Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Liberating Insight

As the days of my visit to Ann Arbor passed, I grew increasingly anxious about leaving again. I left there rather suddenly 24 years ago—it wasn’t what you’d call a well-considered plan—and that has reverberated to some extent ever since.

While I sometimes long for the peace and quiet of Ann Arbor (though I have to remember that if I lived there, I wouldn’t get to spend every day lying on my parents’ couch reading), the main thing that makes me want to move back is the desire to be closer to my parents, who of course are getting older, though they’re not particularly old. At 44, it might reasonably cross one’s mind that one’s parents will die, but I’ve been worrying about this since I was four.

My mother and I talk about death a lot. In the past few years, there have been three deaths in our family, and we recall those people and how they lived and died, and we talk about how things might be as she and my father age.

At my most recent retreat, one of the teachers was talking about a period when he was having a lot of insight into dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and which is easy to remember because it sounds like “dookey,” which is the word my best friends when I was three or four years old used to refer to poop. The teacher recalled looking at a tree and thinking, “Yes, but soon the leaves will fall and winter will come.” Everything he looked at made him think of sorrow and loss. “Hmm,” he eventually realized, “This might be a little too much insight into suffering.”

Similarly, I look at my cat: “How I love this cat! How sad that she will age and die; how dreadful it will be to lose her.” I’ve been thinking that, not non-stop but frequently enough, for 16 years! So I think I don’t have to worry about not having sufficient insight into suffering.

On this visit, I noticed Mom talking about her own eventual demise in a rather anxious way, which is very unusual. And maybe that’s just because when you get to be 66, you think more about your own death than at 44 or 22. But I also had the guilty feeling that I might be infecting her with my worry somehow, though I don’t fling myself on the ground, grip her ankle and fret explicitly. I think she knows the nature of my fears.

My mother is only 22 years old than I am, and I even found myself thinking, “Well, there’s not really any point in embarking on any major initiatives because my mom’s going to die and then practically right after that, I’m going to die!” Life suddenly seemed extremely short: 20 years of being a kid, 20 subsequent years, 20 years of being 40 (which I just started), 20 years without my mom, and then death. (This might not be so pronounced had I ever cleaved to another person and started a family, but I didn’t, and at this point, I’m not going to have kids, though I still might cleave. I never meant to have kids.)

The last day or two of my visit, I became weepy. I wondered if I should move back to Ann Arbor. I went to bed the last (last!) night feeling like I was four years old again and then I remembered the wise words of Ezra Bayda: Any moment of upset boils down to feelings in the body in combination with believed thoughts. He says if we keep figuring out what our believed thoughts are, we will eventually uncover our core issues, which I find inspiring. I think that’s what he said. Anyway, I reviewed the thoughts I was believing: If I don’t make just the right decision, I’ll wreck my life and live in regret to the end of my years, and suchlike.

One amazing thing about this is that you don’t then have to try to talk yourself out of the thoughts. There’s no harm in comforting oneself by any means, or looking for things to be happy about, or offering oneself some sensible reminders. Deborah recently said a helpful thing in regard to my recurring question about whether to look for another job. She said things will be fine, and good things will happen, if I stay where I am, and things will also be fine and good things will happen if I do something else.

The real magic happens, however, just by seeing the thought as a thought. Eventually it dawns on me that the thing that seems so frightening is not even a thing at all—it’s a thought! It’s nothing more than a thought. And that is wonderfully freeing, without my having made any explicit effort to free myself. It’s like a gift that comes by itself when I merely remember to notice what really is happening.

At the airport, of course I thought, “What if I die a horrible death on this plane?” but it wasn’t preoccupying. I also noticed the expanse of lush greenness outside, the deep blue sky, the cars sailing along I-94, life rolling along eternally. When the plane ride was bumpy, it made me think of mountain biking and it seemed fun rather than scary. I didn’t feel like I was on something that was going to give way under me at any moment, but something that was perfectly solid, just a bit rough in texture at times.

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