Enchantment and Disenchantment

I watched “Leaving Neverland” soon after it came out last winter and came away perplexed. All over the Internet, there had been articles about how overwhelming it was for people to come to terms with what appeared to be irrefutable testimony to Michael Jackson’s guilt as a child molester. Did people have to give up the music, the videos, the memories? I was perplexed because I myself had no association with any of his work; I had barely even heard any of it. I remembered the outpouring of grief in 2009 following his June 25 death, which also made no sense to me at the time.

This time around I was sufficiently intrigued that I decided to see what the fuss was all about. I started with the music video of “Thriller”. At first it bewildered me, the long opening scene between a strange looking boy and his date and the Vincent Price voiceover. But then, a transformed Michael snapped into formation with the ghoulish dancers and began to move, letting loose with the song, and I was transfixed. I had become enchanted by Michael Jackson.

I made a study of him over subsequent days, and for awhile I fell more and more under his spell as a vocalist and a dancer. And then, almost ten years after the fact, I began to grieve his death, and to understand what so many people have been experiencing ever since that documentary came out. Do his actions cancel out the merits of what he accomplished? People may differ in their answers, but one conclusion is impossible to avoid: Michael Jackson was and still is a master of enchantment. 

The term “enchanting” has been watered down in our vocabulary to suggest  something lovely or appealing, although there is power that still lurks under the surface. A true enchanter is a dangerous weaver of spells, someone who can capture another person and lead them anywhere. Our modern world has a hard time even acknowledging such power, much less coming to terms with it, even though our obsession with celebrities throws us directly into its path.

Nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber describes the modern world as disenchanted, with the onset of scientific thinking that has diminished the importance of religious belief. There is something tragic about the loss of enchantment with the appearance of reason at the center of our universe. Certainly few people can argue with the benefits of science and medicine, nor would most want to bring back the bad old days of homophobia, misogyny, and hideous tortures as punishment for the sins of blasphemy and heresy. An enchanted forest may sound exciting, but in folklore it is a place of terror, where all sorts of dangers could catch a wanderer unawares.

Yet many of us seem to have a longing for enchantment nonetheless; we want a world that is more than the sum of its parts, that has hidden and unknowable depths inaccessible to the rational mind. This desire finds outlets in such phenomena as the Harry Potter or the Twilight books of ten or more years ago, which may fall in the category of young adult literature but are enjoyed by many adults who are no longer young. And then there are our celebrities, those quasi-divine beings who are the focus of our unacknowledged longings. Michael Jackson was the consummate celebrity of his time, combining extraordinary creative abilities with powerful charisma (another bleached-out word).

The trouble with being enchanted by a celebrity is that it’s a lot like trying to wrap one’s arms around a ghost. Jackson is dead two times over, first in 2009 and now in the death of all illusions about him, but even so, he was for his fans no more than a dream while he was alive. According to the Buddha, all of life in samsara is just as much a state of enchantment. We seek fulfillment where none is to be found, until our disenchantment motivates us to practice (although the process is not automatic; most people continue looking for lasting satisfaction in the world of appearances right up until the end).

Such is one side of traditional Buddhist thinking, which comes with a substantial dose of asceticism. There is another side, however, which is populated by deities and gives rise to vivid imagery, an enchanted world that only the most advanced yogis can enter in states of deepest concentration. This is the source of the religious art and ritual that is so strange to western thinking, with its own asceticism of scientific materialism. While one project of western Buddhism seeks to reconcile the Buddha’s teachings with the scientific study of the brain, there are other teachers such as Rob Burbea and, recently, Daniel Ingram who are calling for greater openness to our capacity for enchantment.

In the words of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As we travel more deeply into our own minds, we find these words to ring true.

Doing Time With Thelma And Louise

 

bcc67c5b-9b77-429e-a100-932975d44194

I had a dream about my grandmother one night when I was about 17. She had been in decline for a long time, but still clung to the desire to stay in her home. My mother, her daughter, struggled with her for several years. It was about two years after that dream that she succumbed to multiple myeloma in a nursing facility, the very kind of place she didn’t want to be.

