It sometimes happens that bits from seemingly unrelated zones of life — (cooking, philosophizing, clothing, cleaning, creating, accounting) – coalesce.
The virtue of uncertainty about the impact COVID-19 has—or is going to have — on every aspect of our economic, psychological, and gastronomic life, is, unfortunately for us, too seldom handled constructively.
We don’t often touch upon the subject of what we don’t or cannot know because the things we don’t know don’t make money.
Money is made by using knowledge. Give somebody something, even if that something is an experience of ‘magic’—as in the case of The Walt Disney Company (with a 2019 net U.S. revenue of $69.6 billion.)—and you will make money. Magic sells.
Once I’ve consumed an experience of magic, I can tell people about it. I have knowledge about it. Maybe that makes me more interesting. Or gives me insight. Or power.
Many ‘things’ are sold. And all of these things help us do more things. They are instrumental to our getting something, somewhere, or someone. Irons, clocks, smartphones, memes, Ted talks, jewelry, cars, data reports, houses, educations, perfumes, spiritual experiences, etc. help us attain what we want. And just as our Divine Lord or Lady sows the seeds of life on earth, so humanity sows the seeds of knowledge on the soil of culture from which the flowers and vegetables we call humans and the gardens of human civilization grow.
Faced With Oblivion
But when we’re faced with oblivion, with the source of knowledge instead of knowledge itself—that unknown useless thing from which inspiration, insight, or the so-called flash of genius that moves great figures like Buddha, or, less loftily, if you like, such poets as Mozart, Lincoln, and Descartes—we pause.
Confronted by that source from which all life arises — but which we cannot know or use in the way we use, say, actuarial tables — we squint and wonder and ask ourselves what the use of such a thing as primordial ignorance might be. And in this pause, we either turn back to the instrumental world and conspire a way to use even this most sacred emptiness, or we linger for a while in awe. We stay for a moment in the company of those who consider the nature of this source that cannot be known. And express it in song.
William & Marcel
In a passage describing what it is to wake from deep sleep, in the beginning of the third chapter of the fourth volume, Cities of the Plain, from his unfinished seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, Proust writes:
“What, then, is a memory which we do not recall? Or, indeed, let us go further. We do not recall our memories of the last thirty years; but we are wholly steeped in them; why then stop short at thirty years, why not extend this previous life back before our birth? If I do not know a whole section of the memories that are behind me, if they are invisible to me, if I do not have the faculty of calling them to me, how do I know whether in that mass that unknown to me there may not be some that extend back much further than my human existence? If I can have in me and round me so many memories which I do not remember, this oblivion (a de facto oblivion, at least, since I have not the faculty of seeing anything) may extend over a life which I have lived in the body of another man, even on another planet. A common oblivion obliterates everything. But what, in that case, is the meaning of that immortality of the soul the reality of which the Norwegian philosopher [an indirect reference here to the French philosopher Henri Bergson] affirmed? The being that I shall be after death has no more reason to remember the man I have been since my birth than the latter to remember what I was before it.”
And from across the English Channel in 1610, about 312 years before Proust, Shakespeare writes:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” – The Tempest 4.1.156-158
When a disruption like COVID 19 strikes, it’s not different from when, in ordinary life, we lose something or someone dear. For let’s make no mistake about it—the life that we knew before 2020 has been lost. Life is disrupted. We grieve for what we cannot believe we no longer have. And for a moment—given the wherewithal, courage, interest, and spiritual resources to do so—we let ourselves remember the infinite oblivion on which our fragile lives float.
The aim of mindfulness—true mindfulness—is existential. Though it’s mostly taught as an instrumental exercise to be used as a weapon against anxiety, depression, or stress, the real and lasting effect of mindfulness can only be had to the extent that it is used to squarely face that “undefined mass of sleep” (Proust) in which our lives take place.
Those who have the linguistic and contemplative capacity to hold their life in focus while facing the inescapable, uncomfortable fact of death without succumbing to fear or distraction are not only the people who will be remembered, they are the people with the ability to inspire others — in the past, present, and future — to live.
You might say, as I’ve heard, that you don’t care about death. Well, if that’s true, then please send me all your money at once! In short, I find this claim dishonest, made only by people with meager imaginations or little interest in life. E.g., ghosts. And I trust that no one reading thus far lives with such a spectral attitude.
My Friend Leonard Cohen
We live in a dream. This is what we realize upon awakening. We ought to help each other make this dream a brilliant one. This is the practice and purpose of mindfulness rightly understood.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a link to a video by my late friend Leonard Cohen, another artist, with whom I assiduously practiced, laughed, ate, faced death, and sang :
Leaving the Table: link