It’s 5:15 am, and I’m writing this from a sofa in an Airbnb a few hundred feet from Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Cindy is asleep in the next room. I felt cold, so I slipped on the sweater that I discarded last night on the floor next to the fire. I’m writing this for you, whoever you are. As I write that I feel that I’m also writing this for me. I also know that you and I are essentially the same thing: two “me’s” feeling separate in the world.
I remember an interaction I had with three Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door over a decade ago. I think I’ve written about this before, but I’m going to tell the story again.
“Hello. Have you heard about this book?” one of them asked me, showing me a bible.
I wondered who wouldn’t know about the bible. This was England, home of the Church of England, headed by the Queen of England. I went to a Church of England school for Christ’s sake. “Yes, I said. I’ve read that.”
I wanted to say, “it’s about me.” I wanted to do it not only to freak them out, but also because part of me thought that perhaps I was the Second Coming. Back then, I sometimes entertained fantasies that I was special. Perhaps it was to compensate for the feeling of worthlessness I developed and carried throughout my childhood, a feeling that was being compounded by my ongoing divorce process.
“It talks about the Devil,” he said.
Whoah, I thought. That was quick. I thought that it was principally a book about God or Jesus. The devil? At this point I really wanted to invite them inside for a theological discussion. I thought that I might be able to put them on a straight path. After all, this was a book about me. I couldn’t have them going around misleading people about it. “The devil?” I asked.
“Yes, the devil is the cause of the evil we see in the world,” he told me.
At this point in my life, I was pretty sure that there was no evil in the world. I felt my heart begin to beat faster, like I was on the starting line for a one-hundred meter race in middle school. Perhaps I could feel an argument coming and my body was bracing for it. I couldn’t help it; I had to fuck with them, or at least to correct them. I felt a deep sense of irritation that people claiming to be representing God would be going door-to-door preaching about the Devil. “Evil? What’s evil?” I asked.
“All the evil we see in the world. It’s everywhere.” He insisted.
I paused for a moment, wondering where to begin. “Everywhere?” I asked incredulously. “What sees the evil?” I asked.
“I see it,” he said.
“Oh, you see evil in the world. What do you see evil with?” I asked.
“I see it with my eyes,” he responded.
“With your eyes. Is that really true? Our eyes look, but we don’t see with our eyes. Something else is seeing evil. What in you is seeing evil?” I asked him.
“Uh, I guess it’s my heart that sees evil.”
“Oh, so your heart is seeing evil in the world. That makes sense.” I paused for a moment before delivering the final blow. “How can you know that the evil you see in the world is not simply evil in your own heart?”
He looked at me silently, the blood draining from his cheeks, seemingly not knowing what to say next. After what must have been an awkward pause, one of the more junior Witnesses, one who seemed to be present only to learn from this mentor, handed me a pamphlet and said something about how it contained more information. Then all three of them shuffled back into the street. I don’t know what the dynamics of the group were, but I had a sense that the two younger missionaries were quietly amused to see their esteemed leader stumped.
After they left, I watched them from the my living room window. They huddled in the street having a discussion. I assumed at the time that they were having some kind of post-mortem conversation, obviously not to consciously digest what I had confronted them with, but at least to figure out a strategy for how to more effectively deal with an impertinent sinner like me next time.
I was being too generous, as I later learned from an ex Jehovah’s Witness. In fact, they were probably discussing which of them would get my house when the “sinners” (like me) are tossed into the eternal damnation of hell while they, the “meek,” inherit the earth, with all of its spoils.
Last night, Cindy and I arrived at this Airbnb. It’s someone else’s home that we get to stay in for a while because we paid them some rent, not because we won it in a rapture. After dinner, I wrote an article about how the purpose of life is not to find happiness, which seemed to lead to Cindy and I having an argument. Apparently, she was upset that even on vacation I was “working.” I was actually writing an article for you, dear reader. I hope you’re happy now, and you’d better read that other article, too.
Anyway, she got angry, and I got angry. Then I said something like, “I can do what I want on vacation,” relatively loudly. Then there was a period of silence between us as we got ready for bed. We don’t argue very often (at most once per week) but when we do there’s usually a brief explosion of frustration and anger, followed by silence, and capped by cuddling, kisses, and loving words. Our “arguments” are pretty uneventful and short-lasting. We also both know that they’re really not about the content, but are the most effective available way of expressing unmet needs we have in that moment.
The snuggling started as I slid across the bed to spoon her. We took turns spooning each other and talking about various things, including my growing belly (I seem to be expecting) and how she frequently finds my body hairs lodged in her private areas. We sometimes joke about how the pressing of my testicles against her might leave her smelling like them. Last night, I warned her that when spooning me too close from behind, pressing one of her thighs between my butt cheeks could leave it smelling of my ass crack.
