Yesterday evening I stepped out of my small Japanese flat after being cooped up there all day. I had been reading Passing Parade, a collection of the obituaries Mark Steyn had written on the deaths of famous people. It’s strange how kindly you feel towards the dead. I had never really thought much about the Queen Mother or Jim Callaghan, but having read Mark Steyn’s obituaries I now felt that I wanted to meet them.
I went down the front steps and just across the road was a line of bamboo trees gently swaying and rustling in the breeze. My mood changed immediately for the better. It was nice to be outside both my flat and my head.
Just down the road I passed an orchard that looked so quiet and peaceful and it gave the impression of not having changed for generations. Some old but still usable gardening machinery lay around. Further down at the allotments a solitary old Japanese man was watering lines of vegetables, creating small dark patches in the light brown soil. On the road the occasional woman on a bike rode past, probably going to pick up children from some after-school activity. I passed an old temple located in amongst a jumble of narrow roads. Nothing much was happening but it was all quite compelling.
Maybe it was the combination of reading about the dead and being released from my tiny flat that made me feel more alive than usual. I was taking in things around me, something I rarely do. Strangely I could almost feel my physicality, my smallness. Of course, in theory I know that I am insignificant when viewed against the backdrop of geological time and space but this knowledge doesn’t really affect how I feel about myself. I generally tend to loom very large in my own thoughts. But just for a while I felt unusually unimportant and this was like being released.
I imagined that how I was feeling was similar to the way religious people feel when they give themselves up to God, or how meditators feel when they convince themselves that they have no self and thereby gain enlightenment. Even so, my feeling was just mildly pleasant without being any kind of revelation.
It seemed to me that what the meditator, the religious believer and I had in common was the desire to diminish self-obsession. While meditators seek enlightenment and Christians want to become one with God, whatever that might mean, I was having an Ebeneezer Scrooge moment. That is, I realised that always thinking about myself is not good for me. Where I differed from the meditator and the believer was that the Scrooge Route doesn’t require that I convince myself that ‘I’ don’t really exist or that there is an invisible Father up in Heaven. I didn’t have to do anything more than stop obsessing about myself and doing so felt good.
Of course by the time I had completed my hour-long walk around the small town where I live, popping in at the supermarket on my way home, nothing much remained of my feeling of release. I no longer felt small and insignificant but instead, just the way I always do. The bamboo trees were still swaying and rustling when I got home but they no longer evoked anything much.
Perhaps such feelings of release can only last as long as the transition itself from one mood to another. Meditators don’t remain enlightened; they have to keep trying to recapture what they glimpsed when they saw the light. Equally, the rapture religious people feel when they first abandon themselves to God can’t remain a permanent mental state. Similarly, feelings of release can’t last for long. After all, you have to be released from something.
And though you might feel enlightened when you are sitting cross-legged on a tatami floor surrounded by candles, or feel your self-importance drain away while looking at some rustling bamboo trees, it is far more difficult to capture these moments when you are waiting at the check-out at Homebase or eating a Double Quarter-Pounder surrounded by plastic tables, Ronald McDonald and a group of horrible children.
Even so, I can well imagine there are people whose default mode is to be largely self-forgetting. I want to join their number.