Glancing up from armchair reverie, I watch two BASE-jumpers on a PBS documentary called “The Birdmen”. They leap from the fabulous cliff, wearing suits with stunted wings—not so much wings as webbing, as if their outflung arms and legs are tissued to their bodies–brightly flavored sails that billow as the young men fall. They look like neon kites, these men, and they fly seemingly free for a long while–relatively speaking–and then when the time is ripe they open parachutes and float the final yardage to the ground.
As the first one lands, the camera rushes in and asks how-do-you-feel. The jumper shouts terrific great whooohooooo. Then the other man returns to earth and the camera can only, mutely, watch as the flyers recombine—wide-eyed, whooping, babbling but articulate, reviewing every millimoment—each angle of the sun, each sudden rocky outcrop, each barely traversable river of wind, and it’s clear not just that they’re brothers now, at least for this moment, but that the two of them speak a language different from the rest of us–an idiom very complex, full of shortcuts and inside jokes, exotically precise in its vocabulary, references, metaphors, silences. We are, all of us—or nearly all of us–outsiders to their vision. They have no way, not really, to explain who they’ve become, who they’re becoming, who they’ve been all along—no way and maybe no need to explain such impossibles to the earthbound likes of us. Even when, later (as I half-hear them, from the kitchen now), they conjure similes (“free as an eagle”…) to express to the camera the feeling, the meaning of their adventure, comparisons don’t help; the abyss between us is unbridgeable. We can’t know what they know unless or until we do what they’ve done.
And this is an essence of zen, too, I think—if you meander far enough along the nowhere path, you start to learn and speak, however haltingly, a language no one else can know unless they’ve been here too. And it can leave you feeling alone, if you don’t feel a partner beside you on your adventure: someone in the same clownish, precarious costume, poised atop the same magnificent cliff, wishing you smooth sailing as you both leap—whooohooooo!–into the void of no-mind. It can feel lonely, plunging into that placeless place alone. But of course you have to not-mind feeling precisely thus, even as you also see–with your usual wry laugh at how (again!) you’ve had to re-recall it–that you’re not alone at all. We’re all flames in the fireplace, dancing like puppets up from behind a guileful log. We each seem singular, independent of each other, so that it’s only when we really look–beneath, behind, around, past, through–that we see how fused we are. We’re fingers of the same hand, leaves drifting downward from the same tall tree, offshoots from the same root, flames rising high and low from the same all-nurturing, all-consuming fire.