Recently the pop rock artist, Amy Winehouse, died from perhaps a drug overdose. Regardless of the actual cause, she had already given many indications of drug abuse, so whether it was accidental or deliberate or even if it was just the heart giving out after years of abuse, that is not the critical issue here. She was the bearer of a great pain that cried out for numbing. A sad fact for any human being, but she also was an extraordinary talent within her own field of endeavor. What is peculiar is how many of these great young talents have done themselves in precisely at age 27: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and so many others, and now Amy Winehouse. Someone may be saying to himself, Well, that is too bad, but these people trashed the gift of life in trivial pursuits and there are more important things to ponder at this point. Indeed, perhaps true. But I want to come back to that pain I mentioned. It is the most fundamental pain a person can experience–you might say that it is the pain of being a human being. Concretely and existentially this pain may have all kinds of manifestations or apparent causes, like failed relationships, betrayal, a troubled career, economic stress, loneliness, emotional chaos, etc, etc. But underneath this potpourri of negative human dynamics, there is one foundational pain that pervades one’s heart but has so, so many names.
To understand this better, let us approach it from another angle. Somewhere Abhishiktananda relates that the essence of Hinduism (and really all religion) can be summed up as follows: “the total surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.” Very well put (but I am sure a person could find something inadequate about that statement). Now imagine if someone knew nothing of that “Inner Mystery,” had no sense of it, had no access to it, etc. That one’s whole sense of reality, of one’s being, of one’s identity consisted in that “peripheral ego.” That is more than scary; it is terrifying. Why? Because that peripheral ego is almost a nonentity, practically a “nothing,” a totally insubstantial, feeble reality, a construct that is equivalent to a “house of cards,” or a toothpick construction that comes tumbling down with the slightest breeze. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” All the major religions point to this in their own terms, but they also point to something else, which in the theistic traditions we can call the “Inner Mystery.” But imagine if that is nowhere on the horizon of your awareness….. The cold, hollow wind of nothingness blowing through your heart….no matter what clothes you throw on that peripheral ego! Finally death is the last word that declares it to be nothing–and ends the pain.
But that is precisely the condition of modern human beings. All our social values, our economy, our structures, are organized around a kind of numbing of the impact of the emptiness of the peripheral ego. Certainly it is not about helping or encouraging or facilitating the discovery of the Inner Mystery of each human being—that might make them less of a consumer and we know where that leads to…. Entertainment, games, the voyeurism of celebrity, econonic success, etc, etc., all this to push back against that feeling of nothingness which is the essence of the peripheral ego. Indeed, fame and celebrity itself is a kind of cry of “I am, I am,” but this “I am” is built on a foundation of sand in the words of the Gospel, really a foundation of nothingness and emptiness in the true existential sense. The real “I am” is grounded in the I AM of Absolute Reality, of God.
Now the artist, of whatever kind, has a more sensitive heart, so he/she will feel the impact of this even more so. That pain will not be abated by art, more likely enhanced by it. Art does not provide an anesthetic, or a “medication of forgetfulness” concerning our nothingness—more likely it puts it under a magnifying glass! (The role of art can be quite ambiguous in this regard.) I am reminded of that great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who also drank himself to death, but at one point he wrote a poem for his dying father with lines that repeated over and over this theme:
“Dear father, do not go gentle into that night,
But rage, rage against the failing of the light.”
Ultimately this “rage” leads ironically enough to self-destruction because it is totally futile. Consider finally another artist, Ernest Hemingway, who committed suicide in his old age by shooting himself. Here is a poem by Merton about that moment:
“Now for the first time on the night of your death your name is
mentioned in convents, ne cadas in obscurum.
Now with a true bell your story becomes final. Now men in
monasteries, men of requiems, familiar with the dead, include you
in their offices.
You stand anonymous among thousands, waiting in the dark, at
great stations on the edge of countries known to prayer alone,
where fires are not meciless, we hope, and not without end.
You pass briefly through our midst. Your books and writings have
not been consulted. Our prayers are pro defuncto N.
