In the midst of reading her book, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, the fourth in her “Space Series”, Doris Lessing talks in depth about the relationship of the impermanence of the world with the concept of self. Two of her characters go through two long soliloquies as they attempt to come to terms with the knowledge that they will become extinct. Three concepts emerge: dreams are collective, the body is but an ephemeral container, and the self is but a manifestation of other selves that came before. I’ve been reading the book on my commutes to and from work, while sitting with a wall of bodies lined up right at my knees, individuals each, but one person little differentiated from the next. The book and all these people often left me sitting with my eyes closed, trying to pull aside the veil that hides comprehension.
It is true what Lessing says, each morning I wake to the conviction, “Here I am. This is me.” And yet each day my experiences tell me that this is not really how things are. This determination to define “me” in the context of the world around always flutters out into disappointment when I realize that I am not really so important in the scheme of things after all. We cry when something dear to us dies or we lose something that we value. And yet eventually all things die and disappear. We know that. The cake we made rots. The book we read disintegrates. The dog we cherished dies. Even the mountain we roved in a reverie crumbles into dust. It is the way of the world and we are all an intimate part of it.
But it seems we spend most of our time denying it and resisting the going.
Perhaps it has something to do with getting older, and realizing that this body that I’ve inhabited all these years is steadily letting go, that eventually it will give and wink out. More and more I’m coming to realize that this youth oriented society that we push so strongly is ill-prepared for the awakening to the ephemeral nature of our lives. We spend so much time buying the make up and working out in the gyms, that we’ve left no space for the habitation of our minds, which must take time to grow into the acceptance of eventually letting go.
I watched a program the other night about a Japanese businessman who gave up his lucrative job as a salesman to live as cheaply as possible and concentrate on taking photographs. He bought a run down old farmhouse just on the outskirts of Tokyo, threw away all modern appliances, learned about how farmers in the poverty stricken days before the war kept themselves warm, cooked, and ate. He adopted the simplest, most technology-independent lifestyle he could find and settled down to enjoy his lifestyle. What he found was that a person barely needs much to live relatively comfortably, and that his time expanded into hours.
“When you’re spending less money and time on the items that are supposed to make your life better, you gain back all that time. And what I’ve found is that there is more space for my mind, now. I hadn’t realized just how gratifying the older lifestyle was. There is something that feels complete in cooking fish over an open fire or putting a vegetable from your garden onto your plate. It is a satisfaction that you just can’t derive from TV or cell phones or computers.”
I am wondering more these days if the richness of close association with the surrounding world that a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity seem to embody actually helps you incorporate the ephemerality of life into your outlook and works in better with the birth and death of your precious self. For it seems to be the clinging to self that most harms the cycle of things.
Would that our societies let go of “prosperity” and learn to transcend the limitations of desire. We could concentrate on our collective dream instead.