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by Terrance Keenan
Wisdom Publications, 2014
Review by Finn Janning, Ph.D. on Mar 10th 2015
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once wrote that, "Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed." The artist, writer and Buddhist monk, Terrance Keenan exemplifies such style of writing in his beautiful Zen Encounters with Loneliness.
The book was previously published as St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness in 2001. Now, it is available again. The only difference, except for the shorter title, is an "Afterword." Actually, the "Afterword" is the only part of the text where the writing is not a question of becoming. It is written with less necessity, in a different tone, and, most importantly, here "time passes", whereas in the rest of the text is "being-time", the time that "never arrives, never leaves."
The book is a mixture of personal essay and memoir that are tied together with poems. The poetry can be read as a concentration of the essays. This experimenting style suits the book very well. As Keenan writes, "The language of poetry, the act of poetry, is maddening and wonderful." Experiencing a life in the midst of its formation is, after all, uncertain.
In brief it is a story of a man trying to "understand this no one within." The author is torn between on the one side being alone and feeling guilty for his many years of alcoholism, but on the other side he is also being confronted with love, kindness, and generosity. Gradually, he experience that he is not alone. "No one is alone," it says.
Zen Encounters with Loneliness can be read as a practical unfolding of Buddhist thoughts, but I read it mere as a book of ethics. It describes a form of life that is exploring the borders of what is, and what is not. "I am tongue-tied when I confront what is, as it is, with no meas a referent." It describes how the author realized that he becomes without boundaries. And here he experiences, "without fear I am no one." Being no one is not the same as being alone. On the contrary, being no one is to experience or sense a totality or wholeness. One is no one since one is always another.
Keenan tells many didactic stories, for example, one about his son who suddenly saw himself as "something else", becoming with the world, the son realized "he was the waves, he was the lake, the wilderness, the universe." The stories illustrate how his openness help him notice kindness and forgiveness, when it appears. He acknowledges the teachers who have guided him. He makes several literary references that illuminate the path that he has been creating while walking. However, most of the time he converses with Buddhism, he uses Buddhist concepts, but in a way – regardless of one's faith – that leaves one touched. At no point does the author speak down (or up) to his readers. "To enter the way of the Dharma is to enter a territory without maps," it says. "The Dharma, the all-inclusive truth beyond dualities of real and unreal, without beginning or end, is not sequential."
Zen Encounters with Loneliness is a way of being in the world. For this reason, it should not be read as a normative map for others to follow. Rather, it is an example that might convince, stimulate, inspire, provoke and, perhaps, even help people with their own struggles in life. Whether one is struggling with addiction, or, what is far more common I assume, how to keep a healthy balance between one's life and work. It is also a story about a man who "felt the need to accomplish what was necessary – job, duties, commitments to family – before I took the privileged time away to write." The work of life and the work of art do not have to exclude one another.
An ongoing theme is how one can take responsibility. Keenan writes, "Taking responsibility empowers us to accept we cannot know everything." Still, one has an "infinite responsibility toward all that is in the future." Being open is risky. A responsibility towards what is in the midst of becoming. It requires trust towards what actually happens. "To be free you have to take responsibility for everything, no exceptions." Everything! Think of a terrorist. Keenan says that freedom is not to be carefree. Rather, freedom is taking care since everything is connected. The awful lack of respect of life that terrorism exhibits is, therefore, everyone's responsibility. To lower the scale, when dealing with someone's addiction, we cannot and should not ignore it. "We are each thing always, all the time." No one is to blame. The universe is not a burden, because a burden only separates one from something else. Everything is connected.
For some it may sound like a feel-good philosophy, but then their hearing needs to be checked. It is hard work, as Zen Encounter with Loneliness witnesses. It is difficult not to blame. It is difficult not to ignore. For many years, a dear friend of mine has been an alcoholic. First, I was ignoring it, being too polite to confront him with it. Then, once I did, he was either too drunk to take it in, or too drunk to remember afterwards. Last, when he finally could take it, because he stopped drinking heavily, he himself was ignoring it. One of the problems is that most of us want to be normal, but "normal is the root of all war." Norms are fiction. Instead, trust, openness, care and no blame are the real challenges. Life is what we have to share.
Keenan summarizes, "it is not what happens to you, but how you carry it into life each day, moment by moment … Awareness is helping each of us sense what we need to know; that perhaps it is not death we fear, but rather not living."
Zen Encounters with Loneliness tells the story about how one man, for years, has tried to become worthy of what has happened and happens.
St. Nadie in the previous title referred to the Spanish word nadie that means "no one". Zen Encounter with Loneliness is, however, for everyone. Not only students of psychology and philosophy will find many examples to converse with, but also any reader who care about life. The reading is light, while the thoughts are deep. It is one of these rare books that even when it speaks about the most personal and intimate, it still speaks with a voice from nowhere. This is one of the best nonfiction books I have read in a long time.
© 2015 Finn Janning
Finn Janning, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer