In my garage sit several boxes filled with the after effects of my father’s life, including hundreds of photos of unfamiliar faces stretching back to equally unfamiliar places and times.
The thing is, nobody is left to interpret those for me anyway, meaning that those ‘family’ photos are about as meaningful as photos I’d find in my neighbor’s garage.
Like most, I have memories of my grandparents, but they already were ‘old’ by the time I reached maturity, their lives mostly lived. As for still earlier generations? Forget about it.
All we’re really left with is our parents, siblings (if we have any), and peers. It’s a remarkably small bubble.
And what, really, do we know about those closest to us?
The youth of our parent is gone long before we’re sufficiently aware, meaning our parents are never fully formed in our minds. We spend a remarkably short stretch of our lives intimately tied to our siblings – for much of that time we’re too young, and by the time we are aware our peer groups begin their work of pulling us apart. Little wonder childhood can feel so lonely, even in large families.
The modern era, characterized as it is by broken marriages, fractured families, and economic mobility, only enhances that sense of temporary connectivity, even with those seemingly closest to us. (How many marriages that do remain intact are characterized as two ships passing in the night, so busy they must concoct date nights and other strategies for togetherness. Reminding us, again, what, exactly, is all that hard work for?)
It’s a terrible realization knowing we’ll be forgotten in so short a period of time, that material after effects like those in my garage are all that stand between us and, nothingness. We tell ourselves that we ‘live on in the lives of our loved ones.’
No, not really. We live on about as much as do memories of what we had for breakfast on Tuesday or the speech we heard at graduation or the color of our bedroom wall during childhood. In other words, we live on largely dependent on the durability of the neural networks of those who hold those memories.
When I scan the photo albums in my garage, populated with multiple generations including the first to navigate the Atlantic for a Midwestern American farm of their own, I wonder about their stories, the European villages they once called home, their losses and loves, how they lived – and died.
But those stories, like billions of others, are now forever lost just as mine one day will be lost to the ages.
And this, friends, is enough to agitate the mind.
So we concoct stories of legacies and histories, of empires and biographies. We convinces ourselves of heavens and hells, of afterlives where we move on and rejoin those who have gone before and then I suppose take our turn waiting for those yet to come.
Consider, for a moment, the idea of an afterlife.
It’s almost comical. Some version of this life continues into the next? Do we continue to fall into and out of love there, breed again, celebrate Thanksgiving with the family, poop and dream and argue with the neighbors? Do we arrive in the afterlife old and sick with cancer, or magically return to some fictional age when we forever felt great?
There are other problems with the story. Are we to assume that our lives magically began at conception and only move forward from there? That the universe was here all along, we just had to wait for mom and dad to do the deed in order to enter the picture? That billions of years of the universe existed without us a part of it?
No, see, the concept of an afterlife is pretty much where the mind begins and ends things. God (or whatever) is in charge of the details, we just close our eyes and succumb to whatever and await transport.
That’s the thing about all mind-made stories: they start to unravel the moment you really pay attention to them. Maybe this is why so few contemplate such things? What is left when you completely unravel a sweater? Nothing. Emptiness.
In other words, the whole of it is nothing more than a mental story. Your story – the one supposedly in your head – obviously is much richer and nuanced than anything that another will ever understand. After all, their noodle is too filled with their own story. So many epic narratives wandering about this planet, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Enough meandering, let’s get to the point. It seems to me that life is lived in one of two directions: inward or out.
Most of humanity, today and across time, has opted for the latter, driven there by agitated minds eager to fit in, belong, connect, matter.
These individuals rise each day to add another layer to the story of ‘me,’ determined that their lives will mean something, will be remembered long after they’re gone. Their lives are lived in a kind of tempest, fraught with anxiety and peril, the ‘me’ forever at risk of losing its job, its health, the ones it loves, its very life.
Not surprisingly, the world is a wreck courtesy those same fevered human minds.
Across time has come another, much smaller number, who counsel us to turn inward, remind us that the kingdom of heaven lies within each of us right here, right now, not lurking somewhere in the clouds after death. They speak of our true nature being one of unfathomable bliss lived in a peace that surpasses understanding. They tell us that all is well, has always been well, can be nothing other than well. And they tell us that nothing matters – not even a little bit.
Talk about your disconnects.
For me, it’s a rather simple proposition. For as long as there have been humans the vast majority have looked outward, and the human world, despite all its self-proclaimed ‘progress,’ is getting nowhere (if not digging itself a deeper hole). Our seas are filled with trash instead of fish; great armies and their weapons of mass destruction await instruction from their increasingly egoic bosses; a huge (and growing number) of our children are anxious and depressed and suicidal and at younger and younger ages. You know the list as well as I.
Conversely, there is the humble, gentle guidance of the mystics and masters, those who tread soft across this earth and tell us that the external world is maya, illusion, dream stuff, and that Truth, our real nature, lies within.
This from Robert Adams: “I can assure you there’s no such thing as God, there’s no such thing as creation, and there’s no such thing as the universe. So there’s no such thing as the world. And there’s no such thing as you. There’s no such thing as I. What is left? Silence!”
But what the hell is the mind going to do with silence? With stillness? (The emptiness, mind you, from which you, and I, the universe itself emanated.)
So the mind either ignores such teachings, or its takes hold of them and erects stories it can do something with.
Jesus gave some talks. His followers took those words and created a movement and then a religion and the dogma and scripture that goes with it until such time as his words were virtually unrecognizable and untold lives were ruined in the process. THAT is the human mind in action.
What to do with that agitated mind? Echoing Jesus, David Carse reminds us: “Be still and know that I am God.”
That stillness, silence thing again.
Mind you, the ‘I’ in that equation is you – and me, each of us. Not you, as in the mental version of you. No, I’m pretty sure we’re talking about the spontaneous, always-there awareness that exists just beneath the veneer of ‘you’ and ‘I.’ In fact, it’s the very same awareness that makes ‘you’ even possible.
Within or without. Perhaps the choice is yours. What I know is that I have no choice – as time goes by, I am continually called toward the mystery of Being and find myself increasingly allergic to the human world around me.
To be sure, I can dive right into it, be the life of the party, even. But that journey within almost makes those times more enjoyable, because for the most part I can participate without taking them so damned serious.
There are times, too, where life does grab hold of me, takes me by surprise, pulls me back in. Times when this spiritual journey grows wearisome, where my frustrations at not seeing ‘results’ boils over and I rant against the whole thing and swear I’ll give it up for a life of hedonism or materialism or whatever.
But not long after comes the recognition (the grace?), “That is your mind speaking, the same mind that for so long punished you and continues to punish the world; the mind that punishes you now.”
And with that I breathe deep and head off for a walk in the woods or a quiet moment to myself to abandon this silly little story of me and the world around it.
This too from Adams:
“Always remember, deep in your heart that all is well and everything is unfolding as it should. You are the Self (God Within), That perfect, immutable Self. There is only the one Self and you are That. You are bright and shining. You are the sun behind the clouds. Rejoice! All is well.”