The Phantom Wheel
When I was finishing my last novel, the image that kept popping into my head was of me in a car letting go of the steering wheel. Apparently I am a simple man who needs his metaphors clear and pre-interpreted. Regardless, this image became my guide, and it led me to an end that was, to the writer, satisfying and surprising. I thought of this metaphor when I listened to Andre Dubus’s address at this past summer’s writing conference. He pointed out that you spend your whole day manipulating your time so that you have the opportunity to write. Then once you get to your desk, what do you do? You let go of the wheel. His exact words, if I recall correctly.
I mentioned this story to Radanath Swami when I spoke with him last month. I described how as a writer you have to let of go of control when you write. The Swami laughed and said, quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you ever have control.”
Wise Swami. I used to think pain came from holding on too tightly to the wheel of life, from resisting the ineluctable flow of which I am ineluctably a part. As if I am in a boat and trying to wrench the rudder against the current. Do this long enough and your muscles ache and your back stiffens. So I let go of the wheel, and things flow.
But that wasn’t where the pain came from at all. The pain came from believing there was even a wheel to hold onto in the first place. It does not exist. There is nothing with which you can steer the world outside your own heart. It is the frantic grasping at nothing that sends me into a panic. It is like a nightmare where I am trapped on a bus, watching my stop fly past, and the rope to ring the bell keeps disappearing.
The bus will never stop and I don’t want it to. Peace of mind does not wait for me at an appointed place. As I look back at that image I used to finish my last book, I see that I misunderstood it. I wasn’t letting go of the wheel at all. If I let my imagination’s eye travel down from my hands, I see that they are raised in surprise, having just discovered there is nothing to grab.
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