Spiraling Toward Freedom
Each time you meet an old emotional pattern with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen. There’s less identification with the self in the story and more ability to rest in the awareness that is witnessing what’s happening. You become more able to abide in compassion, to remember and trust your true home. Rather than cycling repetitively through old conditioning, you are actually spiraling toward freedom.
- Tara Brach, “Finding True Refuge”
That quote describes what my process in Buddhism is now. Very rewarding and liberating.
I now have 100 followers! Thanks everybody for accompanying me on this journey and I wish I could throw you all one big party in some beautiful central location–I have followers from as far away as India!
Happy Birthday No Self
“ ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ says the Buddha. In other words, you must ultimately find the way on your own, by putting your ideas of the truth to the test. Your questions light the way.” —Larry Rosenberg
Three years ago I decided that one of these days soon I wanted a really, really happy birthday, the birthday to end all birthdays before my birthdays run out. I knew what I wanted for this Mother of all Birthdays, and it was something more than gifts of people, places and things I’d always craved but never got and probably would never get. I’m in that stage of life when you realize aging is like being a stripper—without the bad sexy music. Or the sexy body. Things start to fall away but, if the lighting is good, you can still dance a little.
Youth, for me anyway, was all about building a self for years and when you figure you are done with the construction, still always adding to the pile. My mantra when I was young was “Be better. Have more.” These words to live by were handed down to me through generations of people with low self-esteem and various addictions, as well as the granddaddy of all neurosis : the advertising industry. With that, I charged into the world: Be Better! Be More!
Alas it turns out life has taken a bit more than it has given—at least of what I thought I needed. My choices seemed to be make bitterness and regret a lifestyle or, go for the option that was less fun and more difficult: accept my life on its terms. So, having been a spiritual seeker—leaning towards Buddhism for many years, I decided to conduct an experiment in complete acceptance and non-attachment for the past few years. The goal of my experiment was to find out if I could be happy without the things many of us in our culture consider important, if not essential.
Not for me the noble spiritual quest though; this experiment was by necessity more than choice because what I really wanted was not enlightenment, but all that stuff that spiritual people—with great incomes, success and/or soul mates— tell you is not important. You see, I found myself missing the financial and emotional safety nets most people—at least in our culture– think we need. Also, I was at an age when time was starting to run out for snagging more nets.
The reasons for the losses in my life aren’t important, and you don’t need to hear the grim details. I certainly wouldn’t win any trophy at the Super Bowl of Suffering; I know you understand when I say the dramas and traumas turned out to be some of my best birthday presents. Not that you or I would have asked for them even tied up with a pretty bow.
I started a blog because I use writing to figure out what the hell is going on and who the hell am I anyway, who are you and what matters. It was also way to force myself to be honest by recording my experiment publicly. And it made the experiment less lonely because I knew my friends and relations would feel guilty if they didn’t follow my blog. The blog has become an ongoing meditation on the question: Is non-attachment really possible and is it the way to happiness for me without cashing in my paltry IRA to live in an ashram in India? Or would I find that, no, it’s not about Eat, Pray, Love but about Drink, Curse and be Pissed Off as I had been taught.
I wanted to know if that whole non-attachment would work here in my same old mundane life or only if I got me to a nunnery—Buddhist, I mean. I know that Buddhist monks, who are single, like me, and have only their brown robes and begging bowls looked pretty happy. However I ran into a big obstacle: I just can’t pull off the bald look –plus brown is simply not my color, although the robe would be excellent cover for my chubby parts. And on that basis I gave it some serious thought.
No, going the monastery route would be taking the easy way. I wanted the challenge of trying to achieve non-attachment in the Belly of the Beast we call the free enterprise system and the U.S of A., right here in the thick of exotic St. Pete, FL. Right here with all the stuff up-close in my face, where lives are constructed on the sinkholes of wealth and power . Could I find my answer in the streets among the achievers and the pushers? Could I cease to envy and resent the swanky, perfumed Vinoy Resort people on one side of block and fear becoming the homeless old woman sleeping covered by her stench in their shadows? Could I avoid sliding down the slippery romance vortex that attempts to suck us into the Black Hole of neediness we call falling in love? Could I pull off the whole non-attachment thing even as I crave all my attachments—and yours– so badly my teeth ache?
Yeah, I love a challenge. I was not raised to do things the sober, sane, sensible way—like head for the cave in Tibet.
Most recently my experiment has led me to take part in a 6 month study called Deconstructing the Myth of Self, sponsored by the Florida Community of Mindfulness. As of April I am in the final, sixth month. Now, two and a half years later, the question has changed quite radically. Now it is not just can I be happy with nothing, but can I be happy as nobody with nothing. I have been shedding self for a while now and look forward to the birthday of my no-self which will be in May at the end of this “intensive,”as it is called.
But enough about me. I’ll tell you about the results of this experiment in a minute. This is actually very much about you—a type of upcoming collective birthday party, so I want to wish you an early happy birthday. Happy birthday to who I am discovering you really are. How I am you are me and I am you and Kookookachoo-we-are-the walrus. We are also the great muscled Banyan tree, and the developer who wants to chop it down, and Adam Lanza, the 26 children, and the Amish who forgave the trespass against them, and the pure white dove hovering over all. That’s who I am and who I am not. You too. But of course this is only my opinion—oh, and the Buddha’s—not that I would be so petty as to pull the Buddhist card on you…
The birthday of my no-self and your no-self will be coming up soon. I just wanted to let you know that my no-self wants a big fat, empty box of nothing, which I am certain you will gladly give. And I will do the same for you who appear as the pelican fishing in the Bay and the drunk sleeping it off near the sea wall, the King Sabal palm with fronds like feathers spread as wide as a hawk’s wing span. I did not recognize you before, confined as you were by your bodies.
