Answering the Knock at the Door

A couple of weeks ago, while reading Cormack McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, I stumbled on a passage that stopped me in my tracks:

“I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there were not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what.”
Two days ago, I read Sixteenth century German mystic Meister Eckhart’s words, “There is a place in the soul — there’s a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.”
Yesterday, I listened to an interview with the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, who referenced Meister Eckhart and continued the thought, saying, “What this means is your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you.”
When I pay attention, I find that it’s not all that uncommon for ideas to find me like this–gentle, persistent knocks at my door, interrupting whatever I happen to be preoccupied with at the moment. Each encounter with this notion of soul/spirit/identity has felt like a much needed pause in the messy, exhausting noise that’s been blaring in my mind these past few weeks. Each quotation speaks to related, all too familiar, anxieties that have kept me company for as long as I can remember: the question of one’s inherent worth, one’s vulnerability to the vicissitudes of fortune, and the sense that one can be robbed of oneself by the story that unfolds in this life.
There’s a way in which these claims of an untouched soul might be problematic from a Buddhist point of view, considering a large part of the path is dismantling the solidity of one’s sense of the self as being an unchanging, definite collection of aggregates. However, what McCarthy, Eckhart, and O’Donohue are describing is actually much closer to what Chögyam Trungpa called “basic goodness,” an essential nature that is not ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’, but rather “good” before any such duality, “good” by virtue of being free of layers of obscuring armor, “good” by virtue of being exactly as one is from moment to moment. It’s perhaps O’Donohue who fleshes out this idea best when he describes one’s identity as being separate from one’s biography. For if this is true, then there is nothing that I have done and nothing I will ever do that will make me deserving of love–I already deserve it, just as I am. If this is true, there is no turn of events that will threaten the soft, vulnerability of my heart–it’s part of my essential nature and cannot be destroyed. Therefore, in theory, I’m relieved of the burden of proving my worth as a human being, and I can recognize that my armor is actually useless and may be discarded.
And yet…
I’m still figuring out how exactly to answer these knocks. They answer questions I hadn’t realized I was asking and challenge deeply ingrained patterns that can’t be changed overnight. I’ve worn myself out, walking the cusp of change, losing myself in the tingle of the coincidence/fate of these encounters. But I’ve also seen enough to know these knocks can’t be discounted or ignored. These moments of realization, when I can feel  truth vibrating in my body, these are the ones in which I feel most in touch with the experience of being alive. But then life begins to crowd in, with countless tedious tasks, petty preoccupations, necessary obligations…and before I know it,  I see that I left my guest on the doorstep too long, that she decided to wander off into the twilight.
I can’t say that I blame her.



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