“Accustomed to thinking of our lifetime as a single continuous thread, we seldom dwell on the significance of these subtle beginnings and endings in our lives. We may notice changes in ourselves, our children, and in people around us, but the deeper meaning of these changes escapes us.” Knowledge of Freedom (KOF). Page 185.
I attended a six month program at the Nyingma Institute in the fall of 1991. The first four months had a carefully constructed structure: relax; explore the senses; investigate my ‘self-image’; and cultivate greater awareness. Then, after a break for Christmas, we returned for two months and used Tarthang Tulku’s book, “Knowledge of Freedom”, to explore the lives we were living and discover the possibility of changing. I wrote a short article after that retreat in which I share the surprising discovery that the seeds of change were already scattered through the years at several tuning points, when an old “cycle” ended and a new one started up:
At these times of transition I discovered, or perhaps just glimpsed, a more open, vibrant world than the one through which I had been trudging, like a traveler in a foreign land who doesn’t look around much. These recurring episodes, which came into focus when I looked back at the past, seem like rocks that appear only at low tide. Grounded in the sand, they seem as ordinary as the sand itself. But underwater, perhaps they have hidden conversations with the vast ocean into which they slip once more. And perhaps, when they appear again, they are offering to share those conversations in this ‘substantial’ world of rock, water, fire and air.
I must have been in the grips of fear when, at the age of two, I strayed into the cold waters of Lake Ontario in the early spring of 1944. I can only speculate that struggling to the surface several times and, with lungs now full of water in place of the balloon of air that allows swimmers to keep afloat, I sunk down for good, I would have lost sensation and awareness of my surroundings–but perhaps not yet the consciousness of having been recently in a breathing body—I would have been absolved of the fear that accompanies my wanderings as a living being.
That early experience may have initiated an inner propensity to find life rather strange and left me with an inconvenient awareness of just how arbitrary and incomplete our compulsory schooling typically is. It may also have caused me to seek out the edges and margins of physical space, which I did when I walked on the building girders of Montreal construction sites, climbed tall communications towers on the top of Mont Royal at the center of Montreal Island, and—one time—when I circumambulated the edge of a 33-story downtown building. But since a child’s mind is better suited to registering reluctance and disbelief than providing explanations for, or reconciling, such inconsistencies, I don’t have much on which to build an understanding of what it felt like to drown. And I haven’t yet recaptured whatever images of an alternate universe may have been present in my toddler mind as I toddled through grade school (where my report card grades and teacher comments to my parents reported a student who was not always fully present in his local time and place).
But during the time I was in the six-month program and discovering that there had been significant shifts (cyclical realignments) at regular intervals of about seven years , unexpected memories came back to me. I didn’t receive a flood of lost details of past incidents, such as the color of the jacket of whoever administered CPR, or the sound of Lake Ontario lapping against the steep rocks up which my heroine, Miss Marjorie, had clung for dear life, with my unresponsive body in one arm and the other lacking the strength to pull herself out of the water. What shifted in my mind was that this incident no longer appeared as a small postcard stored in a particular, rarely-opened drawer of stories told to me by others, and only of interest as an exotic autobiographical detail. Instead my mind expanded to include what this incident must have meant for my parents. What did it mean for my mother, with a six month old daughter, that her two-year old son had strayed into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario and was only alive because her neighbor, already well on in years, had been looking out her kitchen window, and with considerable courage, had dropped her dish towel, run across the slopping lawn, jumped into the frigid water and begun to search for the two-year of body that had already gone under for the third and final time?
I was just along for a swimming lesson, but time and space and knowing must have tightened around my mother’s heart and affected how she viewed her life—in which she was responsible for two young children–and made her doubt that she was up for the challenge.
When Eric, my mentor-to-be, and his wife, Buffy, came to live in Montreal about a decade later, Buffy told my sister that our mother seemed less spontaneous and vibrant than the spirited schoolmate she had known in England, years before. But by then Mom had lost her third child, who never lifted his head off the pillow during his single year of life.
I imagine that Marjorie, after she had had a cup of hot tea and was sitting by the fire under a blanket, would had felt invigorated, as I did after catching the woman who jumped out her window in the Stanley street fire, even though I was a bit the worse for wear with a torn ligament in my left knee, when she fell into my arms.
But as for using a memory (or otherwise recorded incident) to provide a potential meeting ground for the extraordinary and ordinary (for the undifferentiated stream of time to blossom into the sequence of moments I typically interpret as linear time), perhaps I should move on to another transitional moment, at a time in my life when I was an adult bystander with only his ordinary degree of bias and inattention to deal with.
It’s windy outside this morning as I look through my “List” of identified “times of transition”, wondering which one might balance well with a toddler’s alleged drowning incident. I realized something while doing this. Wind coming into the neighborhood and stirring everything up is exciting and vivifying in a way that feels similar to times of transition, which toss around the previous arrangements that governed my days—such as where I live, where I work, who I live with, and the interests I consider most crucial for me to support, defend and pursue.
