“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.‘ Between the two, my life flows,” taught Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. I am not a thing, and this is good news. And although I am limited I have a capacity to feel unlimited, to feel compassionate connection with everything. This is also good news. The bad news is that feeling like nothing in the ordinary sense of feeling like nobody is the usual gateway to letting go of a sense of specialness, of separateness from everything else. But that is a very wobbly, stressful state to maintain.
The Buddha called this state “dukkha,” which is usually translated as “suffering” but which is closer to “unreliable” or “stressful.” The root of the word means something akin to “dirty wheel,” referring to the gunky oil that builds up in the hub of a wheel making the turning wobbly. Dukkha has also been compared to the pain that comes from rubbing naked skin on a brick wall. It may not hurt much at first, but after a time it is a torment. This is the way things it goes, taught the Buddha. Things are not stable and reliable, not really solid. Nothing goes as smoothly as it does in our thoughts and dreams. Reality is rough. Head knowledge of this is not the same as living knowledge, human being knowledge. But life has a way of getting around our thinking and showing us our true nature. Here is one example of how the lesson of truth and possibilities of nothingness came to me:
The Metro North train pulled into a station, the doors slid open and a pretty young woman got on and sat down next to my then 11-year-old daughter Alex and me. As soon as we started rolling, she turned to us and asked if we would mind watching her lunch box while she went to the restroom. Alexandra looked at me for a clue about how to respond. After hesitating for a moment, I smiled back at the young woman and nodded yes. She seemed so nice, so open. After the young woman trotted up the aisle and through the heavy doors at the end of the car, Alex asked me in a whisper how I could know for sure if this person and her lunch box were safe?
We sat facing a shiny new poster with a picture of an ominous-looking black bag sitting unattended on a seat. It read” “If you see something, say something,” meaning that passengers should alert conductors to any suspicious objects or activities because they might be bombs or bombers. It was the winter after the attacks on 9/11, and fear and sadness and a terrible doubt seeped into everything like cold fog. Just after the attacks things had been different. There had been what one journalist called a “suspension of distraction.” Strangers made eye contact and held doors for one another. There was the feeling that we were all together in the midst was a mystery, and the best we could do was to be helpful and kind.
But things changed as the months passed. Yet I utterly fogged in by fear doubt.
Pundits in the media told us we were in the midst of a great war that sounded like The Lord of the Rings, in which merciless forces of darkness were out to extinguish the light of civilization. The major difference was that in our contemporary dark age the agents of evil might strike might they might look just like us. The most effective terrorists we were told might look like ordinary businessmen or mothers or students, like the young woman.
We had been hearing speculation that there might be bigger and more horrible attacks at any moment, and Grand Central Station and the trains going in were always included as possible targets. Periodically, State troopers patrolled the train cars with gas masks clipped to their gun belts. “I wonder about the etiquette of that, ” commented a commuter friend. I suggested they could hand out gas masks and have a collection box on the platform at the end of the ride, the way they collect 3D glasses in movie theaters.
I told Alex I thought we would have noticed if there was anything amiss. It would have been ticking or looked strangely heavy or something. But it looked like an ordinary insulated lunch bag. And the young woman was so pleasant and open, not nervous or fixated on a goal. But the technology of the terrorists could be subtle, Alex cautioned. It could look like an ordinary lunch box and be a bomb. And terrorists themselves could look perfectly nice and normal. We couldn’t trust our ordinary senses. We just didn’t know.
We were all fogged in by fear. I thought of the way that even single-celled organisms reflexively grasp at bits of food while contracting and scooting away from other cells. That’s what we were like then and for years to come, doubting our own senses and intuition, reflexively grasping or contracting to protect ourselves. What had become of that sense of openness and sharing, that recognition that we were all in this together?
A new stream of psychological research is exposing how it is that sights, sounds, or gestures can “prime” the unconscious, spurring us off in pursuit of goals that may or may not line up with the intentions of the conscious mind. Handing test subjects hop coffee warmed their opinion of a hypothetical person while iced coffee elicited chilly opinions. In what one scientist calls a “bottom-up” decision making process, ancient instinctive areas of the brain act on such subtle cues to make decisions about our survival without waiting for input from the much slower conscious mind. Being driven by fear is not life, I decided. I would make a stand.
