“The Master of Zen says, ‘Jump into the foaming waves of the whirlpool below!’ The monk jumps, and finds himself on his feet, walking along the road that leads to his own home.”
—R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.
In 1960, French avant-garde artist Yves Klein created a photomontage of himself leaping from a wall over a quiet Paris street. The black and white photograph, called Leap Into the Void, was Klein’s way of embracing the irrational and celebrating groundlessness in an increasingly industrial era bound by convention. The photograph captures both the eye and the imagination because it does not conform to expectations. It captures an act of defiance both against what any sensible person would do and against gravity itself.
In each our own journey toward self-discovery, we can sometimes find ourselves leaping into the void, the great terra incognita—the unknown land—of the soul. Our own leaps might involve making a big career change, starting a creative endeavor, attending to the care of a dying friend or family member, going on a religious pilgrimage, leaving a marriage or getting married, having children, or packing a bag and getting a one-way ticket to a place you’ve never been before.
A leap can also involve nothing more—and nothing less—than a dive into the depths of our own unconscious. Or kicking a bad habit or addiction. Or being vulnerable, like telling someone you love them. Or coming out. A leap is something that scares us and draws us at the same time, and no matter what we do or where we go, we often cross thresholds with fear and trembling, flee from certain psychic death, make unbearable choices, and find ourselves lost and without a map.
But we have an inner territory we can turn to if we pay attention to its many manifestations—intuition, hunches, dreams, and, most important, the soul’s own deep and undeniable calling—to guide us on this often harrowing but always rewarding journey. A leap into the void can involve danger but a timely leap can also lead us out of danger. “The Master of Zen says, ‘Jump into the foaming waves of the whirlpool below!,'” writes R. H. Blyth in his book, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. “The monk jumps, and finds himself on his feet, walking along the road that leads to his own home.”
Today, February 1, is my first day of jumping into the foaming waves of the whirlpool. Yesterday was my last day as a full-time employee at Omega Institute after working there for more than 20 years. So it is a day of first and last things. I am continuing to work for Omega as a programming consultant, managing two large Pema Chödrön events this year and developing a few select new programs for the years ahead. Other than that, I am on my own.
I’d been restless for a while before now, maybe years if I were to be honest with myself, which I often find difficult to do, try as I might. Until now, however, the time just wasn’t right to make this leap. When I look back it’s hard to say why. Maybe fear had won the day—day after day. Maybe I was happy with the routine of my life. Maybe I was confused and didn’t know where to turn. Maybe it was all those things. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what was going on.
I opened my resignation letter with that paragraph about Klein’s Leap Into the Void because it seemed to capture how I was feeling at the time. I was defying convention and logic by leaving a job and a place and people I loved simply because I wanted to do something new and different. I say the word “simply” not as an almost meaningless reason; it was the only reason. And it was a powerful enough force gathering within me to push me out the door even as I was trying to convince myself to stay. After my resignation letter made its way to the entire staff via a group email from Omega’s human resources director, many of my colleagues bounded into my office to congratulate me, to say how happy they were for me. But in those first few hours while all that joy floated all around me, I was so nervous and frightened about what I’d done that I wanted to hide in the bathroom and throw up. Although I still feel as though I am making a leap, I have now opened my arms, as Klein is pictured in his photomontage, embracing the space all around him, clutching at nothing that might hold him back.
We can all live in between objects and realms of desire for a long time, not knowing if the messages we hear sometimes bawling within us should be heeded or ignored, embraced to shunned. For the longest time I clearly had no idea. I could not take any baby steps, could not even make a list of pros and cons about any choice. Mystics of all stripes will tell you that the voice of God and the voice of the devil sound a lot alike. The only difference between the two is that God will not tell a lie. Then it’s up to us to make the distinction between a lie and a truth. This is called discernment.
What I discerned when I looked within I saw what I eventually saw outside myself: A void. It frightened and enticed me. Was it heaven or hell? All I can say is that I wanted to step into that void. I did have a sense there was something good waiting for me there. Still, the void has a sort of aimlessness to it. It’s what you see between the stars, distances so huge they can only be measured in millions of light years. But I’m thinking it’s not so much a point of coordinates here on earth or out in space. I think the void is an orientation of the self, a willingness to be open, expansive. One Buddhist tradition calls this idea “big sky mind.” So I’ve come to think that this is what I am seeking. Some way to open my mind—my life—completely to everything and anything that can show me who I am and, ultimately, the nature of life itself.
