Late Winter Blues

I got depressed a few weeks ago. Off-and-on depression is a familiar experience for me, but this one was especially nasty, on a par with the grief I felt when my mother died. I was thoroughly blindsided, and felt helpless to pull myself out of it.

Right up until that time, I’d been on a bit of a roller coaster emotionally, but I’d been meditating a lot and was on the whole doing well. Then: bam! I got sucked down into the vortex. There was a trigger, which I won’t go into, but it became a source of desperate fascination for me. Meanwhile, in my daily life I was experiencing a lack of the kinds of experiences that help to produce good feelings. The weather was awful, with a grey sky, rain and snow, and worst of all, ice that made walking the dog a treacherous gauntlet. Even worse, my sleep took a nosedive.

After surgery on my right shoulder in January I still had lots of pain, plus I had developed a case of bursitis in my left shoulder that felt even worse than the one that had been cut open. My ability to do the simplest tasks was severely limited. For awhile I had been enjoying scented candles, which provided sensory pleasure that offset some of the physical nastiness, but then I developed a cough and had to give them up. My brain was foggy enough that I couldn’t read anything even remotely challenging.

Then there was the troubling acknowledgment that I needed to stop taking opioids, now that I was over six weeks out from my shoulder surgery. I can’t say that the pills reduced the pain all that much after the initial week, nor did they provide reliable sleep, but they did make me feel good all over. When I reluctantly gave them up, I discovered that I had become dependent on them, maybe even mildly addicted. Suddenly my nerves became a source of jangly noise in my head and my entire body felt miserable. When I tried to meditate I felt like jumping out of my skin, so I stopped sitting entirely. Prior to this experience I had looked on opioids as an occasional respite from pain. I had an ongoing prescription for times when my fibromyalgia pain got to be too much, which I took at the rate of about three times a week. The result was a welcome feeling of euphoria. Now that was gone, and my own brain chemistry was exposed in all its deficiencies.

The result was overwhelming. I felt as if I had become plugged in to all the sadness and melancholy of the universe. I cried a lot, feverishly struggled to find answers, and dove into distractions. In daily life I could barely function; could barely manage to get dressed and make the bed in the morning or make a cup of tea. My poor dog stayed at my side throughout, but I felt no comfort from his presence out of guilt over how little I could respond to him.

People who knew about this implored me to get therapy, but I didn’t have the energy to pick up the phone and make an appointment. There was nothing I could do by way of self-help either. Throughout this time, I was bedeviled by a painful question: why am I still here? Why am I even alive? My mother’s death of two years ago hung over my head like a cloud of unknowing. She was 97 and had dementia, so at the level of all reason it was more than time for her to go, but her death made me an orphan, a motherless and fatherless child, and at 63 years of age I couldn’t make sense of myself with no parents to mirror myself back to me.

It is impossible to describe this feeling to anyone who hasn’t been through it. I have been a practicing Buddhist for almost 10 years; before that I was a liberal-minded Christian for about 30, yet in the condition of existential despair absolutely nothing made sense. There is nowhere for the logical mind to go under such circumstances, no verbal formula to pull oneself out. The trigger for this recent bout of depression involved another person’s death from years ago. I remember thinking, how can a person be here in the world, making an impact, and then be irretrievably gone? It’s not as if I haven’t understood the teaching on impermanence, nor am I unacquainted with the facts of life and its inevitable end. Yet at certain times, this time being the most recent, death presents itself as an impossible enigma. How can this person, that person be gone and I still be here? And what am I even here for?

The conventional wisdom is to get a person out of this dangerous place as quickly as possible, to return them to ordinary life and functioning. But as I look back on it, I recognize that my time in the wilderness was itself a form of wisdom, a doorway, a point of disclosure. Religions offer among other things a means of making sense of death, but no one ever really makes “sense” of it because death, either the prospect of one’s own or coping with someone else’s, is beyond sense. At the point of someone’s death, even the death of a pet, there is a tear in the fabric of our universe that leaves an aperture into the unknown. For a time we are suspended in this radical uncertainty, until the tear closes up and we begin to inhabit a new universe without the missing piece, in its place memories and stories that give comfort. Of course my mother is gone, my father is gone, and all of this was bound to happen unless something worse were to happen and I were to die first. Of course I will die some day, and here’s hoping it’s not before my time and I leave no loose ends. Life goes on, people move on, adult or even minor children readjust, spouses remarry, friends mourn and then resume their social and work lives in new formations. And all the while, under our feet there is the abyss, which can swallow us without warning when we find ourselves undefended.

Stuff

I need to take time out of my narrative and talk about something that is currently on my mind: the disposition of my parents’ stuff. This is something that I have been doing for years now, ever since my mother moved from Cape Cod to Minnesota eleven years ago. She had been a widow for four years at the time of her move. During the period between my father’s death and moving to be near my family, she rattled around alone in the home they’d made together following his retirement in 1980. Of all the places they’d lived throughout their married life, that last house was the one they’d had the longest.

