Monday, September 20, 2010

Leaving no trace

I am amused to find how many people want to make a mark on the world.

“…some are building monuments, others are jotting down notes…”
Quinn the Eskimo/Dylan

From when I was quite young I hoped to slip through this life unnoticed, leaving no trace. I certainly don't understand the modern desire to 'be famous' (in the spotlight the whole time). I didn’t find much support for this atitude until I came across Buddhism, and especially the Zen version of that ‘belief system’ or ‘approach to life’.

"When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."
---Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970)

Even better than that advice about immersion into the present moment, and current activity, I liked the fact that Zen practitioners seemed to perceive the whole of life as ephemeral:

To what shall I compare this life of ours?
Even before I can say
it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop
it is no more.

- Sengai

It even seemed that both the conscious mind and the perceived world might not only disappear, but perhaps were ‘never here at all’ as separate entities (and other such tricky ideas).

True dhyana is to realize that one's own nature is like space, and that thoughts and sensations come and go in the 'original mind' like birds through the sky, leaving no trace.

This calls to mind the famous, beautiful couplet from the Zenrin:

The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection;
The water has no mind to receive their image.

Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. New York: Pantheon, 1957 pp 93-4)

So I find the urge to write a book rather like trying to write my name on the surface of a pool of water. But I guess the image of a life as a series of waves after a pebble gets thrown in, rippling out to the edge of the pond and back towards the source (creating complex interference patterns of overlapping waves), and finally settling down (leaving no trace) always appealed to me.

Even when we do leave a physical mark like a book or a piece of art, a building, a wall, a map or a drinking well, it probably still has a finite life span before it becomes lost or forgotten or simply falls into disuse.

And in this particular life I mostly worked as a performer in live events, passing shows which linger only in the minds of the audience, for a while. The ephemeral arts.

It feels strange to realise that I have now left performances on film, which will get copied forward into new media, and possibly not fade for a very long time…I feel pleased that they are not images of me, though, but of a fully-realised character, who can live on without further input from me.

Leaving no trace, or making your mark, both work on many levels. You may not be credited with some changes you made, which nevertheless continue to influence others. You may have no idea about your descendants, and what they might achieve.

And on a daily basis, we have campaigners who want us to go out and enjoy nature, to escape from the city, but to attempt to leave no trace of our passing…while others prefer to erect signs, create trails, and otherwise help others who come behind them. Neither path seems like the whole truth.

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