I suggested to Alex that we could open the lunch box and have a look inside. She looked at me like I was crazy. Hadn’t I seen any movies or TV shows in my whole long life? If it was a bomb, opening it will make it explode. She told me she had a better idea. She snapped open her CD player, took out the stormy dramatic Fellowship of the Rings disk she’d been listening to, and clicked in a CD of upbeat pop music. She explained that she was creating a sound track to go along with a happy ending.
Believing that changing a soundtrack can change reality is magical thinking, I told her. She asked me if I had a better idea. I did not. At that moment, it seemed painfully clear that none of my ideas were good. What I took to be my life was actually a stream of shallow and repetitive thoughts, images, memories, all in the past and all of it driven by a primitive tendency to grasp and contract like an ameba, like pond scum. I felt like Dorothy, throwing back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. The nice young woman came back and thanked us, and Alex turned to me and smiled.
The impressions of being nothing—of having no solid being—kept on coming. I walked through Grand Central Station on Christmas Eve. I watched heavily armed National Guard troops and police officers surround a deranged old homeless woman who had pushed her shopping cart into the terminal to take shelter from a freezing winter rain. She’d stood clutching a broken doll, looking bewildered as the officers poked through the possessions that were spread out on the ground around her. I noticed one young officer in particular. His stance was stern but he had a horrified, questioning look in his eyes, as if he were having one of those nightmares where you can’t move. Life is just like that, I thought, watching him. We are carried along passively by forces we do not understand. We need to face ourselves and try to understand.
Years later, some of our most distinguished journalists would write columns in our leading newspapers musing about why they had been so paralyzed during that period, confessing that what passed for investigative journalism too often had been reduced to gaining access to high-ranking officials and printing their quotes. When had they stopped digging for the truth? If our leading journalists were paralyzed, what could I expect of myself? In those days, I mostly wrote book reviews and interviewed famous authors for the weekly magazine. Sometimes I wrote for glossy monthly magazines. I worked hard to engage authors. I pounced any bit of live insight that might break out during these brief and contrived encounters. Still, I often saw the very same comments and anecdotes printed elsewhere or heard them repeated on National Public Radio.
I didn’t want to dig for more facts but for more awareness, I realized. Where was the questioning and generosity that we had all shared right after the attacks? I thought of a memory the Buddha just before his enlightenment, a memory which guided him. He remembered being a child, sitting alone under a tree, watching a plowing festival. He was withdrawn from the busy world of the adults, delighting in his solitude yet receptive to the impressions that came in. He was being nothing, and all children are very good at this. Yet, as the legend goes, he watched some insects struggling as their home in the earth was plowed up, and his heart went out to them. He was very limited yet he didn’t feel limited. He was nothing yet he felt everything.
A few days before the attacks in New York, I had interviewed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in his office in the West Village. The very day of the attacks, I had boarded the train to New York, awash in anxiety and self-pity because I had a deadline and because I was tired of doing these interviews with celebrity authors for a living. After the lunch box incident, one story Sacks told me came back.
Sacks spent part of his boyhood in London during the Blitz. He would come out of his house in the morning and often find that something familiar had disappeared over night. A distant landmark would be gone, next the iron railings along the steps of his house, taken for the war effort. This daily loss (and during the same period he lost his brother to psychosis) made him resolve to be a keen observer of life, which is what is he became as a neurologist and writer. Suddenly what had just been an anecdote became a vital and practical bit information. It was like having a plastic fork and disparaging it as a plastic fork and suddenly needing one and realizing the true value of it, the function over the form.
I told Alex about meeting Oliver Sacks, and about how he built a career around noticing what was missing. The Blitz was actually much harder than what happened in New York, Alex and I agreed. The bombs dropped in London for 76 consecutive nights. Over a million homes were damaged and destroyed, and 40,000 civilian lives lost in the U.K., half in London. Yet it didn’t break their spirit. And at least one kid learned that a life didn’t have to be based on things and places being solid never changing. A person could observe, digging below the surface for deeper truths. A person could be with change.