They both experienced the Great Depression and poverty as children. My maternal grandmother, abandoned with two small children in the 1920s, kept the house she’d paid cash for and took in boarders. Neither child had their own bedroom, sleeping on sofas in the dining room or living room. There were days when they didn’t know what they’d have to eat. My paternal grandfather lost his job and was almost broken by it. My father mowed a golf course from sunup until sundown during the summer and either gave the money to his parents or saved it for college tuition. In college, he never had a spare dime for anything beyond the necessities of life.

By the time my own parents embarked on their life together, having enough and then some was important to them. Over the years they accumulated things and experiences, buying Persian rugs, fine china, and nice clothes, and travelling. They kept their frugal ways in their focus on getting a bargain for everything they bought, which gave them a sense of control, seeing it as beating the system. If something nice was on sale my mother would buy it in quantities far beyond what she could use, stockpiling for a rainy day. These habits persisted for as long as she kept her independence.

My father began showing signs of dementia by the time he was 80, and gradually faded over the next five years until he died. My mother cared for him in their home, only resorting to sending him to an adult day care program in his last year or so. While he was declining I noticed that magazines piled up on furniture all over the house, while unfolded laundry accumulated in the bedroom. In the basement there were more clothes and a lifetime’s worth of miscellaneous stuff, with a room off the main basement full of shelves loaded with canned goods. After my father’s death the clutter increased, not to the point of hoarding, but significant nonetheless.

During the four years in Massachusetts my mother spoke over and over of moving out to be with me but had trouble coming to a decision. She’d come out to our place and look at real estate and talk about moving only to change her mind. I became exasperated and let her know it, but it did no good; my mother needed to let her process unfold in its own time. Finally she announced out of the blue one day that she was coming. The wheels were then put in motion to stage her house for sale, secure a place for her here, and dispose of some of her things and move the rest.

What she wanted was a leisurely process of going through her beloved things and deciding where they would go. Some she would give away to select individuals, others to charity, and reluctantly, still others she would let go to the dump. Unfortunately she had no concept of the scope of the task, nor was she prepared to do what was necessary to complete it. In the spring of 2007 she hired someone at $50 an hour to help her pack, but over several months barely scratched the surface. Above all, she was consumed by the belief that wasting usable things was immoral. By summer, however, the clock was ticking. She had hired a realtor and now had a timetable for getting the place ready.

That summer when I travelled to see her with my husband and son I was also in denial. The moment of truth arrived when, on the last day of our visit, I finally went to see the realtor, who told me that I would have to stay on and tend to the process myself; my mother was completely incapable of doing it, and would die in that house long before it was completed. The realtor proposed getting a group of men and their trucks in to cart everything away en masse over a period of two or three days. Trying to take any but minimal furniture out to Minnesota was unrealistic, as was continuing to sift through things. This meant I had to confront my mother and take the fallout.

It was brutal, but it got done. My mother yelled at me, howled against the realtor, hated the men who did the moving, and railed against the waste that ensued. One evening there wasn’t adequate time to load everything on the trucks, so a lot of her stuff stayed outside on the back patio. This was a scandal to my mother, to see her old television sets and stereo equipment from the 1970s sitting out exposed to the elements. I felt torn between her feelings and the prodding of the realtor, between the cruelty of the process and what I had come to see as its necessity. Eventually the house was beautifully staged, it sold for a good price, and my mother moved out to Minnesota, along with what was still a massive load of stuff. It ended up in a pile of boxes in her new apartment. The story of how we got it unpacked and put away will have to wait for another day.

Turning Point

My commitment to a meditation practice came about as a response to my stage fright, oddly enough. After I left graduate school I had stopped playing the violin entirely, and didn’t pick it up again for a couple of decades. I was just too busy, and besides, I did not need any more stress in my life than I already had. Eventually, though, I hauled the instrument out of a closet, sent it out for repairs, and tuned up the strings.

I was miserably out of shape, but after giving it some regular, gentle practice I was surprised to find at least some of my technique beginning to return. My husband suggested a simple piece for me to play during the prelude in church. People have a tendency to catch up with their friends during this time, which helped keep the nerves at bay, but they perked up and listened to me that first time because no one had had the faintest idea that I could even play.

I had no idea how it would go. I touched the bow to the strings, and within seconds realized that I was shaking. I worked with the situation, let things gel a bit, and carried on. After the fact I had reason to feel encouraged: after all, I hadn’t played in public in many years, and now I had actually done it. My listeners were amazed and impressed, and so I decided that I would make a point of acclimating myself to performing. I recalled my fear when I first tried singing solos, as well as my nerves teaching classes. Repeated exposure worked in those cases, I reasoned, so repeated experience playing in this low-stakes setting should have the same effect.

