In the 32nd Museling, I describe wanting to speak out of silence.
Marked as explicit on Apple Podcasts because of swearing.
A transcript of this episode is below.
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I have been finding myself wanting very much to speak out of silence but I know that it is not possible.
First, because of the in-breath, which has a sound. And then, before that, because of the hiss of the recording, which I use software to remove but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, and perhaps it never disappears entirely: your listening equipment might be more sensitive than mine. And then there’s the jingle, which starts the episode. And then, of course, before any of that, there is all the noise of your life up until the moment when you started to listen to this, and all the noise of mine that has brought me to speech.
And, of course, I would have nothing to say if it weren’t for all of the things that have happened but I would like to speak as if none of that exists.
Who was it who first posited that the world is created anew in every moment? That there is no real continuity? That there is only this moment and then this moment and then this moment, and that all our memories, all our accrued experience of living, is an illusion, created just for us, all at once, ex nihilo, again and again and again. It might be a piece of Jewish philosophy that I’m half remembering having read about but that wonderful Christian idea of God including dinosaur fossils as part of his/her/its/their week-long creation jag six thousand years ago to tease us is not so far away. Anyway. The point is, as I say, it would mean that the past is an illusion. That we do not have to work out what it means for us now.
That would be so nice, wouldn’t it? It would be so nice not to have to think about the past. My past. Your past. Other people’s pasts. It would be nice not to have to feel any responsibility. It would be nice to be able to ignore all of the noise and violence of all of the lives that have brought us to this moment.
That have brought me to this moment.
All of the pain that I have caused that I am not brave enough to apologise for; all of the things that have made me angry and that I don’t have the courage to let go of; all of the ways in which I’m implicated in destruction; all of the times that I have out-sourced my discomfort; all of the thinking that I have done only for myself.
And I know. I know that lots of people do the work of releasing themselves from their pasts. They apologise and atone and individuate and self-actualise and emerge gloriously into their own unique futures. And it takes courage and conviction and, as I tend to assume, but perhaps I’m relying too much on feelings that I have about articles that I’ve read online – and, anyway, as a therapist of mine once pointed out to me, I’m very good at finding reasons not to do things – a certain extroversion. To dwell is bad, apparently; to consider and release is good. And I am more practised at dwelling than I am at releasing.
So, yes, perhaps I just need to practise the other.
But do you think there are people who are naturally in harmony with their past? Who feel, justifiably, that there is nothing to apologise or to atone for? That there is nothing that needs to be buried, nothing that sits atop one like a burden, that keeps one’s ankles shackled to the sea-anchor and drags one down? Not because they’ve never done anything wrong but because everything has been dealt with in a timely manner – prompt apologies, points of order swiftly raised, as easy as breathing. I love that idea. I really love the idea of getting to be the kind of person who has simply flowed into themself as they are right now and who will continue to flow forwards into the future, just an ever expanding font of self, forever in touch with every part of themself, meeting no obstruction, never having to turn their attention away out of shame or fear or anger or impatience.
That person could speak out of silence. Each moment might as well be the first, given that there is no balance outstanding in the ledgers of their soul at any time; flip to any page, you’ll find that all debts are paid.
I might, I suppose, to some of you, seem to be describing enlightenment. But enlightenment takes work. Even the Buddha had to sit under the Bodhi tree. And it is exactly this kind of work that I am anxious to avoid. That’s the point. Work of this kind is embarrassing, for a start. My upbringing predisposes me to stay silent about the things that might end up being too difficult to talk about, like guilt and anger and failure and responsibility. And dumb luck. So a part of me feels as though, if only I could start from zero right now, knowing that there might be dinosaur bones down there but knowing also that they would have nothing to do with the world that we live in now, that I do not have to account for them, beyond explaining to anybody who might ask that they are just a joke on the part of the creator, such a good joke, what a card, to hide all that stuff down there that we cannot explain, that we do not want to acknowledge the implications of, that then, then, I could really get on with doing the rest of the work. And let’s not worry right now about exactly what that work might be because we are not there yet. The point is only that, absent the embarrassing business of having to deal with all of the stuff that has happened up till now, there would be nothing to stop me doing it. Nothing to make me feel as though I had no business doing it.
