Friday, June 10, 2011

Ken Kesey & The Bear

292, Emily Dickinson

If your Nerve, deny you -
Go above your Nerve -
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve -

That's a steady posture -
Never any bend
Held of those Brass arms -
Best Giant made -

If your Soul seesaw -
Lift the Flesh door -
The Poltroon wants Oxygen -
Nothing more -

I just got back from a class at a local Buddhist center.  The class was about contemplating emptiness and reminded me of the following Ken Kesey quote, pulled from an essay by M.C. Armstrong in the Summer 2010 issue of The Missouri Review.  It's long, sorry.  Do your best:

"When people ask me about LSD, I always make a point of telling them you can have the shit scared out of you with LSD because it exposes something, something hollow.  Let's say you have been getting on your knees and bowing and worshipping; suddenly, you take LSD, and you look, and there's just a hole, there's nothing there.  The Catholic Church fills this hole with candles and flowers and litanies and opulence...The Muslims fill it with rigidity and guns and a militant ethos.  But all of us know that's not what's supposed to be in that hole.  After I had been at Stanford two years, I was into LSD.  I began to see that the books I thought were the true accounting books--my grades, how I'd done in other schools, how I'd performed at jobs, whether I had paid off my car or not--were not at all the true books.  There were other books that were being kept, real books.  In those real books is the real accounting of your life.  And the mind says, 'Oh, this is titillating.'  So you want to take some more LSD and see what else is there.  And soon I had the experience that everyone who's ever dabbled in psychedelics has.  A big hand grabs you by the back of the neck, and you hear a voice saying, 'So you want to see the books.  Okay, here are the books.'  And it pushes your face right down into all your cruelties and all of your meanness, all the times that you have been insensitive, intolerant, racist, sexist.  It's all there, and you read it.  That's what you're really stuck with.  You can't take your nose up off the books.  You hate hate the fact that someone has been keeping track, just as you feared.  You hate it, but you can't move your arms for eight hours.  Before you take any acid again you start trying to juggle the books.  You start trying to be a little better person.  Then you get the surprise.  The next thing that happens is that you're leaning over looking at the books, and you feel that lack of the hand at the back of your neck.  The thing that was forcing you to look at the books is no longer there.  There's only a big hollow, the great American wild hollow that is scarier than hell, scarier than purgatory or Satan.  It's the fact that there isn't any hell or there isn't any purgatory, there isn't any Satan.  And all you're got it Sartre siting there with his momma--harsh, bleak, worse than guilt.  And if you've got courage, you go ahead and examine that hollow..."

I am a big fan of studying The Enneagram, which is primarily a tool of psychology that offers ways to transcend the patterns we personally create and which make us pretty miserable.  I read a spiritual take on this tool this year that described my personality's (for lack of a better word) fixation as fearing emptiness.  Whoa.  I thought about all the ways I prop up my environment with candles and music and pillows, and pump conversations full of questions...lots of ways that I busy myself during the day so I don't feel the throat-itchy, stomach-trembling knowledge of emptiness. 

In the beginning of the Missouri Review excerpt, Kesey says that all of his work is about wilderness.  In grad school, while I was writing a novel about a family that takes care of loons, I tacked up a picture of a loon and glued on top of it a magazine clipping that said, SAVE SOMETHING WILD.  I tacked it up for courage: the courage to touch the space of unknowingness that is the creative act, to venture into the emptiness of surrender.

When I told the teacher tonight that I am going to Alaska soon, he said, "Be careful!  There are bears out there.  They are empty," he joked, i.e. an illusion of separateness, "But they are still pretty big." 

Ahhh, Buddhists and their jokes! 

Another one: Why couldn't the monk vacuum under the couch. 

Answer: He had no attachments! 

I remember falling in love with this joke a while back.  I've never met anyone who likes it.  At least, they won't admit to liking it.  There are lots of groans when I tell it. 

I don't know what else to say about Ken Kesey and LSD.  Just that the part about the hand pushing his back gets very Bhagavad Gita-y for a minute, like when Arjuna wants to see the face of Krishna, and then is terrified and very "Just Kidding!!" when he is shown it.  So, I love seeing that in the excerpt.  It affirms literature and the mystery of the written word for me: stories as recipe for sacred text.  The circling dance of an author waltzing like a bear in the wilderness.
  It makes me wonder: Are we listening enough, we human beings?  What dark night are we willing to leaning into?  What, despite panic, are we open to and exploring?

During the class, while my eyes gazed at the dozen Buddhas on the altar behind the teacher, and my mind wandered all over the place, I thought for a minute about all of the stress I have experienced in conversations with Tim about where we want to live.  Lately I have noticed how Home seems to be something I believe in: a concept of perfection which keeps me from connecting to the supportive, nurturing, totally abundant homes that exist throughout my day--in friendships, poetry, food, and my own sweet house, where we build altars, dance, piece through confusion, and make ourselves giddy with silly jokes.  What, What, What am I waiting for that is not already here?  With this, and the wild eyes and open heart of Ken Kesey, I leave you. With love.