“But the plan of action is determined
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field”,
–Hamlet, “Dr. Zhivago”, Boris Pasternak.
I feel a heaviness lying across my shoulders and hollowness within. I don’t know it it’s because I’m trying to eliminate caffeine from my diet, or that I just don’t feel like starting a new chapter and tackling the challenge of taking a first step when I don’t even know what direction I should be heading in. But at least I am feeling something.
I suspect there is another issue, which I don’t know how to evaluate. I’m proposing to share thoughts and feelings about a time when I was at my weakest, and was even ready to throw everything away. Until now, I’ve chosen to remember times when an aspiration to improve myself has borne fruit, and I got to sail off into a better future. But this excursion into the past feels different; not something to celebrate at all.
Why should I share these dark moments of my life? I’ve managed to keep them private for the major part of this lifetime. I’ve even written an entire spiritual-journey memoir (“The Flying Caterpillar”, ABQ Press, 2012), in which I managed to avoid the details of why I was so afraid of returning to Montreal and of falling back into the familiar life from which I was escaping. My sister made an observation about my previous memoir: that it wasn’t exactly clear why I was so traumatized, a year later, that I became a frozen statute devoid of moral momentum, in a YMCA motel room.
I realize that I’m still equivocating: in the back of my mind I remain unsure that recounting this experience can possibly be useful to anyone else. Perhaps, after all, there is a solid reason that people keep private the times when they have lost all gratitude for the gift of life.
However, unless something changes, it is my present intention to jump into the past. Perhaps my impulse can find support in the Buddhist “Wheel of Life”, in which there is a figure of the Buddha in each of the six realms and the whole wheel is clasped in the claws of Yama, the god of death. Heaven, Hell, the Human realm, Hungry Ghosts–in each the Buddha is offering a gift suited to the consciousness of the beings stranded there. Except in my case, all I have to offer to the version of ‘me’ stuck back there in time, is the ‘me’ that is stationed here. Perhaps we can help each other. We could be ‘pen pals’, except that one back there isn’t writing ‘these days’.
Back in the spring of 1977, I had resigned from my job, given notice at my apartment building, and house-cleaned ten years of journals; but I doubt that my friends and family thought of me as involved in anything other than a belated coming-of-age desire to discover the world. Certainly my poet friend, a bit radical in his own views of our flawed society, would have had no reason to consider that the bit of gossip he shared that evening, about a man I had only met once, would have had any particular effect on me. Indeed, I’m not sure I can explain why it did.
I no longer remember whether I had thought much about this man, whom Peter had taken me to visit and who lived on a rural piece of land–with a stand of maple trees and horses, south of Montreal. He used the horses to pull logs out of the forest for firewood and to gather up buckets of syrup from his maple trees, for income. But on some level I must have thought of him as an example of a person I could one day become: an ideal that contrasted with my own self-image as someone unequipped for any kind of work other than office positions with multinational corporations in one sky scraper after another, and as socially limited to scraping by in the big city.
When Peter told me the story of how this “renaissance man” was putting up flyers in the local laundromat, offering food and lodging and connubial companionship for a woman who would come and live with him, I felt the depth of his loneliness as if it was my own inevitable future: to be isolated from freely offered human affection.
I realize now, as I try to find a way to present my reaction to Peter’s story—as if I was some kind of Star Trek empath with no core personality of his own—that I lacked a stable foothold in life and had lost the moral character that allows people to be reliable, courageous and impeccable. ‘Impeccable’ is a term used in Zen Buddhism to describe how masters behave, with great steadiness and compassion, even when they understand that life is like a dream and empty of substantial reality. (It felt like I was encountering that kind of emptiness of meaning, with no comfortable place to stand–fallen around me like a bleak dawn.)
I was probably clinically depressed, unable to deal with the challenges of my life, and blind to the opportunities present in life everywhere and every when. When Peter left that evening, my mind had crossed into a darker landscape, in which a hopelessness that had previously been balanced by my sense of social responsibility had broken loose, like an iceberg calving off a glacier.
