Friday, June 18, 2010

Lost in the Funhouse

Max (age 3) just told me he's making a "spider maze" and "it walks with its hands." That sounds like as good a metaphor as any for the artistic and intellectual pursuit we call the examined life - the one without which Thoreau said life wasn't worth living - in other words, living with eyes, mind and Spirit open. "It has a hooks," he told me, "for the tricity (electricity)." It also has "spikes" and "hurting parts that pinch you."

I'm haunted by the idea that as soon as we start thinking, we create a maze of unanswerable questions in which we dwell everafter, and above which we rise in brief enlightened moments of true, full Being when undergoing profound or ecstatic states, such as love, religious enlightenment, creative engagement. So the most meaningful depths and summits of human knowledge and experience - our moments of existential doubt and our moments of ecstatic mystical union with the All - are in essence of the same self-created nature. Both antipodes are illusions, and both are real.

As soon as we start emerging from the cocoon of ignorance and dull indifference that is everyday, Plato's cave-in, robotic, going-through-the-motions herd mentality, we assent to ensnarement in the web of ideas that will define our darkest days. One response to this is to devote one's energy to swinging the balance toward the enlightenment side. All religions teach that the sense of God begins when we step outside of the self, when we step away from being the center of our consciousness and fill that space with an other (usually something grand and impersonal, like Godhead, Love, Nature, the Now, or else, more humbly, and arguably more productively, other people).

One of the ways I become "lost in the funhouse" with its distorting mirrors is to compare myself to others who are better positioned, more hardworking, more talented, more successful, better, richer, younger, or whatever. All of it's an illusion. I know I'm crediting these others (ever notice how they're almost never people we actually know well?) with some kind of imagined, totally illusory "arrival" that has nothing to do what's really there.

As poet Sylvia Plath said, "there is no where to get to." But even recognizing, much less stopping, these destructive thought-patterns, can be especially difficult for artists and others who want to create, given the inevitable shadow of judgement, from ourselves and others, and the inherent supposition of an audience that looms over the actual work, not to mention the intimidating presence of a "tradition" we may not even dare to admit we're working in, what the poet Dylan Thomas called "the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms."

Art, on our better days, does free our consciousness from the anxious, narcissistic self that drives us to see ourselves negatively in relation to others.