“We appear to be cut off, restricted to a single sphere and totally accounted for therein. And certainly, the ‘us’ of this ordinary level cannot be abstracted from it and catapulted into some higher level—there are too many limiting lower level presuppositions embodied in such an approach.” Time, Space and Knowledge. Tarthang Tulku, Page 42-43.
This morning I’m a bit stressed, and it feels like a continuation of how I felt yesterday. My blood Pressure has been higher that I like to see it—yesterday (146), today (140). Justin, our cat, is noisily needy, wanting to be on my lap when I don’t want to be trapped under him; an edge in family interactions, or lack thereof; a sense that I wasted yesterday and squandered the opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile, or at least to have fulfilled an intention of some sort.
I tell myself that this situation is not irrevocable. In fact, feelings of wasting time and squandering the opportunities carried along with the flow of time tend to set in motion their own correction. Recognizing that I am happier when I am working on something causes me to saddle up and trot after whatever offers itself to do, to ponder, or to engage.
It also occurs to me that this milder sense of being stuck in a mind, which feels uncomfortable and confining, may be a good place from which to investigate those other times in my life when I have felt profoundly stuck; times when I couldn’t see a way out; and felt condemned to spend the rest of my life in a dead-end rest stop from which hope had been banished and the light of understanding extinguished.
Perhaps if I explore what is going on at those moments, when a deep sense of hopelessness came to stay—settling in like an unwelcome guest who claims to be the landlord, with greater rights than my own—then I will become more familiar with how my mind works. Perhaps I will even understand something about the human condition as it is manifesting right now on our planet; after all, these feelings of being trapped in the momentums of the past, by world situations and personal helplessness to do anything about it, are clearly rampant and on the march.
I’ve already shared something about two occasions: when, like a rat in a maze, I had run into a psychological dead-end, and then, as if a skylight had opened above, something immensely liberating showed up and transported me to a place of openness and reconnection with my life. That place was not a different physical location. It was not a different station on the time-dial. The bathroom in which I stood up and grabbed a towel was the same small room in which moments before I had felt like a condemned man on death row. The small table, from which I stood up in a YMCA room in Calgary a year later, was the same room and the same late summer moving into fall. But instead of the farmhand jobs vanishing like a mirage in the desert, time was alive again, space was all around, and in some deeply mysterious way the heart of the future was once more beating with interest and intention.
And where am I standing now when I ask: How did this happen? Was there a secret key that unlocked my prison door and set me free? Could I identify and copy such a key and lend it to others who sometimes, or chronically, also feel trapped in their own dark spaces?
An issue immediately comes to mind. Remembering how people with their cheerful faces and optimistic pamphlets would interrupt my weekends and offer to share their message with me as I stood at my screen door in secular ‘darkness’, I realize that no one wants to hear the particulars of someone else’s spiritual convictions—perhaps especially if they claim to have been transported to a truer, brighter realm which they are happy to describe and even happier to enroll you in.
I expect that most people view themselves as living in a world which has a lot of salespeople offering their wares: be they techniques for losing twenty pound or making a million dollars, or the one true way that will assuage all doubt and open a door into eternity.
And, since standing on the bright side (while self-servingly claiming that I have made a journey to a better place) so rarely works, why don’t I try speaking from inside the darkness that I have personally experienced?
So what was going on, or not going on, as I sat in the Calgary YMCA room and saw no future for my hopes and aspirations? I recall that it was the summer of 1976; it had to be a year divisible by four because the summer Olympics in Montreal were on the TV in the lounge downstairs. It probably crossed my mind that I had fled Montreal and my depleted life there the same year that Montreal was the site of an event that the entire world was watching. I was able to visualize the site for those games because I had worked on the subway line, under the Saint Lawrence River, that accessed the island which had been the site, eight years earlier, for the 1968 World Fair.
And I might have remembered that earlier time, when each morning I would be transported by truck, along with the rest of the crew, from the surface down into the tunnel under construction, beneath the river, to the point the excavation had reached, as we burrowed through the solid rock. I might have remembered, and drawn some confidence, from that experience (and also from my construction work on the Gaspe Peninsula of New Brunswick, and from delivering supplies to logging camps and communities, north of Vancouver, along inlets flowing among the foothills of the Rocky Mountains); but somehow I didn’t.
I also might have remembered a moment of panic, under the Saint Lawrence River, when I was working with cement that poured into the narrow space between blasted subterranean rock wall on my right and a wall of plywood sheets on my left. I was inside a cement form that ran in a large arch from one side of the tunnel to the other, while a caravan of trucks, each turning over their loads of fresh cement, disgorged their contents into the space inside this horse shoe shaped form. Trapped inside, I made sure that the concrete kept flowing by repeatedly pitching a compressor-powered vibrator into it.
A few experiences impressed me on that job: a man somehow surviving when a truck load of metal bars fell over him, and he managed to dance between the bone-crushing beams that were raining over him; the fumes from the trucks and the dust of earlier blasts lingering in the air; and the pleasure I felt when we broke for lunch and returned to the surface into the fresh air and the natural light of the sunlight sky–in place of arc lamps, headlights and caustic air down in the bowels of the earth.
