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  • Karl Thunemann

May I Be Digressive

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

I have never owned a scooter, but in my younger days I often dreamed of one. What a perfect metaphor for the digressive mind—always ready for a short jaunt into the countryside.

Patient readers of this memoir might find themselves squirming now and then, demanding to know how some of the subjects relate—if at all—to meditation. They will have a point; I sympathize.

But please consider this drive toward digression as part of the writer’s nature—an in-grown fallacy, if you will. Life naturally turned me toward digression until late in life I finally took the time to read Tristram Shandy at leisure. The fictional 18th-century Shandy touts himself as a master of digression. He delivers several chapters on the art of constructing a proper, purposeful digression, and warns of the consequence of aimless digressions.

To me, Tai Chi is more meditation than a martial art; perhaps I would feel differently if I were a master.

I feel compelled to act out my digression before it becomes an official mental disorder. There is no time to waste. One can project what the savants who bring us The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will serve up in their sixth or even seventh edition: A brand-new category of the screwed-up, too long ignored and left untreated: The Digressive Personality Disorder. So I give you leave to grit your teeth at my digressions. But when the disorder is unveiled you can tell yourself, hey, I knew one of those guys once.

I have made a list of subjects that are likely to drive me into digression. If I happen to write about one, may you read with forbearance and an eye to what might make these digressions useful.

Alzheimer’s disease. Believe it or not, I was on the verge of starting a blog about dementia when I began to think that writing about loving-kindness might be a lot better for me. Alzheimer’s has already been my life: Why should I embrace it again? My parents were both diagnosed with AD on the same day in 2001. This was not a total surprise, but it was shocking. Initially, I wanted to write a book about AD, but instead I settled for making a solo performance about dementia. I’ve met half a dozen other performers who did something similar. Funny, but there’s not much demand for encores. I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association for more than four years. My older sister died with Alzheimer’s in 2018. My younger brother and I both have a single copy of the dread APO E4 gene. I have had literally hundreds of dreams about Alzheimer’s. But I don’t see meditating about it. Where would I find gratitude?

Tai Chi. I have been studying and practicing this ancient form off-and-on since 1985. To me, it is more meditation than a martial art; perhaps I would feel differently if I were a master. I’ve prepared a solo performance: The Declamations of a Tai Chi Heretic. I will try to keep it out of these deliberations.

William James. My principal reader told me I should direct these essays to a particular person. For a time I settled on William James, the father of American psychology, in gratitude for his 1902 tome The Varieties of Religious Experience. I believe that loving-kindness—that is, metta—meditation is one answer to James’ call for religion to be based on one’s own extraordinary and exceptional experience, not on theology and church doctrine. I think that makes James a subject worthy of digression here, even though I’m not composing these works directly for him.

The I Ching. I began experimenting with the I Ching, or the Chinese Book of Changes, in the mid-1960s. We think of it as divination, but if one were disciplined the oracle could be at the heart of a meditation practice. Whenever I’ve used the I Ching regularly, I’ve found that its answers form patterns with significant meaning for my life. But it lies beyond the scope of this effort. Also, I’ve spent years writing novels inspired by the I Ching. The first was execrable. The second lies unfinished on the operating table, barely palpitating.

The Redwoods. Ever since reading The Wild Trees, William Preston’s great book about the people who invented the art of climbing redwood trees, I have wanted to take a lengthy retreat among these giants of the Northern California coast. Not to climb them, but just to breathe in their complexity and genius. What a great meditation that could be!

How to become … Ah, don’t you see how this list could go on and on? If I must digress, may I exercise restraint.


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