvel that is perfectly formed fresh ice in this resplendent geometric natural feat of engineering glory. I was in awe. And I still am. Every time the snow falls. Every time a bird sings. Every time the flowers come back. It’s all beauty, because it’s all real, and my mind is unclouded enough to see.”
Meditation is an art, and art is a mediation. Both function as the means by which our perception becomes alerted to the immense profundity laced throughout the realness of the present moment. In art we are allowed to exercise a kind of analytical awareness. Our consciousness becomes concentrated and compounded, and we are attentively attuned to the rich interplay of texture, color, tempo, and composition. Similarly, “To meditate,” as Stephen Bachelor explains, ” is to probe with intense sensitivity each glimmer of color, each cadence of sound, each touch of another’s hand, each fumbling word that tries to utter what cannot be said”. And in both cases, we are at our best, and our most artistic when the change created within ourselves elicits a change in others.
In this regard, the real miracle isn’t that miracles happen. The real miracle is that some days we notice them, and on the most miraculous of days we can help others to notice with us.