In the fall, I moved to Chicago to be closer to my ninety-one-year-old mother in the remaining years of her life, however many that turns out to be, and ultimately to say good-bye from up close rather than from far away.
I grew up in the Chicago area but fled the Midwest as soon as I finished high school. On my return thirty-five years later, I rented a sunny one-bedroom apartment in a relatively quiet city neighborhood around the corner from where my mother lived as a child. My two rooms each have large southern-facing windows looking out on two big trees. The branches of my trees are bare now, twisted in exquisite shapes and covered with snow.
In many ways, being here is about dying. It’s the dead of winter, I’m fifty-two, my hair is going gray, I’ve left behind aging friends in California, and of course, the spiritual life is always about dying— as Krishnamurti put it, “dying to the known.” Death is at the heart of life and is actually the secret of liberation, but it seems to terrify the human mind, this disappearing of the objective world that has seemed so real.
I speak of “my life” as if it’s something solid. It seems that way when I make a story out of it. But actually, it is ungraspable, unfathomable. It is a mass of sensations and thoughts, moment after moment, chaos that the mind can organize into seemingly meaningful categories and make into a coherent story.
We cling to our stories and our histories as if they were our lifelines. They make (apparent) sense out of what would otherwise be incomprehensible. They provide a sense of meaning and importance to the fiction of “myself” and all that I identify with (my family, my civilization, my ethnic group, my political leanings, my sexual orientation, my subculture, my gender, my generation). Our stories keep alive the sense of being somebody—a definite, independent entity with free will and responsibility, a “me.”
Yet our stories change as we change, because the perspective from which we organize what we see as “my life” keeps changing. We look at it through a Freudian lens, a feminist lens, a Marxist lens, a twelve-step lens, a Zen lens, and on and on. (Of course, supposedly there is no such thing as a Zen lens, because what the Zen folks are up to is the deconstruction of all lenses, but if we’re not careful, that can solidify and become a lens, too.) With each new lens, we reframe and reorganize what we describe as “my life,” and it then means something slightly (or entirely) different than it did before.
Early one Saturday morning, in the lobby of the building where I live in Chicago, I meet my next-door neighbor. She is a woman, probably in her seventies, originally from Poland, who is going deaf, who plays her radio all night long.
When I first moved in, she played talk radio at full volume—so loud I heard every word in my bedroom and couldn’t sleep. I wrote her a nice note on a beautiful card. She didn’t respond. The maintenance man helped me nail rugs to my wall to buffer the sound, and he talked to her about it. She denied playing the radio. Nothing worked. One night I lost my temper, pounded on the wall, and screamed, “Shut up!” She pounded back. I felt terrible. I wrote a note of apology in the morning. No reply. The maintenance man got the landlord involved. Eventually, through the landlord’s intervention, my neighbor turned the volume down to a level where I didn’t hear the words, and I could sleep. But the maintenance man told me that ever since my first note to her, my neighbor has hated me, so I’ve had an uncomfortable sense of bad vibes.
More recently, I’ve learned that my neighbor may have Alzheimer’s and probably doesn’t fully realize what she’s doing. This has given me much more compassion for her than when I thought she was deliberately being inconsiderate and deceitful. I rarely see her, but when I first moved in, I was struck by her lovely smile. I keep hoping that one day I will run into her in the hall and everything will be resolved in a face-to-face encounter.
This morning it finally happens. I’d been out for an early morning walk, and as I come into the lobby, there she is. There is no one else around.
I wave at her, and she waves back happily.
“Who is this smiling at me so early?” she asks.
“It’s Joan, your neighbor.”
By this time we are face to face, beaming at each other, and she is trying to place me. She puts her hand on my cheek.
“Joan in 406, the one who wrote you the notes,” I say.
“406?” She’s trying to figure it out, trying to make me someone she likes, because obviously she likes me.
Finally she gets it. “Oh, you’re the one I don’t like! The one who wrote me the notes.” But by this time she has been smiling at me, placing her hand affectionately on my heart.
We talk more. She notices my missing arm and shows me her paralyzed left arm swollen from lymphoma. She tells me of her breast surgery.
“The landlord told me you were very nice,” she says, “but I told him, ‘She attacks my wall. . . . How can she be nice!?’” As she speaks, my neighbor’s palm still rests on my heart.
We laugh together.
