As a little boy in Oxford, I was encouraged to worship the mind. I and my friends, often sons of professors, were being drilled in French and Latin and Greek before we turned seven, and not long afterwards were to be found wrestling with Occam’s razors and Pythagorean theorems. We learned how to write with spurious fluency on every aspect of Plato or King Lear, and the less we knew, the more commandingly we could write. The mind became an instrument we could deploy as sword, shield and moat; on its own terms – and they were the only terms we were taught to honour – it was impossible to defeat.
But then – of course – after twenty years of reciting irregular verbs and parsing Aeschylus – I ventured out into the larger world, and found that almost everything that mattered hadn’t been covered in my classroom: that slant of light coming through the chapel window; my senseless terror of the woods; that girl smiling at me from the shadows, all the confounding emotions her smile awakened.
My parents had moved to California by then, and one hot midsummer evening, visiting the family home, I looked up and saw a slash of orange racing down a distant mountain slope. I went downstairs to call the fire department, and by the time I returned upstairs, five minutes later, flames were all around our house, moving at seventy miles per hour and rising three stories above the wooden frame. I jumped into a car, but within less than a minute found myself stranded on our mountain road, unable to move for three hours, as the fire up above started picking through every room in the house and reduced everything we owned in the world, every last scrap of paper and souvenir, to ash.
Marcus Aurelius had given me all kinds of wisdom for dealing with loss – impeccable in theory – and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar had taught me about the fury of the irrational. But when I thought of texts like that, I was back in the mind of my schoolboy days, and that was the structure that now lay in rubble.
I’d always been a solitary boy, who found all the delight and fascination I needed in my head. By the age of five, an only child of academic parents, I was filling exercise books with my first long work of the imagination – a debut novel! – while keeping running counts in tiny notebooks of every brand of cigarette I saw in the gutter, the numbers on license-plates, the models of cars, even the swear words I heard flying past. When my parents moved to California and I decided, at the age of nine, to send myself back to England, the devil I knew, for further schooling in aorist tenses and the works of Milton, I became an only child with no uncle or aunt or grandparent or cousin or mother or father to be seen for six thousand miles. The mind would be my sanctuary, my armor.
I would keep this up well into the beginnings of my life as an adult – after graduate school, my mind got me a good job in New York City, a twenty-fifth floor office and the ability to turn out articles in hours, treating a devastating famine in Ethiopia as if it were just a textual detail in The Winter’s Tale. But then I began to travel to Southeast Asia, and instantly fell into something I couldn’t contain or understand, something as luminous, as devouring, as a forest fire. Proust would have recognized the she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not games Indonesia set off in my head, but everything else in me said that this was not something the mind could control. What made it real was that it was entirely unanswerable.
Eight months after my home burned down – I’d been the only one at home at the time of the fire, and had come so close to losing my life I barely complained about having lost my possessions – I was sleeping on a friend’s floor amid the debris of all I thought I knew when another friend came in and mentioned a retreat-house he knew in the hills, three hours to the north. It had to be more comfortable, he said, than a hard floor in a crowded room.
I drove up to this Benedictine hermitage, though no Catholic myself, and stepped out of my car. All around me were dry, golden hills, climbing up to a depthless blue sky, and far below, stretching in every direction, the still blue plate of the Pacific. The world was closer to me than I was to myself.
I was inside a silence that was not an absence of noise so much as the living presence of everything I habitually walked – or sleep-walked – past. When I stepped into the little cell where I was to sleep, I was brought to such a state of attention that the flutter of a blue jay’s wings in the garden outside my window stirred me more deeply than a lover’s touch.
This was a solitude that clarified; a silence so enveloping and deep that it made me forget the word for silence. There were fifteen or so other men and women staying in the retreat, and the fifteen white-hooded monks of the Camaldolese order who fed and entertained us were as convivial as the community they’d made; but for days on end – no cell phones, no emails, no cars – I was alone with my senses, the stars above me, the winding road above the sea. I’d disappeared inside the stillness all around me, taking long walks, reading or writing – doing nothing at all – and I felt as if everything I had taken so seriously a day before had fallen away.
Every writer knows an outline of this richness: it’s what’s called being ‘in the zone.’ So deeply absorbed in what’s around you – as athletes and actors and lovers are – that you’re lost to yourself, out of time. I began scribbling furiously as the days went on, though in truth it felt as if something was writing me; I came back to the hermitage again and again, every season, and felt that it was the frame that made sense of everything else.
In such a clement, accommodating environment, I could hardly stop writing. But what I also found, once I returned to my day-to-day life, was that the writing I completed in abject silence could not communicate to the everyday world. It was too private, too quiet; it had the feel of someone whispering to himself in an empty room above the clouds.
