May 21, 2009

Discovering for Ourselves

A favorite movie of mine is Last of the Dogmen. (Not Last of the Dog Soldiers. That will get you a werewolf B-movie from the UK.) It is a very underrated movie. I've never met anyone who has ever heard of it before, but it always spoke to me. It was made in 1995 and stars Barbara Hersey and Tom Berenger. Brad and Angelina they are not. Tom and Barbara, aka Lewis and Lillian, are about as normal as two people can get. The kind of people you expect to have bad joints and back problems and tax returns. And they don't get along, but somehow they travel into the Montana wilderness (of which there is a lot) to find a lost Cheyenne tribe.

Something that has always stuck with me are these little snippets of narration quietly inserted. They never say precisely who the narrator is, but he has the gravelly old voice of a hard living man, simple and matter of fact. "Every story," he tells us in the opening credits, "begins and ends in the same place - and that's in the heart of a man. Or a woman. Now, we'll get to that in a little bit, but this here is a Western story, so it begins the way Western stories ought to - with outlaws."

Through the narrator we discover the back story between Lewis Gates, who's hired to track the outlaws and bring them out of the Montana mountains alive, Sheriff Deegan. We get a glimpse at Lewis' feelings for Lilian, because he's the kind of gruff man who won't just come out and say it, or show it. But more than that, through the narrator, we learn a thing or two about the way that stories are told and what makes them special.

"I'd say most of what I'm telling you is true. And the rest... well, the rest is the West."

That gruff old voice has stuck with me as I've contemplated my own story. Specifically, I've wondered what makes it unique, what's the theme, what's the point? And how do I tell it. It comes upon me that it is indeed a story. It seems like so many dharma books out there are telling us what-is and how-to. They aren't about the person writing them, not as the subject matter in any sense, and that person is usually some teacher who is already expected to have some level of wisdom to share. They don't always tell us how they came to their conclusions, the mistakes they made, the full process of their journey, though they may share anecdotes from time to time. They leave us guessing about the whole of it. No, they're writing to tell us what it is they have concluded. Well, I'm not that person. I haven't concluded. This isn't a what-is or how-to. This is an in-progress. This is a nitty-gritty, down in the dirt snapshot of awakening unfinished. No guessing, I'll tell you all of it straight up because, apparently, that's what I'm good at.

I've also wondered, time and again, why "Dharma Cowgirl?" Why not "Dharma Hippie" or "Dharma Yuppie," "Plains Dharma" or "Sandhills Dharma," or some other reference like "Common Sense Wisdom" or "Life In Progress." But something about the idea of cowgirl, of cowboy, has always spoken to me and I have been trying to understand this so that I can articulate it. It is not merely the mythology, not simply the rugged individualism, or place, or history. Nor can it be fully tied, made synonymous to, Trungpa's tradition of warriorship. It is something different, something more than that.

It is not independence in the classic sense of the word. It is not the "I don't need anything or anybody," kind of self-imposed isolation. It is an intrinsic understanding that no matter how many people you surround yourself with, how much help and support you have, teachers, sanghas, friends, in the end it's still up to you, on only your shoulders. It is the understanding that, irregardless of the interdependence of phenomena, we are all essential alone. Further, it is the willing acceptance of this fact. The will to move forward (or backward or sideways or stand still) with this knowledge and responsibility.

Essentially, we're on this path alone and we don't know what we'll discover as we travel it. But we are willing to travel it, we are willing to discover whatever it is we find. And that's the thing about Western stories, they are about that discovery. The characters are people who are willing to go looking, both in the great, wide spaces of the West and within their own hearts. They are people who won't settle for someone else's word on the matter. They understand they need to know for themselves.

In the movie, Lillian tells Lewis: "Look, Elvis is dead, the government is not hiding UFOs, and there are no Indians in the Oxbow." But Lewis doesn't believe her. He knows what he saw, even if it isn't quite sure what it was, and he goes about gathering facts, seeking to discover, and in the end, drags her along with him. But Lillian is the same. She wouldn't accept what Lewis believed until she saw it for herself and then she turns the tables, and drags him into a whole new life.

In the end, this is what I'm looking to say, but not just say. As the literary adage goes "Show, don't tell."

After all, if you're half the cowgirl I am, you wouldn't believe me if I just told you anyway.

1 comment:

Teacher Jim said...

This would be a great 'introduction' for your book. Very well said...[smile]