The Honey and Vinegar Tasters
The Honey and Vinegar Tastersby Rob Brezsny
A response to Richard Grossinger's book, The Bardo of Waking Life
John Keats wrote that "if something is not beautiful, it is probably not true." I celebrate that hypothesis in my book Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. I further propose that the universe is inherently friendly to human beings; that all of creation is set up to liberate us from our suffering and teach us how to love intelligently; and that life always gives us exactly what we need, exactly when we need it (though not necessarily what we want).
Dogmatic cynics are often so mad about my book's title that they can't bring themselves to explore the inside. Why bother to actually read about such a preposterous idea? They accuse me of intellectual dishonesty, disingenuous Pollyannaism, or New Age delusion.
If they do manage to read even a few pages, they find that the blessings I reference in the title are not materialistic fetishes like luxurious vacation homes, high status, and a perfect physique. I'm more interested in fascinating surprises, dizzying adventures, challenging gifts we hardly know what to do with, and conundrums that compel us to get smarter and wilder and kinder and trickier. I also enjoy exposing secret miracles, like the way the sun continually detonates nuclear explosions in order to convert its own body into heat, light, and energy for our personal use.
But I don't take the cynics' fury personally. When I suggest that life is a sublime mystery designed to grow us all into strong, supple messiahs, I understand that's the equivalent, for them, of denying the Holocaust. They're addicted to a formulation that's the opposite of Keats': If something is not ugly, it is probably not true.
Modern storytellers are at the vanguard of promoting this doctrine, which I refer to as pop nihilism. A majority of journalists, filmmakers, novelists, critics, talk-show hosts, musicians, and pundits act as if breakdown is far more common and far more interesting than breakthrough; that painful twists outnumber redemptive transformations by a wide margin, and are profoundly more entertaining as well.
Earlier in my life, I too worshiped the religion of pop nihilism. In the 1980s, for example, I launched a crusade against what I called "the global genocide of the imagination." I railed against the "entertainment criminals" who barrage us with floods of fake information and inane ugliness, decimating and paralyzing our image-making faculties. For years, much of my creative work was stoked by my rage against the machine for its soulless crimes of injustice and greed and rapaciousness and cruelty.
But as the crazy wisdom of pronoia overtook me in the 1990s, I gradually weaned myself from the gratuitous gratification that wrath offered. Against the grain, I experimented with strategies for motivating myself through crafty joy and purified desire and the longing for freedom. I played with ideas that helped me shed the habit of seeing the worst in everything and everyone. In its place I built a new habit of looking for the best.
But I never formally renounced my affiliation with the religion of cynicism. I didn't become a fundamentalist apostate preaching the doctrine of fanatical optimism. In the back of my wild heart, I knew I couldn't thrive without at least a tincture of the ferocity and outrage that had driven so much of my earlier self-expression.
Even at the height of my infatuation with the beautiful truths that swarmed into me while writing Pronoia, I nurtured a relationship with the awful truths. And I didn't hide that from my readers.
Yes, I did purposely go overboard in championing the cause of liberation and pleasure and ingenuity and integrity and renewal and harmony and love. The book's destiny was, after all, to serve as a counterbalance to the trendy predominance of bad news and paranoid attitudes. It was meant to be an antidote for the pandemic of snark.
But I made sure that Pronoia also contained numerous "Homeopathic Medicine Spells," talismans that cram long lists of the world's evils inside ritually consecrated mandalas. These spells diffuse the hypnotizing lure of doom and gloom by acknowledging the horror with a sardonic wink.
Pronoia also has many variations on a theme captured in William Vollman's testimony: "The most important and enjoyable thing in life is doing something thatís a complicated, tricky problem that you donít know how to solve."
Furthermore, the book stops far short of calling for the totalitarian imposition of good cheer. I say I can tolerate the news media filling up half their pages and airwaves and bandwidths with poker-faced accounts of decline and degeneration, misery and destruction. All I seek is equal time for stories that inspire us to adore life instead of fearing it. And I'd gladly accept 25 percent. Even 10 percent.
So Pronoia hints at a paradoxical philosophy more complex than a naive quest for beauty and benevolence. It welcomes in a taste of darkness, acknowledging the shadows in the big picture. But it doesn't go as far as I will someday be able to go when I have ripened into my full powers. I'm not smart enough yet -- am still on my way toward that more complete view in which both pronoia and paranoia have a place.
As he shows in Bardo of Waking Life, Richard Grossinger is much further along the path I'm headed down. He trumps the cynics and the pronoiacs alike -- even trumps the dialectical tussle between the cynics and the pronoiacs.
He simultaneously soars and burrows free of the us-versus-them clench so as to arrive at a transcendent subterranean vision that proves both of the following statements are true: Life is a bitch and then you die, AND life is a conspiracy to shower you with blessings. The unexpected fact of the matter, he suggests, is that everything is totally fucked up AND everything is perfect just the way it is.
