Dispatch #1: On Loss
Part One: A Sylvia Plath Moment at the Charles Hotel
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      The people who are best informed about what we are doing to “the creation,” or “the environment,” are extremely worried. As Wren Wirth, a veteran of the environmental wars of the last twenty years, whose Winslow Foundation has provided a start-up grant for the Dispatches, told me several years ago, “None of the long-term indicators are positive. Basically, we just aren’t moving fast enough. Nothing works. Local doesn’t work, global doesn’t work. Everything has a red flag on it. The big thing now is compromise. The timber industry wants to compromise with the environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest. But how can you compromise, when only 5% of the old-growth forest is left? ” Wren rattled off some horrific stats: “Humankind is presently using 40% of the plant matter made by photosynthesis and 52% of the fresh water, and our population is about to double, at which time mathematically we will need more than twice the plant matter and fresh water. So we are headed for certain catastrophe.”
   “But even our horrific realization of the destruction underlying the modern world, the terrible cost of all this, is projection and illusion,” my old friend argued, like a good Buddhist. “But this doesn’t give us license to harm, either. Harm goes on, and for those who suffer it it is absolutely real and awful, but harm itself is relative, so it’s delicate.”

   This was a good point. I am beginning to realize that the very notion of ‘nature’ as something distinct from man, which man is destroying, is a construct that dates to the nineteenth century, as the English and American countryside was being visibly altered by industrialism and settlement. Its main proponents were Thoreau and John Muir. See Ideology and Biases.

   This led to a discussion about the core belief of Buddhism in shunyata, or emptiness. How nothing really exists in itself, but is a projection of the mind. It is not total illusion, but “like illusion.” According to the most extreme, “Mind Only” School, that chair over there doesn’t even exist, it’s all in your mind. Heizenberg’s principle of uncertainty, that “chairness” will fall short every nth copy, lends some support to the effort to diminish its physical reality, but how helpful is this really?  Recall how Burke responded to Hume who was trying to make the same mind-only argument: he kicked a rock as hard as he could and said, “I refute you, thus!” 

   I recounted a conversation I had had with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in l988. I told his Holiness how the night before I had gotten up in my hotel room to go to the bathroom and had tripped on my suitcase, which I’d left in the middle of the room, and fallen flat on my face. “You can’t say the suitcase was all in my mind, because I had completely forgotten it was there,” I said. The Dalai Lama laughed his deep, slow, hearty laugh and asked,

   “What is a suitcase? You can spend your entire life describing that suitcase—its size, shape, materials, and so forth—but there will always be something about it that you failed to describe. And furthermore, if you had been a subatomic particle, you would have passed right through the suitcase. Therefore, neither you nor the suitcase exist—independently.”

   “This is Madiamika-School interdependence type of thinking,” explained the Shamarpa. “Anything that depends on something else does not exist. Left does not exist. This is what the Dalai Lama was talking about. The Mahamudra school, which says that the mind itself is a mirage, takes the whole business even further.”

    So horror at the disappearance of species and memes, at the destruction of the planet, is a mental attitude. It is elective. Most people, indeed, hardly give it a second thought. You could even look at it as an attachment, one of the six causes of suffering according to Buddhism, related to nostalgia, which is attachment to the past-- a particularly futile and painful frame of mind. “The longing to return,” which is what nostalgia means literally, particularly afflicts exiles and refugees and other stateless people who have lost their country and been severed from the culture and natural environments in which they and their forefathers first learned to frame the world. This attachment to the world that was is a great source of pain that can continue for generations, losing fifty percent of its penetrance each generation like a gene. 

    I know about this pain because I suffer twinges of it myself. All four of my grandparents were White Russian émigrés. I was born in New York and so was my father, and yet I still long for the family’s big columned house in the Ukraine which was part of Russian until the breakup of the Soviet Union. There a fabulous collection of art that disappeared after my paternal grandparents and great uncle had to flee in l917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky government and started to liquidate the aristocracy. The house no longer exists. It was blown to smithereens in the ensuing civil war. And yet I still have vague longings for that house, and the world it was part of (“remorseful, hospitable, racemosa-blossing,” in Nabokov’s words), which no longer exists, either. For a Russia that no longer exists, where my people had lived for a thousand years.

   Isn’t there a contradiction between the Buddhist precept of nonattachment and the Tibetan exiles’ longing for their beautiful culture and their country, which is disintegrating before their eyes, much of which is already gone?  I asked the Shamarpa. 

   “The attachment to Tibet is purely a nationalistic, political stand against China, and like everyone’s politics, Tibetan politics is full of envy, treachery, and hunger for power,” he said. The Shamarpa is a complete realist, which I find refreshing. “Enough information has made it out of the country so that the spiritual practice will continue, and the practice in the country is still very strong [despite China’s effort to suppress it, it is practiced in secret, the way the Pueblos kept their religion going while paying lip service to the Spanish missionaries.]  Tibetan culture is not Buddhist, anyway,” the Shamarpa added. “It is Bön [the indigenous animism].”