Over the years that followed I played church services, I joined the local orchestra, and I even played for a couple of weddings. I became part of a flute, violin, and piano ensemble at church that performed for less formal services once a month. I learned new music, becoming acquainted with the organ and violin repertoire (not large, but wonderful). What I found was that again and again, I would improve to the point that it seemed my nerves were almost gone, only to have them come roaring back the next time I tried to play. Obviously, the violin was nothing like singing or lecturing for me.

Then I hit on another possible solution: I would try the viola. I thought that a new instrument with which I had no fraught history would trick my brain into thinking that I could make mistakes without shame. I learned a new clef, a new arrangement of strings, and a new, longer fingerboard. I congratulated myself that I was improving brain function by forcing myself to undertake something challenging in middle age. Unfortunately, though, the instrument was in essential respects the same as the violin, with all the same liabilities.

By the time I began playing viola I had begun taking beta blockers for my nerves. At first they seemed to be the answer to all my prayers, until they stopped working. I increased the dosage and the pattern repeated. I realized that continuing on that path was dangerous, so I settled on a dosage that seemed reasonably effective and stuck with it. Playing with the pills became my new baseline, following the same pattern as playing without them had been in the past.

At Christmas time in 2010, I played a nice little romantic piece on the viola in a small church service and felt good. The very next time I played, however, I forgot to take my pills. Maybe I was subconsciously feeling sufficiently confident that I thought I wouldn’t need them; who’s to say? I was doing the slow movement to a Brahms sonata, an exquisitely beautiful piece, but from the outset everything fell apart. I was completely blindsided, then frantic, then plunging ahead just trying to contain the damage. Afterwards I felt a toxic mixture of shame, bitter failure, frustration and grief. I retreated to a room in the church basement where I paced the floor, wringing my hands and crying, and then I thought of Daniel Ingram’s book. I thought, why not try it? What do I have to lose? And so I resolved then and there to undertake a meditation practice.

 

 

Twitter, Distraction, and Geeky Buddhists

By the autumn of 2010 I was on the last leg of my career, although I didn’t know it yet. I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia almost six years earlier, and had been managing to maintain a full-time schedule during that time. My symptoms were frequent upper back and neck pain, headache, unreliable sleep, and “brain fog”—a sense of operating without full command of my intellectual faculties. Sitting at a computer for long hours was especially miserable. In the meantime, any time I tried to settle down to reading something I would start to nod off. The one positive outcome of the diagnosis is that it made me more likely to keep up with regular exercise, which helped enormously.

I had always had a tendency to distraction and difficulty focusing; in fact, at one point I was even diagnosed with adult ADD. The one place where I found myself completely on task was the classroom. Teaching may have been stressful in some respects, but the pleasure of interacting with students kept me feeling fulfilled in my job. What was difficult was prioritizing tasks, “juggling” (a word I have come to hate) the responsibilities of class preparation, research and writing, and committee work. The advent of technology only made things worse. I was distracted all day by email, and the entertainment potential of the Internet was a constant source of temptation. So, knowing that I was making a huge mistake, I signed up for a Twitter account. I had already been spending way too much time on Facebook and did not need another drain on my attention, but I had just taken a summer workshop on learning to navigate an iPad and got sucked in.

Twitter proved to be a greater instant-gratification device than I had ever experienced before. I pursued a number of interests, watching intently as tweets accumulated in real time. I also browsed a bit and found corners of the Internet that I would not have accessed otherwise. It was on one of these random excursions that I hit upon Buddhist Geeks. The name itself was intriguing, so I read further. There was an interview with a guy named Kenneth Folk, who claimed to be enlightened. I had never before known anyone who would say something like that so openly. He even claimed that others who followed a similar path to his could become enlightened as well, and he mentioned a book by a certain Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It was apparently available in PDF format for free.

My prior exposure to Buddhism had left me impressed, yet unwilling to commit for a variety of reasons. Two years earlier I had briefly attended a meditation center in my town and brought home some books from their library. After reading about traditional Buddhist beliefs and cosmology, I thought, I have enough trouble with the doctrinal system of Christianity; I don’t need to get myself enmeshed in another one. But a year later I did some intensive reading for a potential new course that included units on eastern spiritual traditions, and wondered again whether I might want to pursue it further. Then when I saw the interview with Kenneth Folk and the claim that ordinary people could get enlightened, I thought, “That sounds like a cool thing to do,” but didn’t really see it applying to me. Nevertheless, I found the link to Daniel Ingram’s book and downloaded the file onto my Kindle.

It was awkward scrolling through it on that platform, but something about it intrigued me, beginning with the author’s description of himself on the title page as “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” (arahant being the Sankrit term for an enlightened individual). Who on earth would say such a thing? The subtitle was “An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.” From the outset the book was direct, quirky, and borderline confrontational. The mysterious author identified himself as a gen-X emergency room doctor, clearly a highly accomplished person. I immediately began to view his life in comparison with my own, and proceeded with a mixture of fascination and jealousy.

