NOTE: The writing part of my Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas book project is going more slowly than I had hoped. I have rough drafts of each chapter, but have been, until yesterday, feeling stuck around completing them. Then I realized lack of an audience was what was holding me back. What follows is a first draft of the first chapter, “Awakening.” My intention is to publish, here and on my blog, Facebook, and Behance.net project pages, each first draft. I continue to appreciate both your support and your patience. I greatly value any comments on this or any other of the essays.
“Awakening,” Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
AWAKENING: A long, strange trip
My own awakening has been slow in coming.
Much that I have learned has come from trying and failing, making wrong choices, ignoring intuition and suffering the consequences, or following it – and suffering those consequences, too. For 40 years, I have wandered, like Moses in the desert, from one occupation to another, each time getting closer, I hoped, to what I was put on the planet to do, and each time finding that the fit was not right, the path was blocked, or there was more to my nature than I had suspected. My love relationships, avocations, and spiritual path have followed a similar pattern. It has often seemed as if, like the arrow in Zeno’s Paradox, I was destined always to close the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be, with each jump forward finding that I still had half the distance to traverse, asymptotically approaching but never reaching my goal.
I would be foolish to think that now, entering my 60s, my awakening process is complete. Yet were I to have the chance to do my life over, there is little I would change. Everything has brought me to here, now – and here and now is fine.
In my late 20s I worked at the Brooklyn Museum as an instructor in a drop-in art program for kids. There, alongside children 5 to 12 years old, I discovered Chinese landscape paintings and their ethereal representations of mountains beyond mountains and rivers beyond rivers in a vast, perhaps infinite, expanse. What I think of as awakening has been like that: a journey from one layer to the next, each time aware, as I reach a marker, of the level beyond and, in the mist, the one beyond that.
My photography, and especially the Flower Mandala work, has been part of this awakening. The types of photographs I take now and the constructions I make from them allow me to re-enter the inner life of my childhood when, alienated from most of the people around me, I focused my attention on both the minuscule and the largest visible structures of the natural world. Looking deeply into what William Blake would have called the minute particulars of each image – the individual pixels, the patterns of light and shadow, positive and negative space – has helped me to understand more completely the miracle of a single flower, a tree, the line of the horizon, a moment in the life of someone I thought I knew well or someone I may never know beyond the fraction of a second when our lives intersected.
The mandala work came to me as I recovered from a medical error that culminated in a near-death experience. At that time, in 1993, I was an English graduate student at the University at Albany. My career goal then was to become a college professor and to complete a novel I planned to use as my doctoral dissertation. After some 20 years of struggling with writing as a career, I believed I was about to arrive at my right vocation and, I hoped, a happy and productive life going forward.
The near-death experience and its aftermath changed all that. To paraphrase the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, it has been a long, strange trip.
Moments before I entered the near-death space, I envisioned a series of line charts, each layered on top of the other like the overlays of the human body in anatomy texts. The charts represented how closely I had adhered to my path. The topmost layer represented vocation. It dipped down in the bad times – the longest being my recent decade as a technical writer – and moved up in the good ones, quitting construction work or high tech and returning to graduate school. Lower layers charted additional aspects of my life: family, romantic relationships, friendships, health, . . . others I no longer recall. Each chart broke at the exact moment of the vision itself and then, after the break, resumed, the lines now moving steadily upward into the future. As I lost all bodily sensation, I felt a surge of regret for the things I might never have a chance to do. Then the regret passed and I sensed that the books of my life were balanced. I accepted that every life, no matter how short, was itself a whole, as every book in the library is a book. Yet I did not want to die. So I made a request, to God if there was one and He was listening, to let me continue. My last conscious thought: “I know how to live my life now and I’d like the chance to complete it.” Then the room and my body faded out and “I” went into another space entirely. Later, I was told my blood pressure had dropped to 50/0, but my heart continued to beat.
In 1950, Erik Erikson, one of the pioneers of developmental psychology and originator of the term “identity crisis,” posited eight ages of Man, covering human development from infancy to old age. Extending Freud’s work, he identified fundamental conflicts that each of us must resolve in order to fully actualize. If each stage’s conflict is successfully resolved, we arrive at the end of our lives with a sense of a life worth living.
Erikson identified the conflicts of the penultimate and final stages as “generativity vs stagnation” and “ego integrity vs despair.” At 61, I am nearing the end of my “generative” stage, trying to complete the work I charted in the extra time I have been granted. The near-death experience divided my life into two parts: who I had been, and who I was becoming. I have spent the last two decades integrating the two. Through this process, photography came back into my life and I returned to school yet again to become a psychotherapist. The combination of creating the images I now make and my work as a healer feels like a calling. My friend Larry, who drove me home from the hospital following my near-death experience, ends each phone or email message to me with the phrase “I hope you’re still saving the world, one person at a time.” I hope so, too.
Soon I will enter Erikson’s final stage. I have faith I will resolve that conflict successfully, arriving at my second death with wisdom and acceptance, grateful for the life I have lived and satisfied with what I have left behind, having lived authentically, eyes wide open.