“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
―John Milton, Paradise Lost
He was not unlike my roommate in college.
I spent one January in college with John Milton’s great epic poem of the fall of Lucifer and the subsequent fall of Adam and Eve. I don’t remember actually reading it so much as trudging through it as if it was a vast and difficult wilderness. And yet—this is the power of great stories and great teaching—certain lines and images planted seeds that grew down, revealing the deepest truth in our experience.
The professor stretched his arms wide and roared, demonstrating the titanic size and ferocity of Lucifer and his cohort of rebel angels-turned-demons after their fall. He dropped his arms and whispered, mirroring the way Milton dramatically changes scale, revealing Lucifer and the other demons to be the size of insects. This is how it is, I thought. We loom so large in our own minds.
One meaning of innocence is ignorance, especially ignorance of our place in creation, of the myriad causes and conditions that create our lives. Yet it is easier to see in others than in ourselves. My mind drifted back to my roommate, who was spending January in Rome, while I was snowbound on campus. My mind kept producing fresh comparisons, images of my roommate sitting in cafés on piazzas and strolling through Roman ruins and museums, her life shining while I was left behind in the frozen exile of winter in northern New York. I judged her to be a small person. But the seed was planted. I felt smaller.Some seeds take a long time to bear fruit. It was bitter cold that month, and most of the students were away. Hooded and wrapped in scarves, the few of us who remained hurried along a maze of narrow shoveled pathways to seminars and dining halls and dorms. The campus had the hush and feel of a cloister. A few hardy souls cross-country skied in the snow-covered fields, but not me. I looked out the window past them to the bare trees and white sky. Looked at from a distance, it could seem a heavenly situation, having a month to read and think in such a pretty, protected place. From the perspective of the world, let alone the history of the world, there was a hair’s breadth of difference between my roommate’s life and mine. But I couldn’t see that. It was as if I was under a powerful spell.
When a student asked Thai spiritual master Ajahn Buddhadasa to describe the state of the contemporary world, he answered in three words: Lost in thought. That month, I glimpsed that the thinking mind really is its own place, sealing us off from the world by sealing us off from the whole of ourselves, from the body and perceptions, the deeper feelings and impressions that come with experience. We can be trapped in thinking by feelings so ancient and deep we don’t sense them, yet our thinking keeps them alive.
Some researchers contend that all of our emotional reactions are tied to the ancient reptile mind, to the impulse to fight, flee, or freeze. On campus, fighting took the form of judgment and painful self-criticism, fleeing and freezing turned into isolation and self-obsession, what the Buddhists call “comparing mind.” The feeling drives the thoughts, the thoughts drive the feeling. It takes decades to accept that the only way off the wheel is to let go and fall. We can spend our lives fighting for “me” or we can give up and descend into the world, into the vulnerability of the body.
Overwhelmingly proud, but also brave, overcoming his doubts and fears to make his way through Chaos to God’s newly created Earth, Milton’s Lucifer has been compared to Aeneas and Odysseus and other great heroes in literature. My roommate was intent on striking out on her own, on being the hero of her own story. At a party just before Christmas break during senior year, she explained that life is what you make it, not what other people made it for you. She shook back her long shiny hair and looked into the distance as if she was seeing a bright and shiny future. Sure, there had been advantages, she admitted. But there had also been struggles and disappointments, serious issues with her family. Her voice grew soft as she said this, as if she herself were awed by what she had been through and accomplished. Still, she did the work, burned through the reading, bashing those papers out. She wasn’t going to let her parents or anything else determine where she was going or who she was going to be. Her eyes glittered with triumphant resolve.
