Thursday, December 2, 2010
Yesterday, I posted a rerun piece to mark my four years living in Southern CA. To pick up where we left off ...
A thought-provoking Zen parable goes like this:
A man encountered a tiger in a field. He attempted to escape by lowering himself down a precipice. He looked down and, to his horror, saw more tigers looking up, anticipating their next meal. He looked up and spotted two mice above gnawing on the vine he was clinging to.
Then, looking to his right, he sighted a strawberry growing from the cliff face. Reaching over, he grabbed the morsel and popped it into his mouth.
“Mmmm!” he thought. “Delicious!”
My own translation: Enjoy the peanut butter.
By now I had all my stuff out of its boxes, and McMan International back up and running, which is my way of saying I had my desktop computer all plugged in and wired for internet. I had an email newsletter to get out, my first from my new world headquarters. I anticipated going full blast into the evening, but things went off without a hitch and I was unexpectedly through at about 2:30 in the afternoon.
Time to unwind with a walk. The winter sun was already low over the peaks behind me, and I was in the shadows, but the valley below me and the peaks in the distance were bathed in brilliant light.
I stopped in at the local coffee shop for a coffee and muffin to go. Shelley the proprietor heated my muffin for me and sliced it into tasty morsels. Soon, I was in the sun on the valley floor. The open space before me allowed my mind to breathe. Not too far off, peaks and rock formations rose from the valley like great cathedrals. I sipped my coffee, and munched on my muffin morsels, savoring the moment.
On my way back, I stopped at the general store, which adjoins the post office. Yes, we even have our own zip code. It was to be a dogs and beans night for me. Back outside, the sun had set behind the peaks and the temperature was dropping fast. I was back into my own shit now, still reeling from recent events, facing financial ruin, uncertain about my future, wondering how the hell I would ever get my life back together.
I hurried my pace, anxious to get home - home? - only to stop dead in my tracks. I looked right. The entire valley below was now in the shadows, as were the peaks and rock formations. But in the distance, a steep summit caught what was left of the sun full broadside. The mountain appeared to be radiating from the inside, a lustrous rosy glow that sharply contrasted with the cool hues of the darkened landscape.
Thank you, God, I found myself saying. I was experiencing the perfect moment, in the moment, what they call a Zen moment, fully aware, in the present. Tomorrow I could very well fall to pieces. But right now was a gift. Life happens here, right now. If you're second-guessing your past or fretting about your future, you're missing out.
The moment lasted maybe five seconds. Then I was back inside my own head, my own shit. But it wasn't the exact same shit inside the same head I returned to. I was back in my past, but it was one I could come to terms with. I was back in my future, but it was one I could face with hope.
Something similar occurred to me more than 30 years before, only back then it happened with the throttle wide open headed over the edge of a cliff.
We can all recall our exceptionally aware moments. Unfortunately, they tend to occur in highly-stressful and often life-threatening situations, such as skidding on glare ice at 60 MPH. This is when our fight or flight response takes over. The frontal lobes go off-line. We literally stop thinking as the faster-processing and more primitive regions of the brain (think amygdala) assume executive control.
Fight or flight is normally associated with an over-reaction, but here we are talking about a rare mental state that can only be described as calm awareness. If we had time to think about the dire straights we were in, we would probably panic. Instead, barring bad luck, we successfully avoid wrapping our vehicle around a tree. On one hand, the crisis is over in a micro-second. On the other, it’s as if time were slowed down.
There is a stretch of the Route 101 Coastal Highway in Marin County north of San Francisco that has probably washed into the Pacific by now. Gerald Ford was President and I had hair. I leaned my bike into the curves of the road, first one way, then the other, speeding up on the straightaways and gearing down on the hairpins perched high above the Pacific, my ears ringing with the roar of the waves crashing against the rocks below.
I was just leaning in for another sharp turn when I came upon some rocks that had worked their way loose from the hills above. There was no time to think. I swerved to avoid the obstacle and brought the bike around 180 degrees, but it was going backward toward the ocean on its own momentum. I felt the sickening sensation of the back wheel leaving the shoulder and losing traction in the soft earth behind. For a brief fleeting instant I had the sensation of being suspended in midair, like Wile E Coyote in those Roadrunner cartoons. Then the bike found purchase, jerked forward, and stalled on the shoulder.
I turned off the ignition, wheeled my bike to a safe place, and took stock. Something had shifted in me in those two or three seconds. Whatever had been holding me back before was holding me back no longer.
Within days, my life was on a new trajectory that would find me in New Zealand, attending law school, married, with a kid on the way. Now, here I was, decades later, in rural southern California. Healing happens, but don't expect to stay in the same place. There was no going back, not to New Jersey, not to my old sense of self. At the same time, I felt a sense of home. I was no longer on the run. I was here to stay. The land had heard my request. It was talking to me.