And I know. I know too that all enlightenment traditions have instructive stories of people who did not feel as though they were qualified to start the work. “I’m a tax collector! How can I possibly enter the kingdom of heaven?” and so on. And the answer is always: “Start where you are. Do the work. Have faith that you will get somewhere.” Pema Chödrön, the American Tibetan Buddhist nun has a whole book on the subject. It’s a very good book. I really enjoyed it.
Here’s the thing, though: in the stories, it sounds so easy to put doubts aside, or to work through them or despite them or whatever, and to have faith and to do the work. You just decide and then you start. But, also, start what, you know? I know I said let’s not worry about exactly what the work might be but also: How do we know what is good work and what is enough and what is the right kind of work and what is not just wasting time? If you are in financial debt, just to use that as an example, you can see the numbers, can’t you, and you know that, if you only ever pay the interest and never touch the principal, the numbers never get smaller and you’re just treading water and so what if any of the work that I end up doing, with all of the… spiritual debt that I carry, what if I’m not even paying off the interest?
And I know. I know that this is also the point about having faith. It’s a battle, isn’t it. One must do battle with doubt and ignorance and hopelessness and pessimism and shame and awkwardness and embarrassment and, again, in the stories, it just seems somehow more straightforward. It’s always so inevitable. Even Jonah, right, in the bible, who, poor baby, had to live in a whale for a while, which must have been very unpleasant: he had clear instructions about what he had to do and where he had to go to do it, or so we are told, and he ran away in the opposite direction and got caught in a storm at sea and was thrown overboard, hence being available for swallowing by the whale, and then that whale delivered him straight back to land within, one assumes, striking distance of Nineveh. Which was where he was told to go in the first place. So what’s left for him to say but: “Fine! God! You obviously want me to be here. I’ll do the fucking work.”
And… actually, I hadn’t read the book of Jonah for a while and it turns out that it’s one of the shorter books of the bible so it’s an easy read. Just two pages in the New Revised Standard Version that I have here. And one of the things that strikes me about it, as I read it now, is how straightforward the work turns out to be. I mean it sounds as though it’s going to be horrible, so no wonder Jonah runs away, because what he has to do is to tell the people of Nineveh that God’s planning to… blow them up, essentially, because they’ve been such losers. And you’d think that that would lead to some serious aggression – I mean, no-one likes to hear that kind of thing about themselves – but no, all the people of Nineveh, without exception, just go: “Oh! Oh no! We’d rather not die. We’ll pull our socks up.” And they stop eating for a while, and God says: “Oh! OK. Great. Good work, people. I’ve changed my mind. You’re not going to die.” And then Jonah is so pissed off! He’s like: “Ugh. I’m so angry that you didn’t kill all of those people that I’m just going to go and sit in the desert for a bit.” And then there’s something about a bush that grows near where Jonah’s sitting to give him some shade and then the bush dies and Jonah’s, like, “Ugh! I’m so angry about the bush. You might as well just kill me now.” And God says, you know: “Stop it, Jonah.” And that’s the end of the book. It’s wild. And I’m not even exaggerating. Let me read chapter 4, verse 9, which is almost the end: “But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’” What a guy.
Anyway. The point is, Jonah knows what the work is and he’s more or less where he needs to be to do it and it doesn’t seem to matter what he does, he ends up getting it right by default. And I’m aware, by the way, that many, many Christians talk about their own lives in exactly these terms. It’s one of the reasons the book of Jonah is so famous. My problem right now, I suppose, is that I do not feel able to narrate my life like this. Except, perhaps, for the part about feeling angry enough to die when things don’t go my way.
