In her book The Wisdom of No Escape, the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes a month-long meditation retreat in which participants focused intensely on sitting, walking, and eating meditation, on silence and stillness, and on contributing to the care and feeding of the community. Chödrön calls the experience “an alternatingly painful and delightful ‘no exit’ situation.” The meditators had “nowhere to hide” from themselves and their experience. They had no escape. 
On top of that, distractions such as sex and intoxication were prohibited. Participants had nothing to do but notice the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that passed through their minds. Not an easy thing to do. Our minds are messy. Sometimes kind and brilliant; at other times, they are petty and spiteful. If we are honest with ourselves, if we drop our excuses and disguises, we may feel that pain Chödrön talks about, but we also have the opportunity to become fully alive. We may even become enlightened. I assume that this is the wisdom of non-escape.
If non-escape is so wise, does that mean that all forms of escape are unwise?
I meditate regularly. Mindfulness is an important part of my spiritual practice. I appreciate Buddhist wisdom. I find that if I can be present to my pain, I cope better than when I try to ignore or reject that pain. For me, “no escape” makes sense.
Yet “no escape” is not the only thing that makes sense.
Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”
I’ve noticed that when I preach. I can say some deep and resonant truth, while at the same time I’m aware that another deep and resonant truth exists that contradicts my first truth.
This seems to be true of Buddhist teachings, as well. For instance, enlightenment teaches us that there is nothing to do, that nothing matters. At the same time, it reveals that everything matters, even the smallest action.
I suspect that the “wisdom of no escape” is true on a wondrous and profound level. Just as true, however, is the “wisdom of escape.”
The Importance of Stories
Last week, I preached about the importance of story. Stories are dangerous because they can change us, yet that is exactly why they are so important. We humans need stories to create meaning out of our life, to touch our hearts, to heal and transform our souls and our societies. They bind us together, help us build community with faith and hope, call us back to who we really are. Stories help us survive.
Do the Buddhist teachers Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama live without stories? Of course not. In fact, they use stories when they teach. The internet is full of Zen stories. Is there not escape in stories? And in this escape, is there not wisdom?
Dark fantasy and comic book author, Neil Gaiman, is an apologist for stories. He states that “escapist fiction” opens doors, allows you a sense of control, and “shows the sunlight outside.”  Eventually you must leave your fantasy world however and come back home to the reality of your life, no matter how dark and frightening. Yet you return a different person than you were, with new knowledge, weapons, and armor, with “tools you can use to escape for real” from the real prisons of your life.
The Richness of the Moment
Mediation is one way we can learn to taste the richness of each moment, live fully embodied and present to everything we are and know and see and hold. In such intense presence is a wonderful mystery and majesty. Misery and joy weave seamlessly together, until we cannot distinguish one from the other. The edges blur; we become whole.
Still there is a place for myths and parables, for gathering around camp fires and living rooms and sharing folks tales, memories, fantasies, and ghost stories. There is also a place for curling up with a mystery or romance novel and forgetting the leaky faucet and the unpaid electric bill, the drunk father or the dying mother, or the rape from two years ago that still haunts you, or the pain you feel because your spouse left you for your sister.
Yet life doesn’t have to be miserable for us to benefit from a little escape. Constant mindfulness is hard. As we practice, it becomes more easier, more natural, but it still takes effort. To be mindful, we have to concentrate. When we listen to stories, we relax into a different world. Past and future disappear, leaving us caught up in the present moment of the story.
Wisdom of Escape
Non-escape is wise. We are wise when we notice, watch, return to the breath. We are wise, also, when we love and laugh through story, whether or alone or with a crowd.
How can we tell the difference from an escape that heals and one that shreds our soul? During the meditation retreats, participants refrain from taking drugs, engaging in sex, and from lying, stealing, and murdering. Doubtless there are moral reason for this, but these activities are forms of escape that leave empty, sullen, sullied, and cold. When our escape is over and we return to the life we left behind, that life will be as ugly and broken as ever, yet we will have fewer resources to deal with it than we had before. We will have less knowledge, less compassion, less hope. Our bodies may ache, our minds may be numb or confused, our hearts may be shattered. Eventually, all addictions and criminality bring us to this place.
Good stories, on the other hand, gives us respite from the storm and return us rested, eager, smarter, kinder. There is wisdom in this kind of escape. Through this kind of escape, we become wise. In this way, we become better able to maintain a mindful and gentle “no escape,” as well.
In faith and fondness,
- Chödrön, Pema, The Wisdom of No Escape, Boston: Shambhala, 1991, x.
- Gaiman, Neil, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming,” The Guardian, 15 October 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming.
Photo Credit: By Josh Adamski from Unsplash