A friend of mine posted last week a quote from Anais Nin quote that has always really grabbed me, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
This brought to my mind several other literary references to the “bud” of our life, referring to life at its earliest point when we had just taken that quantum leap from non-being into being. At that point we were the quintessence of vulnerability, a vulnerability that will always be present in our heart but one from which we are protected with the “fig leaf” of an ego. Then later in our adult life we have the task of loosening the pernicious grip of that ego to the point that some of that vulnerability can come to consciousness and invigorate an otherwise barren life. When that happens, what my spiritual tradition calls the “Spirit of God” begins to come forth and we find that we can engage in the “flow” of life, no longer tyrannized by subterranean fears of annihilation. T.S. Eliot described this “bud” as, “that tender point from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes.” And in another poem he offered another relevant thought, seeing this “bud” as, “some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”
But Shakespeare so brilliantly described this “bud” in his first sonnet and the peril of not allowing it to open and blossom, letting the essence of our life flow into the Void that we all live in, into the Great Round. In this context, the “blooming” he noted was in reference to some unknown friend who refused to get married and start a family. He described this friend as being unable to escape a narcissistic shell, accusing him of being “contracted to thine own brights eyes,” or seeing only what he saw…not able to see beyond the private world that he lived in. This is related to the Conrad Aiken line I quote so often, “We see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.”
Shakespeare believed that in getting married and having a family a person had the opportunity to let one’s tender “bud” break open and blossom into the unfolding of life, to participate in the “mundane” task of perpetuating the species. In one of his plays he described a character as being unable to “spend himself” and that consequently said he, “spills himself in fearing to be spilt.”
In the first sonnet, he chided his friend for feeding “thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel, making a famine where abundance lies, thyself thy foe, to the sweet self so cruel.” He saw this friend cowering within his bud, feeding himself with “self-substantial fuel” and not participating in life, not engaging in meaningful relationship, having “fled to a nutshell” where he could there safely be the “king of infinite spaces.” Shakespeare lamented this friend’s narcissism, seeing that he was his own worst enemy, to his “own sweet self so cruel.”
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Now, speaking from experience, it is possible to find other ways to open that bud, that “tender point” without marriage or family. I utilized the Shakespearean sonnet merely to note one “contrivance” that life has afforded us to “die to our selves” and focus on a greater end. But, I will admit that, personally, getting married but not having children illustrated this “cowardly spirit” that Shakespeare had in mind. And perhaps that is why that late in life I am finding the vulnerability in which life appears to be flowing, my “bud” timidly and often half-hearterdly trying to open and blossom.
Nin vividly discovered the painful quandary of not letting that blossom come forth in some dimension of one’s life. The pain becomes so intense that we feel we are about to burst. The “einfall” (see a recent post on the subject) is so persistent that we cannot but surrender and find a symbolic death offering us the hope of resurrection. Jesus also grasped the importance of letting this bud die and then blossom, noting that unless a grain of wheat, “fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
Life often appears to be merely about finding a meaningful way to slowly die, to artfully approach the end of our life and in the process leave something meaningful behind. Now I certainly do not think that life is a grim enterprise in which we morbidly focus on our brief span of life and ultimate death but that we do need to realize that death and life are always intertwined. And I am made to think of the wisdom of a very astute psychologist of several decades ago, Irvin Yalom, who noted that in his practice he had discovered that those who lived in fear of death were actually very fearful of being alive. But when unconscious fears rule our life, we cannot acknowledge our vulnerability and spend our lives glomming onto whatever contrivance our culture affords us in order to avoid that “tender point”, that bud from which life wants to emerge, that “bud” that Nin so pithily referenced.