Yet some look up, as though among a crowd of prisoners or displaced
persons, they recognized a friend once known in a far country.
For these the sun also rose after a forgotten war upon an idiom
you made great. They have not forgotten you. In their silence you
are still famous, no ritual shade.
How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a whole age,
and for the quick death of an unseemly dynasty, and for that brave
illusion: the adventurous self!
For with one shot the whole hunt is ended!”
Hemingway was a master of modern English narrative, but in so much of his writing and in his life he promoted this image of the he-man, a certain kind of masculinity and ideal humanity that was embodied best in the image of the “great hunter,” the “great adventurer,” among some other images. This was the clothing Hemingway threw on his peripheral ego, and when in the feebleness of old age this image could no longer be sustained, well, the pain could only be ended in one way…..
Merton also translated and adapted from Sufi material, and here is piece of advice for a Sufi novice:
“Be a son of this instant!
It is a messenger of Allah
And the best of messengers
Is one who announces your indigence,
Be a son of this instant
For a mouthful of ashes.”
Hemingway could not “welcome” that messenger that announced his own nothingness in the feebleness of his old age, in his failed relationships, in his inability to write anymore. As great an artist as he was, he had no inkling of the abiding Inner Mystery in his own self.
And approaching this from another angle, here is another poem by Merton:
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
To speak your
To the living walls.
Who are you?
Are you? Whose
Silence are you?
Who (be quiet)
Are you (as these stones
Are quiet)? Do not
Think of what you are,
Still less of
What you may one day be.
Be what you are(but who?) be
The unthinkable one
You do not know.
O be still, while
You are still alive,
And all things live around you
Speaking (I do not hear)
To your own being,
Speaking by the Unknown
That is in you and in themselves.
“I will try, like them
To be my own silence:
And this is difficult. The whole
World is secretly on fire. The stones
Burn, even the stones
They burn me. How can a man be still or
Listen to all things burning? How can he dare
To sit with them when
All their silence
Is on fire?”
And lest there be any confusion, we need to include religious life itself as a possible locus of fixation upon the peripheral ego. Taking up religious practices can simply be another set of clothes for the peripheral ego. Here again is Merton adapting from translations of Sufi material–again from Advice to a Sufi Novice:
“He who seeks Allah will be made clean in tribulation,
His heart will be more pure,
His conscience more sensitive in tribulation
Than in prayer and fasting.
Prayer and fasting may perhaps
Be nothing but self-love, self-gratification,
The expression of hidden sin
Ruining the value of these works.
Strikes at the root.”
This brings us back to Abhishiktananda’s “the total surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.” The Sufis are very concrete and thorough! Incidentally, the above material is taken from the writings of one of the greatest of Sufi figures: Ibn Abbad, who lived in Spain and in North Africa during the Medieval Period, and some say he may have been a secret influence on John of the Cross. We shall conclude with another excerpt, related to our theme, this time from Ibn Al Arabi, an even earlier Sufi figure who was a contemporary of Averroes, the greatest of Arabic philosophers:
“When the body of Averroes was brought once more to Spain, and
when the people of Cordova were gathered to watch its return
to the city of burial,
The coffin containing his remains was mounted on one side of a
beast of burden. And on the other side, for counterweight, what
did they hang but all the books Averroes had written!
I too was watching, in the company of the scholar Benchobair, and
of my disciple, Benazzarach, the copyist.
Tuirning to us, the young one said, ‘Do you not observe what it is
that hangs as counterweight to the Master Averroes as he rides
by? On one side goes the Master, and on the other side his
works, that is to say the books which he composed?’
Then Benchobair explained: ‘No need to point it out, my son, for
it is clearly evident! Blessed be thy tongue that has spoken it!’
I took careful note of this word of my disciple, and I set it apart for
future meditation, as a reminder of this event.
For this was the word that held the secret of the occasion, the seed
of truth, shown to the disciple, at the burial of Averroes.
I planted the seed within myself thus, in two verses:
On one side the Master rides: on the other side, his books.
Tell me: his desires, were they at last fulfilled?”
Amy, requiescat in pace.