The message of the book was simple: it is possible to experience genuine transformations by training the mind in meditation, all the way to what we call enlightenment. There is a series of stages outlined in a fifth-century Buddhist commentary, and an assortment of powerful meditation techniques (or to use the author’s term, “technologies”), which lead to awakening when taken seriously and pursued diligently, just as Kenneth Folk had said in his interview. As I continued to read, however, I reached a point where I could no longer follow the author’s meaning, and so I set it aside, once more thinking to myself that it would be intriguing to try something like that, but not for me.

Eventually, that book would change my life. To this day, whenever someone asks what is the most significant book I’ve ever read, I say it’s that one, hands down. Nothing else even comes close.

 

My Brilliant Career

Most of my adult life was dedicated to the business of building a career. I had always known that I would have one, and was driven by the belief, or even the commandment, that it should be brilliant. As I’ve remarked earlier, quitting was shameful. With the arrival of the women’s movement, I got the message that settling was just as much a deadly sin. I had failed in my initial plan to become a violinist, and so I found an alternative: an academic career pursuing my interests, which were entirely within the framework of the humanities. I majored in history in college, but almost completed a philosophy major as well; in fact, my senior honors thesis was so philosophical that at the very end of my four years I changed my major to Intellectual History.

“As opposed to what,” people would ask, “dumb history?” I laughed, but it was hard to explain, especially as the definition shifted during the time I was a student. History of ideas? Or the history of texts in context? The history of how people express meaning? And then, there was the question of what was included. Literature? Philosophy? The fine arts? Any and all of the above, I would say, elaborating that I had had so much trouble choosing that I finally landed in a field that allowed me to have everything.

The only trouble was, at the time of my graduation from college in 1976, there were no academic jobs to be had. The demographics of my generation were to blame: when the baby boom generation first began reaching college age in the 60s, graduate schools responded by accepting more students to increase the number of newly-minted professors. Unfortunately, there was the lag between bringing these people into the pipeline and sending them out, because of the length of time it takes to train a college professor (anywhere from 4 to 12 years, roughly). Thus for awhile there was a limit in supply, until the inevitable crunch occurred as the baby boomers cycled out of college and into their adult lives.

Graduate departments did not notice this fact immediately, and so as applications for admission to colleges and universities began to slacken, the supply of PhDs continued undiminished. Not only did the number of people still in training remain high, but new ones were being admitted year after year. Academic departments are like any other unit within a hierarchical organization, in that they operate to increase their share of the whole through expanding in size wherever possible, and thus during the heyday of the 60s these organizations had enjoyed their expansion. They did not easily arrive at a decision to contract, even if they found themselves almost overnight unable to place their graduates with the same success as earlier.

This bit of history is of little interest to most people, but to the academic world it had devastating consequences. I had been celebrated in college as an excellent student with wonderful prospects, but suddenly I found myself in a position where the sky was no longer the limit in terms of what I could accomplish. Still, my narcissism was such that I was convinced I could not fail. I took some time out between undergraduate and graduate school, ended my first marriage, and then went ahead with my plans.

Throughout the years that followed I was obsessed with landing a job. I got a series of temporary positions after five years in school, completing my dissertation at the end of my first year out. I sent out applications each fall to every school offering a job even remotely in line with my experience, attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association each winter to interview with those that had indicated an interest in my application, and returned home in an agony of expectation waiting to hear further. I eventually landed a job at a fine liberal arts college in the Midwest, far from family and friends, and remained there until retirement two years ago.

I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones, and have no complaints about the lot I drew in my vocational life. I also recognize that I made sacrifices to get and keep that job, and that throughout my career I often wished I had chosen differently (I even find myself revisiting the question in retirement). When I was applying for jobs 30+ years ago, I was under the powerful illusion that I would be blissfully happy if I attained my goal. I also regarded the difficulties of my job search and early career as a miserable burden, resenting those who seemed to have an easier life—mostly older, established professors, which I myself would eventually become—and wallowed in self-pity at the unfairness of it all. It’s not that I didn’t know about the multitudes of people in the world struggling to survive in war zones or in extreme poverty, but I simply did not relate their lives to my own. And so I spent my young adulthood mired in self-centeredness and delusion.

The job search and subsequent career also threw me into relentless competition with countless others, equally or better qualified, who I feared would rob me of my prize. The real prize, I found, wasn’t just a job doing meaningful work or an income, but self-esteem. I invested my entire self in winning this competition, regarding my competitors with a sense of grievance. Most frightening of all was seeing how easily I could be surpassed or replaced. The fear was like a choking sensation in my throat, as if I couldn’t breathe, as if these doubles of myself would suffocate me. For if someone else could do everything I could do, only potentially do it better, or be more attractive or more praised in doing it, then what was I? The answer was that I was nothing, nothing at all.

