I stood on the street below my apartment on East 6th Street in Manhattan, waiting for an unmarked van to pick me up and drive me to an unknown location. I did know the person who contacted me, but in the interests of “scientific purity” I was told nothing about what I would be involved in, just that it would happen after dark, whatever “it” was, and that I should expect to be gone all night.
What was I doing? Not just on that night but in my life?
As it grew later it grew brighter and louder in the East Village. Around the corner on Avenue A, a crowd gathered around the Pyramid Club, a punk-rock and drag nightclub. The cafes and art galleries on the block blazed with life. Alan Ginsberg lived in the neighborhood, and I sometimes meditated with him with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher at Philip Glass’s house a few blocks away. Was this not enough excitement and exploration? Did I really need to get in that unmarked van?
“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
I left my apartment in a quiet neighborhood on the Upper West Side to live here, and I left my job in publishing to try to be a writer here because I longed to be more fully alive. But I still felt like an outsider in both worlds.
The person who invited me on this mysterious mission was a paranormal researcher I had interviewed for a long magazine article about ghosts and the modern-day scientists who try to prove their existence. She told me that my story had drawn the attention of the producers of a television show called Unsolved Mysteries and they had invited her to conduct an experiment in a legendary haunted location, which would later be reenacted in an episode of the TV show.
There is a myth that throwing a piece of pasta against a wall will tell you if it is cooked to the right degree. This always struck me as a silly way to cook, but I found myself doing something similar with my life. I was throwing myself at things to see what might hold me. I had no idea about what I was doing or what would happen. But I was open. I yearned to sink beneath the shallow and repetitive thoughts that went round and round, the anxieties and expectations. I wanted to live deep. I wanted to feel that I belonged to life. A white van pulled up, a door slid open, and a real-life ghostbuster beckoned me in.
I had first met the paranormal researcher in an elegant apartment on Washington Square, the scene of one of her more memorable investigations. As we sat at her kitchen table, our host “Kathleen” (not her real name) described the haunting event, which happened years before. She thought she heard the front door slam, she told me. Thinking it was her sister, she rushed happily towards the door. In the dusty rose-colored hallway she froze. She saw a hunched-over figure in a black robe. She thought it might be a robber, though the figure seemed very sick or very old. She turned on the light and watched it creep toward the bathroom down the hall.
“It was almost as if the figure was absorbing light instead of reflecting it,” Kathleen said. “But even then, I never thought of a ghost.”
The following night Kathleen looked up from the sofa to see her mother standing in the doorway, shaking. She told Kathleen she had heard a whooshing sound in the hall and looked up to see a transparent black form passing down the hallway towards the bathroom. She yelled and ran after the shadow, only to find nothing there. They called the paranormal researcher I was riding in the van with, a family friend who had a Ph.D. in parapsychology from City College in New York.
Equipped with a Geiger counter, infrared photography, and other equipment, and a team of volunteers, the woman attempted to use the tools and techniques of science to investigate. The results were suggestive but elusive in scientific terms. There was “a parabola of fog” in an infrared photo of the hallway, a flurry of Geiger clicks in a particular spot, but nothing that could not be ruled out by ordinary explanations.
While riding in the van toward the unknown location, I learned that I was to be part of a new experiment. There would be no Geiger counters or photography this time, but a mix of psychics and skeptics who would be led through an old inn that was legendary for haunting activity. I was designated a skeptic and told I would serve as a control in the experiment because my article came to the conclusion that these kinds of investigations of ghostly events can offer no clear scientific proof, just hints and stories. Although I didn’t say so, being labeled a skeptic hurt my feelings.
Finally we arrived in Merion, Pennsylvania, and the General Wayne Inn, which was established in 1704. George Washington slept there, as did William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, and the Revolutionary War hero General “Mad Anthony” Wayne (the inn was renamed in his honor in 1793). Edgar Allen Poe drank (heavily) at the inn and wrote parts of The Raven there. In 1843, he also carved his initials in one of the window sills.
Dark and heavy and sad—this was my impression of the inn after hours. Even if it wasn’t haunted, it didn’t feel like a place where happy things happened. For a long time this seemed to be so. A dozen years after my visit, a subsequent owner of the inn was found dead in his office, murdered by his business partner. The suicide of the murderer’s girlfriend followed.
The Buddhist tradition describes “happy destinations,” including various heavens and this earth, and “evil destinations,” places of unbroken suffering. The inn was treated as a hell, shuttered until 2005, when it became a synagogue and community center. When I learned this, I wondered if the Jewish congregation thought they could liberate with prayer the spirits that shadowed this place.
