my messy semi-examined life, redux

Maybe I’ve told you that as a dreamy, albeit odd, adolescent I raked leaves to save up enough money to take a class in transcendental meditation at the local library.

image by Clover_1 via flickr
image by Clover_1 via flickr

There I sat, a pixie of a girl in a circle of adults, trying to keep my eyes closed and just… be. Mindfullness, particularly for a twelve-year-old in the wilds of Connecticut in the 70’s, was a pretty radical concept.

Like David Shields, who describes his TM experience in his latest book  How Literature Saved My Life, I too asked for a re-do on the mantra thing, and I too was turned down. I never did understand how the guru’s envoy supposedly could come up with the one perfect mantra for me, when he didn’t know me at all. Hmmm, therein began my skepticism of such easy solutions to life and love.

Fast-forward to the present, so many years later, as I dip my toes in the meditation pool, this time no leaf-raking required for it is an online freebie course, a “21-day challenge” offered by—please don’t judge me for this—Oprah and Deepak. Yep. Meditating on perfect health.

It was kind of nice, actually… I did 20 days of 21, settling in with hands on my lap before my screen, listening to Deepak’s soothing voice and—can’t beat this—a new mantra each day. I liked the way the meditation made my body sink into a heavy weightlessness, the way my relaxed mind’s thoughts flowed without catching on the rocks.

I heard about it via a philosophy class. Coursera.org. Free. Online. University. A beautiful thing that is on its way to radically change the way we view education,  expanding its reach to all.

socrates

Socrates. Descartes. Freud. The nature of knowledge and of the self. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates, but in the course of Prof. Green’s video lectures (he’s kind of droll and charming, sitting on his deck as he lectures, his words accompanied by the sounds of the birds cawing overhead) we examine just that… is life not worth living without picking it apart as we go along? Does examining one’s life have value? What can we actually know of the self, and how?

My mind is dizzy, but really what I want to talk about is perfection.

Deepak said “Congratulations, you now have all the tools to live perfect health.” Wow. Really?

His is not the Cartesian mistrust of what our senses tell us, but a full-out embrace of them, not a dark view of the violent urges and impulses that Freud warns us lie within us all, but an insanely positive view of a self-examination which he promises will open us up the all the riches life has to offer, to perfection and balance. Just listen, and be grateful.

His students get it. There are tens of thousands of comments on the forums ranging from a simple “Thank-you. Namaste” to assertions that indeed “All is Perfect, All is Well.” There it is again, that pesky perfection.

roipheKatie Roiphe speaks in her book “In Praise of Messy Lives” of “our strange, hopeless obsession with the perfectability of childhood,” and the “mystical idea of engineering the perfect child.”

“Have we done him a favor by protecting him from everything, from dirt and dust and violence and sugar and boredom and egg whites and mean children who steal his plastic dinosaurs, from, in short, the everyday banging-up of the universe?”

[…]

All I am suggesting is that it might be time to stand back, pour a drink, and let the children torment, or bore, or injure each other a little. It might be time to dabble in the laissez-faire; to let the imagination run to art instead of art projects; to let the imperfect universe and its imperfect children be themselves.”

Were I to map myself on the spectrum I should surely be closer to Roiphe’s view of life than that of Deepak and Oprah. Why? Perhaps because I am a wee bit of a cynic, or perhaps because while I’ve tried at one point or another to find the meaning of life, I have never once reached the point where I was able to view it as clear and good and without flaws. My namaste’s are said with one eye open and the other shut as they were during those circle meditations when I was twelve.

Perfection, in my view, is overrated and our relentless pursuit of it is a losing battle, a frenzied striving for a standard that is not only untenable, but impossible. And, more than that, I don’t want life to be perfect, I don’t think it should be.

Roiphe continues, speaking of this “philosophy of perpetual worry people seem to be encouraging,” and, in speaking particularly of the coddled child, “Wouldn’t it be better to take her to the zoo?” I tend to think that in most cases, yes it would. Let’s all go to the zoo. Life is short, people.

It is messy and imperfect, it is highs and lows and ins and outs, and rather than agonize and over-analyze the possible implications of every turn in the road sometimes we have to just let the current carry us, to see where we end up, and then crawl up onto the riverbank and start all over again.

lenorecover atticusPerhaps rather than looking for perfection in ourselves or the ones we love, we might best seek it in stories, or, as the main character in the wonderful novel I’m reading, The Great Lenore by JM Tohline says…

            “That is one thing I love about writing. About literature. About stories. The End.

                        Oh yeah.

                        All right.

                        Are you gonna be in my dreams tonight?

But in real life, there is no The End. There is no tidy conclusion all wrapped in a package, with a bow tied around it.

In real life, life goes on. It’s all so messy.”

So wonderfully messy.

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