Living in the city, we often see things that are not there. Illusions, deja vu, trick of the light, whatever you call it, our mind compensating for what we are ignoring. Every day, we shut out so much of our experience: the man in the wheelchair outside of Starbucks, the woman with the clipboard asking you to sign a petition, the hum of the freeway or honking of traffic. To each their own challenges as much as opportunities. But as we begin to shut out and shut off, the world begins to restructure, pressing upon us until we can no longer ignore what is happening within as much as without. Sometimes, this manifests in humorous ways: the hole in the wall pizzeria with the 99 cent supremes, the celebrity at the store we shop at all the time, the cute guy who we know was looking at our butt. We’ve been working out, how could it be anything else?
Over the last week, I have seen all of my ex girlfriends.
All of them.
Just the way I saw them last; including Royal Brown.
When I was in first grade, Royal was an “older” neighborhood girl. Admittedly, we were both in first grade but she was born in March and thus much, much wiser. Royal proudly and knowingly showed me what was under her blue dress when we once ran away together (it was really the other end of the street and behind some trees) and encouraged me, even at the age of six, to “do what God wants you to do.” In short order, we confessed our eternal love for one another, were each other’s first kiss, went to church and school together, and were taunted for being “boyfriend and girlfriend” by friends years before such things were cool.
Two years later, Royal moved away and, again with her defining bravado, gave me a kiss in front of all the neighborhood, including both her parents and my own, without apology or reservation. In empty moments, I still think of her.
Still, it was with a great deal of surprise that I saw “Royal” this week in Los Angeles, crossing the street in that same blue dress and red hair ribbon. Startled, I stared at her a moment too long as she stared back with that all too familiar smile from my past when, in a blink, I realized it was not her at all but another girl, a real one, who looked nothing like the Royal memory. What, I wondered, was she doing here anyway? The light changed and I entirely dismissed what had just happened. Nonsense, I told myself.
Except that it happened again. By the end of the week, other girls and women had appeared:
- Elizabeth, the wonderful honey-haired country girl who knew both how to laugh and how to dissipate my frustration when she showed up late to every. single. date we ever had over the course of a year. Elizabeth was standing in line at the grocery store.
- Sarah, the demure and tight-lipped Episcopalian sorority president who was eager to get on behind closed doors, under starlight soccer fields, in the car in the forest, on the couch with her grandmother one room and who I will always affectionately refer to as “The Pouncer.” She appeared in the car next to me last Wednesday at lunch.
- Marie, the bookish blonde with a penchant for pencil skirts and self-deprecating humor who appeared at the library, characteristically flipping through Proust.
- Claire, the starlight-blue-eyed writer who accepted me for who I was, coming out of an elevator.
- Jenny, the freckled dreamy one, taking off her sunglasses as she walked into the post office.
- And yes, the one who left permanent damage. She appeared on the Metro, on campus (twice) and descending Echo Mountain while hiking.
In Buddhism and much of Eastern religion, there is an open understanding of what constitutes reality. Western tradition has inherited an excessive universalism via Platonic realism and thus refer to their Eastern counterparts as nominalists for those of you keeping score of high terminology. For the rest of us, most conclusions in Eastern thought are subjective – sometimes uncomfortably so. Major strains of thought (like karma and the effect of certain foods, for example) can be teased out (dharmas), but in the end we must find our own god and own way to live the life we have instead of relying on someone else to figure it out for us. In some sense, Eastern-influenced religions are tougher in this respect because they force you to work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. For some Buddhists, reality is seen as the continual chain of causality. For others, reality is much like the familiar lullaby, “but a dream.” Whatever their robe though, Buddhists agree that reality is difficult to understand because true reality is beyond understanding. When we perceive an object, for instance, and thus rely on our senses to authenticate that Yes, that is a glass of water on the desk, what we have truly done is merely label it. As soon as your mind labels something, recognizes it, names it or compares it, that takes the place of the actual object or person in our mental processes. The image or label represents the different qualities, characteristics, traits, we recognize it by but it is not the reality; it is merely a representation of it. No wonder, the Buddhist reasons, we tend to react with simplicity, exaggeration and subjectivity. We are conditioned to do so by our senses and mind. The conclusion is that we are not (and by definition cannot be) objective.
Albert Einstein would comfortably sum it up like this: “Reality is merely an illusion; albeit, a very persistent one.” One that will not be ignored.
For over a year, I have tried with differing degrees of success to ignore thinking about these girls and women, have tried to entirely cut all memory of loving and being loved out of thought, concern and emotion. Last summer provided significant progress towards this end as I found myself in a hospital, contemplating mortality alone. In an ironic way, the absence of those I love most from my side made them more real, the emptiness almost tangible. My best hypothesis on why I saw doppelgängers this week is that I am trying to forget and ignore something, to press something out which demands to be let in. But something within me resists this.