I Become a Christian

I grew up in the Congregational church, although as a child and young adult I had little interest in being a Christian. As I grew older I realized that I was angry at God for what he had done to my brothers, and that I could neither understand nor forgive that outrage. To love God and believe in his promises was for me tantamount to saying that it was just fine for my brothers to be as they were, and as a witness to their suffering I would never do that. Through college and for years afterward I lived in that state of stalemate.

So what changed? I remember one incident in particular, the one that precipitated my leaving my first husband. We were arguing about something trivial on the morning we were to drive a significant distance to visit his family, and like so many trivial arguments this one became heated. We needed to drive two cars, because we had just purchased one and were driving the other, a loaner from his parents, back to them. I was already nervous about the drive and feeling that I couldn’t go through with it, but when I told him this his anger quickly escalated. He got physically abusive, shouting threats, pulling out a gun and pointing it at me, and then throwing me to the floor, where I lay crumpled in sobs, thinking I was going to die. Then out of nowhere I began to pray. I told God, “if this is my time to die then I accept it, but if not, help me through this!” Suddenly my fear and distress left me, I stood up, walked into the next room where my husband sat sulking, and said, “Let’s go.”

As soon as he got what he wanted he dropped his rage, but I didn’t forget what had happened. My prayer itself amazed me at least as much as the immediacy of its answer. I recognized that there was something within me that I had tapped so rarely as to be almost entirely unaware of it. Where did this sudden calm come from? How was I easily able to do what a moment earlier had seemed impossible? I didn’t know, but later I would return to this experience as I felt drawn more and more back to church.

In graduate school, studying medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history, my attraction grew. I was puzzled because I had so many reservations about Christian doctrine, but a course on monastic culture opened in me a desire for solitude and prayer. I loved St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs, the mystics’ allegories of love, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I began attending an Episcopal chapel during a year-long post doc in Alabama, and continued for over three decades. During this time my faith waxed and waned, because I could never fully sign on to the Nicene Creed, even as I recited it week in and week out. Yet even in the absence of perfect faith, I felt loved. I understood intuitively that to love God and be loved by God were one and the same. I also understood that out of human clay, God in all His glory became manifest, transforming the base metal of our human nature into pure, radiant gold. I began seeing a spiritual advisor, then stopped, then returned much later to another, and stopped again.

Throughout this period I cried a lot, out of gratitude and an over-abundance of feeling. I cried in church, through hymns, through sermons, and with certain Bible passages, the Book of Ruth in particular. I was excited to learn that the spiritual writers considered tears to be a holy gift. I wrote in a journal and prayed the daily office. My favorite theologian was Meister Eckhart, whose sermons were the perfect expression of what I felt and believed. I became interested in my dreams, recording them in my journal. One day as I was writing I began to meditate on the mirror image of the desert and the garden, the transformation of the one into the other, when suddenly I felt myself enveloped by the most powerful, exquisite sensation of pure love. I stopped writing, in tears, gasping for breath, and thought, no, no, I can’t, I can’t, please, not yet. And then with the most perfect tact it withdrew, leaving me wondering what possibly could have just happened.

Experiences like that are open to so much interpretation, yet who can know absolutely what it was and what it meant? Like my earlier experiences, it became part of my story, even during long years when my attention was elsewhere. Life intervened, and although I continued to go to church and sing in the choir, I became enmeshed in my career and my family, absorbed by triumphs, disappointments, challenges, griefs, routines, and drudgery. In the parable of the sower, Christ describes the seed that falls everywhere, some on fertile soil, some on barren land. Of the seed that takes root some will grow and flourish, but other seed will find itself choked by weeds. That was perhaps my situation. My little plant never fully died, but it did not flower in quite the same way again.

Starter Marriage

NOTE: I have not posted in awhile, because I have had some reluctance about putting this out there. Here it is, finally.

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I was not prepared for the sexual revolution. According to my upbringing, sex before marriage was forbidden, and anyone indulging in it was ruined, particularly women. My parents were clear that they had refrained from sexual activity until they were married, and then remained faithful to each other thereafter. I was also brainwashed by the mythology of romantic love, believing that falling in love rendered a person immune to interest in anyone other than the beloved. I had little to no concept of my own sexuality, much less anyone else’s.

My first year at an all-women’s college was traumatic. Early in the fall we met potential dates at mass dances called mixers, where people judged one another solely on appearance, or at parties fueled by alcohol. The women all wanted to enhance their status by landing dates with attractive, high-status men, while a large majority of the men were looking mostly for sex. My fragile ego could not have handled casual sex, yet most of the men I dated pursued it aggressively. Coming from a family that was bonded to the point of suffocation, I looked for a place of safety.

