I Am Not a Lawnmower

(Part I)

During a rainy walk, I realize: I’m always waiting for a purpose, always dreaming that, like Proust or Van Gogh, I’ll snatch my uniqueness from the jaws of death, prove myself worthy in the nick of time.

Every time I check my inbox, every time I avert my eyes before a stranger, I’m hoping they will hand me my purpose, waiting to be told I am justified and fearing that I am not.

Sometimes a message in the inbox briefly resembles that hoped-for justification. An essay is featured on Medium’s front page. “I’m awestruck by your career as a Harvard PhD student,” a friend of a friend writes.

Inevitably, reading these messages leaves me emptier than I started. Maybe I inflate for a moment — but this balloon is riddled with holes.

I am looking in the wrong place.

I don’t need a justification. I am not the sort of thing that could be justified.

The thought is as clear and beautiful as the rain. I take off my hat; the downpour bursts into roaring all around me. Each leaf on the ground is its own crisp thing. In this world, so full of being, I don’t need a justification.

I squat under my umbrella, amid the roaring rain and glistening leaves — and weep with joy.

In one of the puddles, a miracle is happening. Rain rebounds from the surface, forming fountains strung from individual drops. It’s as beautiful as a nature documentary, as detailed as Edgerton’s milk-splash photographs. My eyes can do this? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, 1957.

I had wanted to be like some tropical fish, justified by its uniqueness. Does the stonefish wake smiling to know no one else is as venomous? Is the sunfish any happier because it’s the biggest?

I turn the thought around in my mind: I don’t have, couldn’t have, don’t need a justification. One side of the thought looks like nihilism: my life has no purpose. If I were religious, I’d call the other side grace, God’s unconditional love.

Nothing matters: no matter what, we are worthy.

The sunfish, or mola mola, one of the world’s heaviest bony fish.

I dream that, needing rest, I book a vacation in an unfamiliar Chinese city. When I arrive, I don’t have a hotel room, don’t speak the language, don’t have the eyes to see the sights — and only want to sleep.

When I wake, the dream is every one of my vacations: “resting” by going somewhere new and overwhelming. And the newest, most overwhelming place yet is… right here.

My brain: the most foreign city of all.

We are focusing on the sensations on the strip of skin between the nose and the lip. I feel a pattering of sensations, tingles erupting in tune with the sound of rain which streams in from the window, and I remember that Paul Simon lyric:

I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I.

Over breakfast, I am skeptical. What was yesterday’s great big insight? That I don’t need a purpose? I.e. that I’m an end in itself, not a means to an end? A human being, not a lawnmower? Didn’t I learn that in Philosophy 101?

Then I understand. It’s not just that I’m not a lawnmower — but that I thought that I was. That was the insight.

I honestly and truly hoped that an angel would come down from heaven and tell me: Thou shalt be a lawnmower. And then, finally satisfied, I would mow off into the sunset.

I thought I meant something more reasonable when I wished for a purpose. But there is nothing else a purpose could be. Maybe on my wiser days, I hoped not for an angel from heaven, but for self-determination: the power to create my own purpose. But that doesn’t make sense either: that would be willing myself to be a lawnmower.

Taken after the retreat.

After breakfast, the lawn has strutted into high society. Each blade of grass, each thread of spiderweb wears its own freshly strung, limited-edition necklace. Clovers balance their pearls precariously on the edge of their hats, each arrangement more impossible than the last.

The costumes all astound me, but I give first prize to the caterpillar sporting a glamorous cape of droplets over his striped and fluffy suit. He turns to face me, and I can’t stop the wave of disgust: his mandible is enormous! “Perfect equanimity,” Goenka says in my head.

The caterpillar chomps on — with that glorious, awe-inspiring jaw.

Some part of me is unhappy with the new eyes. I’m an artist, but so much of this new beauty is unpaintable: the particularities of motion, the tiny detailed spiders and caterpillars. It’s more suited to the camera than to my impressionistic brush; more scientific than artistic.

I thought I noticed a lot. Maybe I noticed more than the average person, but that difference is nothing compared to how much I see now.

The particularity of branches (taken after the retreat)

I thought I was sensitive, a good appreciator — but there is no such thing as being a good appreciator. You can only learn to pay attention, humbly and without expectations; appreciation, if it comes at all, comes on its own.

Gloomily, I look up at the branches overhead. I love, as I always have, the stained-glass glow of their red and orange leaves, but there is something new too: the lead frame of the stained glass, the dark twisting particularity of the branch.

Another student walks by, sees me rooted to the spot before the tree. “I’m such a great appreciator,” I think instinctively.

The visions become something from a cheap horror film. Bats. A long-nosed witch who turns out to be an embarrassing caricature of one of the students. Swarms of cockroaches — with no disgust attached. Cemeteries. Crosses, imbued with a significance I hadn’t felt since my Catholic childhood.

Then: a pile of loose teeth.

I wanted to have a purpose, to be special. I see how self-centered that is now — but where did this egotism come from? Being the top student in my class? Having parents who thought I was special?

But whose parents didn’t find them special? What if what is making me egotistical is simply the human condition? What if I’m self-conscious simply because I want to be liked, self-centered because “at the center” is where my point of view places me — and where everybody’s point of view places them?

I feel disappointed. I was happy to accept that my flaw was egotism — as long as it was my own special brand of egotism. I could have a tragic flaw — as long as it was my very own, special flaw; as long as I was still the hero of the play.

I ask the teacher about the visions. She says they’re a sign I’m very focused.¹

The last thing this ego needs to hear is that it’s a good meditator.

When I sit cross-legged, my legs and feet go numb almost immediately.² I quickly learn that this numbness isn’t actually painful — and if, after shifting my position, I stay perfectly still and watchful, neither is the return of sensation, which I experience simply as a tingle.

This time, though, I’ve let my attention wander away from my awaking legs. Suddenly, I feel a pang so sharp that I barely stop myself from screaming.

Sharp, but not painful. In the middle of the intensity, there is a strange… emptiness.

Part III.

[1] Post-retreat reading suggests that the visions are essentially the visual imagery many of us experience before drifting off to sleep, in the so-called hypnagogic state. While good focus ensured that I didn’t actually fall asleep during the visions, the images themselves are likely caused by extreme relaxation. Cf. Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy.

[2] I mostly avoided the numbness by using a meditation bench, which I highly recommend for anyone with tight hips. But sometimes you just need to switch up the body parts which ache the most, and then sitting cross-legged on a cushion is a welcome change.



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Eve Bigaj

Eve Bigaj

Visual artist following curiosity wherever it leads. I have a Harvard PhD in philosophy. Learn colorful painting with me: evebigaj.com