    Robert Thurman, the Columbia professor who is one of America’s foremost Tibetan scholars and the father of Uma, the actress, whom I often consult on Buddhist and who is much more of an idealist about Tibet and its struggle to survive (which is equally valid and complements the Shamarpa’s realism), said, “Yes, there is a contradiction. But Tibet is a culture that teaches nonattachment and compassion, so the compassionate thing to do for mankind is to try to save it. Here the concept of caretaking comes in. It must be done without attachment and with compassion. We do not hate the Chinese who are destroying it, we do not want to kill them. We are like detached martial artists, who throw the negativity of our opponent back on itself. ”

   Shamar took exception to this. “We would kill them if we could,” he said, “and we tried to in the sixties, when we had guerillas supported by the CIA, who in the end decided it was in their best interest to abandon us.” 

   I am by this time woozing off. All this mind is mirage talk is starting to act on me.  It is not hard to believe that nothing is real in this restaurant, a generic upscale American eatery that could be anywhere in the country. Only some quilts hanging on the walls give is an ersatz New England flavor. 

   People at the other tables are downing the heaping portions of food that we Americans are accustomed to eat. 40 million of us are obese—by far the greatest percentage of any country. Two billion people on the earth today suffer from negative malnutrition, and another two billion suffer from positive malnutrition. The latter is going to be the big health problem of the 21st century for the developed. It is part of the larger American pattern of overconsumption. Big helpings, big cars, big everything. A serving of pasta, according to a segment on our burgeoning obesity on the CBS evenings news, is supposed to be no bigger than a tennis ball, but the usual portion in America is more like a can of tennis balls. According to Jeremy Revkin, Americans, who are 4% of the world’s population, are consuming 66% of its resources. This obviously can’t go on. 

   Suddenly in my semi-hallucinal state the blah samsara of the dining room sort of dissolves, and I have the sensation that I am seeing behind it to what is really going on, to the underlying processes, the transmuted raw materials that are making this visual display possible, and the effects its having on the rest of the world. This sensation, which is extremely unsettling, begins with an unsettling epiphany: that the air conditioning , besides giving me a sore throat, is contributing significantly to the very problem it is trying to combat, and from there it proceeds to other disquieting and discombobulating epiphanies. A man at another table is talking into a cellphone, the waitress is entering orders on her computer. Neither of them is aware of the gorilla-cellphone connection. No one in the room is, probably. My eyes go around the room, cataloguing the energy that is being used to heat or chill or illuminate or to produce this vinyl, this plastic, this petroleum product, which long ago was trees. This is my culture, but my organism is physically rejecting it. I feel very alone, like a complete misfit, almost nauseous. Like Sylvia Plath whose suburban anomie and existential disconnect became so unbearable in the early sixties that she ended up sticking her head in the oven and gasing herself. This isn’t the first seizure of this type that I’ve had, and I expect it won’t be the last. It was so strong that I felt myself breaking into a sweat and shivering in the air-conditioning.

    I got a grip on myself. Neither the Shamarpa nor my old friend had noticed that anything was amiss with me. I had one more point to make: that not all loss is not necessarily bad, either. I told them  about a recent conservation I had with a neurophysiologist named Scott Schwarzenwelder, who says that forgetting is as vital for humans to function as remembering is. By the end of the day, we have accumulated so many sensory impressions, so many thoughts have occurred to us, most of which are useless, that we could not function unless there was a mechanism for deleting the from the mind had the capability of deleting them, which it does while we are sleeping and explains why we spend a third of our lives asleep. While we are bagging z’s, our minds are jettisoning useless information. Michael Pollan has a section on the importance of forgetting in his new book, The Botany of Desire, pp. 160ff.

    Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do when you are meditating?  I asked the Sharmarpa. Clear your mind of extraneous and irrelevant thoughts?  This is what many of us had tried to do in the sixties with the help psychotropic drugs: to “blow our minds.” I made strenuous efforts to do away with the part of me that watches and judges and catalogues and compares and to just “be here now,” as Baba Ram Das urged, but to no avail. My superego wouldn’t go away. This was why I have never had much luck meditating. Thoughts are constantly coursing in and out of my mind, unbidden. I have been in the habit for years of carrying around a notebook to write the good ones down. Particularly when I’m in church or a shrine room, sitting in lotus position, these pesky thoughts really plague me. Often they have an erotic cast. I find myself admiring the back of the neck of the woman in front of me. 

     Thurman says that there is one form of meditation that focuses on clearing your mind of all thought, but Shamar said, “You can never rid the mind of thoughts. The mind is like an ocean, and thoughts are like waves. The best you can do is calm them.”

   These were my preliminary thoughts on loss, at this point only an unsorted collection of stray ideas, a casting of the net as widely as possible at a huge subject, which could be a book itself, which perhaps I should take on after I finish the multigenerational saga of my wife’s family by the end of the year. (Which is itself a story of inconceivable loss, including the disintegration of a culture—old Rwanda, the slaughter of close to a million Rwandans in the space of 100 days seven years ago, and exile and the exquisite pain that is peculiar to it.) Before I proceed—the entire framework in which I had thinking about loss was about to be exploded—I would again like to throw the floor open to discussion. Please communicate any thoughts on loss, about why we should care about the disappearance of species and cultures, or any other reactions to or suggestions for the Dispatches, to AlexShoumatoff@Shoumatopia.Com or visit the section of the discussion area on loss.
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