But that night, we were there to investigate the ghostly sightings and events that were reported by many people over many years. Among other possible spirits, including a lost little boy and two servant girls caught stealing, there were reports of a Hessian soldier, possibly more than one. And my job, it turned out, was to sit in a dark cellar all night, as the psychics were led through the inn one by one, starting in the attic.
I sat very still in the dark, marveling again that my life had come to this. I had friends who were doing concrete things to serve the world, building houses and healing the sick, and here I sat in a dark cellar, wondering if I was sitting near (or maybe on) a ghost. The sheer weirdness of the situation invited intense self-examination.
With nothing outside to see, it was easier to see inside, especially the shallowness and repetitiveness of my ordinary thinking. I sat in the dark, just breathing and sensing my body, I held a question that didn’t even need words. Who was I? What on earth was I meant to be doing, not just in this cellar but in my life?
One by one, the psychics and skeptics were led through the building like bloodhounds. They would wander around, paused here and there, and left. Finally the last one, the most celebrated of the group, stood stock still with her back to me and gasped, reporting that she glimpsed a soldier in a green coat crouching in the corner. She was visibly shaken.
“I feel so much sadness and fear,” she told me, holding herself as if she was cold. “So much sadness and fear.”
She was sensing the presence of the Hessian soldier.
In American lore they are thought of as brutal mercenaries, but the Hessians, as the Americans called them, were actually auxiliary troops of the British army (called Hessian because 65% of them came from the Hesse region around modern day Frankfurt). The German prince who contracted them out to Britain profited handsomely, unlike the men themselves, who collected meager wages. The prince also collected blood money for every soldier lost. He called these unfortunate men his “Peru,” comparing their value to the blood-soaked treasure the Spanish plundered from the indigenous cultures of South America.
Far from being ruthless, they were extraordinarily disciplined and capable. Even George Washington had kind things to say about them, writing that they were more humane in battle than the British. The bad rap came from the British themselves, and of course from American author Washington Irving, who created the Headless Horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Some Hessian soldiers were kidnapped into service. Among those unwilling soldiers were wayward students, or young men with jobs that were deemed not important enough to keep them home. Had I been born a man, I was exactly the type who would have been a candidate for kidnapping. I could have been this ghost, crouching in this basement. My heart opened to this unknown being, trapped between two worlds. It was the subtlest inner movement. I was paying attention to my own experience, and then I noticed that I wasn’t noticing him. “Real” or not, for hundreds of years, he had been trapped here, not belonging to this world.
What is a ghost anyway? In the course of researching my article about ghost hunters, I visited Karlis Osis at the American Society for Psychical Research, housed in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1917, Osis was a parapsychologist with a doctoral degree in the subject from the University of Munich. Tall and ascetic looking, with a soft voice and a Latvian accent that made his words sound like spooky echoes rolling out of a cave, Osis told me that spending his youth surrounded by the devastation of World War I inspired his interest in realms of awareness beyond what we can see.
There was also an indelible personal experience. As an adolescent lying in bed with tuberculosis, Osis suddenly saw his room fill with a joyful white light. At precisely that moment, he later learned, his aunt had died. Osis went on to conduct ESP research at the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University, as a colleague of one of the famous figures of parapsychology, Dr. J. B. Rhine. But he never forgot glimpsing that white light and he became certain that the great discoveries were to be found outside the lab.
Osis conducted a major survey of the deathbed observations of physicians and nurses in India and the United States, resulting in a book, At the Hour of Death. That research also turned up evidence for the reality of ghosts. And this was the phrase that haunted me: Osis called ghosts “transit disasters.”
For ghosts there is no release in a joyous burst of light, no liberation from the lonely isolation. Osis called ghosts “exceedingly self-centered.” Many living people are like this, of course, but as long as they are alive there is the possibility that they will awaken. Ghosts are lost in a dream they can’t wake up from. They look but cannot see.
In the Buddhist tradition, as well as other spiritual traditions, the human world is considered a place of special possibility precisely because we are positioned between heaven and hell. Each human life inevitably contains a mix of happiness and misery, and nothing stays the same. Things are lost without warning. Mishaps are always happening. Keys and jobs and great loves are lost, and red wine spills on a white suit. And it turns out that our true awakening depends on this very instability. It is in the midst of those awful moments that something inside us sometimes opens to a greater sense of belonging.
