Noelle Oxenhandler offers huge praise for the small word but.
In spite of my efforts to stay neutral, I got drawn into an escalating drama between Michel and his mother. She was terrified of his growing passion for scaling mountains, always higher and more inaccessible mountains. Deep down, she must have known where it would lead.
I sympathized with her—and for this, Michel cut me off.
But this isn’t what I wanted! This isn’t how I thought it would be. . .
Inevitably, we fall out of the hammock of bliss, the Garden of Eden. In some form or another, whether subtle or huge, the but arrives to thwart our desire.
Is this the end of the story?
For there is another but, a but within the but of sorrow and disappointment. The poet Rilke knows this when he writes:
Fear not suffering, the sadness—
Give it back to the weight of the earth.
The mountains are heavy, heavy the oceans.
Ah, but the breezes, ah, but the spaces—
Breezes . . . spaces . . . what is this but that can blow through our lives, softening the hard mountain of suffering, opening us to something beyond the contraction of sorrow?
One night in the village of Puy-St. Vincent, a painful dream jolted me out of sleep with the words “I can’t take this anymore!” Michel’s iciness was unyielding, and I felt overcome with hurt and homesickness. I got out of bed and threw open the heavy wooden shutters. The black sky swirled with stars over the luminous white mountains. The scale of everything out there was so vast, and as I leaned into it, I felt something happening inside me. It was something very soft—like a breeze—yet forceful, and inside the walls of my chest, it pressed against something that wanted to shut down.
The feeling was painful, as though I might burst, yet it brought an exquisite relief. It helped me to discover a buoyancy in the heart of the heaviness, and I was able to stay through the summer. Michel remained sullen, but I made other friends, grew close to his family, and made my own bond with the mountains. When, on my last night, I stood outside his door and said, “Bonsoir, Michel,” he threw open the door and asked me to forgive him.
Two years later, when I met a monk from Thailand who taught me how to meditate, I knew I’d found a link to that sustaining buoyancy. Though I was sitting in the basement of a college dormitory in Ohio, when I followed my breath, I was opening those heavy wooden shutters again, inviting the breeze to come in, in . . .
In Buddhism, the but of suffering—the old man, the sick man, the corpse—is met by the but of the path. “Existence is suffering,” said the Buddha Gautama, “but there is a path to liberation.” When we sit quietly in meditation, but after but presents itself. “But I don’t want to feel this pain in my knees . . . this drowsiness . . . this restlessness . . . this anger . . . this grief . . . I can’t bear to sit here anymore. I want out!”
Yet something remarkable happens when we go on sitting through all the but’s, through all the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that we would so like to oust. Gradually they begin to feel less alien, less like ob-stacles in the way, rocks in the path. Our deepening awareness becomes a kind of dew, falling on everything equally, allowing everything to sparkle. Once, in the midst of a meditation retreat, a friend went for a walk in the woods and found to her amazement that the litter was beautiful. Rusty cans, a beer bottle lying on pine needles: Everything was shining like a jewel. Once, after three months in a Zen monastery, I was taking a night flight home across the country, when I became aware of a constriction in my chest: my fear of dying in a plane crash. With difficulty, I brought my attention to the fear, and then something began to happen, something that had the same huge energy as the airplane, plowing so forcefully into the night. The fear of flying disappeared and—like the lens of a kaleidoscope narrowing, then opening out again into a different configuration—a new fear appeared, then another, and another. Cancer, fire, the death of loved ones. . . . Then fear turned to grief: the heartbreak of Michel, my parents’ divorce, lost friends. . . . Each fear, each grief arose in a vivid display of color and shape that, amazingly, had its own perfection, like one shimmering firework after another. Faced with the sheer power of this display, there was no room for fear or grief—only awe, and a sense of immense relief as each fear, each grief melted away.
This magnificent melting was not an experience that I could sustain in its intensity: The plane came back down to ground on the other side of the continent, and I too had to come back to ground. But the experience radically altered my sense of horizon, my understanding of what the human mind can encompass.
Notice the but there? It’s a but with a double edge. At times, when confidence deserts us, when we contract with pain or fear or doubt, the past experience of that infinitely expanding horizon sustains us, encouraging us to rediscover it anew. “I can’t quite see it now, but I know it’s there.” At other times, the past experience seems to indict us, to accuse us of having let the hard-won jewel slip through our fingers. “I had such a powerful experience of release, but now I’m bound again.” This but can be the hardest passage of all. It’s as though, having once belted out “Amazing Grace,” we now have to sing it backwards: “For I was found, but now I’m lost; could see, but now I’m blind. . .”
This is the but that the medieval mystic Julien of Norwich acknowledges in her description of the “rising” and “falling” of the spiritual life. “If there be anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
And who was Julien of Norwich? The Queen of and. Her famous words “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” are spoken to those who have passed through the but—again and again and again. As Julien tells us, it’s and that has the last word, ringing out like a bell in waves that encompass every sorrow. Yet without the but, we couldn’t fully hear this sound. We’d be like those poor beautiful people in the deva realm who, having never felt the least bit cut off from the primal and, can never experience the joy of return. So it is that I propose the humble word but as our own seed-syllable, sacred mantram, secret of human happiness, breeze through the heart of suffering, conduit to the inexhaustible well of and. ▼
Noelle Oxenhandler began her Buddhist practice in 1969. Her essays have been published in various magazines and journals as well as in the Best Essays of the Year collections. She lives in northern California with her daughter.
Image 1: "L'Aiguille de la republique, Chamonix, France, 1958," © Bradford Washburn, Courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Waltham, MA