Woolf: To the Lighthouse


Yesterday marked the 91st birthday of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the kind of book for which the phrase “deeply felt” fits like a Saville Row blazer. Today, amid a few peak-summer days in New York, we’re a bit greyer, primed for rain, meandering in the 60s, and perhaps it’s a stretch to say it’s To the Lighthouse weather, but the glow of that work is at the very least lighting today’s practice.

One of the sections that still sticks to my ribs half a lifetime after AP British Literature in high school is in Chapter 6 when Mr. Ramsay considers thought as an alphabet — A to Z — with each letter representing a milestone. At Q, he’s roughly two-thirds of the way “there,” but in middle age wonders how he’ll ever get to R. Meanwhile Z is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which makes it feel as though the other 25 letters are almost useless.

He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only to be reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q, Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q—R— Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the rams horn which made the handle of the urn, and proceeded. Then R…
— Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

What if, however, we don’t think of life, thought, human progress in the kronos time of an alphabet, A leading to B leading to C, but in the kairos time of forming words? Perhaps, if Mr. Ramsay is at Q, he’ll next meet U before caroming back to I, and on from there. When we practice on the cushion, we aren’t practicing because after 10,000 hours we get our Enlightenment Card. We’re not even guaranteed that by practicing today we’ll be X% better when we practice tomorrow. We practice for the sake of practice itself; for how we may more fluidly find meaning between our practice and the rest of our lives — perhaps forever in search of that glimmer of red in the distance, perhaps in search of R, perhaps in search of Z, perhaps in search of A.

Today’s Contemplation

As you sit today, notice how your perception of yourself shifts as you continue to practice — notice what type of person you are, what type of reaction you have, when you catch yourself spacing out. Notice who you are when you realize you’re beginning to experience joy, rage, boredom, anxiety. Rather than seeing your practice as linear, can you see it as relational?