When writing, I often felt it had to be about big and important subjects. I felt it had to be about those things that affect many, or that affect few in many ways. This sliver of a thought would belittle me: Fingers weakened, I would stop writing.
One such day, I noticed that I tended to trivialize the common, the mundane. In my mind, common things were unworthy of discussion. I decided to look closely at those everyday things, the subjective unimportant small things.
Slowly, I observed that big and important subjects are seldom innately grand; rather they are sly and microscopic specks enlarged under our gaze, both in size and in significance.
While fumbling on this formless thought I touched on something more. I sensed a connection between small things and my perception of all things, between small things and my own personal history.
This excerpt from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot hung beside my philosophy professor’s door at Lawrence University. I memorized it almost as soon as I saw it:
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
For the four years I was at University, I never felt attuned to the space. The people disoriented me: the landscape was uninspiring: the words of complaint flowed easily. The day I saw that quote marked my creative destruction and I nearly drove myself mad with change. I’m talking about the kind of change that leaves you referring to yourself in the second person (he, she, it). I cut deeply and said, “I will no longer live a negative existence.” And although I tortured myself under an exacting discipline—and I probably hurt some of the people around me—I extracted a diseased part of myself that I pay reverence to everyday.
I began by probing at the stigmas that had held me from self-discovery and acceptance. I tried to yoga and meditate myself into someone that was free of ego. Overtime I recognized that I was marching further toward a void. I labored relentlessly, driven by the belief that freedom was attainable only through profound silence and stillness, through nothingness.
To seek the emptiness of all things is a potent notion that can easily turn hazardous. When I stopped, I had rendered myself fragile and repressed. I was bloated with all the parts of me I had dammed up. I could sense that I would one day explode and lose it all. Eventually I did.
I had wanted unity, a truce among all the powers that seemed at war within me. I thought a strong hand and rules would lend proper habits and give me peace. By the end, I barely saw a resemblance between those powers and me. I had dismantled a sense of self that, illusory or not, was my foundation. Without a connection to my sense of self, I was adrift.
Eventually I realized that I was not empty, relative, or completely malleable. Whether I wanted to accept it or not, I had ever-present parts that could be shaped but not destroyed. Some would call them an essence. I think they’re not as pure as that. Those parts are dirty, lusterless, and globular. Anything they touch gets permanently stuck. Experiences, impressions, sounds, sights: they all make up that indeterminable sense of self that cannot be suppressed.
Over some years, this led me to the conclusion that history is the spiritual foundation of humanity. No matter how many Buddhist texts I read, I could not shake the sense that my experience and the people around me had molded my sense of self in ways I couldn’t undo. My present was inextricably steeped in the past.
Grabbing onto this fact led me to respect my thoughts and emotions as the residue of a slow filtration process that began before I was born. My body had trapped inside it the debris of times long passed. Through me, that history imbued everything I perceived with meaning and significance, irrespective of verity. In other words, every small thing revealed my own deep history.
The weight of this realization pulled me into the underground, where ancient catacombs house the small things of my life and the lives of those before me. These hollows are thriving. They resound with the words, the tears, trinkets, caresses, and the disappointments, the lost friendships and harsh punishments, the false accusations and conciliatory whispers of our ancestors, all rooted into depths.
We often revel in the escapist delusion that “The past is in the past.” This could not be more misguided. The past is in the present and although we are not ultimately responsible for it, we carry it with us.
Ever since I realized this my connection to the world fundamentally shifted. The shift created an entryway and I dove into the depths, among the little things; the only place where true enlightenment can happen.
*Special thanks to Sydney Banamgolam for her editing and insights.