The professor explained that Lucifer and Satan are not actually the same. Lucifer is not the opposite of God but a split-off piece of Him. Over the course of Paradise Lost, beautiful and brilliant Lucifer degenerates, becoming incoherent, confused, finally slithering off, completely identified with Satan. Satan is the spirit of evil, the “father of lies,” the serpent that leads him completely away from wholeness. I thought my roommate would probably come to a bad end, addiction perhaps. I wondered why I was thinking this way.There are questions that can’t be answered in words, that must be lived. In recent years, researchers have been able to show that when our minds are not actually sleeping or actively engaged in a task or in moment-by-moment awareness of our experience, they wander in a particular “default mode circuit,” including midline areas of the brain associated with self-referencing and first person-narration—with thinking about “me.” Scientists have correlated being in this “default mode” with unhappiness. But this can be an understatement.
When anxiety and depression are deep, when the reptile mind is convinced that you are in danger of being shunned by the tribe, left behind to die, the comparisons and narrative of the default-mode loop are truly hell. One January in 2014, nineteen-year-old Madison Holleran, a beautiful young track-and-field star at the University of Pennsylvania, jumped off the ninth floor of a parking garage to her death, the third of six student suicides at Penn in a year. According to a 2015 article in the New York Times, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,” her older sister reported that Madison had been haunted by the way her life appeared to be going, compared to the lives of others. In an era of social media, the comparisons are almost constant, and the images are very carefully curated, posed, unreal. An hour before she killed herself, Madison Holleran posted a photo on social media of white holiday lights twinkling in the trees of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square.
A university task force created after her death cited a widespread perception among students that one has to appear to be perfect. This pressure, and the endless thinking about self it fuels, is widespread in colleges and universities. At Stanford, according to the Times article, students call it the “Duck Syndrome,” the need to seem to glide effortlessly on the surface, concealing the frantic paddling below. “It’s not whether you win or lose,” said novelist Jay McInerney when I was young. “It’s how you look playing the game.” The result can be ever more alienation, anxiety, and depression. As the fortunate discover, the way out is down, letting go of thinking for the wide-open moment-by-moment experience of being in a body.In the middle of that January long ago, my boyfriend came to visit. He was dark and brooding, styling himself a kind of rustic rebel who studied glass-blowing in an arts college. He made delicate glass trees that he smashed periodically to show the impermanence of all things, and he aspired to study falconry because he said he found animals more trustworthy than people. He invited me to spend the weekend with him at a hunting lodge his father owned in the Adirondacks, quoting Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
In the form of the serpent Satan, Lucifer slithered up to Eve in the Garden of Eden. He praised her beauty and told the dumbfounded woman that he had gained his powers of speech and thinking by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. He persuaded her that God was testing her, that secretly He was hoping that she would claim her independence.
Later, I registered that one meaning of this test of obedience is consenting to reality, of not splitting off but remaining part of a greater whole.
I decided it was inevitable, the yearning to split off and the longing to find our way back to the Garden, back to the innocence that means integrity, being in alignment with something greater than “me.”
We drove the jeep as far off-road as we could and walked on to the cabin, breaking a path through the snow. I felt blessed. How beautiful and ancient the woods were, the bark and limbs of trees burnished with sunset colors. I felt as if I was waking up from a long sleep. It was strange, to be cut off from the world yet intimately connected with the vastness of life.
Many years later, I would hear the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn say that the cosmos is our home, and that we can know the cosmos through the body. Back at college, this formulation might have sounded childish or like hippie talk, but out in the woods it was clearly and deeply true. There is a collectedness and feeling of presence that comes from seeing that we have been lost in thought. I was a part of life, a tiny speck in a vast creation, and I discovered that I cared about this. And this was not a small thing.
Back in the cabin, there was no power and no running water so we hauled buckets of snow into the house to melt for water to flush the toilet and wash dishes. I was instantly aware of how precious water is, and of how much water I usually waste. We collected logs and chopped dried limbs down to kindling size and started a fire in the wood stove. Chopping wood, carrying water, I was aware that I was living the way much of the world has lived and still lives. I felt rooted in the present moment. All evening, we basked in the light and warmth from the fire. We ate the sandwiches and drank the beer we had brought from town. “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” My boyfriend quoted Thoreau again. We talked and talked, and I had the feeling that I had penetrated to the heart of life.
