“Why is this any different than opening a can of tuna fish?”
Because I saw it as a crisis, that’s why. It was a situation unlike any other I’d been faced with, one charged with emotion but with no easy answer, seemingly no answer at all.
I had not developed the ability to ask for help, but help is exactly what I needed. I decided I could trust Rhonda.
Rhonda and Jim lived in the house across the street. I was on the roof struggling to repair a television antenna on the day they came to introduce themselves. We became friends and visited often, shared Sunday morning coffee, listened to jazz, stayed up late watching Saturday Night Live together.
The day they stood in my kitchen to announce they had started divorce proceedings, I was shocked. I never saw it coming.
As they unwove their lives, one from the other, I sought to hang on to both threads. Hanging on was very big with me then. I saw them and spoke with them often, as individuals, no longer as a couple. Rhonda told me she was seeing a psychologist. I’d never know anyone who had openly admitted to seeking help for their mental health.
So when I found myself in exactly the same place, needing the same kind of help, I asked Rhonda. Her psychologist referred me to a colleague.
I found myself in a pleasant-enough office of a new building, seated across from a man I hoped would know the answer and share it with me. Quickly, if possible. His name was Chuck. His question about canned tuna was not what I had come for.
I was possessed by the notion that actions had consequences; decisions had consequences. At the time, the word consequence had only one definition; bad stuff. Consequences, I was certain, were to be avoided as undesirable, something I wouldn’t like and from which I wouldn’t be likely to recover. With few exceptions, I rarely made decisions or acted in any decisive way. Better to do nothing than to make a wrong choice, a wrong decision. The idea of divorcing was huge, insurmountable, paralyzing. But I had been doing nothing for months, taking no action, waiting for the situation to resolve itself. It hadn’t. And nothing had improved.
With his question about canned tuna, Chuck was attempting to provide me with an ability to change the shape of my perceptions, pull the lens back, to see my situation differently, from a slightly broader perspective. He was trying to help me to see that events in life have only the meaning which we ascribe to them, but have no intrinsic meaning of their own. But back then, I had no receptor for it, not even the slightest ability to grasp a shred of his point. The ability would come much later, only after other learning. That day in his office, I could not see it as anything but immediate, overwhelming, insoluble.
It was a step.
“To grasp life and meaning, we assume constancy where it does not exist. We name experiences, emotions, and subjective states and assume that what is named is as enduring as its name. Human beings blessed and cursed with consciousness – especially consciousness of their own being – think in terms of names, words, symbols.”
~ James F. T. Bugental
Chuck recommended that I get Bugental’s book, “The Search for Existentialist Identity”. I had no idea what “existentialist” meant. I had left Chuck’s office after the final visit with a plan, felt but not understood. I’d hoped, I suppose, that this book would be of more help than Chuck had been, something closer to the shop manuals I used to repair my cars; open the hood, run one or more tests, diagnose the problem from the results, bring forth the appropriate tools and perform the indicated repair procedure. Bugental’s book was not that. Through examples, personas blended of many patients, Bugental’s writing suggested but did not define answers. But it was another step, another door opened, another path to thought I’d had no exposure to in my small, young life.
“You don’t have to buy from anyone. You don’t have to work at any particular job. You don’t have to participate in any given relationship. You can choose.”
“The important thing is to concentrate upon what you can do – by yourself, upon your own initiative.”
~ Harry Browne
Eye-opening concepts for a kid who grew up in the 50s, where everything seemed orderly, changeless, prescribed. As I recall, I came to Browne’s book through bookstore serendipity, in the manner of all worthwhile discoveries. “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” screamed at me from the shelf. There were threads of politics and economics woven into Browne’s book, which I dismissed as irrelevant, but the message that captured my attention was that I had the ability to take initiative, to make choices, to color outside the lines that had thus far defined my life, the life I grew up in. Jeni was the first to show me, through example, that life could contain more possibilities than I had allowed myself to recognize. Jeni displayed a fearlessness to ad-lib, to improvise, to live expediently that knocked me out. Browne reinforced it. She and Browne gave me to permission to do far more in my experience of life than I had up to that point. The “how” described by Browne was ok for him, I concluded, but his descriptions of how he put his concepts into practice didn’t ring true for me. As Brown repeatedly pointed out, I was free to find my own. Another step, another door into a wider world.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
~ Step One of the Twelve Steps of Al-anon
Al-anon is the Twelve Step recovery group for family and friends of alcoholics. With it came new ways of looking at myself, my problems, my perceptions and, most important, my reactions. Concepts like letting go, and living in the moment, were new to me. The idea of doing within groups what I’d done in privately with Chuck was uncomfortable but, in time, rewarding. It brought with it friendships with other men in like circumstances. Within it, again looking for answers to what I perceived as problems, I began to find trails of breadcrumbs leading to places I had never been before.