“But it’s like musk” I reassured her. “Everyone loves the smell of musk without necessarily realizing that it’s an excretion from the testicles of a stag.” I like to think that the smell of my ass crack is like that: like the silent fart that gets misconstrued out of context as the hearty smell of warm toast on a cold winter’s morning.
Soon we were asleep and I was dreaming of evil. I call it evil, but it was much more mundane than what most people think of as evil. It was that cycling of thought, that attempt to find peace and balance that is thwarted by fretting. This is a kind of mental discontent that has become relatively unfamiliar to me recently. More recently, thoughts have been coming and going relatively freely, without being unduly entertained, without being given energy and perseverated, without being obsessively and superstitiously spun like a Tibetan prayer wheel.
I recently watched part of a documentary about Tibetan yogis in which a lama had developed a habit of gyrating his wrist continually to cause the head of what looked like a baby’s rattle to rotate, sending “om, manipadmi hum,” a ancient Sanskrit mantra that is said to be imbued with the fragrance of awakening, out in the four cardinal directions. If that’s not a condition on liberation, and a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome, then I don’t know what is. Tibetan Buddhism seems to me, perhaps more than many other religions, to be an immensely complex system of superstition and dogma almost completely divorced from the liberation it claims to offer. And I should know a thing or two Tibetan Buddhism because, according to a psychic who got a lot of things wrong, I was a Tibetan lama in fifty past lives.
When I awoke from the nightmare, I imagined that I felt a presence in the room. There is an evil presence in this place, I thought. I remembered the unusually energized argument that Cindy and I had had the night before and I found myself superstitiously suspecting that this place housed the spirit of a discontent ghost. The theory was that this ghost was acting-out its discontent through us, as vessels of its evil intent.
I immediately noticed this cycling happening, this feeling-thought cycle centered around a “me:” I’m scared; I’m vulnerable; I might become possessed; I am powerless. As always, there was also an other, the “evil spirit:” it is too powerful; it wants to hurt me. But a habit has developed now to simply notice what is happening and to trust that it’s okay because it’s the only thing that could possibly be happening.
My mind, my sense of separate self, kept trying to go to it’s familiar defenses. An old one was to say a mantra internally, repeating “I love you, God.” But that was seen to be an attempt to protect something. Then there was a newer one, the idea that I am the bringer-of-light: I am the light of consciousness, and darkness simply cannot persist in my presence. But that again was seen as an attempt to be in control by framing myself as good and the other as bad. Next my mind tried an even more “enlightened” strategy: I would show this spirit by example, by demonstrating how to witness and allow everything as it is. But again, this was seen through as a subtle form of arrogance.
Even the subtlest forms of approach or strategy were revealed to be just other ways for the separate self to try to maintain the illusion of its importance. When there was almost nothing left for the self to stand on, there was a moment of intense fear. I was scared that if I dropped my vigilance, if I let the lamp run out of oil and let the flame die, that this evil spirit would rush into my body and possess it. Then I would be an embodiment of the evil spirit and perhaps I would do something terrible. But how would I even know? I thought; I wouldn’t even be here anymore; and I wouldn’t be here to fight it.
That’s when it became clear that I was the evil spirit. I was all the evil I saw in the world. I was everything I hated, everything that scared me. I was carrying the key to freedom, which was the end of me, the end of this lie, this lie that I am separate from life, this lie that I have to hold it all together.
This “me” is the original sin, the missing-of-the-mark (from the Greek and Hebrew), the illusion of being a separate self leading to the splitting of the wholeness of God into “right” and “wrong,” the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Well, I don’t really know what happened. Perhaps I was possessed by that evil spirit and perhaps that’s who is writing this now. Just kidding. It’s just me, whoever me is. Just these fingers tapping out whatever is appearing. Just this all-there-is showing up as these fingers and these words, just for now.
I couldn’t sleep after that, so I just got up and wrote this story. It’s now 6:49 am, so I’ve been writing for about ninety minutes. And now I’m back at this point again at 8:27 am, after editing for another ninety minutes or so. Time to get this puppy wrapped-up and then head out for a day of snow-boarding.
When I thought about writing this story, I remembered how, over the past few weeks and months, I’ve often wondered if I should be writing so much about this topic of self and the illusion of self. I’ve often thought, they’re not going to want to read about this bullshit, but this morning it’s clear that I’m not writing about some dry concepts; I’m writing about this life, about my life, about everyone’s life. What else could I write about?
I’m doing the best I can to write about the truth of life, for you and for me. This is me spilling my guts the best I can, and in the process discovering what is really true. Thanks for hanging out with me this morning. It’s been fun.