In Buddhism there are two moral safety nets that can help us to keep living responsibly in difficult times: ‘conscience’ and ‘decorum’. The word ‘decorum’ always struck me as referring more to etiquette than to our moral core; but, in Buddhist teachings, it seems to refer to a final ally when we’ve lost our way; we may no longer care what we think of ourselves but our parents or our grandmother’s opinion may still matter to us enough that we don’t fall apart completely. And if this connection with a larger whole remains, it can provide us with a sense—no matter how faint—that we belong somewhere.
I’ve seen other people in the condition that I was in back then: bobbing in a current that flows between the twin magnets of: ‘I don’t want to live’ but ‘I can’t hurt the people who care about me’. I’m grateful that this support remains with me now. However, back then, those two poles kept me stuck in a no man’s land where nothing could really grow.
For years I had climbed up transmission towers on the top of Mont Royal at the center of Montreal Island. Also, late at night, I found ways onto construction sites in downtown Montreal, in order to walk along the steel girder skeletons of buildings under construction. And once, with some friends, we found a way to the roof top of what was then the tallest building in Montreal, an impressive 33 stories; and I walked around the very edge of the roof–a raised rim about a foot wide with the roof stretching out flat on one side and a sheer drop down to the concrete concourse below, on the other side. As I recall, none of my friends were tempted to join me on this ledge.
I never thought of such actions as being suicidal, or even particularly ‘extreme’. I thought of them as being my surest way to feel present in my embodied mind; all those vague day dreams blowing away like fog in the dawning sun–as the light of focused attention removed all doubt and dread.
But the next morning, I woke up still in the dark landscape where the sun doesn’t reach. And when I filled the bathtub, I was not looking for an extreme experience. I was looking for a way to back out and take my chips off the table.
How strange it is to be in a mind that supposedly gives us the ultimate say on what we think and feel every moment of our lives. But it’s not so clear that this mind ever really asks us what we value, what we care about, and how we want to spend our time on Earth. Sometimes it’s as if we are like a family pet: we have our own body which this powerful mind allows to go on errands and drive the car; but only on special occasions are we permitted to sit at the adult table and say who we hope to become. It’s quite an amazing situation really, and in some form or other it appears to be a common one. I think it’s more than simple cowardice to want to end a life that seems to leave no place for the person who is living it. It’s as if a planet-wide network of fake news keeps up a stream of bullet points defining the purpose to be served by our individual human life: to be popular, to rise as far as possible in society and in the opinion of others, to make a mark, to be remembered and well regarded, and if we are fortunate, to realize the larger context of Being in which we can discover our own place. But even the desire to be a good person and to have a positive effect in the lives of others can cause us to forget that our individual lives only really shine when they give us a window into the incomprehensible vastness of a greater light. And perhaps this discovery may actually be the prime reason we are alive and endowed with the faculties we have been given.
But now I really am hesitating on the high diving board, sliding into an unconvincing claim that I was answering a higher calling when I climbed up to the edge of inhabitable space in the first place.
No. That morning, after Peter had visited me, something valuable slipped out of my mind. The previously reliable safety-net of ‘decorum’, and the understanding that I was not entitled, as a human being, to inflict pain on the parents who had done so much for me, failed to kick-start. My gratitude for their having dug deep into their savings in order to send me to a private school for two years—when it was clear that I was not thriving at the local high school—no longer prevented me from being ready to inflict on them an indelible image of their son’s unhappiness.
That morning a ‘solution’ showed up: I could make it look like an unfortunate accident and thereby at least disguise my deliberate participation in the act.
Today this reasoning seems pretty flimsy; especially in the scenario I devised to implement it.