But back to the dream: it was evening, and my grandmother, wearing one of her old-lady rayon frocks, her gray hair in a hair net, was standing in the waves close to the shore. She was walking further and further out into the water. She was a slight figure, but her face was determined. One after another the waves would knock her over, and each time she would struggle back to her feet, only to be knocked down again. When she finally failed to get up, a group of rescuers at the shore went into the water to bring her back in. They carried her back, laid her down, except instead of my grandmother, the person was a young girl, one of my classmates, in fact, and as I gazed at her, I realized that it was me lying on the sand. And I knew with absolute certainty in that moment that nothing—not time, not age, nothing—separated me from the old woman who had disappeared in the waves.

The iconic ending to Thelma and Louise is a sublime moment of absolute freedom. Everything has closed in on them, but rather than obey the authorities and let themselves be taken, they choose to “keep going”—right over the edge of the Grand Canyon. It’s a beautiful sight, that Ford Thunderbird flying through the blue sky against the backdrop of one of nature’s marvels. They hang for a moment, suspended in midair, and of course we all know that within seconds their lives will be extinguished in a fiery crash. But there they are, at that moment, suspended.

What do you suppose is going through their minds? Do you think Louise is looking at Thelma, thinking “I wonder what she really thinks of me . . .”? Or maybe Thelma is asking herself, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” The very thought is ridiculous. At such a moment, there is no to-do list, no goals, no projects, no 5-year plan, nothing but the air and the space around them and the seat of the car against their bodies. And what would you say if I told you that all of us, at every moment, are in just that space, suspended in each instant, no before or after? That nothing, absolutely nothing, separates us from extinction other than thin air?

It’s impossible to put ourselves in such a frame in ordinary life, with so much else claiming our attention, not to mention the fact that we furiously resist any such insight out of self-protection. The Buddha once asked his monks how often they thought about death, and concluded with the admonition that they should all have their own death on their minds every single moment of the day. But who can stand to do that? I certainly can’t. Yet what the thought of our death does is release us from every petty concern we have, to leave us in infinite space as we sail effortlessly through the air.

One of my dharma friends suggested that whenever we feel frightened of something, the internal message is, “and then I will die.” So for me: “If I try to play my violin in front of even the smallest and most supportive audience, my bow arm will shake all over the strings and I won’t be able to play a damn thing, and everyone will know how scared I am and I’ll be ashamed . . . and then I will die.” So I stop playing altogether out of self-protection, to save my life (you can fill in the blanks with your phobia of choice). The shaking is part of the sympathetic nervous system’s flight-or-fight response, which is the body’s way of trying to save our life.

This is common knowledge, yet what gets submerged is the life-and-death peril we so often feel without realizing it. When someone cuts us off in traffic or when a colleague contradicts us in a meeting, that jolt of fury we feel is the sense of panic transformed into a fight response. I remember one evening when I was walking through a strange town after dark with my mother a man jumped out in front of us, opened his raincoat, and laughed out loud (he wasn’t even exposed, just trying to scare us). I immediately shoved my mother behind me, planted my feet on the ground, and raised my fists, my face contorted into a mask of rage. I didn’t even think.

Actually, being able to act without thinking, completely in the moment, is one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have. In that case, fear for my own life was banished by a powerful protective instinct. Many years ago I saw a young mother who lived in the apartment next to mine dive down an open well to rescue her toddler, who had wandered over and fallen in. Her husband dragged them out, shaking, saying, “I thought I’d lost both of them.” Prey animals cornered by much larger predators will turn on their attackers and often send them packing.

There is a thrill in such moments when a creature acts in complete abandon, all fear banished by the immediacy of the situation. Thelma and Louise are sailing through the air, putting their physical survival on the line in order to preserve something that matters more, their survival as free beings. Homer’s bloody epics are thrilling because of the heroes’ total abandonment to their freedom as warriors. These men despised fear and anyone who displayed it.

In ordinary life we can all be aware of moments of fearful constriction and moments of absolute freedom, when we lose our fear of death and realize perfect stillness, in the suspension of time.