The Enlightenment Blues, Part One

posted March 22, 2005

Above my desk is a list of my goals. They are:
1. Write great, classic songs that will endure beyond my death
2. Have a great family which I sustain and which sustains me
3. Be a part of a vital, creative community
4. Meet Paul McCartney
5. Become enlightened.

To wit, I do a number of things every day to advance my goals: I write. I make sure to at least say hi to my fiancé, Tom, with whom I live; I call my sisters and my parents, play with my nieces and nephews. I get out of the house, answer emails, talk on the phone with old friends, try to make new ones. The Paul McCartney thing, I admit, I’m not doing that much towards advancing, but I will have you know that at one point, I asked our record company to send him our CD to see if he wanted to produce us. He declined, but I’m pretty sure that was only because he was dealing with slightly more urgent matters, like the death of his wife.

As for becoming enlightened, it’s not going so well. I’m a dutiful little Bodhisatva in training. I meditate daily—well, I suppose that continues to be debatable, as I have the world’s most blabbering monkey mind. But I do assume the position–after twenty years, my legs twist into a marvelous lotus, almost without any help from my hands. I go to a tiny congregational church in the hill town of Cummington where the pastor, a shepherd and a poet, has never set foot in divinity school.

And I read spiritual books like some people eat potato chips. I can’t get enough, Whoever is the guru du jour, you can bet I’m reading him or her. And for the span of time that I’m reading this guru, I see the world completely through his/her eyes. Byron Katie? Everything is “your story, sweetheart!” Eckhardt Tolle? “Be still. Listen…….to ze ………spaces…… much …….ass…..ze verds. “

I read about how to be in the present moment and how to be so deeply committed to a partner that the idea that you are two separate beings will never thereafter enter your mind. Of course, I am reading so fanatically, that when Tom leans over to kiss me and tell me about his day, I nod and go, “Uh huh,” without looking up from my newest book, “How To Be Completely Present For The One You Love.”

My biggest problem with some of these gurus is they’re not that funny. They can’t be—because to be really funny, you have to make fun of yourself, at least a little. To be funny you have to be human and fallible. But here’s where the guru is stuck in a bind. If she makes fun of herself, she is pointing out that she is sliding, perhaps, from that rarified spot on top of the mountain. She is admitting that even though she’s enlightened, she’s not always so. And if she is selling that product: My Brand Of Enlightenment (let’s call is “EnlightenMee” just for kicks) which promises freedom from ego-ic thoughts and emotions, the ability to let Whatever Is Be So, but has to add this disclaimer: “Usually works, but sometimes I hurl my computer on the floor when AOL Crashes and I lose an important email–” well, you can see how this might undermine her credibility just a little.

Oftentimes, the guru’s story goes like this: Down and Out man/woman is either depressed or addicted or just plain mean as hell. Down and Out person goes to bed gnashing his/her teeth in despair, wondering what is the point of even waking up the next morning. Then, Down and Outer has a huge epiphany complete with thunder and lightening, Beethovenesque crescendos and a severe ringing in the ear. During this epiphany, Down and Outer realizes that our thoughts are our only problem, that we are all One, that God is a Great Light which loves us all, and that we are each, in fact, God.

That’s all fine. I have no problem with that. My problem comes with what happens next. Former Down and Outer stands up from the epiphany, shakes him or herself off, spends a few years sitting on a park bench just smiling benevolently at passers by, or, alternatively at a kitchen sink washing dishes (and by that I mean, really washing dishes. Dong nothing but washing dishes but being so in the NOW with the dishes that the dishes become part of God, part of nature, part of the down and outer, and no one notices dishpan hands or needs Palmolive…) Anyway, Post Epiphanal Down and Outer emerges some years after the epiphany on the self help circuit, pawning a book with his or her face smiling smugly and deeply, and the book has words like “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” on the cover. Soon, the guru is being featured in People Magazine, Oprah and the Today Show. Here Post Epiphanal Down and Outer smiles calmly and the interviewer actually wonders, “Has this person had a stroke?” But instead merely asks, “Don’t you ever worry about anything?”

“No,” is the answer, given with calm assurance but no humor. “Why should I worry? The universe provides for my every need. I have but to be with whatever is and know that this is the way it should be.”

I can’t argue with this. And I know my contrariness, if it were to be analyzed by one of these gurus, comes from my ego resisting the notion that it is not a singular, unique self. I know that these gurus would say I am addicted to my thinking, I am addicted to my emotions and I am addicted to my sense of self. And I would have to admit this is true.

But, guru, what about grief? Aren’t we supposed to grieve our losses? In the last few years, if I have learned one lesson, it’s been that. In the actual grief, in the very center of that feeling of loss and nothingness, I have found the sweetness. I have found the comforting presence of Other, of Being, of God or whatever you want to call that feeling that we are, that I am, not alone. And I don’t believe I would have found it without falling all the way to the bottom. When you’re on the ground there is nowhere to fall.


My sister has a polyp on her vocal chord. Its timing is extraordinarily bad, materializing right at this moment, at what was supposed to be the beginning of the resumption of our music career after a six month maternity leave. We are supposed to go back out on the road supporting a novel, a book based on one of my songs. We recorded a soundtrack to go with the book, and the soundtrack came out over a year ago. We had a whole plan to tour behind the CD and the book, to bring our message of freedom and self-fulfillment to young women everywhere, to liberate all with the power of the word and the guitar. Now, we don’t know when she’ll be able to sing again.

When I sing with my sister, I have a physical reaction. My throat aches with pleasure when my voice joins hers. It’s the easiest thing I do, and that for which I get the most credit. Sometimes I resent this; it reminds me of what my friend Priscilla said about her red hair. “People are always admiring my red hair,” says Priscilla. “But I do nothing to have red hair. Why can’t they admire my abs or my sense of style? Those things I’m responsible for.”

I want people to admire me for those things I sweat and slave over. Why can’t people admire my songs? That’s what I want. I want people to admire my songs, to love my songs, to sing them without me present (especially if they are Bette Midler or Garth Brooks and want to put them on an album. The royalties for that would surely pay for my transatlantic flight to London where I could stalk Paul McCartney. Or at least pay for my dream kitchen.)

I climb to the top of the mountain where the guru sits, all in white, naturally. This guru is a blond Germanic woman with one of those odd European voices—a voice that speaks English with so little trace of an accent you kind of get the creeps, as I used to when I watched Soviet Spy Joe Adamov being interviewed on the Today Show in the 70’s.

“Ah,” says the guru. “Turn it around. Why can’t you change your thinking? Why can’t you put ‘Sing with my sister’ at the top of your Goals list? Then you will have already achieved your goal.”

That’s the other problem with these gurus. They leave you no wiggle room when they prove you wrong, and you end up slinking away like a shamed dog. But as I start to slink, the guru says, “Wait. You’re Nerissa Nields, right?”

I am surprised. I really didn’t think the guru liked folk music. But I’ve learned over the years that the strangest people have heard of me, and it’s never the ones I expect. I’ve been so often embarrassed at parties when I introduce myself as a folk singer and the stranger I’m talking to says, “Really? I love folk music! What’s the name of your band?”
When I tell her, she wrinkles her face, and begins to look frighteningly apologetic, as if she’s about to break my heart.
“God!” she’ll say. “I’m really sorry. I know EVERY band that’s up and coming, especially folk bands. But I’ve never heard of you!”

But then there are random people at airports all over the country who recognize me on sight. There are corporate types from my new career as a life coach who say they heard one of my songs on the radio and ordered all our CDs online. You never know where the little seed takes root.

Slowly I turn and face the guru. “Yes,” I say warily.

The guru smiles. “You’ve created quite a fix for yourself, sister,” she says.

“What do you mean?” This guru, while perfect looking at first, I now notice, has love handles and crows feet and is more the beautiful for them.

“Well,” she says. “You believe you’ve made a living off your ego. How are you going to shed it now?”

“Plastic surgery?” I joke. Predictably, she is not amused.

“Service,” I say, guessing. That seems to be the right answer to all spiritual questions in the same way that “performance” is the right answer for corporate life coaches.

The guru looks at me as though she knows I know better.

“I know!” I say. “Be in the NOW!”

Now she’s angry. “Well, of course, be in the now.” And she turns her back on me! I’m dismissed! I can’t believe I climbed all the way up here for this!

“Wait a second,” I say. “I have a question!”

She sighs and turns back.

“Now that you’re all enlightened and everything, I want to know, do you ever get irritated?”

Aha! I’ve trapped her, Since it’s pretty obvious that she’s irritated at this very moment. This present moment. This now.

She whirls around. “You’re goddamned right I do! When I’m angry, I’m angry! And you are pissing me off! Go down the mountain and climb up again tomorrow.”

This is too much. I’ve had a really hard week. I miss my sister. I am angry that she has to suffer. I want to sing with her, and I’m trying to find a way out of my stupid suffering and I’m trying to be brave and honest and ask the right questions, and I really don’t fancy climbing a mountain this tall twice in two days. I do the thing I swore I wouldn’t do in front of the guru: I sit down on a rock and cry.

The rock is pink and grey like a lung. I weep kind of softly and as I weep, I feel a little better. I’ve been singing with my sister, writing songs, trying to get more people to recognize me in airports, for my whole adult life. I’m tired of things changing without my permission.

The guru has come over and is sitting next to me. I don’t look at her. It sounds like she might be chewing gum, which shocks me, just a tad.

“So why Paul McCartney? Why not Bob Dylan?” she says finally. “Bob Dylan’s a much better songwriter.”

“I know,” I say, wiping my nose on my sleeve. “But Bob Dylan’s mean. He hates fans. If he met me, he’d be mean to me and ignore me. Paul McCartney on the other hand, loves to talk to fans. He goes out of his way to talk to fans.”

“So which goal is easier to attain? Meeting Paul McCartney or meeting Bob Dylan?”

“Huh?” I say, fearing I’m about to be tricked again. “Meeting Paul. I mean, if I happened to be in London. I’ve heard he walks the same way to his office everyday, always hoping to be stopped by fans who want to ask him Beatles minutia like what kind of reverb did he use on the drums at the end of ‘Hello Goodbye. ‘ They say if he doesn’t get recognized he practically bumps into people. He really likes to talk.”

“So, is it fair to say that you like doing things the easy way?”

I nod vigorously. “Of course! I don’t want to have to bang my head against the wall! Who does?”

“Um,” she says, “You do. Sometimes. You struggle against the flow of the river. You said you want credit for the things you work so hard at, the things you strive to accomplish. You don’t want credit for the easy things like being able to harmonize with your sister. But don’t you get it? The easy thing is a gift. Paul McCartney’s accessibility to his fans is a gift. Your harmonizing with your sister is a gift. Why not go with the flow? The river’s heading south, sister, and instead of going along with it, you suddenly decide to swim north.”

My blood boils. This woman is an unfeeling jerk!

“It’s good to go against the flow sometimes! It keeps you exercising! It makes you strong! It’s good to resist! If we all went with the flow, we’d be allowing atrocities to take place! What if Gandhi went with the flow? What if Martin Luther King went with the flow?”

She is smiling at me in the most annoying way. “They did. How do you know that the Flow wasn’t moving towards freedom and liberation and they weren’t just riding the wave?”

“Because they got shot!” I shout. The wind is picking up a little and I see the trees on the peak across the range from us blow sideways. Yet somehow, not a hair on this woman’s head moves.

“And what’s so bad about that?”

“They DIED!!” I scream. “What is wrong with you?”

“And dying is bad?”

I get up. I hate this woman. “My sister can’t sing right now,” I say, squinting at her, as if by looking at her with less of my vision she will shrink. “How am I supposed to go with the flow when the river’s dried up?”

I turn and walk down the mountain and I will not climb it again.

But as I pass the crest, I look back. She is sitting on the lung rock with that annoying Mona Lisa smile on her lips, gazing across the valley. Suddenly my anger is gone. I don‘t know about Katryna, about her voice, about when the next time will be when we get to sing together. But I do, suddenly, inexplicably, know what it feels like to get angry, to cry, to shout, to breathe the way you breathe when you’ve just climbed a mountain. My lungs burn a little, saying, “We’re here. Exercise us.” My legs feel strong and ready for another climb. I turn and continue down the mountain. Tom is making pesto chicken for dinner. And even though I said I wouldn’t climb again, I think maybe I will come back tomorrow after all. The view is pretty spectacular, and you only get to see if you take the time to get to the top.

And really, it’s not that hard. It just takes a little time and attention.

The Comments

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  1. Since this blog was first posted the other day, I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot, especially the bit about Paul McCartney walking to work every day and just about looking for fans to bump into and share Beatles arcana with. That’s so cool! It makes me look at him in a completely different light. It’s not that I thought ill of him before. It’s just that now I think he’s a really neat person. And also a courageous person, who has chosen to be friendly rather than to live in fear.


  2. You or your guru (your inner guru) may believe that you have made a living off your ego. I, too, in my darkest moments, despair of having been more than a glutton for consumption and self-absorption, a vampire drinking the blood of other people, a Nields parasite. But I have an inner guru too that is benign. I’m sure that the ego is mostly just an observer, a censor, and a judge. The ego manipulates “What’s Going On.” The ego is easily (self-)deluded into thinking it is “in control.” But “What’s Going On” is so much greater than we know, greater than we can imagine, greater than being “Just About Us.” It’s “about us” as *part* of “What’s Going On.” We participate in all of this. We are all along for the ride. Be hopeful, be helpful, love, be loved. You are part of a network of love, already in progress. Be well, be safe, be happy, be good. Above all be good.

    We don’t always (at every moment) appreciate how good we can be for one another. This is a great opportunity for goodness that we’ve been given. I have no doubt of this goodness. Don’t let anyone or anything disturb your enjoyment of this goodness, meant to be shared by all of us, together. We’re all in this joy ride together, for one another, and for the good of us all.

    “Haven’t I Been, Haven’t I Been Good?”


  3. A friend has been trying to nudge me to read your blog and listen to your music (I have!) for a long time now, but I find it particularly, divinely interesting that what you’ve been writing lately feels like what I need to hear…thanks.

    My friend is going to be so embarrassed that I posted here…but I really, really am glad to read you.

  4. I think folks will be singing “Easy People” around the proverbial campfire long after you have left this earth 🙂 The key is for people to sing it with children & it will live on. Us foklies at the George Fox Pavillian @ Falcon Ridge Folk Festival *love* singing Nields songs late at night…it’s one of the highlights for us 🙂 You have no idea how much fun we all have singing your songs!

    ~ April

  5. Maybe God has decided that you and Katryna have been so busy creating these last few years–music, records, babies, novels–and now, you need a little more of a break. Enjoy it and know that we aren’t planning on going out and deciding we like Nine Inch Nails better while you are on hiatus!

    Oh, and ditto to everyone else–don’t ever doubt that your music is shared, enjoyed and sung from the rooftops. We may not be Bette or Garth, but we love every note.

    Love, Kris

  6. I, too, sing your songs all the time….in the car, around the house, in the shower, etc. I think that “Check it Out” and “Friday At the Circle K” are great road-trip songs to sing at the top of your lungs along with the mix tape you have blasting in the car stereo as you cruise down I-95 on a hot summer day with all the windows open!

  7. Oops, I forgot to sign my last comment. This is Becky.
    I also wanted to mention that I have converted my(Metallica/Poison fan) fiance into a Nields fan as well! He frequently walks around the apartment singing “Gotta Get Over Greta,” “Keys to the Kingdom” and “Superhero Soup! Actually, I should rephrase that. I introduced him to your music- but YOU are responsible for making him a fan!


  8. I’m not worried about the longevity of the Nields music; that’s a done deal. But I am a little worried about the longevity of the Nields.

    Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:

    “Bright is the ring of words
    When the right man rings them,
    Fair the fall of songs
    When the singer sings them.
    Still they are carolled and said –
    On wings they are carried –
    After the singer is dead
    And the maker buried.”

    One motto which I picked up at some point in my youth is:

    “Music Alone Shall Live”


  9. I play my guitar and sing the songs you wrote and think, sometimes, how great it would be to play them for you. Sometimes it’s the only way to hear yourself — to let someone else speak your words.


  10. We’re here to be human, I think, just as much as to experience God. (A blob — or blog! — of enlightenment cannot know it has been enlightened). Your being a mass of emotions and ego and resistance makes you human; makes you worthy of love. Enlightenment — true enlightenment — cannot be to deny or transcend your humanity and be-with-everything-all-will-be-well. It’s harder than that and more simple. It is, I think, just being Nerissa.

  11. I disagree with the idea that you make a living off your ego. Your lines of work – musician and writer – are completely dependent upon an audience. Ego demands control; audiences are not controlled or controllable. You give a tremendous amount, and hope for something in return. That is what makes an artist’s life so nerve-wracking.
    🙂 Stephen

  12. Hey, I hum your songs. I’ve broken out singing “I Haven’t Got A Thing” in the stairwell at work. Another goal accomplished. Now start working on getting to London.

  13. Reading this blog, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite stories described on a spiritual tape by M. Epstein as follows. May not relate directly but same idea. May have heard it before.

    A student of meditation was studying from a Zen master who taught by use of the Koan method (a problem that doesn’t have a rational answer ie, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”). Over and over again, the student replied with what he thought were polished answers, only to hear the master say “OK, but not Zen.”

    Finally, the master gave the student an easier Koan ie, “How do you manifest the Buddha by chanting a Sutra?” The student diligently practiced but when he went in front of his master and began chanting, he forgot his words and messed up the whole thing. He felt completely vulnerable, exposed, and raw. The master looked at his student and with great feeling said, “Very good.”

    The student had been pracitcing bare attention for several yrs and so had trained his mind to take a non-judgemental stance toward the contents of his mind, neither retaliating or abandoning that which was unpleasant. His willingness and ability to express rather than repress difficult emotions allowed him to have, in the presence of his master, a transformative experience of heart touching heart. (Is that what Buddizatva experienced when she sat on the rock and cried?)

    The author cites this story as a reminder that the emotions themselves-both difficult as well as pleasant-can become the vehicle of awakening, the window of enlightenment. We need only to simultaneously dis-identify and be open to all that we are.

    Easier said than done, as indicated in Enlightenment Part One!!! Seems I take a few steps forward and then 10 steps back, getting trapped and reacting to my emotions in ways I later regret, instead of “..letting them come and go, as the breath comes and goes.”

    At least I am certain of one thing: there’ll always be plenty for me to work on, plenty of room for growth!!

    Love your creative, thought-provoking blogs!

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