I first discovered that my social anxiety could be curbed by alcohol, and so I drank when at parties or on dates. This wasn’t exactly safe, but it was at least temporarily pleasant. I wanted a more permanent solution, a boyfriend, but finding a compatible mate wasn’t easy in an environment where I met the opposite sex under such artificial conditions. I joined the orchestra and the debate club at a nearby university, but over and over found myself back at square one when potential relationships fizzled. Finally, one evening in the spring of my sophomore year, I was with someone I’d been seeing for awhile at a chamber music performance at his dorm. We were circulating afterward, and I found myself looking up into the eyes of a very tall, very broad-shouldered young man who looked at me as if he had suddenly seen the promised land.

I was at that time feeling desperately depressed. My relationship with my date was completely superficial, although we made a beautiful couple when we went out together. He also happened to be the person who was in the right place at the right time when I finally gave in to the relentless sexual pressure of the preceding two years. The experience was disappointing, of course, and by the time of the concert we were both sick of each other, although I would be the one who ended up getting dumped. I felt like a used tissue tossed into the trash. And then all of a sudden I was at the center of attention to a powerful, handsome man who wanted nothing more than to scoop me up into his arms and hold me there forever.

Did I love him? Eventually, I suppose. After feeling so devalued I certainly loved the fact that he adored me. I also was attracted to what I perceived as his strength. I had an underdeveloped sense of myself, who I was or what I wanted. He, on the other hand, had strong ideas about everything. This appealed to me because I wanted to know his secret. Most of all, he wanted me. “I want to take you away from your previous owners,” he said at one point, referring to my parents, whom he antagonized almost immediately.

The violence started early, but it didn’t register as dangerous. He would throw something against the wall, or grab something with enough force to break it. The things that set him off were confusing to me, but because I was so unsure of what was real and what was not I accepted his touchiness as legitimate. He had a strong sense of what he was entitled to and flew into a rage when thwarted. I tried to see things from his point of view, although occasionally I would venture to argue, which only made things worse. It didn’t help that some of his opinions seemed legitimate (for example, my parents were overprotective and controlling), but the lengths to which he would go to assert himself threw him into continuous conflict with other people, including me.

We were married while we were still in college. My parents tried to prevent me from going through with it, but they were helpless in the face of such a forceful opponent, especially as I had come to regard their interference with hostility. Our marriage lasted for a little over three years. In that time we moved out of our respective dorm rooms into an apartment, and then into two others, the last one halfway across the country. Every time we moved he would have to make extensive repairs to avoid paying damages, mostly to holes he’d punched in the wall. Every time we moved I would scope out the new building for places of escape and safety in case things got out of control.

Did I think this was normal? I knew I didn’t like it, but I also thought I bore at least part of the blame when things went wrong. I certainly wasn’t mature, even for my age: I was anxious, insecure, jealous, and plagued with irrational expectations. What I failed to realize was that none of these faults warranted being grabbed by the hair and dragged around the room, threatened with severe bodily harm (“Get out of here before I break your jaw!” he roared at me once), screamed at (in the car, when turning left: “Get your fucking head out of the window!”), or threatened with a gun. And yet all through everything I thought I was free, that I was making decisions and standing up for myself, not seeing that the only things I was free to decide were things he didn’t care about.

Over time the range of things he didn’t care about grew narrower and narrower; he smashed his immense fist into the coffee table when I put on a shade of nail polish he didn’t like, and bellowed at me when I bought a dress he hated (“It looks like a goddam bag!”). Finally I left, flew home to the parents I had rejected when I married, and felt grateful beyond words for their protection.

For awhile the ensuing divorce was the most important thing in my life, until other concerns began to take over. For a bit longer I was haunted by fear and anger, which took extra time to work themselves out of my system; however the hardest thing to overcome was a sense of disorientation: how could I have been so completely wrong about what was happening? It was as if my entire perspective had flipped over in a moment. I could not trust my own ability to make sense of the world. This fundamental distrust would remain with me for many, many years.

Tears

For years, I kept my daily life separate from my relationship with Mark and Tommy, even to the point of denying they were a problem for me. In my first experiences with therapy, I mentioned them as a matter of course while giving the family history, but insisted that my real problems lay elsewhere. In the meantime, however, there was a subterranean river of grief that would break through to the surface occasionally, surprising me for a spell before disappearing again. The water metaphor is an apt one, because when I finally accessed the grief, I did so through tears that seemed to have no end.

I remember clearly a scene at Tanglewood during my first summer there. I was just 18 and was between my first and second years of college. I had had a difficult time managing and masking my stage fright, but on one night in particular it broke through during a concert of the Fellowship Orchestra, when I felt so panicked that I abruptly rose from my seat among the violins and walked off the stage in the middle of the performance. Backstage I almost literally ran into a trombonist who had unsuccessfully tried to romance me earlier in the summer. We walked around the grounds while I poured out my anguish in a flood of shame and frustration, until my parents found me and my father took over. He told me that he and my mother had watched me struggling with this torment for years, and he urged me to give up.

