Wednesday, April 20, 2011


(The draft of a possible chapter for the book I'm working on)

I watched myself being rude last night. I don’t like myself when I’m rude. I usually manage to hide my impatience under a veneer of politeness, but there are times when the veneer wears off and the ugly truth reveals itself, and last night was one of them.

It was at the end of a seder—the Passover festival that celebrates the liberation of the people from the period of their bondage in Egypt. It’s a fine ritual. Though not Jewish myself, I believe I have participated in a seder almost every year for the forty I have spent with Ellie, who is. They say the Last Supper was a seder, and I recall the pleasure of my Christian father sitting down at Ellie’s father’s table, many years ago, both finding the common ground between their respective religious faiths. You don’t need to be a Jew to celebrate human freedom, and as we look around the world today we find the relevance of the seder in many different circumstances—not least in the turbulent Middle East, where many of the ancient animosities still roil.

But a man, as we were reminded in our ceremony last night, can be as much a slave to his own inner obsessions and personal flaws as to those who oppress him from outside. My work, over the past few years, has been in good part an attempt to free myself from the bad attitudes and habits that, in the Buddhist view, bring needless suffering into my life and restrict my ability to flourish in the work I’m given to do as a writer.

Chief among these is my impatience. It affects every aspect of my life, including my writing. It is rooted in part, as I have come to understand it, in that old “I have no right to be here” syndrome that became the Big Lie that I explored just a short while ago. The greatest challenge of my meditation practice is to take the time to be present in the here and now: to take the time, in the first instance, that is needed; and, when I do take the time, to prevent the mind from wandering off into the future, planning, writing, taking care of business that has absolutely no relevance to this present moment.

I believe—I flatter myself—that I have learned a lot from this practice, but obviously still not enough. Last night was evidence that I have a ways to go yet before I conquer this particular demon that haunts me.

The story is a sadly familiar one: I could hardly wait for the seder to end so that I could home. The past few days have been busy ones, and I have had several writing projects on my mind—including a catalogue text I have committed to, along with the next chapter (this one, it turns out!) in the book I’m trying to get written, and entries in my (now three!) blogs. For a variety of reasons, I have not had the time or the mind space to get the writing done, and my impatience to get back to work has kept building.

I was also, for the same reasons, feeling physically depleted. Last night’s seder was the second in two days. Out of mostly sheer greed, I had eaten more than I should have done, and had indulged in more glasses of wine than I should have done. I had begun to feel heavy and slothful, and impatient with my lack of simple good sense on this score, too. I was much aware that, if I was to get down to some work today, I was in need of an early night and a good, long sleep.

The service part of the seder ended. Conversations ensued. I got into a perfectly civil discussion about taxes with a friend who is a registered libertarian. There was much upon which we did not agree, but the tone was friendly. Dessert was served, and I tucked in with abandon. I declined the coffee, on the grounds that it would keep me up. And gradually we all got up to leave…

This is the point at which my impatience starts to show itself. There’s the joke about the difference between the Jew and the Englishman: the Englishman sneaks away without bothering to say goodbye, while the Jew says goodbye and never leaves. Not to be prejudiced, but Ellie and I are a case in point. When I’m ready to leave, I’m ready to leave. Out the door, for me. Ellie is… different. Finality appalls her. She is reluctant, always, to say those last few words and actually leave.

Thus it was, last night, that I found myself still waiting to leave after having said my polite goodbyes all around. It was at that moment that a friend approached and asked me in the nicest and most genuine way possible how I was doing. We had not talked all evening, she said, and she was anxious to catch up. Well, I could easily have taken those few extra minutes to respond to her friendly interest, but instead I was frankly rude. Unresponsive. Unfriendly. Not that I actually said anything impolite, but my tone must have made my impatience clear as I muttered some of the explanations and excuses I have just outlined. But excuses just don’t hack it. They sounded hollow even to myself as I listened to them.

I felt bad about the whole thing, of course. It’s not how I wish to appear to others, not what I’d wish to recognize about myself. I believe in the possibility of change, and this is something about myself that I would truly wish to change. Am I better than I was ten years ago? I’d like to think I am, but then I watch myself in a situation of this kind and I realize that I’m right back where I started from.

This morning, out on our daily walk around the hill, we ran into a friend who was also, like ourselves, out walking his dog. I was anxious to get back home to work on this very essay that I’m writing now, and had put on hold, but we stopped for a chat. This is a wonderful opportunity, I told myself, to watch the breath, enjoy the morning air and the friendly exchange. I would not, I told myself, be the first to break up the conversation. And I watched with admirable equanimity at first as the level of impatience rose. I listened quietly as my mind started to insist that it was time to leave. I breathed. I watched myself as the conversation ran on—longer than necessary, in my judgment—and glanced at my watch and began to edge away compulsively…

Ah, well. I am sure there are those who share my seemingly incurable impatience. If not, you will surely have some weakness of your own that causes you to suffer unnecessarily, and may well stand in the way of your creative work. What’s important, I have come to realize, is not to keep doing battle to the death with this or any other demon; it’s rather to recognize its power and be aware of its intrusions. Because otherwise the feelings that accompany it—the anger, and perhaps the fear—get stored away in places where they dam up and block the flow without your realizing it. That’s when your demon becomes subtly harmful, and when you find yourself standing rather ridiculously in your own way.


MandT said...

"I have come to realize, is not to keep doing battle to the death" Peter, you have captured so perfectly in this excellent essay, the 'personal' paradox of consciousness and 'death.' I believe, what I experience now, is so similar. It seems to me to be the exercise of aging, decline, diminished capacity and/or the fear of it. In a nutshell ( for me) it's the truth ( death in this case )that continues to unfold as 'reality' of living changes by degrees and circumstances . It is then that I know to be compassionate for myself. As for 'leaving' social affairs I had to laugh, because I always leave at least 15 minutes before I arrive.

ps. thanks for linking Obama, I am interested in participating in the discuss for after all is said and done I support your view.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, MandT. As always, great to have your view, and to know that my experience has some resonance with yours. Your comment has given it extended meaning and depth. And thanks for the supportive words on the Obama blog. Still working on that one, to find out where it will lead.

Jean said...

A wonderful essay, Peter, which both moved me and made me squirm. This kind of recognition is so important and worth sharing. I look forward to your next book - and to seeing you in London later this year, I hope.

Stephen Schettini said...

Good for you Peter to keep up the struggle. Impatience is my bugbear too. When I'm mindful of it I feel like a selfish boy who wants everything my way; when I'm not conscious of it, I just feel self-important. On the other hand, there's energy to it that can be turned to creativity, and it's quite right to be impatient with the ignorance and greed that seems to pervade our culture of excess. By god it's complicated being human!

hele said...

i had to smile. how well i know that cut-off point when enough is enough already. my whole being starts jumping up and down with impatience and i start feeling claustrophobic to the point of screaming. sigh...