So I want to pick a time when the arrangements currently in place were tossed around and when, unlike when I was two years old, some degree of self-awareness accompanied my reactions Perhaps this will provide a place for me to search for another presence: one which can’t be exhaustively accounted for in terms of my character and the environment at that time.
I’ve already mentioned the fire on Stanley Street, which occurred on the eve of Saint Jean Baptist day of 1968, and I want to explore how at that time things suddenly changed. But first I should consider whether the entire enterprise of looking for a third participant in life (neither my individuality nor the causal network of relationships that made up ‘my world’ at the time), is anything other than an unrestrained imagination at work.
If so, I have a lot of company, including all the world religions, which always posit a greater power and a creative cause for whatever manifests in this visible realm. What I would like to avoid is the move to objectify, personify, and attribute specific characteristics to any presence that may abide beyond this realm of substance and sequential time. It will be enough to approach and intuit that something may have been in play—during these times of transition– which wasn’t on any guest list I could have compiled.
But why would I even look for a ‘third participant’ when the mapping of causal interactions between a subject and an objective world is always sufficient to explain any manifestation we ever notice. And–when there are mysteries to explain–do I really imagine that I can improve upon all that has been in place for thousands of years to investigate and celebrate the ‘Will of God’, ‘Divine Order’ and the intersessions of ‘Providence’?
I suppose my main motivation is that I feel there have been moments in my life when a juncture came into focus which I felt had an individual message for me, one in which my presence as an individual being was important in its role as the recipient of a knowledge that cannot be exhaustively accounted for either by secular or religious explanations. I had the feeling that I was a local synapse across which flowed a message, from another time and place, into my consciousness (which was located at a particular time and place). This message felt like ‘knowledge’ looking for a home, and I have been affected ever since.
Religious teachings and metaphysical explanations of the inexplicable have their own realm of truth. But I’m looking for a quality that is not completely captured by any ‘certainty’, religious or otherwise.
If this was a novel, my life would be the plot and the setting, but the protagonist would be more like Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play; never showing up but affecting the entire conversation.
It was 3:00 am when a loud knock landed on my apartment door. My girlfriend and I were sound asleep but with the sense that it had only been moments ago that the streets below had been full of crowds of French-speaking Quebecois chanting about liberty for their province. The crowds must have moved on because, after that knock had broken into our sleep, I only heard a few hurried footsteps banging down the wooden stairs outside my third floor apartment.
When I opened the door into the quiet hallway the light must have felt out of place for the middle of the night and I walked to the head of the stairwell from which tall windows looked out onto the courtyard and the apartments on the other side.
Reflections of flames were dancing in the windows across the way. The knock on my door was no longer a mystery. For my girlfriend, time became a racing torrent and she quickly dressed, raced down the stairs, while urging me to do the same. But for me, I think time slowed down, allowing me to intuit that a phase of my life might be in transit, and that I should pause in deference to the passing of a period of my life.
Such language, at least in part, must be a looking back in order to assign meaning retroactively, but it also captures something about the following fifteen minutes of my life.
While Lois raced downstairs and out of the building, I returned to my apartment and, standing at the open door, wondered if I should grab something from the place I had live for several years, just in case I never got to return. If my wing of the building caught fire (and the smell of gas in the hallways suggested that possibility) did my apartment harbor anything of value for me? Volumes of my journal (although not as many as I destroyed a decade later), the start of stories and poems, photographs? I was reflecting in this way when a resident from the fourth floor came down the stairwell and passed quickly across the landing a few feet away from where I stood.
He was carrying a young child in his arms.
My inventory of things worth preserving instantly showed up empty.
I dressed, made sure I had my wallet with its ID and my key (although I didn’t lock the door), and left the building. A few minutes later I was standing in the courtyard.
There was a group of residents, perhaps 20 or 30, clustered at the edge of the courtyard where an archway, the only way out of the complex, led to Stanley Street. The people gathered there, some with flames reflecting off their glasses, seemed transfixed by the fire but ready to get out of there in a hurry if things got worse.
That’s when I looked to my left, towards the part of the building where everyone else was looking, and saw the flames.
That’s the moment when something must have shifted, as if in taking a step toward the flames, which I then took, I was entering a different world with different qualities and a different dynamic. I recall dropping something onto the ground. For years I imagined it was a pair of gloves, but it seems unlikely that in June, in Montreal, I would have been wearing gloves, even at 3:00 am. So perhaps the image of dropping something was a condensation of the significance of my leaving the content of my apartment to fend for itself.
My step toward the flames felt like a different response than what I imagine was animating the residents gathered at the archway. Their positioning and posture suggested a readiness to get away; while something, which felt like the future, was calling me to come closer.