Now in the American vocabulary, quitting is commensurate with failure, made all the more blameworthy when it is chosen. What’s more, being advised to quit meant that I would never know whether I might have succeeded in conquering my fear if I had persevered. So I struggled with the notion as we walked, the fork in the road between the easy way out and the valiant fight to the end. And then my parents drove me home, and I somehow was moved to dig out the family photo album, pictures of me and my brothers as we were growing up, and I cried over them for what seemed like hours, grieving for all that I had lost.

That night marked the beginning of my tears. For years thereafter I would cry over my brothers almost any time I was left alone. If I was on a bus, I would turn my face to the window and cry. If I was alone in my room, I would pace the floor and cry. I cried in therapy, I cried in bed at night, I cried wherever and whenever I was alone. There were thoughts that were guaranteed to trigger the tears, like the thought of how sad it was and how much I missed them. Sometimes I would dwell on a fantasy of my brother Tommy’s death, imagining a phone call, usually while I was in a large group of people. In my fantasy I would break down completely, finally relieved of the heavy burden of maintaining an appearance of functionality.

At some point I began to suspect that the grief was for myself and had little to do with the people my brothers actually were, but I could not make sense of that distinction until my mother told me that when she first learned of the diagnosis, particularly of the younger of the two, she grieved for herself, then grieved for them, and then finally grieved for me. As the sister my grief may have come third in line, but it still had a place, and so I continued to grieve for myself.

Along with the grief there were painful fantasies of what might have been. I would look at young men who seemed to be my brothers’ age and wonder what my life might have been like if these “normal” people had been my brothers instead of the ones I had. I imagined Another Laurel, the one who grew up in a normal middle-class American family, the family that was taken away from me. What would she be like? I understood enough to know that it was impossible to tell, but the question needled me nonetheless. The family I actually had appeared to live out its life under a cloud of sadness and isolation. What would it be like to live differently? Would I be like these carefree young people I saw around me? (although of course I had no real concept of what their lives were really like either).

There came a day when I was listening to an interview on the radio, about the complex emotions of parents of autistic children. I suddenly thought, “I’m done with that.” I wasn’t done with grief, but I was done with thinking things either could or should have been other than what they were. I may have been painfully slow about it, but I had finally passed through the earlier stages of grief into a grudging acceptance.

The Three Characteristics: Suffering

Dukkha, “suffering” (also translated as “unsatisfactoriness”), is central to the Buddha’s teaching; in fact, he reputedly said, “I teach only suffering, and the end of suffering.” We’ve already encountered the role of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha also appears as one of the three marks or characteristics of existence, permeating our lives and our surroundings through and through. There are things that please us, beguile us, hook us in; but none of these things satisfies.

When we’re young, we are full of plans for what we want to do with our lives. For most of us, these plans might include things like a career, marriage, children, a nice place to live, money to spend on necessities and a few luxuries, travel, hobbies, good food, nice clothes, and friends. Young people are encouraged by their families and teachers to look to the future and to consider their immediate difficulties to be transitory. I recall a conversation with my mother and one of her friends, during a time in my life when I didn’t fit in. “Some day,” they told me, “none of this will matter.” They were wrong: as I became an adult, the identity I formed in adolescence proved to be remarkably tenacious.

Enter the Buddha and his teachings regarding dukkha. One of my dharma teachers, Kenneth Folk, has said that “the Buddha is not your friend.” Warm, rosy predictions of a brilliant life in samsara, the turning wheel of birth and death, are entirely unfounded. Some adults in our own culture might agree with him once we hit our midlife crisis, when we realize that our fond hopes in youth have not materialized; or maybe they have, but without bringing the happiness we had expected. People may be tempted to jump ship, make a career change or look for a new partner, or buy a new house or car they can’t really afford. It might work out in the short run, but letdown is inevitable.

From time to time I imagine my life as if it had been different in some significant way. Maybe I never had the stage fright, and would be able to perform in music ensembles without stress. Maybe I had the kind of systematic focus that would allow me to work an eight-hour day, go home and relax, engage in an enjoyable hobby, and then go to sleep without difficulty. Maybe I wasn’t plagued by the grandiose illusion that I needed a big, fat career, and so would never be constantly comparing myself to others, or feeling like a failure just doing a good job day in and day out. In other words, I imagine a life without dukkha.

This Other Laurel is still a meditator, I’ve decided. She gets up early, makes herself a cup of tea, maybe takes a brisk walk around the block, and then settles down for some cushion time. After work she heads to the meditation center for a half hour sit with a group before heading home. She also volunteers in her community (because of course, she has the energy for it). She lives simply but comfortably; she is not tempted to spend more than she earns. Is she married? Sometimes I imagine her as single, but it seems like a lonely life to me, so I give her my husband, except he’s the Other Husband, also free of dukkha.