I finished filing the bathtub, applied soap and shampoo—for verisimilitude– rinsed off, and then paused to consider the final details of my plan. I was going to be on my hands and knees in order to really rinse all the shampoo off (something I realize now I have never done before or since) and then, in an ‘unfortunate household accident’, bring my head up so powerfully, directly under the water spout, that—knocked unconscious—I would fall back face first into the water and drown.
This scenario was my feeble attempt to create the illusion of a promising young man getting up too quickly from his morning bath.
Ready for my final trial run, I took a breath, lowered my face beneath the water, confirmed that my head was directly positioned under the water spout, and then prepared to rehearse the upward movement in slow motion.
That was the moment when I abruptly fell into a non-fictitious time and space. I was really present in time and space; and I knew that I was no longer in the day dream that had ruled my mind for as long as I could remember. My eyes were open, I could see the bottom of the tub and feel the water all around me, and I realized that I didn’t need a trial run; that there was absolutely no reason to test the motion before doing it for real, because nothing would be different if I went through the motions beforehand. This was it. I was in the position and the moment in time I had identified and from which I would initiate the action. No further preparation was needed or relevant.
And in that moment I knew something completely new and unprecedented. It was the first time in my 32 years of life that I knew in my heart that I wanted to live. I hadn’t been deposited in the wrong century or on the wrong continent. And nothing really prevented me from making a go of life.
Perhaps the feeling with which I stood up from the bath and grabbed a towel was a bit like how Scrooge felt on Christmas morning and recognized that he was being given another chance: and that from then on everything he experienced would be an undeserved gift.
As if in confirmation of that new knowledge, my bathroom was flooded with bright and colorful sunlight.
When we say that “time stands still” we are probably describing an experience when time is more alive, not less; when we feel as though a dwelling that has contained us and defined the range of the possible, is suddenly lifted off us like a child’s tent and in an instant a wider world with better illumination fills our eyes.
We might well wonder why we so easily forget this light and the joy that it has brought us.
This seems an important question to ‘ponder. We may not be able to ‘solve’ it, especially using the forms of ‘knowledge’ that are sweeping around the world, along with the tornados, floods, and wild fires that now have their ‘breaking News’ segments on the evening news. In a world where life has become cheap for so many—the plaything of despots and fundamentalists—who will now carry a message of understanding and hope to the destitute and isolated?
Let’s not forget that we share this time in the world with countless other beings and that each of us has our own window into a living wholeness that embodies the Ages. We are the beneficiaries of what has been created for us—often at great cost.
Let’s not forget that we stand on the two square feet of Earth beneath our feet and that through this unique foothold in the infinite we are connected to the living Earth, to the stars, and to the space that extends throughout everything. We live in the vastness of the heavens and the intimacy of our next breath.
And let’s not forget that—although our thoughts and feeling are often chaotic and compelled—we are beings who know, and that our capacity to know is inherently unbounded. We only need to turn our face to the falling rain of understanding and gratitude to become alive to these moments and stride forth in a celebration of belonging.
. . . .
Later that day I worked with an attractive young woman–I think her name was Penny–who had driven into Montreal for a day or two from Ottawa, to work with our telephone data base; and we struck up enough of a connection that I drove back to her place in Ottawa that weekend. And then at lunchtime, a group of us from work were walking to a restaurant when I noticed a young woman a half block behind our group. She came up to us when we stopped at a stoplight and, when the light changed, I held back for a few minutes and said, “Are you following us?” She laughed and gave me her phone number, which I called later that day.
How easy life is when you relax into the stream of time, unfurl your wings into the accommodating openness of space, and trust the knowledge that leaps playfully to your lips.
But as delightful as those discoveries were and as truthful a revelation of the potential inherent in my life, there’s more to this story. I wouldn’t have been so desperately trying to escape my past a year later, and getting run to ground in a Calgary YMCA, if I had really learned to accept my life as an opportunity to explore and discover. And I wouldn’t still be writing memoirs if that moment of reprieve, in the late spring of 1977, hadn’t left me a few details to work out.