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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 15, 2007

not easy--not supposed to be

Over the weekend my mother sent me a quote she found in a book she had just bought:

If I were to describe to you my situation during the past three months, you would hardly be able to believe it; it's totally impossible for things to go on this way. My wife can't take any more; I can't take any more - things have gone so far that novels and short stories mean nothing to me measured against a single tear shed by my wife: that's how things are.... Up to now, I've been unable to work freelance, nor do I earn enough to buy shoes for my children. I've simply undertaken something impossible, and I have to confess that I've reached a dead end.

Thus Heinrich Boll in 1950, 22 years before he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

I found his expression of despair heartening. It was a salutary reminder that writing is hard even for those who are the very best at it. And it's not only that the practice of writing itself is hard: being a writer is hard. It's hard on one's psyche and one's family.

I think back to one of my consultations with my meditation instructor, Geoff. I was plodding through the first leg of a practice called ngondro (Tibetan for "preliminary practices" or "foundation practices"). The first leg involves performing 100,000 full prostrations, with accompanying visualizations and repetition of certain words. One is not supposed to linger on the practice, but rather to power through it as much as one can (not in one session, of course! most people take at least months, more usually years, to complete these). I was in one of my periods of uncertainty, even dejection, about the practice. I faced Geoff alone in the small shrine-room, where we sat cross-legged on meditation cushions.

"It's not easy," I said, by way of trying to sum up the situation with an understatement.

"It's not supposed to be easy," he said.

In a way he was merely stating the obvious. But his words flipped my mind in a new direction. I was carrying the expectation that things should be easy. That if I were doing it right, I would not find the practice so hard. The unreasonable demands of the practice provoked feelings of anger and resentment, along with self-doubt, tedium, and even despair. It was supposed to do these things--and that somehow made it seem even worse: like a torturer deliberately inflicting suffering on you. But the difficulty kept on seducing my mind into dwelling on notions of success and failure, and this preoccupation was itself the source of much of my suffering. Ngondro is a kind of spiritual purgative that forces you to spew out your neuroses and emotional baggage, and then pushes your face into the revolting mess--your revolting mess.

Geoff was challenging me: Why do you expect things to be easy?

It's a good question. When things are easy, you can coast on autopilot, and success is almost assured. You can stay more blissed out, in the pleasure-zone. When things are hard, your attention is forced onto the matter at hand. You have to deal with it--think. And failure looms over your shoulder, watching your every move.

Failure. It's a painful affront to one's self-esteem. And yet even some of the world's great seeming successes have been failures when viewed from certain angles. Great works of art are often regarded as failures by their creators, who envisioned something more.

The easy way is not the heroic way. As Joseph Campbell points out, when the hero accepts his adventure (and often he tries to shirk it), his mettle will be tested to the utmost. And there are heroes--or would-be heroes--who fail. Their stories stand as cautionary tales, as warnings to those who hope to do less than their best and get away with it.

I did not finish my prostrations until 2002, when I was at Gampo Abbey, eight years after starting them. It was a long journey--and not easy.

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