“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.” ~ Earnest Hemingway
“I agree with the second part.” ~ William Somerset, Seven
My, my, it is a good day for walking. Of course, that is only because any day you still have the use of your legs or, for instance, a lull in your chronic sciatica is a good day for walking. However, it is not a particularly good day for walking outside, at least here in Upstate South Carolina.
It is hot today. I don’t mean hot as in “Dude, this lawn-care gig sucks ass. When’s quittin’ time?” I mean hot like “If I were this hot internally, I would be thrashing about in a tub full of ice water, babbling with delirium, and waiting on an ambulance.” It is a day when one hopes that the low-sodium diet your doctor has prescribed will prevent the dark, wet spots spreading on your shirt from turning into embarrassing dry, white streaks. It is a day – as I think most men can attest – when testicles turn annoyingly clingy. I won’t go into details, but will simply state that my inner thigh doth not requite such persistent, sweaty advances.
The temperature was forecast to be 94º, though I suspect the mercury may have had sufficient hubris to attain further. While I readily admit this does not compete with the jaw-dropping regularities of a summer in Death Valley, I have yet to mention the heat index, which rates the somatosensory effect of the humidity. Today’s index was referred to as a peppy “feels like 105 degrees” – which, by the way, makes me wonder if heat indexes are really based upon hard science. “Feels like” strikes me as the meteorological equivalent of beer goggles: “Well, she’s really a 4, 4 and a half, tops. But the beer index puts her at a solid 8!”
Whether the actual number falls somewhere between or above is irrelevant: 105º feels about right. I have lazed in more comfortable saunas. It was in the midst of this discomfort that revelation, as it so often does, thumped me upon the nose. Appropriate, I suppose, since an individual’s own schnoz is often the center of their focus and, by extension, universe. The aforementioned thump came in the form of a scent immediately familiar to many, from the heavily stressed, heavily mortgaged suburbanite to the teenager nudging the spirit of entrepreneurship from behind a lawnmower to the wealthy, gated-community homeowner paying his undocumented workers a pittance while simultaneously funding the campaigns of those who would lay the blame at the feet of migrants. But I digress.
That glorious smell, with its accompanying memories of green youth and American dreamlands, pulled my focus away from the swelter of the day and straight toward the lawn of an empty, city lot. There, freshly mutilated grass bled chlorophyll into the humid air and breathed life into my long-faded Buddhism; here was skin consciousness shifting to nose consciousness shifting to eye consciousness. It all happened with blinding speed and for a few blesséd moments, I, quite literally, did not feel the heat.
The merest of moments later, distant thunder proclaimed the Dharma. Ear consciousness.
My head lifted and turned toward coming clouds, lead-grey and promising as the first line of graphite in a new notebook. Eye consciousness.
And all this time, the heat did not exist. This was not enlightenment, but it was a drop from its endless reservoir. And it tasted sweet. Tongue consciousness. No. Mind consciousness.
Naturally, the heat came back as soon as I realized it had gone and what had caused it to go. But with its return came the bold and quietly insistent realization that my focus was the source of my happiness. There was no harsh requirement of faith, no unfathomable higher reality to endlessly ponder, not even some proud and abstract appeal to human achievement and progress. There was just the reality around me, settling clear and true on my senses and in my perception.
Awareness now aroused by this insight, even the heat became a thing of joy, if only because it formed a threshold by which I could judge the coolness of the breeze blunting its edge. Farther up the street, a gaggle of smokers gathered in the dense shadow of their office building; I guess the heat was getting to them too. Gazing at the long-term nicotine addicts, recognizable by that certain, sunken look around the eyes and the pruning at the mouth, something in the coloring of their skin made we wonder sadly at the state of their lungs. Heart consciousness.
But my awareness did not allow my sympathy to diminish my bliss. Above the stench of burning tobacco – treated with who-knows-what kinds of chemical injectors – I caught the tinge of spicy, brown mustard. Restaurant? Deli? Hot-dog stand? I didn’t know, but my head lifted again, hunting.
Nose consciousness to belly consciousness to eye consciousness.
Could life not be like this always, I thought. In every moment of misery, was there not something in the surroundings that could carry one above the situation? Not the disregarding of pain, but a reframing of its context? Not so much a sublimity in suffering, but in spite of it? Here was the Truth of the warrior-poet who speaks of the beauty of war, the vibrant flower of the explosion as it rends the limb, the piercing of dawn through smoke and barbed wire. Suffering is not good, but it is also not enough to diminish what good there is and what good there is yet to be.
Then it started to downpour and I found myself wet, miserable, and searching for someplace warm, to get in out of the rain.