Over a decade ago when I was going through a melancholy phase, I began to sit with a Zen meditation group. I get melancholy when I cannot resolve something important to me, when there is no solution that I can generate in an ordered way. When I am melancholy in this way my mind gets stuck on a treadmill of the same questions, the same arguments, the same words, the same dead-end fogginess over and over again. This is a mental state well-suited and challenging to meditation. So to help me focus – the restraint of counted breaths usually frays and falls apart with the pressure of the treadmill -- I conjured a brief mantra of the capacities I wanted to bring forward to keep myself sane: strength, integrity, compassion. These capacities would help me jump off the treadmill both while meditating and in general. So whenever I found myself distracted or morose, I repeated these words, standing (or sitting) straighter, feeling simpler, bowing to the person or persons who were the apparent causes or objects of my distress. As the causes for that distant melancholy faded, in part because of my own and others’ actions and in part because the world turned, I stopped reciting those words as frequently. For a long while I stopped regular meditation.
Then, as an empty nester, I returned to meditating with the same Zen group, not as regularly as those many years ago, but often enough.
A few days ago, I saw the Dalai Lama with a group of no more than 200 people. I was in the third row, in the center, and could see him as an ordinary old man – his expressions, the folds of his skin, the slowness of his movements – while he spoke as one of the most influential figures of the late 20th century and the early 21st century. Among other things, he spoke familiarly about the importance of the calm mind and the unhealthy effects of anger and fear. So when I went to meditate on Monday and “strength, integrity, compassion” drifted into my mind I felt good about my calm mind and my rejection of anger and fear. Wanting to update my mantra I thought about the capacity I would want to add, and alighted on the elusive and unlikely (for me) capacity for sweetness. I repeated “strength, integrity, compassion, sweetness” with brave complacency, knowing that sweetness was something I would have to strive for.
Then my mind, ever-unmeditative, started thinking about incompleteness, imperfection, and what of myself I was excluding and I found myself building and repeating: strength, weakness, fear, shame, integrity, confusion, inconsistency, scattered-ness, dishonesty, compassion, anger, hatred, sweetness, bitterness. I had to face all of the excluded and found that while I had all apparently under control, all lived in me, not all to the same degree at this time and some (like bitterness) very little at any time, but if I have strength, I have weakness, fear, and shame; if I have integrity, I have confusion, inconsistency, scattered-ness, and dishonesty; if I have compassion, I have anger and hatred; and if I have (a little, sometimes) sweetness, I have (a little, sometimes) bitterness. Somehow this relieved me. There is nothing to hide; I have nothing to hide.
And how does this relate to beauty? Well, while I was thinking about what to add to my original mantra, I thought about adding “beauty.” But beauty isn’t a capacity, it is a kind of presence, and once I faced (some of the) excluded, felt relieved with open imperfection, I thought this I can call beauty.