I have found a place for this paragon to live, and have even imagined her car and her wardrobe. The entire fantasy seems to be an equivalent of the dreams I had as a young person, except instead of dreaming of my imaginary future, I dream of an imaginary past. But although I can see the outer trappings of this person’s life, I am unable to make sense of what lies within. I can only try to imagine the absence of things like stress, depression, boredom, regret, negative judgments, and anxiety, all the while knowing that it is impossible.

Traveling allows us to see other places, and imagine what life might be like for us if we lived there. We read novels or watch movies and television shows in order to put ourselves in the place of the protagonist. Maybe we fall in love with one of the characters—the protagonist’s love interest, most likely—or imagine ourselves working in that person’s occupation. Such experiences help us to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world, to place ourselves in another person’s skin or context, which is an essential component of a moral education. Still, they can never be more than the product of our imaginings.

I have recently longed to move somewhere else, either to the city that is an hour’s drive from here or to a warmer climate, or maybe even out of the country altogether. These longings are accompanied by imaginings of Other Laurels living in Other Places with the Other Husband. Yet several years ago I looked out the kitchen window at the trees in my neighbor’s yard, and just realized, “This is it!” I laughed. It was so simple that I might not even have noticed. This is it, just this. This is all that is it. No other, no else. Just this.

The Big Wow

I think it was in a post by Brad Warner that I first heard about The Big Wow, or perhaps it was just on one of the Internet forums I frequent. The Big Wow is the overwhelming, transforming, hit-by-a-bolt-of-lightning mystical experience that changes you forever after. Everyone wants one of those, and once you get it, you spend a good part of the rest of your life wanting another, and another, and another. Yet it’s not the Big Wow that actually transforms you; it’s the plodding, day-to-day grind of sitting in meditation, doing walking meditation, practicing mindfulness during the day, questioning yourself, and getting your act together on a number of fronts (which is what the Noble Eightfold Path is all about). You may be able to draw on the memory of that experience to motivate yourself to keep plugging away, but in the long run it’s a mistake to make too much of it.

My Big Wow happened when I was 19. It was March of 1973, and I was returning to college from spring break. For some reason, my violin teacher had loaned me her car for the week, a reflection of how close we were during that period. I was traveling east on the Massachusetts turnpike, going a little over 70. There was a school bus in front of me, and we were approaching a slight hill. I got in the left lane to pass the bus, accelerated to about 80, and then without warning the school bus pulled in front of me (I can still see it in my mind’s eye). Being a young, inexperienced driver, I did the opposite of what I should have done: I slammed on the brakes, putting the car into a tailspin. I overcorrected with the steering, tried the brakes again, and then began to panic as I lost all control of the car.

What happened next is hard to describe. I remember skidding back and forth over the highway with a few other cars in view, and I remember a look of concern on someone’s face through a window of one of those cars. I recognized with a sickening horror that I might not be able to get out of it alive, when suddenly I surrendered and everything stopped. I felt myself gently pulled upward, out of my body, and I felt the various parts of my identity fall away as if I were dropping layers of clothing. I had a thought: so now this one is over, the one called Laurel, tall, blonde, a violinist—and so it ends, and now I’m returning. And then I was flooded by an indescribable love, and thought briefly with regret about my parents, how they would grieve. But consolation was immediate: soon they will know, in no time at all. And there was relaxation into that love which was my true home.

The next thing I recall was returning to myself in a daze, with the car on the left shoulder, facing in the opposite direction of the road. I had no idea how I got there. I eventually made my way to the right shoulder, where I was approached by a kind man who had stopped to help me. I slowly followed him and his family  to the nearest rest stop, and had a cup of chicken soup and some tea. “See,” he told his young daughter, “Laurel went through all that and now she’s sitting right here.” We parted and I drove the rest of the way into Boston.

It would have been lovely if, in the aftermath of that experience, I could have integrated its insights and lived my life forever free from the fear of death. Instead, I was left with another phobia about driving on highways, which has stayed with me to this day. It would also have been lovely if I had gained the kind of perspective that would have led to better mental health, or at least more maturity. No such luck. I did spend time and energy puzzling over it, in an attempt to put it in some kind of framework that would make it intelligible. At the time I was under the influence of my Christian Scientist music teacher, who urged me to put it out of my mind and not speak of it. Traffic accidents fall in the same category as illness, something that involves the unreal material world, which according to that doctrine we must transcend.

Later, when I became serious about Christianity, I viewed my experience as an encounter with the pure love of God. I read mystic writers with a sense of having something of my own to bring to the table, feeling a little smug about it, to be honest. I had fallen into the trap of seeing myself as special, an inevitable pitfall of the spiritual life. Later still, as a Buddhist, I saw it as one of the stages on the Path of Insight. In some respects it fits the profile of both traditions. I have come to prefer calling it The Big Wow, however, because that term is just irreverent enough to keep it in perspective. Such things can happen, and then other stuff happens, and it’s best not to wallow in it. The most such an experience can do is inspire you to keep practicing when you might otherwise skip it. It is ancillary, not central. That is all.