“It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.”
“Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it.”
“Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.”
“Everything in your life is there as a vehicle for your transformation.
~ Ram Dass
Forgetting Bugental and his cautions against “names, words, symbols”, I went forward from Twelve Step seeking names, words and symbols for what I only understood as vague and nameless feelings. I was in the Quest bookstore seeking the immediate object of my interest, Theosophy. What I found instead, in another serendipitous bookstore moment, was Ram Dass.
Richard Alpert became Ram Dass in India, named by his guru Neem Karoli Baba. I find his books to be unreadable, but his recordings are a joy. The man is a born raconteur and a mensch. Despite affectations in an earlier part of his life of white flowing robes, flowers and temple bells, he is eminently accessible. When I hear Ram Dass, I hear Richard as well, the Jewish kid from Massachusetts (“only on my parents side”, he quips). In his talks, he seems never to take himself seriously, and enjoys any laugh that comes at his own expense. But when the laughter stops, his wisdom and insight rings in me like a bell. His talks reach places inside me which I feel as much as hear, things that land squarely within my heart, things for which there were previously no words. I will never attend one of his satsangs, will never meet him, and yet I feel kindly toward him. Hearing his voice in the recordings is like visiting an old friend. Described as a spiritual dilettante, a label he accepts, Ram Dass provided me with direction beyond any of the other sources, up to that point.
There have been other experiences, other guides, other influences. The young coworkers from the Philadelphia Church when we were all teenage kids, at our after-school job. The Mormon guys at the medical instrument company. The rabbi I met on the Lido deck of the cruise ship in the Caribbean, where we conversed for one delightful afternoon. My friend Laura who suffers every day of her life from lupus, yet taught me the value of attitude. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Rabbi Harold Kushner. Sharon Salzberg. Pema Chodron. Gil Fonsdal. Joyce Meyer. Bill Caskey. Barry L. Robert C. Sibley. The most recent to speak directly to what I already feel, to reach what already exists inside me, has come through the words and writing of Toni Packer.
“The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive — it has nothing to do with time. It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure and pain. When self concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open. The mystery, the essence of all life is not separate from the silent openness of simple listening.”
But what does it all amount to?
Probably not much. I’m on record somewhere in here that this is all purely subjective, unapologetically personal. Every visitor here probably has more knowledge, greater wisdom, better insight, understanding or faith than I. Anyone dismissing all this as the insignificant experience of one life will be very close to truth indeed.
“The gods have done well in making me a humble and small-spirited fellow.”
Horace, Sat. I. iv. 17
I’m also on record in here somewhere as valuing peace of mind, but “peace of mind” is a name for something I find unnamable. Labels, names, words and symbols are problematic. The fact is, I have a lifelong tendency against self-identification. When I traveled to England after high school, during the Vietnam War, I was reluctant to sew the American flag patch on my backpack, as was the custom, for fear of defining myself in a way someone might find objectionable. That was about my fear of not being liked. I’ve come to a place now where I think I was right in my reluctance to self identify, but for the wrong reason.
I have no name for where I find myself.
One of the 12-step guys calls it “the way I do life”, which is probably about as close as words can come, so I’ve borrowed it many times. We talk among ourselves about how life was, what changed and how it is now. These are terms I understand.
Thinking in these terms is a better descriptive fit than nouns which fail. The terms borrowed from the guys are practical, pragmatic, useful, but without the baggage that seems to attend proper nouns. “Religion”, “metaphysics”, “existentialism”, “ideology” “theist”, “deist”, “atheist”, “agnostic” and other such terms for systems of belief, or non-belief, with their attendant definitions and boldly defined lines of demarcation, are not only limiting, they don’t reach into the place where my personal truths reside.
In his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert M. Pirsig talks about… “Caring about what you are doing…”, suggesting that “…we should notice it, explore it…”
“I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found that sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else.”
Robert M. Persig
What I am attempting to deal with here is my attitude, as well as my understanding, formed through questioning, discovery and experience, that transformative feeling, however slight, when something external is located which turns out to be an exact fit with something already in me, something felt but not previously understood, of learning and of incorporation of whatever is learned into awareness, understanding and practice.
The perceived crisis was the beginning. It was a moment defined by fear and anxiety, about the expectations I perceived others had for me, about my expectations of who I was and what kind of person I should be, about the polarities of good and bad, about attraction and aversion, about what I wanted and what I did not want and about impermanence. I was clinging, grasping, desperately hanging on with white knuckles to the only information and the only model I had. And it wasn’t working.
Then, I saw it as real. Now, I understand that it was only relatively real.
