Poetry is an art form that not everyone appreciates. Poems take leave of everyday consciousness and strive to convey something deeper. In that sense, they are like dreams. Dreams are just as truthful as everyday life, if not more so. But the language is distinct. The language consists of symbols, images, and emotions, not logic. Words and logic often cover up what’s really going on inside of us. Words and logic allow us to lie to ourselves and overlook our own destructive patterns. But when we close our eyes and dream, go into meditation, or write a poem, the truth comes to the surface – a truth that is difficult, impossible, or simply too painful to convey in normal parlance.
The following poem spoke to me because, in the course of 44 words and 2 paragraphs, it depicts the pain of Impermanence, the fruitless pursuit of worldly happiness, and the inevitability of death. The poem presents the haunting image of a ghost-like speaker who represents all of us:
by Georgia Douglas Johnson
The phantom happiness I sought
O’er every crag and moor;
I paused at every postern gate,
And knocked at every door;
In vain I searched the land and sea,
E’en to the inmost core,
The curtains of eternal night
Descend – my search is o’er.
Happiness is indeed a “phantom” when we search for it outside of ourselves. There is nothing and no one that will never disappoint, or die, or change. That is the nature of existence. Buddhism describes it succinctly as “suffering.” Everything is subject to the law of Impermanence. Refusing to accept that is the root of all suffering. Embracing it is the beginning of wisdom and true happiness.
“Pausing at every postern gate” and “knocking on every door” describes the average person’s life before accepting Impermanence. We are convinced that the next set of achievements, acquisitions, or associations will be the key to lasting happiness. We think that once we graduate and move out of our parents’ house, once we get that perfect job, once we get married, once we have kids, once the kids move out, once the kids have kids, once we retire – then we will be happy and content. We repeatedly pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off when each person, each thing, disappoints us in some way. When the perfect job ends or becomes a bore; when the perfect spouse – “our rock and best friend” – betrays us or becomes a bore; when the kids turn their backs on us, embarrass us, or disappoint us, we then feel cheated by life. We convince ourselves that everyone else is happier than we are. All those glowing Facebook posts and grinning selfies can’t be wrong. Why can’t we find “it,” whatever “it” is?
The poem’s speaker realizes at life’s end, when the “curtains of eternal night/descend” at death, that the pursuit was “in vain,” pointless, a fruitless set-up. This does not have to be our fate, however. We do not have to wait until we’re on our deathbeds to realize that happiness is within, not “out there.” Once we accept that life contains suffering, and that the suffering is caused by Impermanence, we can love life for what it is, rather than for what we want it to be.
Knowing that the people, things, and circumstances around us are impermanent allows us to appreciate them in the Now. They are precious because we have no idea how long we will have them. The sad things take on a less painful charge because we know that negative circumstances pass; they do not remain forever. This is how we achieve non-attachment.
Non-attachment does not mean that we don’t care. It means we look at life the way we watch a movie. Our emotions are real for the 2 hours we’re in the theater, but the whole time we know that it is a movie; it will end. When the lights come on, we stand up and move on to other things. The painful scenes in the movie pass away, and the happy or funny parts also pass. Yet we still enjoy it. We are fully invested for the 2 hours we are there. We can do this with life.
Life is a movie of every genre, and we are the lead actors. Let’s play our parts well, knowing that the great Oscar in the sky is the knowledge that the Love we leave behind is the only thing that’s real.
Peace and love,