A month later I run into her again, and she has no idea who I am.
Who am I?
This is something to investigate for oneself. Rather than take someone else’s word, or think about the question mentally, or look for it in books, what happens if we look directly, right now?
This “me,” upon close inspection, is a creation of thought. This creative ability of the mind is both the great gift and the central difficulty for human beings. We have the ability to think in complex, abstract ways without even being aware that thinking is happening. Thinking is our greatest resource and survival tool as a species, but it also creates a lot of mischief, a lot of suffering.
We mistake the “movie” that thought creates for reality itself. We mistake the word for what it describes. We take our memories as factual histories of what happened, rather than as incomplete, abstract representations of momentary and limited subjective perceptions. We lose track of the fact that thought is thought. We don’t realize that thought is creating the world we imagine we live in; we think that thought is merely describing it objectively.
Through our thinking, we imagine and believe that we are somebody, that something is lacking, that we have to get somewhere (other than here), that there is something called “time” in which we can get “somewhere else.” We imagine past and future, progress and failure. And this all seems very, very real.
But is it?
Perhaps we can begin with not knowing.
Mom calls to tell me that a former neighbor has died, Milly Whipple, who lived down the street all through my childhood. We will attend the memorial service on Saturday and perhaps the dinner afterward.
We will likely see many former neighbors, all of them rabid Republicans like the ones who served in Nixon’s cabinet. Milly’s son, Ted, is a hotshot psychiatrist who has “cured” homosexuals. I imagine myself at a gathering of anti-gay, pro-Bush Republicans, on the eve of Bush’s inauguration, trying not to explode or commit psychological suicide. I tell myself it is a wonderful spiritual opportunity. But inside I feel dread.
Saturday arrives. We pull into the church parking lot. We’re quite early, and immediately there is a procession coming straight toward us—Episcopal priests, family members. I see Ted, the psychiatrist-son, and he’s carrying an urn that I realize holds his mother’s ashes. This is a situation Emily Post never covered: what to say or do when someone you haven’t seen in over thirty years is coming toward you carrying his dead mother in an urn. There is no time for reflection. I roll down the car window and say, “Hi, Ted,” and he, holding the urn, leans in slightly and says, “Joanie . . . ,” and the procession moves on.
And then the service. There in that church, in the presence of age and death, the things that divide us, or seem to—our differing ideologies and lifestyles—somehow all feel very superficial and meaningless in the face of that which is so much deeper and so much more real—the momentary nature of the play, the beauty of it in its entirety, and the love that sometimes manages to shine through, despite all the odds against it. Ted’s wife kisses me on the cheek with genuine affection. Effie, the sister of the deceased (a woman Mom’s age whom I’ve known all my life), holds my hand.
Three of the four officiating priests are women. One is African American. Something has changed, even here.
We never do go to the dinner. Mom has decided she doesn’t want to. Today, I can’t say I know any more than I did before about Republicans, except that they too end up in urns.
Scientific studies have long shown that we are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information pouring into our senses every moment. Moreover, there is a half-second time delay in transmission, so that all perception is actually of the past. We are the present moment, but we can never perceive it. We can only be it. Our perceptions are nothing more than a very limited fragment from the past. What “we” make out of them conceptually—how the mind organizes and interprets and understands them—is a further abstraction based on our conditioning and genetics, shaped by our desires and fears. Add to this the well-known distortions of memory, and we quickly realize that what we think of as the factual and true story of our life, or the factual and true history of the world, is in fact nothing but a very partial, extremely limited, inevitably distorted abstraction of something that actually, in the truest sense, never really happened at all.
This is not to say that our stories are bad or should be purged or deleted (as if they could be!). In many ways they may be useful or beautiful fictions. Sometimes it’s important to tell a story, to hear it, to listen carefully to it. Sometimes it actually helps to expose and dissolve the story. Sometimes the same story can serve different functions at different moments. A story can be told in a way that reinforces and feeds belief and limitation or it can be told in a way that serves waking up from all sense of belief and limitation.
As I mean it, meditation is about becoming aware that these stories and beliefs are indeed fictional, that they have no actual substance or reality, no solidity. Dying to the known. When stories are transparent, then they can be used or enjoyed where appropriate, but we are not bound by them. We no longer believe that we are the character in the story, and we know that our neighbors are not really who they appear to be.