Which is not to say there is no guiding star. A few years ago before I was admitted as a matriculated student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I audited a course on the life and times of St. Augustine, that theological giant whose shadow still informs much of religious culture throughout Christendom. For the class we were reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. Written at the end of the 4th century C.E., Confessions is perhaps the world’s first autobiography. The professor was an aging American but spoke with a slight British accent like an Oxford don, an attitude and accent that was perhaps leftover from his years as a student at Oxford. One day were talking about St. Augustine’s longing to know God as much as he longed to know his own inner life. Then, all at once, the professor said, “For St. Augustine the search for self and the search for God are one and the same damn thing.” I loved hearing that, wrote it down in my notebook, let it sear into my brain. I never wanted to forget it. And I haven’t.
In our culture the past several years there has been a lot written and talked about women making big changes in their lives, reorienting themselves in such a way that they reclaim their lost souls after years of feeling responsible for the well-being of others–their husbands, their children, their parents. I’ve found little about the struggle men face in similar circumstances, as if we’re somehow more content and accepting of our lot. But it’s just not so. We too give up a lot, if not to our families then to our jobs and communities. And we too often have the same urge to bust out, to try something new and different, to find out who we are beyond the trappings of our families and careers and possessions. And that’s what I am doing.
In this blog I am going to be writing about this search. I want to explore the inner landscape of life, not only in myself but also in others, including those from history who have gone before us and from the world of myth and religion. I will also offer tips on how you, too, can make your own leap, and reflect on the highs and lows that come as a result of taking such a risk. If you subscribe to this blog (see the box in the upper right) you will get an email notification every time I post something new.
As I see it now (when you are in the void anything can happen) my immediate future is going to evolve in three ways that will offer me some structure in the vast and uncharted landscape of my yet unlived life. It may seem like a lot. But for someone like me who has spent decades in school or been employed by a company, an organization, or the government, I feel I am creating something out of nothing.
First (February through May) I will be here at home in upstate New York cleaning up and organizing everything I own (including heaps of newspapers, magazines, memorabilia, and other stuff), which will both hold up my life for some scrutiny and get my house ready to rent so I can hit the road. I will also be making occasional short trips to see family and friends. Next (June through September) I am going to take up residence in small house in the south of France a friend has offered me. When I am there I hope to complete two books, start a third, and enjoy the many things that the south of France has to offer. The third part (October through …… ) is, at this point, an open road. I’ve no idea where I will be or what I will be doing then. Even now this–just the thought of this–is the biggest leap I’ve ever made. I have never lived without a plan. A deliberate man who is very comfortable with certainty, I am stunned by my own audacity to believe that somehow it’s all going to work out, that I am not going to end up broke–and broken–and sleeping under a bridge in Irkutsk. Then again, if I do, at least I’ll have a good story to tell.
I do know this: I want to help others in the way only I can help them. I really do believe each of us has a unique mission, a purpose, a way to be of use. We all long to be of use. And right now and in the days ahead I want to take stock of my life, to pull back from the daily grind, and to come to grips with how I can best use the rest of my life to better the lives of others. I am not fond of self-indulgence. But I do believe in the value of self-reflection to help us locate in the world in ourselves ways in which each of us can best contribute to the common weal.
All during this time there will be one constant day after day, one place to which I will return to again and again: my meditation cushion and an attempt to be mindful in everything I do when I am not on the cushion. I will no doubt stray from time to time; I ain’t no saint, God knows. But I feel I owe it to myself as much as I owe it to the world around me and even to the tradition itself. Buddhism and meditation saved my life when I first started practicing it in the early 1990s, it helped me get though some mighty tough times since then, and I know it will help me in the days ahead. Up to now it has helped me worry less, be more kind to myself and others, let go of things and people and ways of being that needed to be let go of. “Letting go and moving through life from one change to another brings the maturing of our spiritual being,” writes Jack Kornfield in his excellent book, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of the Spiritual Life. “In the end we discover that to love and to let go can be the same thing. Both do not seek to possess. Both allow us to touch each moment of this changing life and allow us to be there for whatever arises next.” When we live this way we come to rest in the present moment, Kornfield writes, and that is “the beginning and the end of spiritual practice.”
Perhaps this is the void, then. The present moment. I like to think of Yves Klein in that photo montage being in the present moment, letting go of his fears about what will happen as he makes that bold leap. I know it’s not real; I know it is art. But what is real when you live in and for the moment? And what is more important than making our own lives a kind of beautiful and meaningful work of art?
I also want to hear about what the leap into the void means to you–if you made a leap into the void, how you coped when you were in it (or how you are coping now if you are in the free fall), and how you found your way into the new life you’ve discovered. Please leave comments and let me know. Or email me at the contact information you can find by clicking on the link above.
I want to close this first post with a quote from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi based on a translation from Camille Helminski and Kabir Helminski:
The worm is in the root of the body’s tree;
these unhealthy roots must be dug out and burned.
Travelers, it is late.
Life’s sun is going to set.
During these brief days, while you have strength,
be quick and spare no effort of your wings.