One memory stands out from this time. As when (walking on a cliff edge and a section of rock under foot breaks off, time and space are as close as your suddenly thumping heart), I was no longer just pitching the compressor-driven vibrator into the slowly flowing cement.
Suddenly I realized–as I tried to lift my boots up out of the cement which continued to flow around them–that my feet were pulling out of them. An image leapt to mind, of being forced onto my back, unable to move–like a tree getting flattened in a hillside landslide– and then getting buried under the quickly hardening concrete.
I must not be claustrophobic, at least in respect to physical confinement, because this incident dissolved as quickly as it arose. I expect I simply grabbed the top of each rubber boot with both hands and yanked up hard. And once I was free, I expect I was extra careful to step more lively through the tulips.
But I am subject to another kind of fear—of being trapped in circumstances that are frozen in place, unable to lift myself out of a gathering inertia, or to raise my eyes toward a horizon that is inviting me to move toward it.
When I look at times when the road ahead seemed blocked, what seems to have been operating in the background was a story line that had run aground, and the protagonist of that storyline could no longer see a future for himself. Worse, that protagonist claimed to be the very being who occupies my body, lives my life, and is the guardian of my hopes and dreams, my interests and engagements, and all the memories and allegiances which constitute my sense of being alive.
The message that rings out from these moments of despair (until something unexpected delivered me from the loss of all hope), is that it was all a story of my own making, to which I had inadvertently invested an unquestioned fidelity. This story that I had knitted around myself was not a true image reflective of my deeper being—as demonstrated by the fact that it suddenly dissolved when I recognized how bankrupt it really was. Something, or some non-thing, was then freed to metamorphose into a new embodiment, with a different quality of light and a different possible future hatching out of the eggshell that an instant before had seem so invincible, and so utterly determined.
. . . . .
Perhaps I have been promising a more impressive and convincing revelation at the end of this exploration than has showed up; but I remind myself that I am not alone in this practice of chronically telling stories. Like a spider, weaving a web which then becomes the platform of all subsequent movement, I can see that I am almost always living in a story. The fact that this story has many chapters, secondary characters, settings and plot twists–and that I sometimes glimpse a realm of greater possibility peeking through the threads of my tightly woven narrative–doesn’t make it any less of a fictional construct.
A good story can be a perfectly adequate place to live; all the books I read and all the movies I watch give testimony to how fundamentally I am drawn to mental constructs, peopled by characters who, like me, care about what happens to them.
So since I am an inveterate consumer of stories, how can I complain that I am living inside one—inside a ‘founding story’ which claims that it can ‘account for’ my journey from birth unto death (and possibly beyond)? Let me, in fact, now ask that question.
An answer that comes to mind and which seems worthwhile to explore further is that the story in which I am the central character, and in which the prospect of a tolerable future can suddenly vanish (as if deep space were to appear on the other side of my bedroom door), is that my story sometimes projects a world in which no one would knowingly choose to live.
If there are qualities woven into the story–in whose confines I believe myself to be living–which are creating a toxic environment for my spirit, then I want to be able to change that story.
What are some of these characteristic features that structure the world of my founding story?
One feature that became evident in both the incidents mentioned above (in a bathroom in Montreal and a YMCA room in Calgary) was that my story involved a view of time in which the future could only be the product (and the inevitable continuation) of a past that had led to that present moment. I don’t think—at least in my lifetime—that any moment has ever been, in itself, intolerable. But to be stuck in a story in which the momentum of sequential time seems destined to continue forever (like some Dantesque vision of Purgatory in which any possibility of change has been banished) is intolerable.
Another feature is that the space I perceived as operative in my life, during these moments of psychological, spiritual crisis, was like a poorly illuminated two-dimensional, black and white film. If there was a horizon across which a sun or moon might have risen, I had forgotten to walk out onto the periphery of my environment to look for it.
The story-telling impulse is itself a form of knowing, which provides a way of interpreting whatever happens. However, once an all-enveloping story-line is in full swing, I usually don’t have much say in the script.
It seems that the deeply-engrained storyline in which—both as a society and as individuals—each day’s life unfolds, needs some kind of refresh-and-reset in the severely-curtailed, boiler-plate narrative that has been established.
If the time in which we live appears to be a one way path leading to the collapse of civility and caring; if the space that allows us to move and explore appears to be controlled by forces that scarcely notice our presence; and if what we know seems increasingly irrelevant to a world in which we are nonetheless obliged to live—then it may be time to reconsider these views of time, of space, and of knowledge, and to realize that they are stunted stand-ins in a storyline that someone else has scripted for us.
Even though, at some earlier time in our lives, we may have bought into this story (of our own impotence and irrelevance)–perhaps out of a fear of standing out and not fitting in—can we really afford to continue to inhabit it, like an ill-fitting garment, just because we have grown used to it?
“Knowledge can inspire a new way of being in which the usual difficulties and conflicts which we experience in our daily lives—and which also seem to be inherent in the world situation—can be seen in a new light—they are no longer so rigid or unsolvable. As these experiences take on a more open, transparent quality, we are more naturally able to create balance and harmony in our lives, and in our world as well.” Time, Space and Knowledge. Tarthang Tulku. Page xxxviii.