I am reading Lawrence Shainberg’s 1995 memoir, AMBIVALENT ZEN for the third time. I probably won’t read it all again — just browsing this time, finding sections that catch my eye. It’s laugh out loud funny — and I did remember that. It’s also a lesson in how to turn angst and confusion and pain into art. The key, I think, is in allowing the reader to know you, the author, in all of your weaknesses. For me, as someone who did Zen with the same ambivalence — wondering why, oh why it had to hurt so much, but not knowing any other alternative to relieving my suffering — I know how hard it is to bring half-conscious thoughts and assumptions to light and put them in words.
But there is one section of the book I forgot and now read with dismay: where Shainberg destroys years of personal journals. I do understand his logic — his idea that this kind of navel-gazing wasn’t ever going to bring him self-understanding — but I wonder if he ever regretted it.
I have never, thank God, burned any of my journals, and recently I went back and looked at some that are from several decades ago. I read them with new eyes, and with an eye to solving the personal dilemma that motivated them. And it worked! I had told myself a story about this traumatic event living at a Buddhist temple in Japan decades ago, and I saw how my need to believe everything happened a certain way kept me trapped in the suffering. Without those journals, which allowed me to experience the past (and myself) with new eyes, I would have remained stuck in the story my mind had created about what happened then.
So, the moral is, don’t ever destroy anything you write — especially not anything personal. You may never look at it again, but do you really want to deny yourself the possibility that what you wrote will be useful in the future?
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