There are moments where I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel like a complete stranger. All the things I normally feel compelled to do: check my emails, surf the internet, have a beer, listen to music, etc. are gone. I am a completely different person. Everything feels entirely new and I feel like I’ve dropped something very heavy, like a traveler who has left his entire luggage at the door.
Even my relationship to the person I spend my life with has miraculously shifted. I realize that I don’t know her at all and at the same time I suffer the fact that I habitually take her for granted. Suddenly there is this capacity of listening to her more deeply. A great mystery has undermined all of my fixed ideas and preconceived notions. It is the feeling George Saunders describes so beautifully in his article, “Buddha Boy“:
You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?
It’s extremely odd and discomforting, but at the same time it is bittersweet because it is a taste of a new possibility, a taste of real freedom. I have stepped out of the old recorded tapes that constantly play in the background of my psyche, telling me who I am.
I have ceased, for the time being, lying to myself or believing in the stories I create about myself. I am no longer living in mental constructions or concepts which Herschel says are, “delicious snacks with which we try to alleviate our amazement.”
Of course, we can’t stay on the summit forever. We start leaking out this gathered energy like a sieve and then it’s back to the level of reaction. These moments of a profound inner separation are merely a preparation for something to penetrate into my daily life. I don’t think they are the ultimate goal. I need to go further, to include more, and this leads me to a deeper questioning.
I think that something within us is aware that our stories aren’t real, even though we are continually living in them. We gather these moments of seeing ourselves and find that we don’t sleep as peacefully as we did before. To see ourselves, as we are, becomes more important. Even when the forces are heavily weighed against us we can try to oppose a continual passivity with something that is active on the inside. Rainer Maria Rilke describes this war against passivity when he says that, “what we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so giant!”
I see that either I am moving outwards towards dispersion or I am gathering all the pieces of myself inwardly and moving towards wholeness.
So maybe along comes a moment where I am inwardly active and without any manipulation, I can see the thoughts, the emotions, and the bodily sensations that are continually taking place. I am able to openly inhabit my life by being in relationship with it directly. I allow a life that is beyond the surface of my self to come into focus.
There are two currents present in the moment of seeing – a vertical one as well as a horizontal one – the level of my ordinary manifestations and that of another level which is the seeing. There is an acceptance of myself as I am and in this moment.
In my negativity, for example, I can see my reactions as well as the pull to self calm the situation by pushing it away or by escaping from it.
We need to see all this movement in ourselves, all these energies at work. We need to be in relationship with all this magical chemistry that is taking place. Now, ask yourself, “Who am I?” It’s the eternal question, the Zen koan of all Zen koans. The ego will immediately try to fortify itself but if we answer that question truthfully, all the freedom in the world is in not knowing.
How can I be available to that question? I think that anything I have understood in my practice has had emotional involvement; it’s been learned through the heart as well as the head. It is the clear distinction Jung made when he said that “the utterances of the heart- unlike those of the discriminating intellect- always relate to the whole.”
So how do I try to bring more emotion into my efforts? Well, I can try to remain close to my own mortality that continually follows me, perched on my shoulders. The presence of death is so constant and so familiar that I forget about it. I can make use of it as a constant reminder to make an effort.
For a long time my practice has involved trying to maintain an attention on my breath, always and everywhere. Often I forget and I am taken by my mind functioning, the endless circle of associations. I am swallowed up in that current again.
No matter, I just return to this body, breathing.
(Parabola, a quarterly print magazine about the study of the myths, rituals, symbols, and arts of the world’s spiritual traditions, has featured this piece on their website.)
The spring issue of Parabola will be exploring the theme of love. It’s available on newsstands this month of February, or you can order it directly from their website.
Image: Edward Steichen, “Eva,” found on LaContessa’s tumblr)