Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 1: The Tree

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget. As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I'm revisiting them.

Like many kids, I was into lots of stuff. I juggled, did magic tricks, collected baseball cards, read astronomy and science fiction books, played trombone, piano, and basketball, led jazz bands, acted in school plays, published an underground newspaper, shot super 8 movies, and practiced yoga, meditation, and self-hypnosis. I didn't particularly care if I was any good at these things, though. Like Max Fischer, the lead character in Rushmore, I ran on pure fascinated zeal.

One day, while meditating, I managed to accept and forgive the entire universe, and to earnestly offer my body's component molecules to the four winds. It was perfect surrender, accompanied by a profound shift of perspective. My heart contained everything. It contained the universe. I'd had everything backwards - the universe doesn't contain us, we contain it. I knew this with the sober certainty of someone waking from a dream. I understood that it's all perfect.

My reaction, as a twelve year old, was along the lines of "Whoa, that was cool!" I told my mom, who said it sounded very nice and suggested I go outside and play.

I couldn't talk about what I'd experienced, because it was impossible to describe (the above was just a cruddy metaphor), and also because I discovered, over time, that it wasn't something people could relate to. I ranked it on par with single-ear-wiggling as another cool little trick I could do which others can't. And, as I grew busy with other activities, I lost touch with it. I did, however, foresee that I'd later try to reclaim it, and that it wouldn't be easy to do so as a grown-up. So I sent myself this image:
You're sitting on a tree branch, facing the trunk. Use a saw to cut the branch in front of you, crazy though it seems. And have faith: you won't fall, you'll float!
One reason I'd been sanguine about letting this stuff go was was that I knew it didn't matter. The underlying truth is what it is, regardless. If I were to pass decades lost in foggy delusion, it wouldn't make any difference, because upon rediscovering the perfect, timeless truth, nothing would seem to have been lost - the very notion of lostness being part of the delusion. So I sent myself that message with a playful wink, because it absolutely didn't matter. But I knew I'd forget that it didn't matter. Hence the tip.

It's paradoxical, but while it made sense at the time, after several busy and untranscendent decades, I found myself, for the past eight years, determinedly steeping in hours of daily meditation...and endlessly revisiting the tree image. How encrusted I'd become! With all that practice, I passed through the various milestones, and enjoyed some interesting experiences, but my heart, while open, wouldn't expand. I was sawing away at branches, but the damned tree was just a tree!

During Hurricane Sandy, I spent a few days cooped up in the guest room of my mother's apartment. My mom's great but....well, you know how that can be. Plus, I was stressed about the storm damage and my refugee status. I wasn't getting much sleep, and had been surviving on Chinese food delivery and skipping meditation (and stopping meditating can be worse than never having started). In that lousy condition, I trudged out to find gas at the height of the shortage.

After waiting an hour in line for a gas station still a half mile away, my tank nearly empty, a driver cut the line just ahead of me. I jumped out of my car and went apeshit. Yelling and screaming...it wasn't pretty. This was completely unlike me, and I felt deeply shocked and ashamed at myself.

Only for a minute, though. I value moments when errant bits of rabid stakedness gurgle up from my depths. If I can quickly snap back to equanimity, the door remains open for a moment, and the source - the unconscious contraction - can be sussed out, dredged up to awareness and surrendered in meditation along with my better-lit parts. You can't, after all, surrender what you're unaware of.

So a few moments after my shameful display, I caught myself, calmed deeply and probed for the source. To my horror, it wasn't some foggy fearful bit of primal grasping. Rather, it had flowed from my center; my ground zero. The rage had stemmed from the very core of my being. It wasn't something that could be shaved off!

I saw that the years I'd spent meditating, hoping to shave off all the crud, were - enjoyable and salubrious though the practice is - the ultimate example of turd polishing. It's all crud, all the way down. I'd been "letting go" only in the sense of someone standing safely on a concrete ledge, dropping unwanted baggage into a pit. I had to actually jump in, myself! It all needed to be let go of. Anything here [I gesture toward my body] is, in the end, just a mass of congealed urges, fears, and drama. One can peel away at it forever, but that's all there is. To the very core.*

So I smiled and allowed myself to fall blindly backwards into oblivion - to throw away the thrower-awayer. A quick jolt of fear made me hesitate. But suddenly I remembered: Cut the branch in front of you, crazy though it seems. And have faith: you won't fall, you'll float.

Thanks, kid.

* - which isn't to say worthiness never emerges from the crud. It does. But, tellingly, the really good stuff arrives via epiphany, eureka, and inspiration - "out of nowhere" and hard to claim credit for.

Read the next installment


Paul Trapani said...

Nice post. I like the tree branch image and think it simply explains a concept people write books and books to convey.

Reminds of the koan: How do you step off of a 100 foot pole?

Jim Leff said...

Yep, all big insights echo widespread cliche. The answer's always blowing in the wind.

That's why we've got to actually experience stuff. You can possess a key, but unless it's effectively wielded, it's just an empty trinket, however powerful its potential (that was, of course, the whole point of the story).

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