Home In Which I Have A Mild Existential Episode But Keep Making Things Anyway

In Which I Have A Mild Existential Episode But Keep Making Things Anyway

PREFACE. I wrote the bulk of this piece one morning as a part of my regular writing practice, and because I needed something to put out in a blog. The great irony of what I describe in this post is that the more I’ve explored these ideas, the less attached to them I feel, the less seriously I take them, and the greater creative freedom I experience right here, right now, as I let go of all beliefs and revelations, including ones I “acquired” just a week ago.

But rather than toss this piece out, I wanted to still edit and share it, if only to document my process and have something to point to later on. There are some things I convey here with which I still resonate upon posting, while some other parts feel like someone else wrote them. Writing, as with music, is more of an ongoing process than a refinement of a product, I’m finding, so in that interest, here’s the record of that process.

There’s something I’m trying out as I practice writing more frequently. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to write something that won’t be boring or uninteresting. It’s not like I’m making small talk with someone, after all; I want to put actual thought and effort into making a thing for you to read with your eyeballs. And while I can’t honestly say that I’ve found a way to eliminate that pressure or even push through it, I do feel I have found a way of doing the work regardless of the feelings or thoughts I’m having. Because no matter what I’m feeling right now—pain, anxiety, ecstasy, discomfort, eagerness, or peace—the one thing of which I can always be certain is my awareness of this experience—I am aware, of all these thoughts, feelings, sensations, and appearances. As Robert Saltzman writes, “A real investigation begins from scratch with the only fact one really knows: in this moment, I, as an apparent focus of awareness, seem to exist.”

So, what difference does that make? Well, that’s the irony: technically, it doesn’t make any difference at all, not on its own anyway. I hesitate to call this a method I’m trying out or even something that I’m practicing, because I’m not really doing anything different. Rather, it’s simply noticing that right here, right now, there’s this constantly fluctuating experience of awareness happening. And somehow, recognizing this simple fact makes anything that comes up in that stream feel less personal or powerful; that is, it’s not that I’m anxious, but that I am aware of this sensation I call “anxiety.” Awareness is less of a thing I can have or lose (a noun), and more of an ongoing activity that I’m doing (a verb).

This gets a little freaky the further down the rabbit hole I go. What about my name, Mark Grisez? My identity, my background, my memories, my life story? It feels like I am aware of all of these things. So in this equation, what exactly am I? And is that I in any way related to my identity? What is the I that is aware-ing?

Take another example. If someone were to ask me whether I know how to play the trumpet or not, I’d respond that yes, I play the trumpet all the time. But, do I? Or am I aware of my body and mind playing the trumpet? My hands pick up the horn and lift it to my face, my lips form an embouchure, my lungs fill with air, and the trumpet sounds. But am I doing that? It’s not like I’m giving conscious or verbal instructions to my body. Maybe I can explain it conceptually or theoretically, all the neurobiology and physiology going on behind-the-scenes. But I don’t have any direct experience of this process—only the awareness that my hand, lips, and lungs are moving, that I’m aware of them happening, and later on, that there’s a thought that says, “Yes, I was in control of that.” But do I know that for sure? And again, who is this I that seems to be in control but for all I know is just witnessing things happening?

Even this way of describing it gets a little sticky. The way I’m talking, it might sound like that I is some separate thing, something that either has or doesn’t have awareness. But if awareness is an activity, then I is whatever happens to be doing the aware-ing, and I could never fully describe what I is any more than a camera can take a picture of itself, if it’s even really there in the first place. So is there any reason to assume that I am anything other than that awareness in motion? Awareness aware-ing itself?

As Rupert Spira puts it in one of the most ridiculous sentences I’ve ever read: “The knowing of experience, or the consciousness of experience, is all there is to experience, and it is knowing that knows this knowing: knowing, knowing only knowing.” But isn’t this just another thought, another thing of which that I is aware? Where does it end, if anywhere? What’s really going on here?

Alright, I’m done.

Sans the existential crisis, this is what I’m currently aware of as I write this, that behind the appearance of writing, the legal pad in my lap, the couch under me, the music stand to my left, the water bottle on the couch to my right—behind all of it is the simple fact that I am aware of it all. No, not behind it. Prior to it? Not really. It’s not like awareness comes up first and then things like sticks, stones, and television sets come up after. They co-arise, inseparable from each other. The TV on the wall confirms my aware-ing, and my aware-ing confirms the TV. There isn’t a duality between I and aware. I don’t experience anything without the awareness of it, and I don’t know awareness apart from the objects filling it; there is not one (objects) without the other (awareness of those objects).

What does all of this mean? Not a clue. Even as I transcribe all of this from my own handwriting and re-read and edit it in Google Docs, a lot of these words feels like someone else’s. And as I said in the preface, the more deeply I think about all of this, the less attached I feel to it, and the more creative freedom I realize is already and has been right here, regardless of my seeking, abstraction, and metaphysical angst.

The last thing I want to do here is preach, or even give some idea that in exploring this, I have achieved nirvana or flow or self-absolution or material success or anything like that. I guess I’m just noticing and anxious to share with you. Maybe that’s all there needs to be: noticing. Maybe, ultimately, that’s all I can be sure of anyway. ∎

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.