George Saunders wrote a beautiful piece for Esquire over a decade ago called “The Incredible Buddha Boy” about a young man in Nepal who has been meditating, without eating or drinking, for seven months.
On the plane to Nepal, Saunders himself starts to meditate on our endless capacity for wanting. He writes, “The mind is a machine that is constantly asking: What would I prefer? Close your eyes, refuse to move, and watch what your mind does. What it does is become discontent with that-which-is. A desire arises, you satisfy that desire, and another arises in its place.”
We regard the desire to grow, to be better, to improve up as a sort of unfettered good—but is it? Isn’t it possible that this relentless focus on self-improvement also cripples our ability to experience happiness as it is? In the now? Without wondering if we can perhaps tinker or improve it? Or if something better awaits around the corner?
The mind is a machine that is constantly asking: What would I prefer?
For many years, one of my favorite poems has been “The Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke, which for me symbolizes the catalytic possibilities of art—and the power of any creative endeavor to incite us to grow and change.
The Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Over the past few years I have been trying hard to change my life. Because I am exactly the type of person who is constantly striving to grow, to be better, to improve. (Which is not to say that I am succeeding, just really obsessed with trying.)
But I’ve been feeling strangely content and peaceful of late. And I noticed that the moment that happened, I started to get antsy. Despite having all the trappings of happiness—of being right where I had wanted to be for so many years—my mind was still wondering: “What would I prefer?”
And then my best friend, with seemingly flawless timing, sent me a postcard containing a poem by Ocean Vuong. It contemplates what happens after Rilke’s call to action, what happens after you “change your life”:
Torso of Air
Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than
a portion of night — sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke
& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful
& gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve
until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, at last,
on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side —
What an image. There happiness is—waiting. Can you savor it? Or will a new desire arise and immediately take its place?
The smiley illustrations above are from Luigi Brusciano.