3:00 AM, November 21st. I drove home, beginning on a dirt road in Joshua Tree, after staying up all night for a late-night proposal photoshoot. It was one of those shoots where adrenaline rushes through you, because there is only one moment to capture quickly, but under moonlight, the moment requires stillness. It was technical and tricky enough to wake me up. I was in the car now, though, making my way through the heaviness of a sleepless night (these tired eyes!) on a dark dirt road. My question here: how do you (or I) stay awake?
Three in the morning, or later, driving slowly out of Joshua Tree, with very few others on the road with no lights. I blink. I’m driving into, or through, or past town now. Few cars pass by, streaming. I blink—I am on the highway now—and I struggle to stay awake; so, thinking, my mind kicks off, unravelling into a story, or questions, or a whole fantastic world. The weight of my tired body is now weightless and my eyes unfocused, the world as soft as a cloud. Brake lights bokeh; lane dividers bump; I’m drifting (drifting lanes)… I grasp, suddenly panicked, to feel the painful tiredness of my body (for it, no doubt, is real) and stare back at the road. 4:30 AM. No more drifting. The weight of my tired body comes down, heavy, so the lights, still streaming, regain their crisp specificity, no longer unfocused. But my mind wanders (hrng!), bringing the bokeh back, my mind wondering and searching and reaching for anywhere but here. That search will kill me at this speed, and time jumps again, until I shake and shake and shake my head to wake up from dreaming (my eyes wide open, but asleep). My eyes glaze, and it is the work of this drive to keep them focused. Asphalt, headlights, brake lights. That’s it—banal and boring. But somehow, to stay awake, I must feel it all, with a clear and vulnerable presence (some say this is where joy is found), no matter how much my mind creates a comfortable fantasy, resting in a world somewhere else.
I pull up, home. Stop the car. Engine off. Door open, door closed, open trunk, grab backpack, close trunk, lock car. Unlock door, open door, close door, lock door. Upstairs, backpack down, in bed, collapsed—finally feeling it all, exhausted. Sleep.
Is this not also waking life? Is it not the world each day, closing off into a dream-like fantasy, until one day, we reflect on the time that has passed by and look back towards that somnambulant-self, drifting on the road, caught-up in visions and daydreams, wandering? “See what many religions have done to this world,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “on account of their yearning to break through the bounds of concrete reality and escape to the sphere of eternity.” Is there any other way to live, other than that “religious” way—that habitual abstraction from the concrete? Is there another way, a way of stepping into that ground beneath our feet—the ground that eludes our mind’s habit of escaping to a cloudy realm where things can only mean (everything only means; everything only serves to point to the ultimate). “Yes,” Soloveitchik implies. And in the negative, continuing, “There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world.” Diversion drifts, speeding and unfocused, yearning for a salvation trapped far away in eternity. This, Soloveitchik suggests, will destroy you. Focus, then, on the world—that is the point.
Head down, focused on the world: “the natural world is so double-faced and unhomelike,” recounts William James, that “the sufferer is often led to what becomes for him a satisfying religious solution.” Here, simply: religion as another escape from concrete reality, marked by suffering. However, escape is not only a domain of the religious: Tolstoy, explaining the motive behind his religious inclination, mentions that “One can live only so long as one is intoxicated, drunk with life; but when one grows sober one cannot fail to see that it is all a stupid cheat,” echoing the Sufi mystic Bāyezīd after his unification with the divine, (or, he says, his own search for Bāyezīd): “this is all a cheat.” Both the intoxication of life and that unification with the divine mask a sober confrontation with life. Because if we focus on the world (and if we believe the Buddhists) we realize that we’re trapped in a world marked with loss, and it is only natural for us to desire an escape. But religion (that Latin “re-binding”), for Tolstoy, comes unbound in its honest reflection suffering, so that the intoxicating world we’re bound to is actually all a cheat; religion, for Bāyezīd, breaks down so that the divine (to which Bāyezīd bound his soul) is actually a cheat; and religion functions, according to James, so that “man must die to an unreal life”—the life in this world (for is there any other?) that abstracts an existence, one no longer concrete—“before he can be born into real life.” Is there anything more concrete than this letting-go, this religious unbinding into the “real” world, without reaching again for eternity? (Some say this is where joy is found.)
My mind wandered into clouds, escaping from this concrete body that was tired, sleepy, and heavy with a painful exhaustion. It drifts, naturally reaching. But to stay awake, to survive, I had to renounce these daydreams, until finally, I could sleep.