Have you ever noticed that everyone remembers something? Everyone’s eyes shine when something they know comes into their minds. Sometimes it’s a beautiful symphony or the sprawling tapestry of a work of fiction, into which an entire, coherent vision of life finds vivid and moving expression. Sometimes it’s someone sitting silent and listless in a nursing home, who can suddenly tell you that they used to have a home they loved. And if you spend a little time drawing them out, you may discover how a newly opened bale of hay smells, and how the horse’s eyes look at you as their teeth are munching in the quiet stable.
We all live in our minds for a lifetime, and possibly this very day we are throwing away opportunities to set sail on the vast ocean of mind. In nursing homes, there are people who refuse to give up. In their enthusiasm for Wednesday afternoon, because that‘s bingo day, or the way they appreciate the nurse’s aid who tells them about the antics of her cat that morning, before leaving for her job at the nursing home, you see a mind engaged in life. But a nursing home may not be the best place to develop interests and perspectives to support us for a lifetime. If we are not yet warehoused in such a place, we would be wise to use our present freedom to study, read, talk to people in different situations, and treat our jobs as opportunities to develop healthy attitudes (and not as dead-time we fill until the whistle blows). The final whistle blows soon enough for all of us.
The New Testament Parable of the Talents advises us to take advantage of this lifetime, regardless of whether we were born dim or smart, rich or poor. “Forest Gump” celebrates the capacity that resides in each of us to do something significant in life. And people, who have gained power through their crafty minds, connections, and blind ambition, are not being true to any spiritual teaching, unless they share these advantages with others.
So here we are, stuck in some kind of mind. We all have one, even people of whom we say, “They’re out of their mind.” Perhaps some of those people really do wish they could get out of their mind; but it’s not possible.
What do we do if our own mind gives us no peace? A whole branch of the pharmaceutical industry has arisen to answer that question. In some cases, this is an excessive response. But in some cases, as with diseases that shut down the body’s functions, rob you of your livelihood, cause friends and family to leave you, and cause the future to look like someone else’s opportunity, just not yours, then whatever can provide a small light in a time of gathering darkness is to be treasured.
My own relationship with anxiety was not that long ago. I already had the benefit of a six-month retreat behind me, so I was surprised—being so enlightened and all—that night after night, I couldn’t sleep. I would lie in bed hour-after-hour, night-after-night, until the alarm went off and then drag myself out of bed, dry-eyed and exhausted, glad that walking around, making coffee, could finally distract me from those cycling thoughts. It was like being in one of those dreams, in which some problem is posed—like finding a house, or discovering a fact needed at work or school—that can’t be resolved in the dream. I’ve often felt that such dreams are unfair. They ask you to solve a problem, which would vanish or be easily answered simply by waking up. But sometimes the anxiety doesn’t completely vanish when you wake up. It waits in the background, while you divert yourself with the activities of daily life, and once you lie down for a well-deserved few hours of rest, there it is again—flooding back into your exhausted mind, like an unwelcome house guest cranking up the stereo and breaking open the booze in the darkness of your bedroom every night. It feels as if these thoughts have rested all day (like your house guest who’s slept off last nights bingeing and now arises well rested, ready to party); while your poor mind, exhausted from previous sleepless nights and an intervening day of work, only wants a little replenishing rest. Sometimes sleep comes for neither the wicked nor the innocent, once anxiety has taken up root in your mind.
The unfairness of certain dreams (in which problems unsolvable within the dream state are the central fixation of that dream) can spill over into daily life. Why should a father, who is concerned about his children—which was the issue that caused me to lose sleep—be afflicted with such exhaustion? Could we wake up from anxiety–in which problems that cannot be solved by our attempts to control external circumstances prevail–by shifting to another perspective? The mathematician, Gödel, proved mathematically that there are classes of problems that cannot be solved on the same level of understanding on which they have been posed.
Paradoxes can nudge us into a different way of looking and behaving. Christ’s injunction that, unless we lose a life we cannot gain a greater life has a paradoxical feel to it. How can anything in our lives be based on the absence of what we now have? Surely who we are provides the starting point for whatever we can become. Yet Christ, along with Gödel, seems to tell us that we will not solve our fundamental discomfort on this level. We need to go to the other side–where the afflictions of anxiety will yield to a new way of participating in our lives.
Can we acknowledge that we are not actually in control and let that realization relax us? Then we might discover that the issues that have been tormenting us are more likely to resolve if we don’t obsess over them.
When we are stuck in the narrow confines of a self-centered view we are unable to recognize that everyone else is just like us: that they have hopes and dreams, that they feel pain, and that they yearn to be happy.
While I was going through this challenging time, a local Zen center offered an eight-week class, based on a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, titled “Full Catastrophe Living”, with the sub title “Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.”). The relaxation exercises that I could do at night, when I couldn’t sleep, seemed like counting sheep on steroids; after a while, my mind would protest: “I’ve had enough of this crap. Leave me alone. I’m going to sleep.” And sometimes I would.
But what helped me even more was noticing that others taking this class had more serious issues than my insomnia. I was able to gradually put my own anxieties in perspective. Having children makes you a hostage to fate; but so does having a body, subject to illness, old age, and death. These realities, including terminal illnesses, were all represented in this class and it helped me to recognize that I was just another swimmer in the stream of life and time.
“Why make it such a big deal”, I was able to ask myself, as if I am alone and singled out for emotional difficulties? I only have to look around, to see the crush of fellow beings swimming alongside.
(This passage is excerpted from Chapter 21 of “The Flying Caterpillar”—which I will gladly give to anyone who would like to meet me for coffee.)