Grossinger may bristle when I compare him to Byron Katie, whom he's nothing like in many respects, but the two of them are in my view the founding shamans of Taoism 2.0, a fresh spiritual tradition that doesn't know it exists yet.
After dancing all night at a Dionysian festival a few years ago, I had a vision of what it might look like: "Not just the old Chinese-style Tao," I wrote on a paper towel at 5:30 a.m. "But the Oxymoronic Tao -- a mutated, updated, Californicated version of the Tao: Tao with an attitude.
"Not the calm, abstract, passive, world-weary, everything-is-everything Tao of the ancient sage Lao-Tse, but the fragrant, shimmering, electrifying Tao of the outrageous now, where each discrete glint of individuated beauty is discernible amidst the mass of confusion, rousing us to revelry and activism.
"Not a Tao just sitting in cool unflappable contemplation of the ultimate unity of the wound and the cure, but rather a Tao that gets out there with an aggressive affirmative action program for artfully highlighting and rejoicing in the incongruous juxtapositions; a Tao that romances the contradictions with an exuberant experimentalism and whips up slathering throbs of ripe mojo.
"The Oxymoronic Tao will be a Tao that doesn't pacify and dial down our martial force. Rather, it will supercharge us, hooking us up to the elemental power that flows wherever opposites unite.
"Here's the bonus. With the Tao as our fuel, our vision will open to the reality that opposites are always uniting everywhere. It will make anything and everything we gaze upon turn into the philosopher's stone, the grail, the pearl of great price, the treasure beyond measure."
Bardo of Waking Life aligns us with that Tao. It ushers us into a blissful abyss where we're pummeled and caressed by an erotic crush of screamingly tender contradictions. Our fixations crack apart. Our egos ache. We swoon with the stark elation that comes from knowing how freaking interesting everything is. We're shocked and healed, healed and shocked. Every terror is a source of wonder that rips us out of our ignorance. Every miracle blows our minds so mercilessly we can't help but cry out with a bewildered, primordial longing for more.
I hope to write my own version of Bardo of Waking Life someday.
To do it, I'll have to master the art of being dead and alive at the same time; I'll have to learn how to be both here in my daily life and also over there in the realm I will be more naturally focused on after my body dissolves. I won't exactly be dreaming while awake or be awake in my dreams, but both simultaneously. It will feel like having a lucid dream with my eyes wide open, the sun at midnight filling up half the sky and the full moon at noon in the other half.
When I write my own Bardo of Waking Life, it will be because I've become adept at living outside of time, peering down lovingly at our special snatch of history with the liberated compassion that comes from being blended with the eleven-dimensional consciousness of the Logos -- even as I exult in the curious sensation of being ground up by the wheels of linear time . . . even as I exercise my skill for joyfully plucking the essential teaching from each perplexing, glorious, shattering, victorious moment . . . even as I thrill to the majestic spectacle of my body constantly transforming into a different version of itself, all of its atoms regularly exchanged for new ones in the cyclical interplay of apocalypse and rebirth.
But that won't happen for a while. My wild heart isn't ready. I have not yet achieved the knack of being torn apart and woven back together a hundred times a day, every day, by life's wrenching insistence on cramming delight and loss into every single perception.
While I do have an ever-growing tolerance for, even a budding attraction to being seared by the way extravagant beauty and desolate longing are always arriving entwined, I'm not yet strong enough to surrender to being seared ceaselessly. And I will need to be able to do that in order to create my own personal Bardo of Waking Life.
I'm more than halfway there. I know what it's like to be annihilated by the pouring-out-of-my-skin empathy I feel for you and all the other creatures I live among. And I know what it's like to reel with rapture as I'm rocked by the yelping, visceral thrill of my blood resonating with your blood, of my nerves reliving the memory that they're made of the same star dust yours are.
Someday I will be able to hum in the grip of both those states simultaneously. Not just in rare fits of agonizing joy, but on an ongoing basis. As a constant meditation. As a daily spiritual practice.
I may be projecting or mythologizing in my notion that Grossinger is the person, of all those I know, who has most completely accomplished this triumphant crucifixion. But it doesn't matter if I am. Bardo is medicine pinched from the gods. It's a gift from the future, a magical artifact materialized out of a future dream. It's the smoking gun that proves the mutant archetype is ready to incarnate in flesh and blood.
For now, I'll call the archetype the Oxymoronic Tao, though if I'm true to its serpentine laws, I'll no doubt have to change its name frequently in the coming years. That's one of the secrets, I suspect, to making sure it will keep working for me, turning everything and everyone into the philosopher's stone, the grail, the pearl of great price, the treasure beyond measure.
© 1995-2013 -- Rob Brezsny. All rights reserved