But during the night it turned very cold. The next morning, we drank cold coffee and decided to turn back after one good walk in the woods. My boyfriend spoke of bears and even of a bobcat sighting. At the last minute, I decided to carry a loaded rifle from the cabinet that most cabins in the woods have. We walked through the woods for an hour, finally stopping to rest on a high ridge that looked out on snow-covered mountains. I felt like an explorer, right down to the loaded rifle resting across my lap.
Looking back, it may have been that day that I began to question a cherished myth I had grown up with, that of the rugged individual, the hardy pioneer lighting out for the territories. It wasn’t a thought but a fleeting perception of the way the gun changed my relationship with the natural world around me, protecting me but also separating me. I thought of Lucifer, splitting off. There was a wish that was more of a pang. I wanted to be part of a greater world. I wanted to find my way to a greater wholeness, inside and out. I wanted to live with integrity, to have my body, mind, and heart all present and working together, and I wanted to be part of something greater than myself.
Without warning, a figure lurched out of the woods and into the open meadow below us. Dark against pure white, he staggered towards us, hunch-backed. My body instinctively raised and aimed the rifle. The figure drew closer. I saw that it was a human being. Slowly, I registered what my body was doing of its own volition, and I lowered the gun. But in a flash, I saw that I was not one. I was a collection of parts, all moving at different speeds. I was at least two beings and probably more. I was the one who wanted to be friends with truth, who wanted to put down the gun and open to a greater unity. But there was also another one, a more ancient one, wired to fight, flee, or freeze. I saw that the roots of fear, the desire to split off and defend myself, went deep.
As the man drew closer, we saw that he was soaking wet and shaking from head to toe. Through violently chattering teeth, he told us his snowmobile had broken through the ice while he was crossing a creek. We scrambled back to the cabin for the jeep, drove it as close as we could, hitched up a rope, and pulled the machine from the icy water. How red and raw his hands looked when he took off his wet leather mittens to hitch the robe to the bumper. He refused a ride home, mumbling his thanks and saying he didn’t live far. He straddled his machine and took off in a roar, raising his hand in farewell.
We packed up and left without talking much. What had happened, really? I didn’t shoot someone. We helped someone. We repeated a few times how it was good that we happened to be there. Quietly, I was deeply shaken. If I had been hooked up to a modern brain scanner, it would have detected that my decision to raise the gun—and the recognition that it was safe to lower the gun—actually happened in my brain and body seconds before I was aware of these decisions.
Science could have confirmed what I sensed, that the “me” that I was so worried about was not a real, separate, and inviolate self at all, but different parts and processes moving at different speeds, wheels within wheels, circuits within circuits. But even without a scan, I saw that my sense of agency, my sense of being a conscious entity undertaking conscious actions, was an illusion, at least in this situation. “I” was a narrative, a stream of thoughts and feelings, a dream being carried along by the animal of the body. Any real freedom I was to have, I saw, depended on seeing and accepting this.
In the car on the way home, it was difficult to find things to say. It was amazing the way almost shooting someone stills and concentrates the mind. I felt I had looked into the gap between what I imagined I was, what I wanted and pretended to be, and what I really was. We talked a little about how Thoreau came to leave the woods. He was on to other projects. But he also wrote in the conclusion of Walden that he wasn’t there a week before he wore a track between the cabin and the pond. He too glimpsed how mechanical he could be. Yet there was also blossoming in me a new kind of insight. I was a mysterious and complicated creation living inside a much greater creation, a world within a world. This brought an unexpected feeling of stillness, as though I had been leaning forward and the tension had suddenly relaxed.
When I got back to my dorm, I took a long hot shower, realizing moment by moment how luxurious that was. I wondered how long I would remember to be aware of this. I changed out of my cold, wet, smoky clothes, experiencing this too as a luxury, aware that by the standards of history and the world today, I was immensely fortunate. As I walked to the dining hall, I thought of the serpent in the garden and of the reptile brain, hardwired to fight, flee, or freeze. I thought of the gun and of the man who broke through the ice. For a moment or two, I knew that I knew nothing, and that there was much to know. ♦