The next thing I remember was standing under a window, whose sill was about ten feet above the level of my eyes, where a woman was leaning forward with a sheet clutched in her hands. As I watched her raise and lower this sheet, I could feel her terror: there were flames in the stairwell a few feet to her right and the intense heat may have already been blistering the paint inside her apartment. I knew that there were radiators under every room in these apartments, and her making no move to tie her sheet to the radiator across which she was leaning, spoke volumes. I ‘knew’ that her clutching this sheet was like someone on a sinking ship clutching a life preserver who doesn’t put it on.
I called up to her. “Drop your sheet. It’s useless.”
Down came the sheet. Then I called up (thinking that she would climb out backwards and dangle from the window frame),
“Come out over the window sill.”
She immediately rolled out head first and came down; and like catching a heavy, rolled-up rug, I collapsed under her weight.
People must have come forward then and carried the woman out to the street. I remember my girlfriend supporting me as I limped out to the building across the street, which had been opened for residents displaced by the fire. I learned the next morning that two people had died. One was found in a fused sleeping bag under his bed and one on the parking lot, after throwing a mattress out of his fourth floor window, jumping, and probably missing.
The building was closed for repair, renovation, and—like one hears about New Orleans after Katrina—restored, presumably with fire escapes that worked, and then leased to a wealthier crowd.
As is to be expected, changes came for both me and the world. As is also familiar, everything that appeared and transpired in the course of these events, can be accounted for by the model of a substantial universe unfolding in an orderly, cause-and-effect, sequence (where past events condition the present and the present sets up the conditions in which future events occur). As for knowledge, as can also be expected, I learned what I was ready to learn.
But that’s all a narrative that follows directly from the working assumption that time is linear, space is empty (and inert apart from the things it leaves room for), and that we know and can only know what is made available in this substantial universe as it is propelled along one moment after another.
“From remembered experiences, human beings began to select and recount important events. They named the unseen forces that could give life or take it, and found ways of defining their relationship to the awesome powers that lay beyond human control.” KOF, page 9.
Models—which are essentially theories—by definition will satisfy the expectations that their definitions engender. For instance, with the “Theory of Evolution”: if you start with a theory that explains all observed shifts in the characteristics of species as the result of random mutations getting fixed in place when they successfully anticipate new conditions (in temperature, food supply and predators) producing attributes adapted to these changing conditions—what could ever be found wanting in this theory (unless it conflicts with something you already believe)? It essentially starts with the fact of change and then accounts for that change with a plausible theory about random genetic variations.
Similarly, if you start with the theory that a Great Creator has created a universe with us in it, and has ‘revealed’ guidance for how we are to behave and what we are to believe—what can be found wanting in that theory? It essentially starts with the human condition of bewildered loneliness and lack of self-sufficiency, and then offers comforting certainty and a promise of an eventual homecoming. Both theories—of Creationism and Scientific Evolution—have to deal with allegations that they gloss over manifestations of human experience, for which they have constructed an interpretive structure that defines a ‘world’ based on assumptions already woven into that ‘world’.
Similar issues come up when I look for the presence of a hidden partner in the moment when I stepped forward and engaged with the woman standing at her window, dangling a bed sheet.
Any theory that accounts for what appears as substantial things jockeying for a place in a sequence of moments, and for what we know or don’t know as a function of our perspective and prior experience—is by definition able to explain everything in those terms.
Take for instance the man running down the stairs, ashen-faced, with his child in his arms. I think this influenced me. It may have influenced me a few minutes later when I stepped toward the fire, by giving me a sense that I had nothing worth preserving, neither in my apartment nor on my life journey. And this perception may have lodged in my psyche and caused me to say ‘yes’ when, decades later, my wife suggested we have a family together. But I wonder, when I look back on that earlier time and recall how fluid space and time then felt, whether the flow may not have been unfolding in a strictly linear sequence, with only past events influencing those present moments.
As I stood in the courtyard, motionless, with the sense of being surrounded by something timeless, not physically present in the gravel underfoot, in the flame-reflecting glasses, or in my current life in Montreal at the age of 24, I now wonder if other versions of myself could have been looking on, lending that motionless body and receptive mind the benefit of a wider range of experience and engagement than he had yet earned. Earning, learning, yearning: like a sea sponge on my dish rack, absorbing the water it grew up in, am I—at each moment—potentially in touch with other times and places, not just through memory and expectation? Can what I have earned in the past, learn in the present, and yearn will later come into being, be the triumvirate of a greater wholeness? And could how I look back now, with the interest I feel for that moment and in the possibilities that seemed to have flowed from it (like a spring welling up where a walking stick has struck the earth), be a manifestation that a river of time is flowing beneath the whole of this lifetime; from which I can drink whenever I need to? And in doing so, am I the horse, picking its way across the cobblestones of linear time, who is led to that river and with appreciation stops to drink?
“As we approach the end of our lives, our knowledge will continue to protect us from fear and confusion. We may discover unknown dimensions to our own minds, and open up the mysteries of time itself. Eventually, we may find a wholly new understanding of beginnings and endings that could illuminate our last days with meaning and satisfaction.” KOF, page 191.