And yet there was something even more startling that came to me in deepest solitude; the analytical side of things was gone. I had no interest in making distinctions. I was so deep inside the scene around me that there were no sidelines to sit on, from which to make observations. The kind of arguments that I’d been conducting even on the drive up, the withering judgments in which I specialized – they all seemed fruitless; I was in a silent, sunlit meadow beyond the confusion of the woods.
Gradually, as I went back to that silence, and to a solitude so encompassing it felt like companionship of the rarest kind, I realized that I’d been eased into something beyond the mind, and now its operations looked scarcely more essential than the tiny cars I could spy on the road far below, ant-like, speeding towards the next traffic jam. I saw how the mind places stickers on a reality that is, in truth, as immediate as a wildfire. It was peace sublime to be in the dark, as in the slanting light.
I remembered the line we’d learned in school, while reading Paradise Lost: ‘The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.’ Once the mind was dissolved, I was in an all-absorbing world more lustrous and inexhaustible than any mere notion of Heaven or Hell.
After I drove back to the world, I started, of course, quibbling and squabbling and turning to my default mechanism, judgment, once again. In some ways, we all need that to function in life. One can’t be a hazy, all-accepting mist, wandering lonely amidst a crowd, a cloud of daffodils. But to taste what exists beyond the mind is suddenly to be liberated from the notion that the mind is where our health and sanity lie; so often, it’s the opposite. The mind is the strutting actor on the stage who knows how to complicate the simple and unweave the rainbow, placing footnotes and second thoughts and qualifications where once there was simply radiance. Even though, in the end, neither the heavens nor the fast-moving flames seem to pay it much attention.
Proust had warned me of this, deriving much of his rich comedy from the way the mind spins round and round, like a frenzied hamster on a treadmill, even as real life, impervious, moves steadily forward. And though Epictetus had told me that what happens to us is far less important than what we make of what has happened, it took me a long time to see that understanding occupies a different plane from that of cerebration. That spot on the X-ray the doctor can’t explain, that black sports car accelerating in the wrong lane towards us: the mind is helpless before all that.
When I spend long days traveling with the Dalai Lama across Japan, during his annual trip there every November, I hear him unfold a whole gospel of the mind, which for him is something very different from the brain. The mind is how we turn challenge into opportunity, he says, how we gain a wider perspective on our suffering. Training the mind is how we learn not to be hostage to the moment, or our passing feelings. In every talk, he effectively brings to the world the Stoic’s classic wisdom that we met in school, in Hamlet – ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ We change the world by changing the way we look at it.
I listen to his razor-sharp gift for analysis – honed in the course of his own twenty-year boyhood training in logic and dialectics – and marvel at how he can make a lawyer’s case for kindness, pick apart the meaning of the ‘I’, argue as an Oxford philosopher might for not needing to worry about a problem that has no solution (let alone a problem that does have one). Yet what moves me most, as I watch him offer counsel to those who have recently lost their homes in the 2011 tsunami, is not just the reasoning – it’s the tear in the eye of the one delivering it, which suggests that he knows and accepts that logic can only go so far.
Besides, my time in the hermitage has shown me that no thoughts can touch the world that silence opens up. Words like ‘mindless’ and ‘mindful’ fall away. Pleasure and pain are more intense than any activity of the mind could be. The mind may control pain and pleasure through nerve centres and chemicals, but in the end pain – like pleasure – lies beyond all argument, even when suffering does not. As soon as I’m alone, I’m in a little cell on a hillside above the sea. Much of the time light streams through it – through me – and I’m in the presence of the angels. At other times the rain comes down and I can’t see a light across the expanse; I’m trapped in the wilderness with every demon that can possess one; it’s no coincidence that every religious tradition places its souls on a heath where they’re encircled, haunted by who they are and who they might be.
As a writer, I’ve come to feel that the best thing I can share with readers is not dazzling argumentation, or references to the classics, but those moments we all know when we sit, helpless, before ravenous flames, or sense that we can only bow before those turns along the road, harrowing and uplifting, we will never begin to understand. I go to live in a monastery, and meet the woman who will become my wife. I travel the world to find stillness and encounter it just up the road. My house burns down before my eyes, and I feel liberated as much as oppressed. Such universal experiences make our lives, even as – maybe because – they don’t make any sense.
After the fast-moving fire rewrote my life, I turned to Thomas Merton, my constant companion in the hermitage. ‘Everything must burn’, wrote the Cistercian monk while patrolling his monastery on fire watch, ready to sound an alarm. Those were the very words the Buddha, too, shared with his disciples: Impermanence is the first law of existence. But my mind still couldn’t make sense of the senseless, or turn water into wine. If anything, its motions and commotion only added to the sense of loss and confusion. I return now to solitude to recall the limits of the mind, and everything that lives beyond it. That great encircling blue ocean far below. That sky that arcs over everything. The ocean, and the fires rising to a crest inside my being.
Photograph © NPS Climate Change Response