I’m also aware, by the way, that I might seem to be stuck on bible stories and the Christian cannon in this episode but I’m afraid that’s my background, and the point is, here’s another one because, while we’re on this, let’s look at John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a book I read while I was at school and then carelessly dropped into the returns box at the school library although it was actually a rather nice copy passed down through one branch or other of my family and when I finally plucked up the courage to ask about it, the librarian just shrugged and said that there was no way of knowing whether or not it was retrievable. It would be somewhere upstairs by now, she said, with piles of other books that were, likewise, not tagged or registered and that had, likewise, found their way mysteriously into the library’s stock and there was really just nothing that could be done about it. It occurs to me now, of course, that perhaps, in this case, my work might have been to insist a little, perhaps to ask if I could go upstairs and hunt through the piles myself. This particular book was quite distinctive; I think I could have found it. But I was not that kind of kid.
Anyway, my point is that Pilgrim’s Progress is about this guy Christian – I know: a Christian allegory about someone whose Christian name is Christian; but the names of some of the other characters are even worse – who has to walk along this road and eventually he gets to a river and he crosses it and then he’s in heaven. And that’s literally it. He just has to get to the end of the road. And, yes, there are tricky sections, it’s not an easy walk – I don’t know, level 3 hike, perhaps, some experience required, less physically fit walkers might struggle with some of the hills, etc. And, side note: yes, the Slough of Despond, which is one of those tricky sections and which I always liked the sound of because I grew up near the town of Slough, which is in the Royal county of Berkshire, must absolutely have inspired the Swamp of Sadness that takes Atreyu’s horse Artax in the film The Neverending Story, which I think I must have been too young, or at any rate too sensitive, to watch when I did because it was devastating. Sorry. Where was I? Yes, so anyway… Well, actually, for those of you who don’t know Pilgrim’s Progress or the biblical story of Jonah, perhaps The Neverending Story would be a good substitute in making this particular point because Atreyu, the main character in The Neverending Story – a much better name that Christian in my opinion – just has to do this thing. He’s told what it is, and it’s difficult, yes, and he doesn’t… manage it. I mean, in this case, the place does get blown up in the end. But the task is straightforward. It’s simple. It’s clearly explained. And the fact that Atreyu sets out to do it at all is enough. Right? Those of you who have seen the film, back me up on this. Please. Also, omg that horse! Weep!
And I suppose my feeling is… OK, so ignoring, actually, pretty much all of what I’ve just said, one of the things that I can’t help noticing about all of these people that I’ve just been talking about, is that, for them, the past is kind of irrelevant. Who knows what Jonah was doing with himself before he ran away to sea? And Atreyu’s just a child. Christian, from Pilgrim’s Progress, has a past in the form of a backpack but it just falls off him quite early on in the story; the straps break, basically, and someone, I can’t remember who it is, perhaps it’s a voice from heaven, says something like: “That’s it. That’s your past. It’s gone. It’s rolled away. Forget about it. Tread lighter. Keep going. Cross the river. Get to heaven. Your wife’ll be along later.” So I suppose my feeling is, if I could also disregard all that has gone before, and just… drop the backpack, not worry about whether I’m paying my debts or starting in the right place… In other words, if I could speak out of silence, all I would need to do from now onwards is… do the work, right? I don’t know. Be a good person, I guess. Walk to the river. Lose my horse. Tell everyone else what a loser they are. That would be the whole of the work, wouldn’t it. But… there’s too much noise. And, I mean, maybe that’s the work. That probably is the work, right? Dealing with the noise. But I just… I don’t know how to do that. So maybe that’s the work. Working out how to deal with the noise. But… it’s tricky. And I feel like I’m not doing it very well. That’s really what I wanted to say today.
But one thing I’ve realised since I started thinking about all of this in more detail is that, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least, the only character who really gets to speak out of silence is God. There is nothing, quite literally, and then God says: “Let there be light.” And then there’s light. And then everything else happens. And it gets really fucked up. So, actually, I’m not sure I’d want the responsibility of all that either.
This has been the 32nd Museling. My name is Charles Adrian and, although I’ve stopped engaging in any meaningful way with social media over the last few months, you may still be able to find tweets and retweets from a previous way of being in the world by looking for @charldrian on Twitter. More information about this podcast and links to transcripts of all the episodes is at muselings.uk. Thank you so much for listening.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020