Now, I no longer believe that everything must endure, no longer believe that everything must remain as I found it, in order for me to be ok. I’m content with the understand that everything changes, everything is already on the way to becoming something else. Even my gently decomposing human body is on the way to returning to the universal elements it is made of. I no longer seek or crave perfection. I no longer see things in polarities. Things no longer seem good or bad, but simply what-is. I used to perceive that things happened to me; now I perceive events as merely happening, as interesting. Events also bring my work to me, the work that I am to do in my life, on and for myself, and for others, to further my awareness and understanding.
Anyone dismissing all this as the insignificant experience of one life is very close to truth indeed.
As humans go, I’m a base model, no frills, unremarkable. I can’t see that I carry any distinction which would suggest being set apart from anything else. I am the dust of the universe incarnate, nothing more or less, blessed and cursed with consciousness, but subject to the same inalterable lifecycle as the flowers in my garden, with a beginning, middle and end, bound by the same natural laws as all living things. For me to ascribe meaning of my existence beyond those facts would amount to puffery or aggrandizement. I am not important.
When I expand the scope to encompass the species Homo sapiens as a whole, the result is the same. Anything suggesting humans are different, special or unique strikes me as wrong-headed. I find peace and contentment in the knowledge of being a blip on the radar of life on earth, one of a species who has arisen only in the last millisecond of universal time, a species whose time will pass, as all things do. I’m content with the even smaller fraction of a millisecond that defines my own existence.
I am content with the knowledge that what others perceive as me does not exist. Change is so prevalent in the universe that there are no fixed states. That which others perceive as me is in constant change. Not only does this form I inhabit relentlessly continue to change, my feelings, my perceptions, my mental formations and my consciousness are all changing, all the time. Even as I write this, in this moment, everything is changing. Those parts of me will change as I approach the next moment. My perceptions will change as move from introspection to the tasks I must perform today. My consciousness will shift, my feelings will change as I interact with others, my thinking mind will adapt to deal with situations and events. I will not be in the next moment that which I am in this one.
I am content with the understanding that this body will die. My life, as all life, is a result of matter and the inalterable forces of universal physics. I am content that the small amount of universal elements that make up this form I find myself in will be returned to the universe to be recycled into other matter. I am content with the knowledge that every thought, feeling, emotion, perception, memory and sensation will die with it.
Death informs me of the preciousness of the experiences which come only in life. Because life is finite, I have an obligation of personal responsibility. My attitudes, my behavior, my actions, must reflect love, respect, basic goodness and gratitude for all beings and all life, must express awareness of that obligation in thought, word and deed. I must be gentle, genuine, compassionate and of service to all existence. All life, not just mine, is precious and the moments of life are fleeting. Since I only get this one pass, I must never take anyone or anything for granted.
If there is anything worthy at all in being human, of experiencing life, it is love. Love is the foundation for my gratitude, for this experience and for all I find within it. Love is the source of my sensory appreciation of the physical world, the spicy scent of salt water from the cockpit of my kayak, the sight of mountains looming over the vast inland sea, the magic of words and language, the incredible brilliance of summer days, the reassuring comfort that comes with the grey, damp days of winter. Love is what engenders my admiration and respect for those with whom I share this accidental but quite remarkable experience of life, for those I am privileged to find on my path, whose consciousness engages with mine, in the moments we experience together. They are more than companions, more than friends; those I meet along my path are my guides and teachers. There is something for me to learn from each of them. They enrich my experience of life. That which passes between us can never be relived. If there is any good thing I can do, I must do it now, say it now, acknowledge it now, in the moment. I can never let anyone I care about get away without them knowing it. There is no later, I shall not have this moment again. That which passes between us is important, urgent. It’s everything.
And, in the most profound expression of all, I find the experience of love with just one other, as we explore to an extent not otherwise possible, the fullness, the richness, the depth of feeling, the unfolding of understanding, the experience of what it is to know and to be known in a way that doesn’t happen with anyone else, an experience which comes only through unbroken years of sharing all that human life holds, years of empathy, of support, of transparency, years of admiration and respect, without condition, without exception, without qualification, to know as best as one can possibly ever know another, to realize that even as we grow old, the bond continues, increases, our love and gratitude for each other becomes more profoundly felt than anything else in our experience.
There is no end-point. There is only the path, the journey, the experience. I will never arrive at any point definable as a conclusion. There is no goal, no prize, no state of being or accomplishment which will tell me I’m done, or that I have satisfied some final criteria. And there is no perfection.
“Do not believe that I feel that I follow each and every of these precepts perfectly. I know I fail in many ways. None of us can fully fulfill any of these. However, I must work toward a goal. These are my goal. No words can replace practice, only practice can make the words.”
“And once we have the condition of peace and joy in us, we can afford to be in any situation. The most important thing is for each of us to have some freedom in our heart, some stability in our heart, some peace in our heart.”
Thich Nhat Hanh