In a similar sense, liberal theologians posit that Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances, for instance, were nothing more than the projected hopes of the disciples who were in shock over the gruesome execution of their friend and traveling companion, their teacher and inspiration. Since they missed Jesus but had not yet fully grieved his loss, they saw him as they last knew him – with puncture wounds on hands and side, on the seashore, continuing to speak of the kingdom as he so frequently had done previously. The post-mortem Jesus, such theologians would argue, was the projection of the disciples greatest hopes and it is in this light that he continues to influence those of religious persuasion — a universal everyman to fit all seasons.
Some see their memories and dreams, the double entendres of the daily pedestrian, those echoes of reality that cause us to admit we are “stuck in the hamster wheel of being stressed and worried, but call everything OK,” as having nothing to do with reality. At worst, they are like Pilate, shirking responsibility and absolving themselves, asking What is truth? What is reality? I alone determine this. At best, they hyperspiritualize their experience. Both can be seen in the following excerpt:
For a few months, I have been slipping off, thinking of places in my life. One minute I’m home, the next I’m back in NOLA… I don’t know why I go back to these mental places; is there unfinished business? Did I miss something, here, that I need to move forward? In a breath of prayer – admittance of the wheel-bound state I am in – I hear G-D speaking: The wheel [I have found] has nothing to do with a where, or a who or whos, or the whats associated. Nothing.
Whatever it takes to ignore the reality knocking on the door of our anesthetized senses, right?
The writer here takes the easy and comfortable routine of a pseudo-oracle, convincing herself that God has spoken and that her past has nothing to do with the present, nor do the hiccups and over-the-shoulders confronting her with the “unfinished business.” For the historian as much as the student of religion, this type of “belief” is clearly indicative of post-Victorian (and thus foreign to the writers she cites elsewhere like Chan, Chandler, Bell, Moore as much as Judeo-Christian scripture) narcissistic theology and practice. For the devotee influenced by this thinking, the aim is to “feel better” about the self. No regard is given for others (mother, sister, friends, relationships and especially not strangers), reality, or responsibility. Again, whatever it takes to ignore the reality knocking on the door of her anesthetized senses. But this woman’s experience is common, perhaps even familiar to you, so it will surely come as no surprise that reality will continue to press upon her (as it does all who ignore it) and she will be left running on the same hamster wheel again and again – each time under a different name, circumstance, or zipcode.
Reality seeks resolution.
So we excuse ourselves. We don’t give the money. We don’t sign the petition. We are physically here yet miles away in our insulated alternative (Paris, New Orleans, a concert or cruise). Whatever allows us to do whatever and behave however we wish because there is no sense of interconnectedness to it all. Our past revisits us like Marley’s ghost on a chilly winter morn, but whenever internal or external incongruency appears, we “give to” (or take from) our local deity, believing reciprocity will not come ’round or that karma isn’t real because we define our own destiny. Judgement will never come. We must believe this. For how can we really live with ourselves when what was becomes what is, when we see the ghosts of our past, or when we are haunted by “unfinished business?”
More in Part II next week!
For those practicing yoga and fluent in Eastern thought, the Sanskrit word kleshas will be familiar here. Kleshas literally translates to “afflictions of the mind.” According to yogic belief, the true nature of all beings is perfect, immortal, unchanging, cohesive. This creates a constant striving state of unease and desire for fulfillment, a constant awareness that something isn’t quite right, all of the pieces don’t quite fit together, and that unity is not as achievable as we theorize it to be — that something just in the corner of the eye, that nagging feeling of an unsatisfied life. For Patanjali, a leading voice in yogic thought, “The problem, the obstacle to living… is the kleshas.”
Pantanjali particularly points to the primary kelsha, avidya, which is described as “ignorance, forgetfulness, not knowing.” Contrary to the vision of oneness, avidya is a vision of duality; it is a confusion about reality from which all other kleshas stem, presuming that all reality is one and that we can master it. Derivative kleshas of this failed presumption include:
- Asmita (ego or “I am-ness”), whereby the individal identifies solely with form and forgotten the spirit behind said form. Chained to inevitable failure, the individual is destined to continue repeating their karma as they believe they can master not only themselves but reality and the divine (as our friend above has so clearly done, linking self, effort and the divine together in one fell swoop).
- Raga, best described as a pursuit of and attraction to pleasurable experiences (ie. the sensual, whether in art, fashion, design, recreation, or sexuality). At this level, the human places a premium on form rather than content and identifies with form in pursuit of identity. Such an individual has forgotten they are also a human who is dependent and in some sense connected with others, both alive and dead (see Hebrews 12:1). The human interacts with other forms, perhaps a house, person, a belief system and develops preferences caused by experiencing pleasure. The mind’s rationale encourages the attainment of more forms to repeat the pleasurable experience, reasoning that, ‘if only I had x,y or z I would be happy again’. If repeating the experience doesn’t result in pleasure, then pain, sorrow or disappointment occurs which is known as dukkha.
- Abhinivesha, also known as fear.
More in Part II next week!