Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lifelong Fans of Jerry. Not Garcia.

Yesterday I was going to mention having been born anxious, but the soliloquy ended up drifting in another direction. In the evening, Howie’s talk proved to be on that very subject: fear—the anxiety of finding ourselves thrust into this world not of our own accord, and the anxiety of knowing we’ll be leaving it later at some undetermined time.

He said that our foremost strategy when it comes to fear of life and fear of death is to construct selves out of thought, which we then take to be real, and which give us a reassuring sense of being in control. In fact, these “selves” we build out of stories are largely detached from the “raw data of cognition”—what we actually see, smell, taste, touch, etc., and even think, the trick with the latter being to know that we’re thinking and what we’re thinking, and not to mistake thoughts for reality.

He said he regards living one’s entire life without realizing the whole thing is constructed out of thoughts as the scariest thing of all. The proposed solution is to turn to that raw data, which might mean we feel less in control, and maybe that we notice all of our emotions more, including the ones we might want to avoid, but then we are at least dealing with reality, and we can eliminate the portion of our suffering that is based on regret about the past (or longing for it) and anxiety or upset about the (imagined) future.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, we have no idea what will happen later, so likely most of our worries are about things that will never even come to pass. It’s not generally my custom to lie in bed worrying before I go to sleep, but for some number of years, I would have one crippling fearful thought after turning out the light, such as, “I’m on a train that is going in one direction only—I’m going to get old and I’m going to die.” (Of course, that “I’m going to get old” was ambitious; I might not get old.)

Now I do my best not to entertain that type of thought at all, but to recognize it as Mara. On the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Mara came to try to frighten the Buddha, to tempt him from his mission with enticing sense objects, and finally, worst of all, to shake the Buddha’s self-confidence, which the Buddha answered by simply touching the ground: the very earth bears witness to my right to be here.

So when I notice a thought that starts with “Later on … ” or “When my parents are really old … ” or “When I’m really old … ”, I say, “Mara, I see you,” which is extremely effective at deflating the thought. Whatever it was going to be, it couldn’t possibly have had much to do with reality. I might be able to take a guess about certain things, but I can’t know for sure until I get there.

After I turn off the light at night, I focus on feeling my body sinking into the bed, and I do my lucid dreaming-related samadhi practice, and I usually feel very relaxed. Often (but not always), I fall asleep right away, and rarely have explicitly bad dreams. Nonetheless, once asleep, I apparently descend into a maelstrom of tension, as evidenced by clenching my teeth hard enough to require a night guard. Lately I’ve been clenching them so tightly that I caused a tooth with no nerve in it to hurt, evidently by moving the entire tooth in its socket!

So this morning it was off to my dentist’s office to pick up a bottom night guard, to use instead of the top night guard, not in addition to.

My first cab driver this morning was incredulous at my proposed route to the dentist’s office (which he took, but at about 10 miles per hour) and said he’s not voting for either Whitman or Brown, he thinks the whole thing is bullshit, and he thinks politicians should get their own families in order before they go around telling anyone else what to do. By the time we got there, we’d bonded enough that he ran around and opened the door for me and called me “ma’am.”

I’ve decided to skip the life phase where you’re upset because people call you “ma’am” because you feel like you’re not old enough yet, and just enjoy it as a sign of respect. (In that vein, once in a while, when a tech support person says on the phone, “Do you prefer to be called Miss or Mrs. A.?”, I say, “Doctor.”)

After getting my new night guard, when I was waiting for a cab to take me to work, I met a fellow in the lobby whose parents were both born in Norway, while he and his sister were born here. He’ll be 74 next month, and was in the Air Force decades ago; he was stationed near Paris for four months. He said that after his wife died 15 years ago, he didn’t brush his teeth for two months—that gave me a fleeting visceral sense of how crushing that loss was—and he now recommends doing so at least once per day. I agree with that (at the very minimum), and we also had compatible views on bars, running around after dark, and sun hats. (Anti the first two, pro the third.) We parted with a firm handshake, exchanging names. I liked him a lot.

Oddly, within the course of that 20-minute conversation, he brought up his own future death, which made me think again of Howie’s talk last night, and of the various hospice patients I’ve spent time with. My friend Sally has proposed that I quit my job and move to Michigan, and that we go to social work school together so we can do hospice work full time. Maybe she’s onto something.

But not to neglect the second cab driver of the morning, who was very calm and relaxed behind the wheel. He’s voting for Jerry Brown, not Meg Whitman. (Same here.) He’s the second cab driver I’ve encountered lately who has met Jerry in person. It seems that to meet Jerry is to become a lifelong fan.

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