In The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo, Sawaki Roshi describes riding down a mineshaft in an elevator: “For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast. Then I started to feel as if it were going up. I shone my headlight on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily. When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but when the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising…. In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.”
Many of us have experienced this effect, or the equally odd sensation of a moving train seeming to stand still while another train runs alongside. Our senses are easily deceived by motion, its speed and direction. And definitions of forward and backward vary depending on our desires of the moment.
We tend to gauge our station based on where we’ve been or want to be, although such relative calculations might often be inaccurate. I think we mostly have no clue where we are, because our perceptions are filtered through our hope and fear. Our feelings about our present hinge on how closely it resembles where we’d like to be. We’re constantly comparing our interpretation of reality with our image of how it ought to look.
Such comparisons are the enemy of joy and peace. Under what circumstances is now enough? Who decides? Is a good life always and forever “out there,” fleeing us as we pursue it, the Daphne to our Apollo?
As far backward as I can remember, I’ve been a forward-looking person, “goal-oriented,” as we say. This quality or conditioning drives me to pack my days with things to check off, and to value a day and a life by the crossed-out lines in a calendar. Because I rarely stop long enough to savor anything, after 50 years, much of my life feels as if it happened to someone else.
In the myth, just as Apollo finally reaches Daphne, she turns into a laurel tree. And the god of light weaves a crown from her leaves, making his failure a symbol of victory. What does this tell us about the nature of success and failure? Is it, as I read somewhere, that almost every success could also be told as a succession of failures? Or is the myth encouraging us to make wreaths of beauty and jubilation out of all we’ve lost and are bound to lose?
Resting on laurels bears its negative connotation, particularly for people who resolutely face forward. But I’m coming to believe there’s something to be said if not for resting on them, then at least recognizing them, giving their subtle fragrance and weightless grace its due. Perhaps each moment, bitter or sweet, offers the makings of its own crown if we look closely, without regard to our expectations or craving. Maybe, as Annie Dillard suggests, our days themselves are gods — taken for granted, wrongly judged, and sometimes ill-used, but true reigning gods nonetheless.