Being in a human body offers us the chance to take a very special kind of journey—from self-enclosed separation from others and from the whole of life to a sense of belonging. On earth, we can all be heroes—not in the sense of being solitary actors brandishing swords but by daring to put down our defenses and take off the armor to really experience and feel what is happening in any given moment, without fighting or fleeing.
Heroism can be a momentary action that happens on the inside without anyone else knowing. It is a movement of availability, of softening, of letting down our guard, and opening to life. What we discover then is that life is always new and surprising. We discover in those moments that it is not the old world of our known stories and ideas that will save us. It is our brave willingness to open to connect.
Under every other longing, we long to belong—to a group, to ourselves, to life itself. Belonging comes from the Old English root word lang, which means having a great linear extent—long, in the sense of both tall and lasting. It has the same root in Old Frisian and Old Saxon and Old High German. The ancient root also meant drawn out in duration–I have been here or I have been at this or that a long time. But the root also points to a depth and abundance the poor Hessian soldier couldn’t have.
Opening to life, even for a moment, we realize our connection. The root of the word compassion means to suffer with. Yet in the midst of suffering, we also remember the warmth of life. We remember, if only for a moment, the goodness of being alive, that in spite of everything there is love and compassion and possibility woven through it like psyllium. When we feel compassion, we remember that we are not alone.
Even if we don’t believe in ghosts or in cosmologies that portray heavens and hells, we know how it feels to be stuck, to be caught in an isolated and isolating loop of thought that ancient Buddhists would call “a plane of misery.” Innately, we understand that once you have landed in hell it is very difficult to get out.
According to the scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi: “The Buddha says that if a yoke with a single hole was floating at random on the sea, and a blind turtle living in the sea were to surface once every hundred years — the likelihood of the turtle pushing his neck through the hole in the yoke would be greater than that of a being in the evil destinations regaining human status.”
Sitting in the cellar that night, I began to understand being a human being isn’t a thing but a special state of openness. As gently and easily as it came, I understood that this openness could be as easily lost. For a long time, I used to think that staying human in this way involved a careful policing of thought. Negative thoughts were to be seen and nipped in the bud, or uprooted and replaced with positive thoughts. I pictured a prison matron sweeping the cell of my heart and mind with a flashlight, smiling softly and wrapped in a meditation shawl, but still a guard, ready to punish transgressions.
Over the years, I began to understand the importance of self-compassion. I began to see that as I accept painful thoughts and feelings, directly experiencing how closed I can be, a softening and opening begins to come. As I do this, I begin to notice that things can change. An idea or feeling that seems fixed and permanent is observed to have passed. Observing this is opening to a truth that is greater than any thought.
When I sat with “Kathleen” and the parapsychologist in the kitchen of that apartment on Washington Square, we studied the infrared photo with the parabolic arc of fog. They pointed out a dark circle that looked to me a little like the black-and-white teardrops in the interlocking yin-yang symbol.
“To me it looks like a face, a black face up close to the camera,” said Kathleen. The parapsychologist said that one of the psychics she had brought in to read the space reported seeing the figure of an African-American as well. We walked up the hall into Kathleen’s late mother’s room, with a window overlooking Washington Square Park. Directly across the street from the apartment stood a massive old elm tree. Kathleen told me that the last person to be hanged in New York City was hanged from that tree.
Years later, I discovered that in 1819, Rose Butler, an enslaved woman, was hanged, not in this tree but in a gallows nearby, for attempting to burn down the building of her enslavers. Has the gracious apartment I visited once been the home of those people? Had I glimpsed Rose Butler’s face? There are events that freeze us in time, split us off from our true selves. These traumas happen not just to individuals but to groups of people and whole nations. Healing can take a long time. But it can begin, perhaps, with a willingness to just sit in the dark and open our hearts.
“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,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
At a certain point in his great story, the man who would become the Buddha gave up all his great efforts. He went off by himself and remembered a time in early childhood when he was also by himself in nature. According to the story, the little boy saw some insects whose homes were being torn up, with loved ones lost due to the men of his village as they plowed the fields. His head wasn’t full of solutions. The boy just sat there, secluded yet deeply connected to this life. His heart opened and he felt compassion. This is the place to begin, the man who would Wake Up thought. Just noticing what we don’t usually notice, making space for what is beneath the surface, and allowing our hearts to open to it—this is the beginning of freedom for us all. ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2022 issue of Parabola, BELONGING. You can find the full issue on our online store