A few days ago, while doing a walking meditation, I reflected on what I remembered of a recent discussion of a Zen koan – What’s the sound outside? It’s the sound of raindrops?[i] The discussion I heard was about inside and outside, emptiness and sound, sound and sound, listening and listening for. My memory of that discussion, while walking, slid into a trite, but ever-enchanting, thought about the fleck of my life in the universe, and I had a sensation of being matter inside and out, dust and dust, indistinguishable in that moment of space and continuous on the axes of time. Except, right in that thought or right alongside it, this dust contained desire inside and commitments outside, listening inside and raindrops outside. And I was exhilarated by both dust and desire. That memory and rather ecstatic moment took me to the old spiritual question – how do you reconcile the objective inertness of dust with the desire and activity of sentience? Here I use some language from the practice and writings of Zen Buddhism, but similar questions are raised throughout Buddhist and Daoist traditions and have analogs widely in other religious and philosophical traditions.
But this blog post is less a spiritual or philosophical inquiry and more a place to initiate and document the transformation of failure into joy of living in a universal sense and a kick in the pants in the short run. Failure is the dark side of desire. To be is dust, to live is to desire, and to desire is to fail. So, then, where is the joy? In that walking meditation, I felt, which here is the same as I thought, that being-as-dust not only does not exclude living with desire (temporality, corporeality, love of self, love of others, fear, and anger,) but fully permits desire. I can only live now, and living means living with desire. This is true even when living fully is simple and meditative, even when listening within is harmonic with raindrops outside.
Desire most commonly means “I want.” While ‘desire’ often has a negative tinge to it and in contemporary discourse seems to be morally superseded by passion, I am using it in the general and value-neutral sense of an inexorable pressing within oneself towards or against something outside onseself. This pressing is by itself living, whatever its value according to this or that criterion, and whatever its success, however success is defined.
Which brings me to failure. Success in living – whether being loved, winning something, or sensing the sublime in music, or food, or the greenness of a hill or something else – is easily linked to joy. Some variation of pleasure or satisfaction runs through the body. It is failure which is more difficult to link with joy, especially failure in the form of stasis or self-doubt. It is hard to see or feel joy when one desires something beyond one’s current state but there is no change, when one works in whatever way one can, when one searches here and there, and when one feels trapped, whether because of non-response from a world just carrying on or because of self-doubt that becomes a questioning of one’s desire or a palliative redirection towards apathetic gratitude for what one already has. But, I know from my ecstatic moment and my thinking since, that so long as one does not wallow in the apathetic gratitude – recognizing that what one is grateful for is precisely the foundation and fuel for desire – and so long as the questioning of one’s desire is honest and active, this is living! Actually, it’s living even if there is apathetic gratitude and dishonesty. Constraints and social valuation of what a person desires may change the direction and forms of her desire, but, if she’s living, what’s inside her will press out. This could be the heartbreaking, fatigued pressing-out of survival. Or it could be a well-fed, aggressive pressing out of a will to power. Or it could be any number of other expressions of desire. How do I say it without distracting tautology?
That the pressing out is the joy of living. It is not about happiness or pleasure. It’s about being alive, with desire.
As a side-note, this is fundamentally an amoral definition of the joy of living. What I desire and do in my joy of living may be shaped and countered by moral (and legal) perspectives that are larger than me, but my joy of living is an existential phenomenon in itself.
So where does this take me? To the kick in the pants! Let dust be dust, let failure flourish, and let me get on with the activity of living.
[i] Case 46 Kyosei's "Voice of the Raindrops"
Main Subject: Kyosei asked a monk, "What is the noise outside?" The
monk said, "That is the voice of the raindrops." Kyosei said, "Men's
thinking is topsy-turvy. Deluded by their own selves, they pursue things."
The monk asked, "What about yourself?" Kyosei said, "I was near it, but I
am not deluded." The monk asked, "What do you mean by 'near it but not
deluded'?" Kyosei said, "To say it in the sphere of realization may be easy, but
to say it in the sphere of transcendence is
The empty hall
resounds with the voice of the raindrops.
Even a master fails to
If you say you have turned the current,
You have no true
Understanding? No understanding?
Misty with rain, the
northern and southern mountains.
from The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Sekida
(I took this from https://clearmindzen.blogspot.com/2009/06/koan.html)