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Posts Tagged ‘King Lear’

64. Closing the gap

At one of the climactic moments in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, the aged king experiences a pivotal awakening. Divested of his kingdom and his power, his regal robes and loyal retinue, he finds himself on a barren heath amidst a ferocious storm. Reduced to rags himself, he sees the suffering of the indigent as never before. In a passionate soliloquy he expresses his realization:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From  seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.

— III, 4

Forty-five years ago, I memorized those lines, and in four ensuing decades they have often surfaced in my awareness. Their staying power has something to do with their formal beauty, their muscular syntax and resonant pentameters. What makes this soliloquy memorable, however, is not only its forceful rhetoric but also the motive behind it: that of a fallen king, who has realized at long last that he must dissolve the barriers between himself and the suffering of others. He must take “physic” (medicine) to cure the illness of pomposity, the sickness of class prejudice. He must close the gap between himself and others’ suffering.

That is also a motive of Zen practice, whose ultimate aims are the relief of suffering and the cultivation of compassionate wisdom. From the vantage point of Zen teachings, the notion of a separate self is an illusion, whether that self be a king or a homeless serf. And that illusion causes suffering, both to the king and the serf: the subject and object in a mutual relationship. For the reality is that we are all enmeshed in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” To deny that reality is to live in a self-centered dream—and to widen the gap between self and other.

But how, in practice, is one to close that gap? Short of becoming destitute and desperate ourselves, how are we to awaken, fully and compassionately, to others’ suffering?

For the Zen practitioner, the best medicine is meditation, which not only steadies the mind but also affords access to our internal suffering and its causes. To attend to others’ suffering, Zen teachings tell us, we must first attend to our own. This directive is not a prescription for self-pity or an invitation to wallow in our woes. Rather, it is an admonition to become aware of the elements in our psyches and our culture that engender suffering—the craving, fear, and anger; the impulse to violence; the mindless consumption; the habitual patterns of reactivity. Only when we have gained insight into these forces and, if possible, transformed them into something more constructive, will we be in a position to pay full attention to others’ distress, much less help to relieve it. As Thich Nhat Hanh sternly puts it, “we have to dissolve all prejudices, barriers, and walls and empty ourselves in order to listen and look deeply before we utter even one word.”* If we can manage that daunting task, we will be in a far better position to act for the benefit of others.

What we will do will depend on the circumstances. It might be humanitarian action, but it might also be the act of stopping and listening, wholeheartedly and without preconceptions, to those with whom we engage in everyday life. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this practice “deep listening,” by which he means unprejudiced, non-judgmental attention to another person’s suffering. “Deep listening and loving speech,” he writes, “are wonderful instruments to help us arrive at the kind of understanding we all need as a basis for appropriate action. You listen deeply for only one purpose—to allow the other person to empty his or her heart. This is already an act of relieving suffering.”**

By such means, any one of us might close the gap—and show the heavens more just.

____________________________

*Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead, 1995), 101

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace (Free Press, 2003), 88.

To view a performance of King Lear, Act III, with J. Stephen Crosby in the leading role, see http://vimeo.com/6011143.

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