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Up and to the Right

I have a chai; he has a cappuccino. We sit outside, at the metal mesh patio tables, as the coffee house is about to close.

“I can’t decide the path: Taoism or Zen. It’s all so confusing.” He’s in desperate need of a haircut. I’d cut his hair myself if I had scissors.

We pause. Sip. Look west, watching the sun.  His search for a spiritual path is a proxy for the larger existential questions: Who am I? What do I want from this life?  I’ve nothing to say that can ease his pain. I’m helpless.

“I want to strip everything away,” he continues. “Anything that’s not me, to the bare essence of me, just so I can figure out what path I should take.”   I know that feeling.

Years and years ago–ages ago if, as I do, you see each interminable hour as an eon-like day filled with desperate pain between then and now–I knelt before Pema Chodron, pleading for her to tell me the path, the way, the steps I should take, to take me out of the pain. Then she lovingly tapped my hand, telling me about the pathless path. It makes sense now; then it left me bereft.

“You seem to want to know that you’re making progress, that there’s path and that you’re on it,” I offered. He nods and his bangs shake, the boy so evident despite the man’s body.

“I can’t tell you how much I wish I could tell you. All I can do is point out what I’ve seen. I’ve seen you find a teacher, follow them down a path, feel what you felt, learn what you learned. And then I’ve see you pause, sometimes doubling back and re-directing yourself, sometimes moving backward.”

He’s watching me. He knows I’m speaking from my heart, telling my story as much as his. “And I’ve seen you plateau, stand still.” Then I make my point, “And to me, it’s seemed that that is when the next teacher, the next path, emerges. It’s never been when you worked hard to find it. It’s never been when, head in hands, you gnashed your teeth.”

Relief washes over him.

“It’s odd how we are all so desperate to move up and to the right. We become convinced that any motion that isn’t straight, direct, up and to the right is somehow not part of the path.”

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What if being lost is part of the path? What if we are supposed to tack across the surface of the lake, sailing into the wind as much as with the wind at our backs?

I share the story with my partner, Ali. “Yes!” she blurts out, elongating the S. “Leslie Feist has this brilliant song with an incredible line…”

A map is more unreal than where you’ve been

Or how you feel

Opening email this morning, there it is again: the wish for a map, for a path, for direction.

“Dear Jerry, I am looking to define a meaningful next chapter which meets my personal, professional and practical goals,” one inquiry begins.

And another…”I’m not lost, but could sure do with a point in the right direction (and a kick up the ass!).”

And then this:

“Dear Jerry…I was introduced to your site just last week…I just came to it today, and I’ve been crying for the past two hours since reading your work. I could say I’m not quite sure why, and I could a list a hundred reasons…I’ve done a ton of this type of work. But I’m skimming the surface of the ocean.

Your comments on being a warrior struck me the most…I finally think I’ve brought myself to the point where my hand is on the door knob, but I still don’t know how to open the door or cross the threshold. I need help…But I really don’t know if I can actually make it anywhere, or if I’ll just always be wishing for something and never actually create.”

We all want it: movement that demonstrates that our experience is meaningful, that it’s taking us someplace, any place better; a place where we are smarter, richer, healthier, less afraid, more secure. Up…and to the right.

We live in a culture that says anything less is failure. Up and to the right, we’re told, is where the happy people are. That’s where the people who never fear, never fail, never struggle live on bonbons.

Our economy is driven by the sense that here–down and to the left–is awful and if we buy the right soap, drive the right car, build the right company, love the right way, we’ll be safe and loved and happy for ever and ever. And ever.

We look to those who seem serene, content–the embodiment of up and to the right–and fail to see the struggles they lived through. We place into them our wishes and our expectations of reaching that point where all things are at peace and we never ever smell of body odor.

Everyone else’s journey is so much easier. Every else’s business is so much more successful. And if only someone–you–would give me a map, then I can get there too.

But a map is a poor substitute for a life lived. The truest guide isn’t the mind of a guru but your broken, scared, and lonely heart. I just wish broken-open hearts weren’t so damned painful.

The irony, of course, is that up and to the right, as appealing as it is when we’re down and to the left, is a place of separation. It’s a place where, were we to achieve it at all, we’d find ourselves found, perhaps, but utterly alone.

When I catch myself wishing for more than incremental progress that’s directionally correct, I remind myself of the companionship I’ve discovered in this murky, mucky place, down and to the left. I belong to this place, for this is the place where, as David Whyte writes, “I ask my friends to come, this is where I want to love all the things it has taken me so long to learn to love.” Me and my broken-hearted friends, we belong here.

 For S. Thanks for sipping in the sun.


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