In my last piece I talked about happiness and explained that we can only experience it “now” when we are fully present, never in the past or future, where we spend so much of our lives.
But life is short and our planning and projecting ability is part of being uniquely human. Each of us has an opportunity to move toward a future in which we live from our deepest aspiration.
In my book Nothing Holy About It, I talked about Victor Frankl’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp as well as the experiences of people in the camp he interviewed after the war. Frankl claims that the only way he and others who lived happy lives afterward survived was that they shared one common denominator: each had thought hard about a life after and imagined themselves living it. They were able to do this even though, or possibly because they had been stripped of everything they identified with—the people, objects, life, which supported them. Using a Soto Zen term, we could say that each was able to get in touch with their own unique “dim vision.”
The term “dim vision” was used negatively in Buddhist literature for hundreds of years until Dogen turned it on its head in the 13th century. Originally, it is a descriptor of the blind man with cataracts, who cannot see the world clearly because he is ensnared by his thoughts, memories, and their projections. This early teaching made the claim that through meditation practice we can move from this deluded state to a thoroughly enlightened one. However, for Dogen, as well as my two teachers, regardless of how much meditation we do, we are never free from delusion. But this isn’t negative. Meditation practice can both help us experience the deep happiness in the present, and see and fully accept our delusion. In order to do this we must allow ourselves to experience what William Butler Yeats referred to in the title of one of his poems as The Circus Animals Desertion. At this late stage in his life he feels that the ability to use words to create wonderful worlds that will move people has deserted him. He has lost the tricks of his trade, which is not at all a bad thing. As is the case with serious meditators, he has been stripped of everything he has learned and identified with.
If you do your own stripping way, you too, can discover your own dim vision. I often refer to the meditation process as peeling layers of an onion, you cry as you peel away layer after layer, often in a manner that seems endless. But the more you let the layers of thought and emotion peel away, the closer you are to your still, empty center, your true resting place. After Yeats has done his own peeling away, there’s the last line of his poem:
Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
With all of the should’s and should not’s, all of the ideas about accomplishing something or impressing others stripped away we can each tap into this rag and bone shop. And its not at all foul from the Zen sense, but fertile with the possibility. That we can live from our deepest aspirations. When Dogen writes enlightenment is ever intimate with dim-sightedness, he is encouraging us to embrace this shadow side. As the 8th century Zen teacher Shitou says, “Within darkness there is light.”
A single ray of light is all we need to bring to life our deepest aspirations.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher