Magritte: Attempting the Impossible

In his much-circulated essay, originally published in the New York Times, Alain de Botton says that we will most likely marry the wrong person due to a lack of awareness — of ourselves and others. “Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be,” he writes, “binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.”

I think of this essay whenever I look at Magritte’s Attempting the Impossible. In it, a man paints a woman — literally constructing her out of thin air, attempting to render her in as much dimension as he is. Her hair is coiffed, her figure impeccable, her gaze soft. Why is this impossible? Because in trying to create an ideal anything, we are attempting to create an ideal in this moment, which may be completely negated 5 minutes from now. As we continue to figure out who we are, we also are continually defining and redefining what we need. The impossible is to build an ideal that will always be our ideal.

An occupational hazard of teaching meditation is wanting to make sure that we as teachers do no harm. We can’t absolutely control that, any more than we can control the experiences our students have. I can’t guarantee a student will have the experience they want — I can’t even guarantee I’ll have the experience I want when I practice. We can try to paint the perfect picture of our practice, but what if what we need when we go to sit on the cushion is something imperfect? What if that is the seed of our liberation from suffering? As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “To live in the present moment is a miracle.”

Today’s Contemplation: If you’re not having the experience you want to have in practice — today, tomorrow, six months from now, whenever — consider your intentions with practice. Did you bind yourself to a future you cannot conceive of? What happens, then, if you investigate it? What is the intention behind the ideal? And what can the present moment teach you?