Since you are all part of this pre-birthday bash, allow me to introduce to you who I am not. In case you don’t recognize me anymore, either because we’ve never met or since when you meet me nowadays there is not much to see, I will describe who my illusory self once appeared to be.
First of all, you might not recognize me because I was a quite few pounds heavier, what with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I had to run things, of course. You must have noticed that I was in charge, knowing what you should do and feel. Often, I was in a bad mood because you didn’t do what I wanted you to do, or you were not who I wanted you to be. That led to some highly unsuccessful dates and unrealizable fantasies. But that never stopped me from looking for true love– by which I meant making you the source of all happiness and my reason to live. Oh, come on, was that too much to ask? Although I could be both a hoot and a downer, I was always kinda jumpy since I never knew what was coming round the bend and that can make a person nervous—perpetually. Don’t forget I had to rely on my own best thinking. You called my highly astute observations obsessing, making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. But I still felt superior, because I was so smart. And, of course, right.
You might have felt a little jittery yourself around me, my hyper vigilance only allowed me to focus on maybe half of what you were saying because I had to constantly watch out for the past returning and the future showing up by surprise. I think you noticed my style; I dressed to impress, bought lots of lotions and potions, squeezed myself into what they call shape wear, waxed with great vicious anguish any hair that grew on my body so that I would always look pre-pubescent, and tottered on high heels, but made myself small if you needed to feel tall. I carried my judgments of you like a concealed weapon to protect myself from yours. Basically I was always locked and loaded to protect myself from you, to keep you at a safe distance.
How else can I remind you of this self you’ve probably met? I had my good side and I think you would have liked me. I was a nature-lover and that was nice. I cared about the environment and I thought of it as the outdoors where I would go sometimes to “be in nature.” I thought the mud, the sweet jasmine, the rotting tree stump and butterfly wings were outside of me—just like I thought you were.
I guess the difference between myself and my no self is mostly is that I’ve lost a lot of weight and I may have stumbled on the best diet in the universe. In fact, I’m not bragging here, but I’m nearly transparent. But not in a creepy anorexic ghosty way. I’d compare myself to air and water now—like what a tree is filled with. Let me finish by saying more about that.
Back at the beginning of my experiment, I found a clue to my real identity as nobody in three things: a dolphin’s breath, a tree, and a dog’s eyes. During my nightly walks with Yogi, my sharpei-mix dog, I’d often encounter the same old dolphin that has lived in the Bay near me for at least for the past 8 years that I have lived in Florida. I know it’s the same dolphin because his silver fin bears a couple of jagged but well-healed scars. I usually hear him before I see him, and one day recognized, in the spraying sigh of his breath, my own swimming breath as I inhale the moist tropical air, exhale into the cool blue water.
As for Yogi, he led me back into the present moment daily by just a glance. His clear-eyed gaze pulled me out of my past and future. He took me for walks under the trees and guided me to sit in the shade of the live oaks. And I saw that I would find what I was looking for if I stopped following my mind, my thoughts. I discovered that my true home was just outside my door, where life breathes me, unties the knots of my habit-bound thoughts, and with the deep, booming voice of a thunderstorm , corrects me, and with a slash of lightning illuminates the limitations of my thinking, reminds me of the power of seeing.
I kept coming across the message that I must discover the truth for myself through experience, not by analysis, not by frantic action, but by watching, witnessing, and trusting the space between my thoughts. I needed to practice diving into and allow full immersion into stillness, breath and silence.
My teachers tell me that if I follow my breath, it will know exactly where to go and I will arrive safely. Thich Nhat Hanh, the renown Buddhist teacher, has described who we are this way: a cloud never disappears, but transforms into rain or evaporates to become sunlight. The cloud, he says, is still in the rain. If we look, he says, we can see the rain is still part of the sunlight. The lotus bloom still contains the soil, the air, the water, sunlight. If we look, he says we will know we all have buddhnature no matter how tattered and worn we may appear. I will add that the trees also full of air water and sunlight breathe for us, in and out of us who are full of air and water and sunlight. Yesterday I heard Thich Nhat Hanh say an outrageous thing that brought tears to my eyes: Mother Earth is Buddha, the Sun is Buddha and we are warmed by her living presence.
In Dave Egger’s short story “After I was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” the protagonist is a dog named Steven. After he dies, at the end of the story (yes, he dies, sorry to ruin it for you…) Steven says this,
“The one big surprise is that as it turns out, God is the sun. It makes sense, if you think about it. Why we didn’t see it sooner I cannot say. Every day the sun was right there burning, ours and other planets hovering around it, always apologizing, and we didn’t think it was God. Why would there be a god and also a sun? Of course God is the sun. Simple. Good.
Everyone in the life before was cranky, I think, because they just wanted to know.”
So here it is, nearly the birthday of the nobody and everyone I am. And am not. Can I be happy with nothing as nobody? Oh, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Now, of course if George Clooney suddenly appeared and declared his love for me and swept me off to his Italian villa, would I slip on my body and go? In a New York minute! I may be nobody, but I’m not crazy. Happy birthday no self. Kookookachoo!