Poetry, Prayer, and Memory (3)

This is the third in a series of posts.

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There’s just one problem. The problem is that, try as we might not to do so, we are, unfortunately, bound sooner or later—and mostly sooner—to lose our focus. We are bound all too soon to find our concentration broken, maybe by the next poke on Facebook or the next notice of a new app for our I-Phone.

We let our attention wander. We forget ourselves again and again in the all too common way we do when we fall back into old ways we have solemnly resolved, or even just hoped for a fleeting moment, never to fall back into. We lapse, and no sooner do we draw ourselves back from our lapse, again vowing once again never to forget ourselves that way, than we lapse again, we re-lapse—and we keep on relapsing again and again and again, without end.

Remember the Holocaust?  If that means never, ever to forget it, then try as we might to remember it, we will keep on forgetting it yet again. 

However, lest we think that gives us reason to despair of ever remembering the Holocaust, recall for just a moment the lesson of Celan’s Niemandsrose poems, at least as I understand them. That is the lesson that it is finally only there, where there is no longer any hope, that the purest, truest hope may suddenly be born, under an altogether different name, perhaps the very name of hopelessness.

I will try to speak less “poetically,” by which I here mean less artificially, more artlessly:

Since I first encountered it about thirty years ago, my favorite definition of “walking” is that walking is “a continuous, controlled, forward stumble.” If we think about that for a minute, we should be able to see that it is an accurate description of what we do when we walk: we repeatedly cast ourselves off balance, in order no sooner than we have done so to regain our balance, only to throw ourselves right away off balance again. We do that time after time after time again, one step after the other.

In fact, I think that is a good way to go about defining maintaining balance as such, even when we stand still: maintaining our balance is continually regaining our balance, continually correcting our constant, or constantly recurring, imbalance. (Think of how balancing exercises involve practicing doing just that, in a form more exaggerated than usual.)

Around the same time I encountered that definition of walking, I also encountered an elderly, long abstinent alcoholic Roman Catholic priest saying to a roomful of other abstinent alcoholics that each and every one there was in relapse at that very moment. That worked to get everyone’s attention. Once he had that, the priest went on to explain just how he meant what he had just said.

He explained that taking a drink of alcohol again after being abstinent for a time was not the start of a relapse, but rather the end of one. Relapse started, he said, whenever successfully abstinent alcoholics forgot themselves for a while, and let old ways of thinking and feeling (such ways, I will add for him, as selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, fear, pride, anger, greed, envy, gluttony, lust, and sloth, to give some common examples) pop up on them—and then pop out on them. Once that relapse process had begun with abstinent alcoholics, he told everyone, it then continued, becoming ever more powerful the longer they they went without catching themselves, realizing that they were beginning to think and feel in old, unwanted ways again. Picking up a drink, and forgetting that one was one of those people who should not drink and who, far more importantly, did not want to anymore: that was just the final step along that long road of relapse.

Though that priest himself didn’t say it this way, I think we could just as well put his point this way: Maintained abstinence is continuous, controlled relapsing.  

Yet another example, one perhaps even better suited to my purposes here, can be found in how the practice of meditation is taught in diverse faith traditions from all over the world, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism itself. In all meditation traditions with which I am familiar, new practitioners are told that, try as they might to keep their minds fixed in attentive concentration on whatever the tradition at issue gives them to fix it on—their breath or the wall in front of them or their mantra or their koan or their Gospel verse or verse from a Psalms or whatever else they may be given by their given tradition to focus upon (or to keep their eyes and attention un-focused upon, as in some forms of Buddhist meditation practice, for example)—they will soon enough find their concentration broken, their attention diverted, their minds wandering.

Beginners at meditation are taught that that is exactly what is to be expected. They are also encouraged not to give it a moment’s further thought, once they do notice that it has happened. They are taught, instead, that when they do notice that their attention has wandered in that way, they should just gently bring it back again to focus on whatever it is they are being taught to focus upon—bring it back as gently as the merest breath of a breeze, we might say.

But what, neophyte meditators often ask, if we find we have been gathering wool, wandering off into idle thinking, for the last twenty, thirty, or more minutes? What should we do then?

In reply they are just gently told—though sometimes, I want to add (keeping up with my own wandering thoughts), with a gentleness that can manifest itself only by whacking them painfully across the shoulders with a big stick—that they need to do nothing special, but just to bring their minds, as gently as they can, back to what they have been trying, and failing, to keep them on.

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To be continued.