Life is hard. Even in the most fortunate lives, not at war or in physical pain and danger, there is suffering in the mind. Why? Life won’t stay still. Just when we think we have the hang of living, life changes and acts up in unexpected ways at unexpected moments. Life outside but also inside—we are well and then not well. The aim of mindfulness meditation practice—and indeed of many practices ancient and modern—is to help us deal with change and come to terms with the inevitability of loss. This is a gnarly challenge because our brains come wired with an automatic trigger system that causes us to fight or flight or freeze in the face of threats. This is a very ancient and primitive system, a simple reptile brain that does not know how to shut off in comfortable peaceful conditions.
Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm. ―Robert Louis Stevenson
Work pressure, disappointed aspirations relationship stresses, these things are like lions and tigers and bears to the reptile alarm system. The fear of being fired or being broke and alone triggers the fear of death and something that is a living death. There is a theory that our fight, flight, freeze response is a way of keeping us aligned with others. We fear being cast out of the tribe into the darkness. We so fear being vulnerable and alone that we isolate ourselves from others and from life. In peaceful outer conditions, the fight, flight, freeze can take the form of harsh self-criticism, physically isolating, or living in a bubble of self-absorption.
And yet in the midst of this perpetual turbulence, even through the distorted walls of our self-protective bubble, we sense that more is possible. We sense this at different times in different ways. A great shock can trigger the sensation that you have been asleep, that you could be more alive and yet you have not been. Or else a haunted or hollow feeling can come upon you after you achieve a goal you really wanted to achieve. Inexplicably, that prize turns out to be no prize, just more stress and bewilderment. Or in other ways, you may feel that you have allowed yourself to be carried along by life, that you have settled for passing, for not fully being alive in the way you secretly deep down know you can be.
How can we be more alive? Should we leave our messy, stressful conditions and join a monastery? This is one possible plan. Yet ordinary worldly life can offer deep teachings. Here is one of mine. From the time I was about 24 to about 28 years old (give or take) I worked in a skyscraper in Rockefeller Center. I was called the “East Coast Story Editor of ABC Motion Pictures,” a job that involved taking book editors and writers out for drinks and dinner and by other means find material to turn into major motion pictures. I met movie stars and famous directors and writers but I was miserable. I lived under the constant threat of being eaten by a tiger or cast out of the tribe. As stressed and busy as I was, I was haunted by the sense that I wasn’t doing—no, that I wasn’t being—what I could be. I heard of a friend who gave it all up to move to a ranch in Montana. Should I too go work the land and look up at the big sky, would that help?I left work and walked through those cavernous, skyscraper streets, awash in self-pity, portraying myself in my mind as tiny, easily replaceable cog in a vast and impersonal machine. I worried about losing my job and my apartment on West 96th Street. I was terrified about what other people thought of me. I was trapped in a bubble. My then-boyfriend and I looked for a cozy place to have dinner, not a cold, hard, expense-account place, and miraculously on a side street we found one. The “Alpine” (it isn’t there any more) looked wonderfully out of place in the midst of all that glass and steel, as if it was air dropped from upstate New York. There was a bar in front, tables with checked tablecloths in the back. There were Alpine scenes painted on the walls and pinball machines with button-controlled flippers. But this was the epiphany: There, playing pinball at one of those wonderful old-fashioned bumper, flipper, pinging-ponging machines in the back, seemingly sublimely indifferent to the crushing atmosphere of Avenue of the Americas, was Joni Mitchell. The great singer and songwriter (whom many young people know from the movie Love Actually) was alone, no entourage or security. She was wearing jeans and boots, as if she could have been on a ranch in Montana. A Molson Golden rested on a table nearby and a cigarette burned in an ashtray (it was a long time ago). She stood straight yet relaxed, looking serene, and self-contained. By that time, she wasn’t “of the moment” famous any more. Yet she looked as if she was in the moment, not looking around to see if people were noticing her yet not hiding, just concentrating on her game.
She showed what it can look like to be free from merciless time, from ranking and comparison, lashed and tossed about by the reptile alarm system.
Who knows what was really going on inside of her? Certainly she also has pain and mental suffering (stories of recent health problems attest to that). Yet her easy physical posture and attention to her game suggested an inner attitude that I never forgot. The way that Joni Mitchell looked playing pinball in midtown Manhattan that day planted a seed. Maybe we don’t have to go away and live in a monastery. Maybe we can learn to cultivate an attitude of equanimity, learning to be open and at ease no matter what is happening around us. Maybe we can find a way to be quiet inside in the midst of it all.
Parabola’s “Divine Feminine” issue is about to appear in stores and mailboxes. It’s interesting to consider how sublime truth can appear for a moment in real women (and men).
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance. ―David Whyte